A Northern Soul Devotee
An oral history interview with Northern Soul fan, Steve Bush
Northern Soul was a dance and music movement that enjoyed popularity predominantly in the dance and youth clubs in the North of England in the mid-1960s and early 1970s. Northern Soul comprised of Motown songs that comprised a fast beat and Soul lyrics. Followers of the movement would traipse up and down the country in search of elusive and obscure records to become the first to own songs from artists such as The Four Tops and R. Dean Taylor. Many would buy and sell Northern Soul records in the northern clubs where young men would dance to the fast beat tempo of the songs. Although Northern Soul popularity peaked in the early-70s, fans of Northern Soul continue to be influenced and enjoy Northern Soul music to present day, attending Northern Soul nights held at venues in the North. I met with Northern Soul fan, Steve Bush, to interview him on his experience of being a Northern Soul devotee.
Steve: It’s very difficult to define Northern Soul because no artist ever went in to the studio and made a Northern Soul record. What Northern Soul was, and I think to this day still is a dance beat. There was records made in lots of different studios right throughout America in the late 60s and early 70s kids from the north of England used to hunt through the second hand stalls. Looking for these records with this defined dance beat, 160 – 180 beats per minute that could bring out a certain type of dancing. Northern Soul really is those records. When they were played in the clubs and kids got up to dance then you knew you’d got the Northern Soul record.
My own experience of it goes back to 1969, me last year at school. Me and my friends, we’d all been skin heads for a year or so and we’d listen to all the Caribbean sounds, Ska, rocksteady, beats like that. We started to mature into something slightly different and the hair had grown a little bit longer. We were kind of no longer wearing crop jeans and Doc Martin’s. We were starting to get a bit smarter so we started to buy leather-soled shoes and pressed trousers and lovely smart shirts, Fred Perry’s and Ben Sherman’s.
We also started to change the music we were listening to. So a few of the places in Sheffield, that I can remember, Manel Youth Club was one of the places, there was a club called The Ark which was at St Barnabus Church at Crookesmoor. They started playing this fast beat Northern Soul dance music. We were straight into it, it was a great night out. We started hunting through the second-hand record shops, in Sheffield, there was a couple on Ecclesall Road. The big one was Violet May’s in the city centre just off the Moor. [We] used to hunt through them but very quickly exhausted that supply. One of things that [we] used to do was try and be the first one to get hold of a new Northern Soul record that nobody else had heard. So me and my best mate, what we started doing was every time either United or Wednesday was playing in London, which was nearly as often once every 5 or 6 weeks or so, we used to jump on the coaches and go down, cos that was the cheapest way of travelling. But instead of going to the football match, we’d jump on the tube and go into central London to places like Carnaby Street and places like that where there was some real class record shops. We’d start hunting through all the 60s back catalogue of Soul records.
One of the things we realised at that time is, we’d followed the prominent Soul labels in UK, in the 60s, so Tamla Motown, Stacks, Atlantic. What we didn’t realise was that every small town in America had its own label. Every little town had its own studio and its own label and they were recording some fantastic songs that would just never ever get played even in America, never mind in England. We started picking these up, some of them were on albums, some of them were singles, so we’d spend Saturday afternoons in record shops, just digging out these singles. We realised that while we were doing this there were kids from other northern towns alongside us, doing the same. So people from Bolton, Bury, Manchester, places like that, would be in the same record shops as us looking for these labels.
A few of the record shops picked up on this, and what they started to do was put out sections for the kids coming down from the north of England. They were starting to identify them for us and there was a guy called Dave Godin who picked up on this, he was the first one to spot this trend. He was running a second-hand record shop in Carnaby Street. I think it was 1971, we went into his record shop and he’d got a section there and it was marked Northern Soul. That was, as far as I’m aware, the first use of the phrase, Northern Soul. Dave Godin did it simply because every Saturday his shop would fill up with kids from the north of England trying to buy records. One of the great things of that was Londoners never go it. They still don’t. Londoners never quite got what Northern Soul is. Dave Godin came to live in Sheffield years later and died in Rotherham a few years ago. He championed Northern Soul. He’d been a school mate of Mick Jagger’s.
1971-72 [a] lot of the nightclubs in Sheffield were starting to have Northern Soul nights, Samantha’s, Penny Farthing, The Heartbeat, and probably the best of all, was a club called Turn-ups, which was at Netheredge Hall. There used to be the dancing hierarchy there. Anyone could get up and dance but there were areas where only the prime dancers could go. You had to be going to a place quite a long time before you could edge your way in to the ‘talced-up’ areas. It was nearly all guys dancing on their own. You did get a few girls up dancing but not that many, perhaps at the end of the night, they’d have a few slow ballads where you’d get couples dancing together. To go back to the definition of Northern Soul, it was Soul records that the kids from the north of England were looking for in the record shops in London.
Mark: What drew you to Northern Soul music?
Steve: I think principally it was the dancing thing. I’d always liked to a do a bit of disco dancing where you would be in a youth club, disco and they’d be playing pop records of the day. You’d just get up and have a dance to them. We’d done the skin head thing which was kind of more like formation dancing where you had to carefully pose how you were dancing with your boots on, boot stomp and all those kind of things.
The first record I can remember that we would have classed as Northern Soul, was the Four Tops ‘I can’t help myself’. Soon as you’d heard that you just wanted to get up and dance. It was how the dancing was defined. A guy dancing on his own, you didn’t care about who was around you, what they were doing, you were just in your own little world doing your own dance and that were great, that suited me. And the clothes as well, the clothes that we wore associated with that kind of dancing. It was nice.
Mark: Brand names like Fred Perry?
Steve: Brand names like Fred Perry, the trousers were Levi’s stay-pressed, shoes came from the Barter factory at Northampton. It was a sort of uniform but there were lots of variations on the theme. So, although the clothing were defined, you didn’t all go out looking the same, there was lots to choose from.
Mark: Where were the places you’d go?
Steve: Samantha’s was one of the one’s I went to. I also used to go to the Penny Farthing. The Top Rank, which is now the O2 Academy, they also used to have a few Northern Soul nights. The great thing about the Top Rank was it had a massive dance floor, so you could get everyone up dancing at once. But, for me, the best one was Turn-ups at Netheredge Hall because that was pure Northern Soul. That was the place where you saw kids, selling records, buying records. It’s where they first started, selling the badges, the ‘keep the faith’ badges. You could go into Turn-ups and you could buy a badge to sew on you backpack.
Mark: So ‘keep the faith’ isn’t a reflective thing? It happened at the time?
Steve: It came up very early in the Northern Soul movement, the ‘keep the faith’ thing. The design, I don’t know if you’re aware of this, was based on the Black Panther’s power salute. It was just that, with the words ‘keep the faith’.I can’t tell you exactly when I first saw that emblem but it was probably early as 1971, certainly 72. So yeah, the ‘keep the faith’ thing was there right early at the beginning. At Turn-ups you started to get people buying and selling records on the night, so whilst the disco was on, others would be in one of the side rooms and guys would bring in boxes of records for sale. Some of them at quite extensive prices. People in 1972 were paying 30 quid for Chubby Checker’s ‘At the discotheque’ and records like that. The favourite one I bought then was a song called ‘The Playground’ by an English girl called Anita Harris. She just made this one fantastic record which was adopted by the Northern Soul groups and I paid 10 pound for that, at a time where 10 pound really was a lot of money!
Mark: What kind of artists did you listen to? Who were they?
Steve: The main ones I were listening to at the time were was Edwin Starr from Tamla Motown, who I particularly liked. The Four Tops of course, they were one of the more popular ones but then we started hearing new names coming through and there was quite a few singers that we started to hear of that we din’t know… like Gloria Jones, for instance. Rather than following particular artists, we started to follow particular types of sound. If you played 10 records, it would be 10 different artists.
Mark: How do you think the music influenced you and your group of friends?
Steve: I think mostly on the way we dressed. I mean it kind of defined the way I dress for the rest of me life. Here I am nearly 60 years old still wearing a lot of the types of clothes that I would have worn at that time. It kind of changed our social lives in that we would travel a lot more to get what we wanted. We used to go to places like to a club in Stoke, called the Torch. I think it was called the Golden Torch. There was a Northern Soul disco on the pier at Cleethorpes and we would go there, dance til 2 0’clock in the morning, and then get a sleeping bag out and sleep on the sand under the pier. So it kind of influenced us in that way, and it brought out a level of inquisitiveness because you wanted to know what the next record was and you wanted to be the first one to find an obscure 1963 soul record that would fit the Northern Soul.
Mark: When was the demise?
Steve: I don’t think it ever has demised. Obviously it decreased in popularity. But there’s been a, I hate to use the word, a kind of cult following of Northern Soul ever since. It’s never fully gone away. Even now, in Sheffield on a Friday night, you can go out to half a dozen places that have Northern Soul nights. Maggie May’s in town, they have a great Northern Soul session on, on Saturday afternoons.
Mark: Was there any kind of trouble, you know in the night clubs?
Steve: Yeah drugs. There was, it was the only time I ever openly saw drugs on sale and it was mostly amphetamines to keep you up, especially when you went to places where they had the all-nighters, which they never had in Sheffield because Sheffield Council wouldn’t allow them. When we went to places like Stoke and Manchester and Cleethorpes, to the all-nighters then there’d be lots of guys selling little blue pills to keep you going all night. Other than that trouble, no violence or anything like that. Or at least none that I were aware of.
Mark: Would you say that the audience was male dominated?
Steve: Definitely. A lot of the guys had their girlfriends with them, but the dancing and the buying of records and things like that was, was 95 per cent men.
Mark: You said that the south didn’t get it really. Why do you think that is?
Steve: I’ve no idea. It was very much a northern thing, and it’s remained a northern thing. I think one of the reasons why the south didn’t get it was because they were late onto the scene, and as you know, London likes to think itself as, not only the fashion capital of, of England, but the fashion capital of the world. I think they hate to admit that something started well outside them, and they came onto it late. So rather than come onto it late I think they decided to avoid it altogether. It remains very much a Northern Soul, a north of England thing.
Mark: Do you think that there’s been such a popular culture since, because that’s what Northern Soul was, it was a huge culture.
Steve: It was a culture, yeah. Punk was a massive culture for two years, three years maybe. I guess in the 80s, you had what was called the New Romantics, which again, was a big music culture. I’m not sure if the other cultures have lasted as well. Northern Soul, you go into Maggie May’s this Saturday, at 4 o’clock. You’ll see 150 people my age, dancing to Northern Soul music, still dressed in Fred Perry’s and Ben Sherman’s and things like that. I don’t think Punk and New Romantics or any of the others have quite had that same staying power. I might be wrong on that. There might be New Romantic sessions going on in Sheffield as we speak but if there is I don’t know about that.
Mark: One final question for you. Would you still collect Northern Soul music today?
Steve: I still do. The only difference is, rather than hunting through record shops, I’m now hunting through the internet. I’ve got probably 10 or 11 CD’s of records that I’ve downloaded myself and I’ve burnt on to CD. [I] still listen to Northern Soul a lot. I’m still a big fan. Still going to Maggie May’s. I love it.
Mark: Is there anything else you’d like to add about Northern Soul before I finish?
Steve: Keep the faith!
Mark: Thank you very much Steve, cheers.
Steve: You’re welcome.