We all have dancehalls in our minds, populated by the ghosts of records reverberating around the empty walls. If you were brought up in the 70s and 80s, as I was, you probably lived through the golden age of youth club discos. Even in a relatively small town like Runcorn, we had the choice of at least one disco to attend most nights; Monday; The Boys Club, Tuesday; Grangeway, Wednesday; Wickston Drive, Thursday; Parochial Hall, Friday; Beechwood, Saturday; the RNA, Sunday; St. Eddy’s. And that was just the old town, the scousers had as many of their own.
Discos were essential places for teenage evolution and from the age of 14 to 18, until we were ‘legal’ the youth clubs kept us off the streets and away from trouble, some of the time at least. When the popular Boys Club (Boysy) burned down a few years ago, I kept hearing the muffled thud of Boysy floor fillers – everything from Spizz Energi’s ‘Soldier Soldier’ through The Special’s ‘Too Much Too Young’ to Lipps Inc’s ‘Funky Town’ – as I passed the rubble.
This series collects some of my personal favourites, records that aren’t maybe the best or the most indicative of their time, yet retain an evocative charm, recalling friends, fights and floozies. I’ll begin with a record that was actually recorded eight years before it became a hit, thanks to the kind of lads and girls who came to epitomise the perverse, unique nature of British youth culture; the ‘soulies.’
R. Dean Taylor – There’s A Ghost In My House (Motown)
Haunted Dancehalls all have ghosts. This is where it all started. ‘Northern’ Soul was the sound of our estate, the sound of many council estates across the north west (and beyond) during the mid 70s. Released in 1966, a bog standard Holland-Dozier-Holland production, only Taylor’s skin colour and his name on the credits marked the single out as anything out of the ordinary.
The single and it’s equally boss B-side, ‘Let’s Go Somewhere’ released as a single a year earlier weren’t hits in the States but ‘Ghost’ got to no 3 in the charts over here in 74. This success was entirely due to the song being picked up on the northern soul scene and now it ranks among one of the most recognisable of all Motown hits.
Northern Soul was really just part of the mod continuum and its rejection of ‘hippie’ music as R&B transmuted into ‘psychedelia.’ The die-hards, the pill heads, the dancers, the black music obsessives kept the faith with the 4/4 Detroit stomp at places like The Twisted Wheel and The Golden Torch. By the time Wigan Casino opened, ‘northern’ had become a youth cult, fuelled no doubt as much by amphetamines and all nighters as much as an appreciation for obscure 7 inch singles by singers no-one had ever heard of.
In this context, ‘There’s A Ghost In My House’ is a cheesy pop tune, all be it, one with a great hook and lyric. Clap! Clap! The b-side is more of a traditional northern stomper with its message of inter-racial tolerance seen from the ‘white male’ side for once. This record along with The Velvelettes ‘Needle In A Haystack’ and Martha & The Vandellas ‘Jimmy Mack’ were our pre-teen introduction to the strange, strange world of northern soul.
My older cousins were all soulies, our Deb pulling down her Bay City Roller and David Cassidy posters and making the weekly pilgrimage to the Casino along with thousands of others from all the country. Her box of 7 inches contained many of the typical imprints of the scene; Jayboy, Ric-Tic, Bell, Stateside and Tamla/Motown ofcourse. I didn’t really get it. I was still more impressed by ELO’s ‘Out Of The Blue’ spaceship than the Mothership Connection.
Still, I tried to understand by standing outside the RNA and Grangeway Youthy with Doney as the hard lads from the estate with their long leathers and flares walked in and performed their athletic drops and kicks and spins. I practiced back drops myself with little success but northern was really only a passing trend for most of us. By 76, the punks had replaced ‘soulies’ as the coolest kids to emulate.
Those who kept the faith during the punk years were now regarded as dinosaurs but only a few years later, with the mod revival in full swing and the likes of Dexys covering northern standards, the dances returned to the parquet floors, all be it with tight pants replacing Oxford and Birmingham bags.
I too, joined those either returning to their soul roots or finally understanding the genuine passion and maverick lifestyles that underpinned the movement. Kent and Charlie compilations were invaluable to those of us who couldn’t afford to join the expert collectors.
Northern’s second wind, gathered momentum in the 90s as the original Casino, Torch, Mecca and Wheel heads found themselves with grown up kids and a network of old mates and DJs who were still keeping the flame burning. Still, it was a sub-cultural Masonic sect, totally living by its own laws, disinterested and even hostile to mainstream interest and suspicious of outsiders. Richard Searling’s show on Jazz FM provided perhaps the only mainstream, non-web based outlet for soul heads across the country and indeed the world.
Now you can’t move for northern soul films, video clips, dancers and fashions on display as the scene finally receives the cultural recognition it always deserved. In our world the likes of Searling, Ian Levine and Colin Curtis are as important to the evolution of dance music as yer Mancusos, Sianos and Levans.
Soulies were once derided by the music industry and the media, as anachronistic fanatics and fools, even though these critics worshipped ‘rockers’ spewing the same old tired chords and cliches. The British working class have always been patronised by ‘clever’ posh kids who fail to understand the appeal of the dancefloor because their collective funk gene has been removed from successive generations of selective in-breeding.
From northern soul to happy hardcore, the drugs and the djs have kept the dancefloors of obscure towns rocking to a very different beat than the trendy inner city sanctums of the self-elected taste makers. Long may it continue.