John Ward – Anecdotage – 11 October 2014

JohnWDo people really know what Northern Soul was like?

You have to worry more than a little bit when your heyday becomes the subject of a movie (and Wikipedia) but the pre-publicity seems to be wrong. However, that is and always has been the nature of the media.

I haven’t seen the movie yet so I can’t comment, but the Wikipedia entry on Northern Soul is all over the place. For one thing, it’s at least five years out in placing the Mod scene in Manchester in “the late 1960s”: and of course, none of us called the film’s featured music Northern Soul: it was Tamla Motown.

The one thing Wikipedia has right is that the scene’s pivotal club was the Twisted Wheel, although nobody ever called it that: it was either just ‘the Wheel’, or more commonly The Whizzer. But by no means was it the only place; nor was Tamla the only music form popular during Manchester’s beat club heyday, which I’d put more accurately at roughly 1963-66.

For many clubbers, the Jungfrau was very much the definitive scene at first. Based in the usual sweaty cellar underneath Manchester Cathedral, it started out featuring Mancunian ‘pop groups’ like the Hollies, Freddie & the Dreamers, and a group we regarded as crap, Herman & the Hermits. They played a resident spot on Wednesdays, and our usual response to them coming on stage was to nip round to The Cathedral pub for an illegal pint. But then Mickey Most discovered the band, and they emerged as Herman’s Hermits with a huge hit cover of the US single I’m into Something Good. Within two years, lead singer Peter Noone was a superstar on both sides of the Atlantic. Before that (like the Monkees’ Davey Jones) he’d had a bit part in the eternal soap Coronation Street. Before that, he played soccer for Stretford Grammar School. I know this because I played against him a couple of times. He was quite a useful centre forward, as I remember.

In fact, it was the Oasis Club that first started getting Motor City acts to perform live in Manchester. I remember seeing “Little” Stevie Wonder there at some point in 1965. But at ‘the Frau’ and the Whizzer, after early 1964 there were two key elements to the tribe: mod clothes and dancing. Both went through various stages at a dizzying speed.

It started with leather coats down below the knees, which for some bizarre reason one kept on even though the temperature at the Wheel after 10 pm was close to 40 centigrade. These were worn over high-sided tab collar shirts. Hair for blokes was parted high, back-combed and then wide sideburns were combed in front of the ears. Hipster slacks with wide leather belts and loud checks soon followed. Later still, centre-vent jackets came in, where only the top button of three below the lapels would be tied: if you didn’t get that right, then you were a False Flag. My recall of that period now is that the trend was being led bigtime by The Spencer Davis Group – which spawned the truly amazing Stevie Winwood.

Pretty soon into this tribal dress process, my Dad started having fits about his younger son’s appearance. The only way round this impasse was for me to go out with my hair looking vaguely normal, and then change it in the Cathedral Coffee Bar before making an entrance. About this time – 1964-65 – the music changed rapidly to pure Tamla Motown, and played out by DJs rather than live. But some other stuff crept in now and again because it suited the dance of the moment. The big tracks that come back to me through the decades now were Green Onions, How Sweet it is to be loved by You, Uptight, I’ll be there, I’m a Roadrunner Baby, I heard it through the Grapevine, This old Heart of Mine, Dock of the Bay, Stop her on Sight, and Get Ready. The bands were numerous: Martha and the Vandellas, Booker T and the MGs, Junior Walker & the Allstars, the Four Tops, the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, and of course Marvin Gaye.

In Manchester’s financial district, another cellar nightspot Beat City became popular, chiefly because it was owned (and twice-weekly hosted) by the now universally vilified Jimmy Savile. Savile’s shtick was far more eclectic: as a major star already via Top of the Pops, the eccentric DJ played everything to which kids would dance – Satisfaction by the Stones, Hang on Sloopy by the McCoys, and Help me Rhonda by the Beachboys.

Savile was already ahead of the game, because as the Summer of 1965 wore on (and I went to Berlin on a 3-month social project) Californian and Jug-Band music became the precursor to Hippiedom and the Beautiful People. On returning to Manchester in September, it was the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Mamas and the Papas, and Sonny & Cher who were making the running. Sam the Sham’s Wooly Bully was still a great dance number, but the real Tamla club scene was over. The epicentre now moved on to somewhat smarter venues like Top of the Town, where you needed a tie in your collar to get in. Stevie Wonder’s I was made to love her was a huge favourite, but by then he too was moving away from his roots. The Beatles and the Stones were reinventing themselves, the Who had burst into the limelight alongside Pink Floyd, and David Bowie was beginning his long journey towards Glam Rock.

By the following year, I was at University…and psychedelia had arrived. Delia Smith it wasn’t. So for me, what’s now being dubbed Northern Soul as a genre in Manchester was disappearing fast. 1967 brought the Summer of Love (and the longed-for end to my virginity). Which is why I must insist that calling Manchester’s Tamla Mod scene “a late 1960s” phenomenon is completely inaccurate.

I do desperately want to see the movie, but I wonder if I should. I have an awful feeling that they’ll get several basic things hopelessly wrong, and that’ll irritate me. Silly I know, but it will. / link to original article


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