Northern Soul tends to conjure up images of men paying through the nose for little slabs of vinyl and talcum powder on the floor.
John Moffat talks us through some of the finer, more local points.
The story of the Soul Scene is well documented, but, to those not familiar with it, I’ll start with something of a potted history.
Its early incarnations, in the 60s, sprang up mainly in the North-West of England, playing a mixture of rhythm & blues, early soul and Mod sounds. Many of these venues ran all-nighter sessions, where the action would typically be from 2.00am till 8.00am. Most of the records played were rare American imports of mainly black music that had not made it commercially, for one reason or another. This rarity became a major factor in deciding what was and wasn’t played.
One feature of soul nights was the athletic and even acrobatic dance styles that evolved.
Additionally, everyone danced alone (male or female), not in pairs or groups, but alone. This is an extremely important, and possibly unique, feature. You are there to meet like-minded people and to enjoy the music – either to dance to, or just listen to.
In Sheffield, the most famous Northern Soul club was Samantha’s on Queens Road [now Stars And Mayfair] which started running all-nighters around the mid-70s. Sam’s didn’t open till around 2.00 am when the regular nightclub closed. As was normal, because of the licensing laws, there was no alcohol on sale, only soft drinks.
There have always been differing styles within the overall music envelope, with those who preferred one style over another. Over the decades, the styles of music have changed greatly, but the one overriding consideration was the rarity of the tunes being played. Anything regarded as commercial or ‘chart’ would be banned immediately. The underground nature of the material and venues led to a very close-knit community of aficionados, with a tremendous sense of camaraderie. This is the single most resilient feature of the scene that has carried on to this day.
The whole Northern Soul Scene declined in the late 70s, however, and almost disappeared. A few progressive venues appeared and disappeared throughout the 80s, many of them very well attended and supplying extremely good playlists. For most of the 90s there was very little, locally.
It was in the late 90s that a resurgence began to take place in Sheffield. One of the first regular clubs, the Kay Gee Bee, was opened at the Bar Abbey on Abbeydale Road in 1999. Staying with a mix of northern soul classic oldies, and a healthy vein of Tamla Motown, it remains the longest running venue in the city. Not a large venue, it regularly attracts around 60 to 70 on a Saturday night, once a month.
Since then, a plethora of events has sprung up. Some have survived, some have perished, but overall there are more venues now than at any time. On any weekend in Sheffield, there will be somewhere to go most Fridays and Saturdays, and even Sundays. Unlike the 70s, clubs tend to survive on relatively low numbers of attendees. Most promoters run events for the love of the music and rarely make money. The emphasis has changed to smaller locations, but many more of them. Arguably, there are too many venues, and, not surprisingly, some have failed. But every time a club closes, another one seems to open. This is not peculiar to Sheffield, but very much a national thing.
Today, most clubs in Sheffield rely heavily on a range of sounds from the earlier era. These pull the higher numbers of fans, though some may run a second room specialising in more minority sounds, such as ‘modern’ soul, Rhythm & Blues or ‘rare and underplayed’.
This wider range of rarer 60s and 70s sounds has become more popular, but only a small number of clubs specialise in these in the Sheffield area, though the more recent innovation of the Sunday afternoon soul chill-out session has brought many of these sounds more to the fore. The emphasis is very much on rare and under-played mid-tempo soul sounds of pretty much any style you like. Different clubs, of course, have generated their own particular flavour.
Alongside all this, quite a few pubs now run ‘Northern Soul and Motown’ evenings. These tend to be quite commercial in nature, playing a greater proportion of well known and chart sounds along with the lesser known northern tunes to a more general selection of pub goers.
In an average month there will be around fifteen to twenty soul-based events of differing types in Sheffield, and many more if you want to venture a little further afield. The music still enthuses as it did in the early days, and a number of younger fans are starting to take an interest. The rise in popularity of soul music is a national, and even international, phenomenon.
There are many sources of news for the soul fan. The web site ‘Soul Source’ contains listings of many events, along with ‘sales’ and ‘wants’ pages, and a general forum for chat, contacts, articles etc. Facebook is widely used for similar information, and at any soul ‘do’ you will find fliers advertising many more. And, of course, magazines such as Toast carry lots of relevant information.
If you’re thirsty for more we find these guys pretty much indispensible for this sort of thing.