Monday, May 08, 2006

It's the Motown that matters

This 'Long After Tonight is All Over' feature in the paper last week on Northern Soul took me back a bit. And the weekend's football results have banished me to contemplate 'Tears of a Clown'. by the incomparable Smokey Robinson (pictured).

Whenever I see documentaries about 1970s pop, there are the usual selectorate of celebs reminiscing about how hip they were back then. If everyone who says that they had bought the early Clash or Buzzcocks singles had done so, the hit parade would have looked very different to the way it did.

There is a similar observation about the strange cult that is Northern Soul. If everyone who claimed to have gone to the Wigan Casino in the mid-70s had actually done so, each event would have eclipsed Live Aid's attendance figures. I've never tried to really make sense out of Mark E Smith's lyrics, but I guess that Lie Dream of a Casino Soul (the title only) was about this widespread tendency of men of a certain age to reinvent their youth.

The exclusivity of Northern Soul is one of the things it is most remembered for. That, and the price of the 45s. But I'd like to offer an explanation for the unusual fascination that Northern still holds for a lot of people.

All of these documentaries featuring celebs fabricating their reminiscences overlook one important point: Records were - and still are - expensive. I'm now, incomewise, a pillock of the middle class, but I still don't buy 99% of the CDs or records that I want to, because I can't afford them.

And I could afford even fewer when I was 15 years old. The same was true of almost everyone who ever truanted an East Midlands comprehensive school.

So you had to fall back on the handful of sides you could afford, whatever the radio would play, and - most importantly - the vinyl that you had access to, but didn't own. The nearest available borrowable source was the collections of older siblings.

And while I didn't have older brothers, my mates did. And they weren't Casino fantasists for the most part either (though one or two of them actually did go to Northern Soul events in Wigan, Stoke and Blackpool), older siblings' real contribution was mainstream Motown. Almost everyone I went around with at school had access to about a dozen decent soul compilations, and a few standout LPs - Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye or the Stylistics for example.

I also knew a smaller group - one or two kids - who did have a bit more of a disposable income. I expect a lot of schools had this sub-group. Not only did they have a few more readies, they were usually a bit more alpha-male (hard and good-looking), they had clothes that they had chosen themselves (one of them had tweed Oxford Bags - cor!).

These were the boys who peer-pressured people like me into smoking. And they could point to a box of 45s that they carried like a trophy. "I've got ninety Northern singles in there!" (For some reason, it was always ninety). They wouldn't play them for you either. "If you think I'm going to wear out £25 worth of plastic for you...."

School discos played a handful of standards as well. 'Love On A Mountain', Frankie Valli's 'You Ready Now', Mistura's 'The Flasher' and one called 'Like Adam and Eve.' And most of the alpha-male's hanger ons (the sub-group I joined) tried some of the moves if there was any space on the dancefloor. I still have a slightly mis-aligned jaw following a bloody swallowdive-related accident.

But, for all that, I could only name about five Northern Soul tracks at the time. And I didn't know that 'Hold Back the Night' (for example) was Northern Soul. I really knew nothing about the actual music. Neither did I fully get the essence of those Northern Soul moves.

Too flat of foot, only a sketchy idea of what the steps were.

So, here is my theory: Large numbers of men who were born in the early 1960s, in the Midlands or North of England have a subliminal love of ordinary mainstream Soul. One that they don't actually recall acquiring.

It is also at the back of their mind that the coolest people they knew back then were into Northern Soul – an insider equivalent of plain old Motown*. They, therefore, wish that they had been Northern specialists. And some of them even think that they have little choice but to pretend that they were.

In the early 1990s, the various Goldmine compilations started coming out and Northern Soul became affordable to mere mortals for the first time. So I started picking them up out of curiosity. It turned out that I knew a large number of the songs quite well. I just never knew that they were Northern Soul at the time.

The irony is that I could have been a lot hipper all along, and I never knew it. Stuff like 'Feel the Need in Me' by the Detroit Emeralds, 'Everything's Going to Be Alright' by PP Arnold or 'Oh No, Not My Baby' by Maxine Brown.

And the reason that I knew them all was that I used to listen to the late show on Radio Trent in the mid '70s (because I always had to be in bed by 10pm in those days). And they didn't ever call it Northern Soul. But they played loads of it. Of course, I never mentioned listening to this show to anyone, because they would have said "Your mum makes you go to bed at ten o'clock?"

Yet, for all of this, there was some real rubbish on those CDs as well. The instrumentals (like The Flasher or Bok to Bach) are the real low-points. And nothing in the Northern pool will ever come close to the diamonds that can be found everywhere - on the cheapest petrol station CD compilations of mainstream soul.

Don’t get me wrong – Northern Soul compilations are worth having. But I still find it hard to keep my composure if I turn on the radio and hear the fabulous Smokey Robinson's 'Tracks of My Tears' or the Martha and the Vandellas 'Nowhere to Run'.

Give me a decent cheap Motown compilation any day.

*Douglas Rushkoff's 'Coercion' makes a strong case that product can be really sold effectively if you can convince people that they are outsiders, and they can become insiders with a simple purchase.


ivan said...

Northern Soul, that was my sisters thing. I can remember her friends at Tunbridge Wells station, off to their all nighters with their Adidas bags. I had no idea what an all nighter in Wigan was all about. Same sister sold (gave?) me my first Trojan EPs when she worked in a record store (Rediffusion - is the MP3/iTunes thing really something new?).
As for those punk singles, the first I bought was the Stranglers London Lady/Grip in The Music Room, Tunbridge Wells. I was hooked. My main moment? In Boots in Hastings on Saturday afternoon on the way to see the Clash on the pier. Asking to listen to Anarchy In The UK. The woman put it in a bag without playing it, handed it to me and said '49p'. I bought it unheard. That was it. My life was complete.

Baz said...

Continuing with today's house music post - PP Arnold - she was the woman sampled by Altern-8 all the way back in 1991! ;-)