Thursday, 7 November 2013

Turning half my heart beat up: Indiepop and Northern soul

“I think there’s something wrong with the world really. To get enjoyment from life in your teens and twenties, people do have to build a more or less alternative society just to enjoy themselves.”
 Wigan Casino regular Dave, speaking in Granada’s This England, 1977

The debut of our club night, Just Like Honey, was a massive success. We got exactly what we wanted, a floor full of people dancing to records they would not hear anywhere else (certainly not in Shrewsbury anyway). We we’re also quite struck that the two most popular records of the evening. Judging by the whooping, hands in the air and feet on the floor, the two 45s that really caught people’s attention were This Charming Man by the Smiths and Tainted Love by Ruth Swann. On paper, you could not get two more dissimilar records. One was designed for the brain, a record for the intellectual romantic who stayed bedroom bound a lot of the time, the other 7” a two and half of minutes of hand clapping, foot stomping dance floor nirvana. I could not figure out the duality.

But the more I thought about the more it started to make some kind of sense. The pre/post Brit pop indie and the Northern Soul scene have much in common. Both are fiercely independent and underground, both music based and strongly unmacho, both fuelled by cheaply manufactured seven inch singles. Whilst indie came from bands making softer, more melodic and focused records with the DIY culture they had learned with punk, Northern Soul where tiny American labels and artists trying to recreate the Tamla sound, pretty much always failing but with their top heavy, thunder drummed take on Motown created a sound all of their own. Both scenes rarely troubled the charts, but both created some incredibly beautiful and inspiring records.

“I think clubs have been mixing northern soul and indiepop for years. Track And Field would do it, DJs at indiepop shows back in the day would play Shangri-Las songs between the bands, I think it's part of the history of indiepop. It's certainly not something we've invented. Possibly the only difference we've made is that we've upped the ratio to be roughly 50/50, indiepop and soul, whereas perhaps before the ratio might have been 75/25. I put together a gallery of posters from indiepop gigs and club nights in the 80s for one of our recent C86 specials and the music mentioned on the club posters would include girl group stuff and indie. It's just part of indiepop's DNA, as far as I'm concerned.”

Ian Watson runs the hugely popular ‘How Does It Feel to be Loved?’ in London. It’s more than fair to say without HDIF? There would be no Just Like Honey.

Ian sees indiepop as a very different beast to the indie I was listening to as a teenager

 “I was a fan of indiepop in the 80s and of the Mega City 4/Senseless Things/Snuff scene too, and they were totally different things, populated by different people, who had different tastes. Put simply, indiepop has pop at its heart, hence the connection with northern soul and girl groups, whereas that fraggle scene, for want of a better term, was a punk thing really, a pop punk thing but a punk thing nonetheless. Snuff mixed in the mod influence, of course, and were brilliant at it but we're going off on another tangent with them.”

Was he surprised as I was how well indie and Northern mixed?

 “I don't think indiepop aligning itself with northern soul and girl groups is a recent thing - it's always been there, from day one. I guess in terms of the history of indiepop you just have to look at the bands mentioned in On Tape by The Pooh Sticks - along with Mighty Mighty and Orange Juice and The Pastels, there's The Ronettes and The Velvet Underground and The Monkees. 60s pop and indiepop have always gone hand in hand. it's definitely there in the music too, from the Shop Assistants covering the Shangri Las and the Pleasure Seekers and Talulah Gosh referencing girl groups, right up to Belle & Sebastian being inspired by northern soul”

Ah, Belle and Sebastian. When Brit pop got a bit lads and lager for my tastes, I went off on a different slant, attending funk nights and dancing myself dizzy to the sweet sounds of NorthernSoul. It was the softer, less macho records of B&S that pulled my back towards indie music. How did they end up getting their kicks on the floor?

“I lived in Colchester in 1992-3 and my friend Did, who was the drummer in my first band, had been a scooter boy and had tapes of Northern stuff he'd play in his camper van. I remember the DJ at one of the gigs we played spinning "The snake" and being quite excited by it, as a lot of people are the first time they hear it, if not the 1000th!”

Says Chris Geddes of Belle and Sebastian, resident Soul head and writer of those sensuous B&S Hammond grooves. He goes on...

“The following year I was back in up Glasgow and soon started going to Divine at the Art School, where the DJs Andrew and Alan would play a mixture of Northern, 60s psych, indie, exotica, and some acid house and big beat. The night is still going, concentrating almost exclusively on 60s and 70s stuff these days, but still with a mixture of soul, psych, funk, reggae etc.

The first night I went to that was all Northern would probably have been Good Foot, which was a really popular club in Glasgow around the same time. It was run by young guys from Paisley and it was a pretty hip crowd that went.

Over that period I started buying Kent compilations and then Andrew Divine hooked me up with a couple of dealer lists when I expressed an interest in collecting original 45s.
I went to a couple of all-nighters at the Ritz in Manchester but although the venue and the music was great I preferred the nights in Glasgow from a social point of view; you'd go to the club and see all your pals and the music was new to us even though it was old whereas at the nights down south it was an older crowd. Probably the age I am now!”

But surely he was into indie too?

“I don't really like indie as a genre. I know that sounds daft as I'm in the quintessential indie band, but it can mean anything can't it? I love loads of indie stuff, The Pastels, the Fanclub, Primal Scream, the Stone Roses, Vaselines, Husker Du, Sonic Youth and Dinosuar Jr were huge for me when I was young, and I got turned onto loads of great 60s stuff as a result of those bands' interviews. More recently I've got more into early Rough Trade stuff like Kleenex and have loved records by Beach House, Dirty Projectors, Melody's Echo Chamber. But as a genre "indie" is really vague and includes a load of rubbish as well as stuff I like so I'd shy away from calling myself a fan in case it gave the impression I liked really dull guitar music.”

“Whereas with Northern Soul I can pretty much say I like most of it, or at least I like the essence of the genre; uptempo danceable soul records. From big label things with massive arrangements to more lo-fi indie label stuff the general standard of performance and arrangement on the records is pretty uniformly high. I mean there might be the odd tune where a shaky vocal lets it down a bit, and some of the cheesier 70s cash in stuff obviously hasn't dated very well but that still leaves thousands of amazing records.”

But does indie and Northern mix?

“Well, I would say if you were at club that played stuff like Primal Scream, Stone Roses, Charlatans then 60s stuff like the Beatles, Stones, Small Faces or Dusty Springfield would fit in pretty well, and if you play that then classic soul like Otis, Aretha or the Supremes wouldn't be out of place either and then it's just a matter of time until you hear Bobby Reed "The Time Is Right for Love", which takes you neatly back to St Etienne for another indie segment!

I mean, they're not that disparate musically are they? It's all 4/4, mostly made with guitar, bass and drums, all traceable back to some hybrid of gospel, country, tin pan alley and R&B.
 guess DJs like the Chemical Brothers and David Holmes really opened things up in the 90s in terms of playing different styles of music together, but if you look at playlists from David Mancuso at the Loft, or the early hip-hop guys like Kool Herc and Bambatta people had been doing that 20 years previously anyway.”

Does being in Glasgow help being into what is essentially black music?

“Yeah, probably. Certainly Manchester always has(had places to listen to black music), London, Liverpool too. The mod thing is pretty big in Glasgow at the moment, has been forever really but there's a new generation coming through although a lot of the nights are playing more psych and garage than black music.

I've seen some things come and go over the years, back around the turn of the millennium there was a funk night in Glasgow used to get a few hundred people every month, Good Foot was the same at it's peak. To be honest I've not gone out to a soul night for a while so I couldn't really say how numbers are at nights up here now. I know from reading stuff online that there's still plenty of people in the north of England going strong who've been doing it since back in the day although those nights aren't necessarily tied to student centres.”

So if it’s easy for a white audience to appreciate black music in England, then it must be easy for a non white to be accepted, right?

“I used to go to the Lord Raglan in town with my brother, and a more biker place which had a tree growing in it, cant remember its name, but this was not every week, by any means.  It was ultra rare to see Asians at such places, but I was lucky enough to know some girls from school that may also be there.“

I first caught an ear to Cornershop years ago via the much missed ‘indie’ section. I caught a picture of Tjinder Singh with the legend ‘CORNERSHOP/DAYS OF THE FORD CORTINA EP‘. I’ve been listening to Cornershop ever since.

Tjinder Singh is an indie fan. No, sack that, Tjinder is a MUSIC fan.

“ I started off with Punjabi Folk music, and devotional music, so had to build up on the western musical catalogue which my parents never had.  my eldest brother liked Zeppelin to Rainbow, my youngest i.e. 2nd eldest, then went into indie, and I followed in his footsteps, but I liked reggae and electronic music like Kraftwerk prior to that.  So I was indie but quickly filled in the gaps of musical historical knowledge when I could, mainly through collecting records.”

But is Tjinder still listening to indie as much as pre-Brit-pop?

“In those days I was probably yearning for all music to be played out of a night, but nowadays that freedoms reality means nobody really cares about the craft of a song in any respect.  I thought the 80s and 90's was a war to get what you want musically, and now that that war is over people are getting away with murder in everyday civilian life.  The Hurts for example, made me want to be sick when I sadly happened upon them at a festival, real weak piss. “

I’ve always wondered how non white indie kids reacted to the views of Morrissey. In a scene often chastised for being to white, middle class and twee, it must have been hard to sallow Stephen Patrick’s questionable views about race, Englishness and immigration. One thing Northern Soul and indiepop scenes share, is a level of camaraderie and acceptance regardless of sex, colour and gender. As long as you loved the music, you where in. Perhaps Soul music lacked(lacks) a figurehead like, say, Chuck D in hip hop or Rotten/Strummer in punk. Could it be indie’s spokesperson is less enthused to cross genres?

“My uni days were spent in indie clubs and at indie gigs. I didn't matter who you were or your background, the Brit-pop movement was there for everyone. Cornershop and Echobelly were fabulous prominent indie bands in the early 90s but they wouldn't fall into the stereotype of "white pale middle class kids".

Dickie Felton is an uber Morrissey fan, author of two books centred on Morrissey fan culture. It’s pretty much his job to understand Morrissey and his fans. Does he see his charge as racist?

“Morrissey's comments about not liking reggae were made nearly three decades ago.
So I'm not sure that's still his view. I'm aware of him liking some so called "disco" records. I don't think the comments he made about a type of music in 1984 had any bearing whatsoever on people deciding if they liked The Smiths or not.

Morrissey has had pretty strong views on almost everything. That's part of his appeal. But I think ultimately its been the music and lyrics that has appealed to people - not his views on the pop charts. “

(Chris Geddes: “I'm not really a fan of Morrissey but I don't think that one person's opinion should put you off a whole genre of music. Some reggae artists and rappers have said some pretty objectionable stuff about gays and women but I don't write off all reggae or hip hop as a result.
He's said some stuff which has come across badly but I don't really think he's racist, he just likes to stir up a bit of controversy and he's got a pretty huge Latino fan base in the US who obviously don't have a problem with it.”
Tjinder Singh: “We were big Smiths fans, and Morrissey once had the indie kids ear, but not any more.  The way his music has gone, i.e. more duck arse in attitude and sound leaves me thinking that The Smiths was a great four piece outfit, and all contributed to the sound - Morrissey was good but the band better, Man is good but the woman smarter.”)

So has Dickie Felton lost it back flipping on a dance floor to Judy Street’s ‘What?’ ?
“I've always been a fan of indie. Northern soul passed me by.” he says.

Does indie and Northern Soul have a future together? As long as people still want to dance to indie and Northern records, we will always play them at Just Like Honey. It’s still music that excites me. As both scenes are underground, it’s still a thrill to unearth a new record to fall in love with, be it recorded in Halifax last Tuesday or in Detroit in 1964. If you strip away all the barriers the powers that be put up to divide us (sexuality, religion, race, gender) underneath are we all not music fans? Do we not all deserve to get our kicks out on the floor? It’s for all of us, right? I’ll leave the last word to Tjinder.

“I think indiepop is northern soul uniform, with modern guitar bands that sing about love and loss - which is a lot more than modern day hipsters that dress up like grown ups and sing about credit cards.  Neither have had much black faces in them, unless they happen to be friendly with some white girls from school.”


  1. That was an enjoyable read, thanks Shaun. It'd be great f I could make it to Just Like Honey one day.

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