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by Melchi Anyinsah-Bondzie

Northern Soul – Who says white boys can’t dance?

I have two really good friends; one called Troy and the other called Dylan, Troy could dance amazingly well – it was literally like a dancehall king possessed every inch of his body; waist gyrating like a masculine hula dancer and footwork so fancy, even James Brown would be kissing his teeth in jealousy. Dylan on the other hand…I don’t think discombobulated would be the correct term, still loved him for it. Being raised around a predominately black community (besides that one time we lived in Berwick-Upon-Tweed), I always heard the notion that, white people couldn’t dance – at least with rhythm anyway.

Imagine a whole community of white teenagers drop kicking, splitting and spinning for their lives to sounds of black Motown soul, not such a far stretch when you think about white girls ‘wining’ their hips to dirty lyrics rapped by Vybz Kartel. Let’s take a trip back to Wigan in the early ‘60s, yes Wigan – not exactly the place I’d imagine such energy emitting from – but this was the soulful home of a movement that refused to die; Northern Soul.

Emerging from the late 1960’s, Northern Soul was the life and heart for many young people. Soul music, in particular Motown, was the music of choice with die-hard fans importing vinyl records from the US. The scene wasn’t interested in anything new that Motown had to offer and preferred the older, purer sounding music which in turn sparked the beginnings of home-based record labels such as Ric-Tic and Golden Records.

“We tended to look for the obscure American Record Labels that didn’t get exposure at the time who tried to emulate the Motown Sound. Yet never made it at the time and were forgotten.”

The man in the eye of this soulful tornado sweeping England was Russell Winstanley. A fun loving Motown fan, who began djing in the late ‘60s because the music he liked wasn’t being played anywhere. He heard his Northern Soul calling when he partied on down at the Blackpool Mecca to which he then begun djing at Wigan’s Rugby League Club. September 23rd was the date that made history – it’s the night Russ launched the Wigan Casino All-nighters. I had the huge pleasure of speaking with him as he shared his experiences of the scene’s colourful history.

The all-nighters brought in dancers and Northern Soul enthusiasts from all corners of the UK “it was built as a Dance Hall for 4,000 dancers. Its smaller club, Mr Ms opened to help with any over-crowding and another club called the Beachcomber – there were 12 to 15,000 people per week!”

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing anything related to Northern Soul, you would absolutely fall in love with the dancing. Its high energy kicks, spins and box splits are moves that I couldn’t try. The dancing was a huge part of the scene, those who might not have been interested in the music, flocked in their numbers to see the dancing. Believe me when I say, they danced for hours and didn’t leave until the club lights turned on revealing an army of sweaty dancers – the true definition of ‘go hard or go home’.

Like all good sub-cultures should, fashion was a huge part of the movement. Initially Northern Soul started off as an off-shot of the famed Mod culture. As times changed and music and fashion began to take a different direction, the Mods found themselves in a slightly strange situation. Some mods discovered and embraced the emergence of Brit Invasion music during the mid ‘60s, (we can only thank The Beatles; those cuties) whilst others found the joys of early ‘70s psychedelic rock. The few that were left wanted to retain the scene’s modesty, and that’s when the Mods birthed two children; the Skinheads & the Northern Soul movement.

At first, Northern Soul enthusiasts donned the original Mod style of buttoned Ben Sherman shirts, centre-vented blazers and brogues. But as the tempo of the music quickened, there was huge need for a wardrobe change. High-waisted, baggy Oxford trousers and vest tops became the clothes of choice, giving dancers the mobility and freedom to really get into it.

Many might associate the ‘60s as a time of the nightclubs and the rise of celebrity culture; and it was – but it was also still a time of racial turmoil. Tensions between white and black people was still rife – and a lot of people were angry, the latter part of the ’50s saw these tensions rise and eventually culminate in a violent stand-off between young Caribbean men and the British Teddy Boys: The Notting Hill Riots. One could argue that Northern Soul might be seen as cultural appropriation without acknowledgment, however Winstanley passionately explains that Northern Soul was far from that, “White youngsters in the North of the UK had an affinity with the singers and acts. They championed black music and loved Black people in general. Never any prejudice either way.” In fact, the Northern Soul’s main imagery was the raised fist which is very similar to the symbol for the American Black Panther Movement who fought hard and tirelessly for the rights of African American’s in the mid-‘60s. Uplifting slogans such as ‘Right On Now’ and ‘Keep the Faith’ were popular, re-enforcing positivity and equality within the Northern Soul communities.

Winstanley shared with me some of his proudest moments, his upmost being the time he had the opportunity to meet and book his idol; Jackie Wilson. Winstanley had plans for the Wigan Casino, cementing its stance as one of the most popular nightspots for the scene. These were cut short when Wigan Council went ahead with plans to demolish the building to extend its Civic Centre – a plan that actually never went ahead, which ended up in the building being demolished and nothing being built. Why? They’d run out of money! The club closed December 6th 1981 where Winstanley headlined; as the night came to a close, crowds refused to leave the premises. Winstanley went in full crowd control mode and played one last song; “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)” by Frank Wilson, a song that Winstanley later auctioned off – it sold for £26,500!

Whilst the site might be Wigan’s Grand Arcade Shopping Centre now, the legacy of the Wigan Casino is one that will stay forever, placing it in history as one of the key backdrops of this amazing scene. People thought that with the closing of an iconic venue, the scene would eventually frazzle out. They couldn’t have been more wrong, Northern Soul is a timeless scene filled with fans who kept the music, the clothes and the dance moves. It never left, whilst it might not be in the forefront of British sub-culture, it’s inspired many movements and artists a-like. One of the features of the scene that still manages to wow is the dancing, it’s been featured in many music videos and recently crept back into the mainstream at the 2014 Brit Awards in the form of the Northern Soul Dancers who danced for the live performance of Pharrell Williams’ smash ‘Happy’ – which is a pretty good example of the type of music you’d hear. Countless films had been made recapturing the scene and its vibrancy; the most popular being ‘Soul Boy’ directed by Shimmy Marcus and of course the 2014 release of ‘Northern Soul: The Film’ directed by Elaine Constantine.

I told you, it’s a scene that refuses to die – and why? Northern Soul was and is a pure movement, one that grew and was nurtured out of a mutual love of music that was previously marginalised. As for Winstanley, he’s still going strong regularly put on events globally and taking Northern Soul to the heights that it deserves. Winstanley is the definition of keeping the faith – we salute you.