The term Northern Soul generally relates to a dance craze that swept northern towns (and others) in the UK in the late 60s, 70s and beyond. The movement, mainly based on Motown and soul music, led to many young people legging it down to the Wigan, Blackpool or Manchester for a night on the razz to escape the gloom and drudgery of their mill town lives.
Or so the story goes. But there is another Northern Soul and it relates to a soothing arc of melody stretching right across the north of the country up to Glasgow, down to Manchester and flanked left and right to Cumbria and Newcastle.
Take Wild Beasts, from Kendal, a band of delicate artistry and theatrical intelligence. The Cumbrian connossiuers are like a fine wine, their albums so immaculately performed and produced that you wonder if they’ve been magically infected by the beauty of the nearby Lake District.
Their latest album Present Tense has been hailed as their best yet (although I prefer Smother) and it contains sci-fi elements to complement their already formidable palette which generally consists of gorgeous arrangements, profound melodies and seductive lyrics. Their second album Two Dancers was nominated for a Mercury Prize – but the next two are much better. Frankly, they’re a treat on the senses.
So does this deep well of soul, melody and melancholia stretch further? I’d say it does and if we take a few steps north (of the border) we have Mogwai, Teenage Fan Club, Belle and Sebastian, Deacon Blue and many others. These bands share a sensibility of trying to make a deeper musical sensation with and emphasis on harmonies of scope and range as well as lyrics that may have political or cultural impact (Deacon Blue Wages Day). Mogwai swirling, spacey instrumentals have been very prominent lately (in French TV drama The Returned etc…) and their effect on listeners seem to be growing by the day.
So what about coming down to Tyneside and the surrounding area? Here, we have Roxy Music, Prefab Sprout, Paul Rodgers and a few more. Do they share anything? Yes, a soulfulness and intimacy backed up by daring and innovation. Prefab Sprout, in particular, seem to have to tread where few musicians will – but the results are generally good, sometimes, stunning.
So down to Manchester we come – and can we include the Stone Roses, New Order, the Verve, Doves and, even, Elbow (even though they’re from Bury)? Yes, because melody and majesty is at the heart of everything they do, plus an emphasis on epic arrangements and swaggering vocals. Even The Smiths and Joy Division could be included in this harmony harem but I know that’s stretching things too far.
Ultimately, I prefer the term Northern Soul to be referred to music rather than dance because it’s feels more real. Of course the dance was authentic but Motown, while beautiful, still came from a distant place. These bands have just as much soulfulness and vigour – if not more.