Vol. 3, Issue #9 May 2nd - May 15th, 2008

Tiger Bear From Hell at NONzine.com

By: Wilhelm Murg

Reclassifying Soul

Every collector’s group has one; the wannabe, the guy who really doesn’t get it, but will buy endless amounts of Marvel Comics, Laserdiscs, Industrial albums, action figures, or whatever, just to be a part of the group. We have one of those here in the Tulsa record market who blows mountains of cash on “collectibles,” i.e. - everything under the sun in a desperate attempt to (a.) impress the rest of us and (b.) KEEP THE VOICES FROM CLAWING THROUGH HIS HEAD, or something like that. He’s also a master “Guitar Hero” player, I might add.

So one day I walked into a local record store and this guy had them pull every Northern Soul single for him. I knew at some point the had decided he was a 45 collector; none of those stupid albums or CDs for him. But I had to admit that he was one up on me, I had never heard the term “northern soul,” except for a couple of weeks earlier when I was looking up something on Otis Redding, and I figured it was a misprint; Redding was from Georgia.

It turned out this wannabe got the idea from a real record dealer who comes to Tulsa for our occasional conventions. The real record dealer fools around with $1000 - $4000 records daily, specializes in northern soul, and has a stellar reputation as being fair, knowledgeable and connected.

This was the first major remarketing of soul that I had heard of since “Blaxploitation” became a subcategory, and it’s almost as specialized, as it refers to the individual song rather than the group or artist performing the song. “Blaxploitation” refers to music that actually comes from “Blaxploitation films,” like Curtis Mayfield’s tracks from “Superfly” or Isaac Hayes’ music from “Shaft,” instrumental jazz fusion or disco tracks that sound like they could have come from a blaxploitation epic, like Billy Cobham’s “Stratus” or “Express” by B.T. Express respectively, or soul songs, often in a minor key with a funky edge, that use the same images as blaxploitation films, such as Cutis-Mayfield-sound-alike William De Vaughn’s “Be Thankful for What You Got,” or Minnie Ripperton’s ultrasexy “Inside My Love” (trust me guys, it’s worth a download).

Northern Soul is a little more complex, and I’ve found slightly different variations on the basic criteria. In the late 1960s some of the Mods stayed with listening to soul and the blues rather than evolve into psychedelic and garage punk fans. The deejays started going through obscure Motown and Stax style singles - some say it was singles that did not sell in America that got bundled and sent to the U.K. at super discount prices - to find new songs that would keep the pill popping Mods on their feet all night. Mid and upbeat tempo songs dominated the dance floor. Like the early days in hip hop, labels were scraped off so the deejays could keep their stash secret. The high temple of all of this was The Twisted Wheel in Manchester, in Northern England, where a whole culture was born in not only music, but also dance styles and fashion.

The term comes from the British music journalist Chris Hunt who had a record store in London. He noticed that the people from the Manchester Area would come in the store when their football teams were playing in London, but they didn’t care about the latest soul releases from America, they wanted the older titles. The store shorthand was “Northern Soul,” meaning soul music appreciated in Northern England.

Trying to get your head around the titles isn’t as easy as it sounds. The great Al Wilson, who just died this week, is in the mix, but he’s represented by the obscure single “The Snake” rather than his classic “Show & Tell.” Edwin Starr is here, but not “War,” he’s more famous over there for the brilliant “25 Miles,” which was a minor American hit in the late 1960s. Cover songs, or originals that we only know by the covers, are also all over the place, like Gloria Jones’ version of “Tainted Love,” which was a hit for Soft Cell in the early 1980s - there was always a rumor that it was written about Marc Bolan of T.Rex. “Take Me In Your Arm (Rock Me For A Little While,)” is here not by The Doobie Brothers, but in it’s original form by Kim Weston, and “There Was a Time,” which James Brown cut to shreds with his dead-on-the-heavy-beat style, is here by “The Duke of Earl” himself, Gene Chandler.

When you stop and listen to this stuff a lot of British music history makes sense, especially the 1980s, when there was an explosion of British Soul on the world charts, including such luminaries like Boy George, George Michaels, Annie Lennox, Alison Moyer, and Phil (“Can’t Hurry Love”) Collins all the way up to Josh Stone in the contemporary era.

Getting back to that wince collector’s story; so the guy asked this record store to pull all of their northern soul. They took the Northern Soul Price Guide and pull a box of records from their soul collection. It came to $800. He decided he wasn’t that much of a fan. Maybe the whole thing was fate’s way of getting me to notice the genre.

Though the original singles are highly overpriced at the moment, compellations of Northern Soul are available on CD. An unscrupulous person could get on a p2p network, type in “Northern Soul” and see how many hundreds of titles it picks up.

It is an interesting process that popular music is going through; just as the interest in garage punk and psychedelic music uncovered whole subgenres that had been buried in rock music, the reevaluation of soul is giving us an even broader vision of just how large the pop universe is.

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