Piers Barber enjoys Stuart Cosgrove’s personal history of northern soul, the enduring and often mythologised youth culture which rescued forgotten stomping soul records from America’s black inner-cities and blasted them out to adoring crowds across England’s industrial north.
Young Soul Rebels: A Personal History of Northern Soul
by Stuart Cosgrove [Polygon]
Detroit 67 and Memphis 68, the first two installments of Stuart Cosgrove’s intriguing trilogy on American soul music, have been enthusiastically welcomed for their accessibility and devotion to telling the neglected stories of those less obviously prominent characters. In Young Soul Rebels, Scottish-born Cosgrove applies this approach to an issue closer to home: to the Twisted Wheel, Wigan Casino and the Blackpool Mecca – the stomping drum beat of the northern soul scene where his obsessive adoration of soul music was born.
“It defied almost everything that the commercial marketplace could throw at it,” Cosgrove writes of northern soul, the fascinating and unlikely youth culture from England’s industrial north that obsessed over obscure black American soul singles and record labels – and, as Cosgrove is keen to highlight, indeed continues to do so. His book revels in how the scene preferred “unknown and forgotten records over chart hits and..hidden backstreet clubs to the garish discotheques and mainstream nightclubs of the high street.”
There are few British subcultures more given over to self-eulogising quite like northern soul. Cosgrove recalls how Paul Mason, today a slightly infamous mouthpiece for Jeremy Corbyn but formerly the author’s colleague at Channel 4, saw in the scene “evidence of a resilience in the lives of ordinary people defying globalisation and the cold wins of post-industrial change.” There is certainly something in such an assessment, but it’s a happy relief to find that Cosgrove is not blind to the impurities, challenges and divisions that have plighted the scene’s history.
The northern scene was an often bitterly divided world, with ferocious arguments particularly consuming those who were either loyal to classic stompers specifically from the sixties (favoured by the crowds at Wigan Casino), or those typically devoted to the policy of Blackpool Mecca, where DJs encouraged their audiences to embrace new discoveries from the sixties (known paradoxically as ‘sixties newies’) or more modern sounds such as ‘modern soul’, funk and rare groove. Cosgrove appears to fall into the side of the latter camp, thankfully calling out “the chin stroking, the soul police regulations and the grumpy insistence that yesterday was always better.” Other problems which held plighted the scene – ranging from drug abuse and alcoholism to bootlegging and the snobbery of those with the financial means to purchase obscenely rare records – also receive due attention in Cosgrove’s narrative.
Nor, thankfully, is Cosgrove’s book stuck in the much-recounted world of early northern soul. Indeed, his accounts of the nights that came after Wigan and Blackpool – the likes of Morecambe, Stafford, Allenton, Rotherham and London’s 100 Club – are some of the book’s most interesting sections and defy popular understanding that the scene all but fizzled out with the closure of its most iconic clubs.
Happily, too, the narration here is not just 300 pages about how fun the clubs were and how rare the music was. Instead, Young Soul Rebels uses northern soul as a powerful window into some of the most enduring social issues affecting Britain in the second half of the twentieth century. For example, Cosgrove (pictured above) zooms in on how northern soul reacted to the decline of traditional English seaside holiday resorts, and explores how the scene’s gradual shift towards London mirrored the key migration patterns that shaped England during and after Margaret Thatcher’s premiership.
The northern scene also directly intersected with the decline of traditional mining towns. Many of the scene’s key figures, such as northern soul DJ David ‘Bub’ Buttle, served as union reps on the frontline of mining strikes by day and as all-night forces of personality at sweaty northern soul clubs by night. The decline of mining industry – and its underestimated impact on the mental health of northern working class men – is one of the book’s most illuminating sections.
There’s also the story of Peter Sutcliffe, the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’, who struck fear into young women attending northern soul clubs in the 1970s and even claimed one attendee as one of his victims. The sheer proximity of the northern scene to Sutcliffe’s terrors its unnerving. “It’s difficult to explain to outsiders how many risks we took and how dangerous the streets had become,” one young female soul fan admitted. “But it was northern soul and that was all that mattered.”
The book is interspersed with touching stories of the scene’s biggest characters. Crowd-pleaser Buttle, for example, used to memorably exclaim at any given opportunity that London was “just like Barnsley but with more wankers”. Cosgrove also happily ribs the obsessive, all-encompassing tendencies of northern collectors: “Gis was also planning his wedding and had already put Pete’s name down on the invite list, despite fearing that he might criticise the ‘Wedding March’ as too slow and not rare enough.”
Cosgrove and the scene as a whole are clearly deeply proud of the efforts made to recognise the achievements of history’s forgotten soul stars. Some internal feuds within the scene were even settled by promises to donate money to impoverished ex-soul singers over in America. There is perhaps something slightly discomforting about the northern scene’s fetishization of exotic black ghetto music, but it is, of course, impossible to refute the enduring magnificence of the music it rescued from complete neglect.
“Gis was also planning his wedding and had already put Pete’s name down on the invite list, despite fearing that he might criticise the ‘Wedding March’ as too slow and not rare enough.”
I’ve put together a Spotify playlist (featured above) of all the music meticulously detailed in Cosgrove’s book. I am aware of the irony of this – especially after reading stories of the hours consumed, money spent, and terrible records searched through by collectors to triumphantly locate those future-classic releases in the dark corners of American thrift stores. But now, of course, the majority of this music is readily available digitally – a section of the story that Cosgrove happily recounts in the final chapter of his book. The author is clearing proud of the scene’s enduring relevance. With slight overstatement, he describes how northern soul now “uses digital platforms more instinctively than any other subculture”, discussing how platforms such as Facebook have served as impromptu cultural history archives for long lost clubs (a fascinating idea which would be interesting to explore further), and how sites such as Mixcloud have helped dismantle some of northern soul’s conventional DJ snobbery (for which the author has such obvious distaste) and made the great music accessible to all.
There are a few areas in Cosgrove’s great book that I wished the author had time to explore further – a promising section on Manchester Chief Constable James Anderton, for example, tails off slightly just as its getting going. Taken as a whole, though, Cosgrove’s book offers colourful and necessary new shades to the often over-mythologised history of northern soul – a genre which remains perhaps Britain’s most intriguing and heartwarming youth culture movement.