With EDM firmly planted in the mainstream, and everyone and their mamas getting crazy to late-night beats, a recent project by NPR comes at the perfect time. This online, 24/7 streaming station under the NPR Music umbrella plays the best tracks of the original rave scene. Yes, before early house, before even disco, there was something else: the U.K. “northern soul” scene.
Centered mainly around resort towns in northern England, this late-‘70s subculture set the tone for all-night, underground parties in the following decades. Check it out – northern soul had all of the following:
Hipsters who got the best records before anyone else
Yes, soul music produced plenty of mainstream stars in the U.S. through the ‘60s and ‘70s. But for every Otis Redding or Diana Ross, there were dozens of other just-as-talented artists who fell by the wayside. (Some things never change!) Vinyl collectors in the U.K. started to snap up these almost-rans from across the ocean, importing rare and expensive 45s by forgotten U.S. soul performers, or forgotten tracks by well-known artists.
The favored sound was uptempo and relatively poppy – think, more Motown-ish than anything. The preferred flavor is what became known as “northern soul,” the “northern” part referring to the part of the U.K. where it was consumed.
Funny clothes particular to the scene
You have to look at northern soul style through the lens of the ‘70s – this stuff was cool back then, okay? But there was a definite style centered around loose, baggy clothes (the proto-rave look!), particularly flared corduroys, to make dancing easier.
Drugs that kept people up all night
Okay, so listen, we will be the first to say the current Molly scare in mainstream media is overblown and inaccurate. But, the northern soul scene also had its own party favor of choice – mostly prescription forms of speed like Dexedrine. (Fun fact: The later ‘80s soul revival act Dexy’s Midnight Runners, of “Come On Eileen” fame, cribbed its name from these little pills.) The ensuing fast pace of the scene was captured in the cult underground memoir Night Shift, by Peter McKenna.
Late, word-of-mouth parties in unusual locations
Most of the northern soul scene centered around U.K. seaside resort towns – not the big city centers. And most of the parties, even at well-known venues like the Wigan Casino, were technically members-only. You’d get there by word of mouth, then buy a “membership” which would allow you entry to a “private club” – which would allow the places to operate from the witching hour until daylight.
Overall, amazing music and good times
Listen to NPR’s stream of northern soul and try not to feel instantly happy. We will bet you money on it.
Incredibly, it’s not three decades too late to hear this out in the wild. A northern soul revival is well underway on the West Coast and throughout various major cities. Check the NPR Northern Soul feed for a primer – and check for Night Shift on sites like Amazon or through other out-of-print book dealers.
Arielle Castillo is Fusion's culture editor, reporting on arts, music, culture, and subcultures from the streets on up. She's also a connoisseur of weird Florida, weightlifting, and cats.