Music Reviews
Northern Soul: The Soundtrack

Various Artists Northern Soul: The Soundtrack

(Harmless Records) Buy it from Insound Rating - 7/10

Even today, the story of Northern Soul sounds too unlikely to be true. Obscure and unloved American soul records of the 1960s and 1970s were rehabilitated in some of Northern England’s least glamorous cities, and an exciting and thriving scene was born. People would travel from across the country to the Blackpool Mecca or the Wigan Casino to be part of the Northern Soul all-nighters – the dancing was frenetic, the tunes impeccable, the drugs plentiful and the alcohol non-existent.

No scene can last forever though, and since Northern Soul took previously unsuccessful records from a certain point in American history as its heartbeat, there was always going to be a finite amount of music to play. The other elements that often contribute to a scene’s implosion – purists, splinter factions, too many drugs – were all present too. We’re told that a thriving Northern Soul scene still exists today and, while there has certainly been more of an interest in the music and culture in recent years, it looks from the outside little more than the elder statesmen of the original Northern Soul days merely acting as gatekeepers.

Photographer, filmmaker and Northern Soul fan, Elaine Constantine, has directed a film about the famous genre, titled simply Northern Soul. As befits a style of music were the real stars were the fans, her story focuses on the lives of two teenage boys growing up in Northern England, whose lives are transformed by the discovery of American soul music. The friends venture across the Atlantic to find more rare records, and soon become embroiled in something bigger than they can handle.

For a film which relies upon defining the relationship fans have with their music, you need an appropriate accompaniment. The Northern Soul soundtrack features 52 choice cuts from the era, ranging from household names (Edwin Starr, Marvin Gaye) to tracks that have never had an official UK release before (Lou Pride, Gwen Owens).

It should be stated now that Northern Soul music is simply magical. Everybody has grown up with the big Motown and Brill Building singles practically in their DNA, but to hear Northern Soul is to peek behind the curtain and see life as it was lived. These tracks are rougher, looser, and contain more of the experiences that made up black America during that time. Motown may have been the sound Detroit wanted to present to the world, but these Northern Soul records are somehow more honest.

One of music’s primary functions was always to make people get up and dance, and a good Northern Soul record will have you on the floor before you’ve even realised what’s happening. Northern Soul dancing is legendary, with accounts of people throwing shapes, twisting themselves into seemingly impossible angles and flailing their limbs way into the early hours and beyond. If you’ve never seen footage of Northern Soul dancing before, I strongly urge you to seek some out immediately. While not all of the songs on this compilation have the traditional, 4/4 kick-drum beat, they’re all guaranteed floor-fillers.

As previously mentioned, there was always going to be a finite amount of Northern Soul records, and that was one of the reasons for the scene’s demise. All of which begs the question: is this collection strictly necessary?

If you’re a big Northern Soul fan, then probably not. There are already plentiful compilations out there, many of which feature a large number of songs included in this soundtrack. Sure, it’s unlikely that you’ll own every single one of these 52 tracks (especially since some of them have only previously been available illegally), but this collection won’t teach you anything new.

However, if you’re a Northern Soul novice or interested in finding out more about the music, then you could do far worse than to choose this as your starting point. The four Northern Soul Story compilations, released last decade, remain the gold standard for your Northern Soul education, but this is still a hugely enjoyable primer.

Because when all is said and done, after the in-fighting, the cliques and everything wrong with the Northern Soul scene – past and present – it all dissolves when you put on that glorious music. It’s transformative stuff, and few things have the ability to make you feel alive in quite the same way that a good Northern Soul record does.

Keep the faith.