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Posts tagged ‘Northern Soul’

Northern Soul

Northern Soul 2Elaine Constantine’s much anticipated feature film Northern Soul is finally due for its release in mid-October, some 17 years after the project started to form in her mind. The soundtrack album arrived the other day: a CD of 27 songs featured in the movie, a second disc of another 27 favourites for which she couldn’t find room, and a DVD including interviews with the director and Richard Searling, the DJ at the Wigan Casino.

Listening to Constantine’s choice of tracks revived an old yearning to have been born five or 10 years later, to have stayed in the Midlands, and to have taken part in the Northern Soul phenomenon. In the 1960s we didn’t know, as we danced to “Candy” by the Astors, or “Earthquake” by Bobbi Lynn, or “1-2-3” by Len Barry, that we represented merely the prelude to something much bigger. Now I listen to the records I never danced to, the stuff dug out by DJs in the early ’70s — the Fuller Brothers’ “Time’s a-Wastin'”, David and the Giants’ “Ten Miles High” or the Ad Libs’ “Nothing Worse Than Being Alone” — and experience a strange pang of thwarted belonging.

The inherent poignancy of so many Northern Soul records springs from an undertow of regret in the lyric or the voice, carrying the suggestion of a moment of pure happiness that can never be recaptured. There’s no better example than one of the most famous of them all, Tobi Legend’s”Time Will Pass You By”. “Life is just a precious minute, baby,” she sings. “Open up your eyes and see it, baby. Give yourself a better chance, because time will pass you right on by.” (A few years ago my Guardian colleague Laura Barton wrote an eloquent column about it.) Many years later the singer was filmed, miming to the record. Scroll through the comments under the YouTube clip and eventually you’ll come to this, posted five years ago by someone called “cherry blossom”:

This song takes me back to the last moments of dancing and grabbing your bag to get home on the train to Wigan. Remember oldies night and the nicotine and sweat dripping off the ceiling. Feeling everyone was your pal. Classic days.

“Feeling everyone was your pal.” What a wonderful memory to have. It lives on in this special music, in which the whirl of authentic emotion is all that counts.

The clip of Legend (real name: Bessie Gupton) was filmed at the behest of Ian Levine, the former Blackpool Mecca DJ, who tracked her down in Canada in 2007. When I was at Island in the mid-’70s, Ian had approached me with the idea of releasing some recordings he’d been making in Chicago with American singers. They included Barbara Pennington’s “Running in Another Direction”, which we put out. Sadly, it turned out to be not the sort of thing the Island promotion and sales machine was good at handling in 1976. I remember Evelyn Thomas’s “Weak Sport” and L.J. Johnson’s “Your Magic Put a Spell on Me” as being the other finished masters Ian brought with him. He went on to channel his productions in the direction of Hi-NRG dance music, with considerable success.

Anyway, Constantine’s soundtrack album contains some great stuff, running the gamut from Shirley Ellis’s sublime “Soul Time” to a fabulous eccentricity like The Crow’s “Your Autumn of Tomorrow”. I was extremely pleased to be reminded of “I Surrender”, by the wonderful Eddie Holman. It’s not a Northern Soul greatest hits collection, but there are plenty of those around. It’s more interesting and personal than that, and it certainly whets the appetite.

I hope the new film’s thunder hasn’t been stolen by Keeping the Faith, the excellent documentary shown on BBC2 a few weeks ago (you can find it here). I’m sure that, after all these years, there’s room for both approaches to a fascinating subculture that refuses to lie down and die. And if she can get close to the mood captured three years ago by this fine Dean Chalkley short, Young Souls, she’ll be all right.

* The photograph above is a still from Northern Soul. Details of the film, including the trailer, are on its website:

The price of a masterpiece

George RussellSometime last year I stopped at a service station halfway up the M1 and, while paying for my petrol, picked up a four-CD set of Northern Soul favourites. Mood and location were behind the impulse purchase. I needed cheering up, and I was close enough to Nottingham to be thinking fondly about 1960s nights at the Dungeon and the Beachcomber, when the sounds of Stax and Motown laid the foundations for what later transpired in the clubs of the north.

And then I realised what I was getting: 100 tracks for £9.99. In other words, 10p a track. And these were pieces — including the famous Wigan Casino “3 before 8” triptych of Dean Parrish’s “I’m On My Way”, Tobi Legend’s “Time Will Pass You By” and Jimmy Radcliffe’s “Long After Tonight Is All Over” — for which collectors parted with fortunes in their original 45rpm vinyl incarnations. It made me wonder about values, intrinsic and acquired. Although this was not a bootleg set, the chances of any of the surviving artists seeing even the tiniest fraction of my £9.99 seemed remote. And it also made me question whether you could possibly feel as strongly about something for which you’d paid 10p as I did when I paid six shillings and eight pence for my new copy of “Long After Tonight Is All Over” on the Stateside label back in 1965.

I’ve been thinking about that again recently since buying a couple of multi-disc sets devoted to jazz artists of the post-bop era on a label called Real Gone Jazz. Today’s purchase, for the princely sum of £6.99 at Soul Jazz Records in Soho, was of a four-CD set containing “seven classic albums” by George Russell (pictured above), the pianist, composer and bandleader who was partly responsible for guiding Miles Davis in the direction of modal jazz and Kind of Blue. There’s nothing misleading about Real Gone’s description of the contents of their package: besides being out of copyright, the seven albums — New York NY, Jazz in the Space Age, Stratusphunk, George Russell Sextet in Kansas City, Ezz-thetics, The Stratus Seekers and The Outer View — are indeed authentic classics, for which Russell’s British admirers were prepared to pay premium import prices on their first appearance between 1959 and 1962.

Russell leads a big band on the first two albums, with John Coltrane and Bill Evans among the sidemen. The remaining five titles are by his sextet (and, in one case, a septet), which I rank alongside the quartets of Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, the Bill Evans-Scott LaFaro-Paul Motian trio and Charles Mingus’s Jazz Workshop among the most stimulating small groups of their era. As a composer, Russell took bebop in new and provocative directions: his tunes have strong outlines and interesting implications for improvisers. As a bandleader, he persuaded young musicians to produce their very best work: the trumpeters Al Kiger and Don Ellis, the trombonist David Baker and the saxophonists John Pierce, Dave Young and Paul Plummer are all outstanding on these sessions, with Eric Dolphy making an indelible mark as a guest on the Ezz-thetic date. The bassist Steve Swallow — before he took up the electric instrument — and the drummer Joe Hunt formed an alert and swinging rhythm section, one of the most effective of the time. And the startingly original 12-minute version of “You Are My Sunshine” on The Outer View, with Sheila Jordan taking the vocal, is a masterpiece by any standard.

It’s nothing short of amazing to be able to acquire such stuff for so minimal an outlay, a real gift to listeners who might just be setting off into the foothills of this music, even though they won’t be getting the benefit of the full recording information (not even the composer credits), the excellent sleeve notes by such sympathetic critics as Joe Goldberg and Martin Williams, or the beautiful sleeves commissioned by Riverside’s Orrin Keepnews from the gifted designer Ken Deardoff. I just hope that those acquainting themselves with these albums for the first time, all at once, come to value them as much as we did when we saved up for the expensive imports on the Riverside or US Decca labels, our purchase of the individual LPs, spaced over a period of months and years, giving us the chance not just to keep pace with the personal evolution of an outstanding musician but to absorb, memorise and cherish every single note.