What is Northern Soul? Movement celebrates 50 years

This weekend it is 50 years since Wigan Casino hosted the first of its all-night parties, which helped establish the Northern Soul movement.

Special parties are being held around Lancashire to remember the era when the working class town become an unlikely capital of a subculture phenomenon. For the best part of a decade, dancefloors in Wigan but also in north-western hubs such as Stoke and Blackpool were the place to be on a Friday night and now those involved are remembering a special time in British musical history.

Already this year, the 50-year anniversary has been marked with a Northern Soul Prom and an all-night celebration hosted by BBC Radio 6 Music.

On Saturday night, legendary 1970s DJ Richard Searling will be behind the decks once more for a sold-out night in Blackpool while in Wigan exhibitions will be held with photos and memorabilia from the era. There are also stage plays in celebration of the phenomenon.

What is Northern Soul?

The music and dance movement grew up in the late 1960s in discos in the North-West as DJs moved beyond what was popular in the UK and explored US soul. After experimentation, DJs found a niche for heavy beats and fast tempos of 100bpm or beyond.

The scene gained a foothold in Lancashire with popular venues including Wigan Casino, Blackpool Mecca and The Golden Torch in Stoke. DJs began scouring the best of black American soul music on major and minor labels as the dancing also gained a life of its own and became increasingly elaborate.

Simon Price wrote in the Guardian: “It’s a scene that has always thrived on the rare, the obscure and the undiscovered. Since it first emerged in the dancehalls of northern England in the late 60s, it has existed in direct opposition to the very concept of greatest hits.”

It wasn’t long before the cult scene gained national attention and was the subject of documentaries and, later, films.

Wigan Casino was the first to hold an all-nighter in September 1973 with its 2am-8am slot being brought forward as the demand was so high.

Searing told the BBC: “The two huge wide doors would have a queue forming right the way back down the road, with 500 to 1,000 people waiting to get in. As soon as those doors opened, there’d be a flood of people. That smell of condensation, of Brut, of sweat … It was absolutely amazing.”

The scene was wild and popular for eight years but the beginning of the end came when Wigan Casino closed in 1981 It is now the site of the town’s Grand Arcade shopping centre where a photo exhibition about Northern Soul is set to be held this weekend.

Why do Northern Soul fans say ‘keep the faith’?

Northern Soul was represented by a clenched fist logo and the motto “keep the faith”.

As website Underground says: “The iconic clenched fist of the Northern Soul movement signifies the determination of the soul girls and boys to maintain the spirit of the movement and keep the faith.

“It owes its existence to Chris Burton, the owner of The Torch club that dominated the scene from 1971 to 1973.”

What are Northern Soul songs?

While hundreds of songs that have been played at Northern Soul events, classics include:

Gloria Jones – Tainted Love: The song was originally a B-side but was discovered in the UK and later got to number one when it was covered by Soft Cell in 1981.

Tobi Legend – Time Will Pass You By: Considered a classic to play towards the end of the night or before the 8am curfew.

Franki Valli – You’re Ready Now: According to Spotify, this is one of the most played in the Northern Soul catalogue.