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Savant Pal Region 2 Guest Review:

The Strange World of Northern Soul

The Strange World of Northern Soul
1999-2003 / Colour / 1:33 full screen / 1470 min.
Film Editors Ian Levine, Peter Finkelstone, Adi Denney
Original Music Clive Scott
Produced by Ian Levine, Neil Rushton
Directed by Ian Levine

Reviewed by Lee Broughton

When Soul music started getting funky in the late 1960s, a select group of fans in the North of England chose to resist the new sounds and began attending specialist clubs which had opted to continue playing the type of Soul they favoured: broadly speaking, anything that featured the stomping beat of Motown's 'Sound of Young America' circa 1966. As interest in these night-spots grew, and a discernible sub-culture began to develop around this underground post-Mod movement, the clubs' disc jockeys faced the problem of finding new records to spin. When the supply of releases by British record labels became exhausted, it was discovered that literally thousands of hopeful Soul singers had cut Motown-esque tracks for local independent labels throughout the USA during the mid-Sixties: most of these efforts had failed commercially, and many of the performers had quickly returned to their day jobs, but the songs that they had recorded were just waiting to be rediscovered. The employment of specialist import channels at the turn of the Seventies resulted in the music made by mainly black working class Americans circa 1966 traversing time and space to find a new home, and an increased level of appreciation, in the Northern dance halls frequented by mainly white, and mainly working class, Brits. Blues and Soul writer Dave Godin called these rare Soul sounds Northern Soul and the Northern Soul scene quickly grew into a musical phenomenon based around all-night dances and electric live performances by visiting Sixties Soul artists who were invariably astounded by the renewed interest in their back catalogues and the passionate receptions they received.

Northern Soul hit its peak as a social and cultural movement in the mid-to-late Seventies but the popularity of the music that the scene championed has continued to grow: a multitude of record labels, big and small, have raided their archives and put together Northern Soul compilation CDs in recent years and the sounds of Northern Soul are now being appreciated by a world-wide audience. So this mammoth documentary box set would appear to be particularly well-timed. The programme makers have been extremely thorough on two counts. Firstly, they have tracked down and interviewed a good number of people (fans, promoters, disc jockeys, artists, etc) who were actually involved in the scene. This approach is particularly welcome in an age where the general approach to the historical documentation of Popular Culture seems to have rejected genuine, roots level, personal testimonies in favour of dumbed-down, and only vaguely pertinent, sound-bites, opinions and 'memories' from established media figures and/or celebrity 'talking heads'. Secondly, since little or no period footage exists of the artists responsible for many of the obscure sounds that loom large in Northern Soul's musical mythology, the programme makers have endeavoured to track down and film many of the original artists lip-synching along to their chosen classic track. This footage has then been used to construct belated but complete music videos for these songs: some of these music videos work better than others but all of them are worthy in the sense that, at long last, footage of these artists has finally been captured for posterity.

Disc 1: The Way We Were (250 min.)

The bulk of this disc is taken up by chapters entitled What is Northern Soul?, The Underground Cult, The Experts, The Sounds, The DJs, The Origins, The Artists


The Promoters. Each chapter is made up of interviews with relevant parties which are interspersed with a good number of complete music videos. The basic sound of Northern Soul is invariably described as being the Motown sound of '66/67 albeit somehow looser, slightly less sophisticated, slightly stranger and more angst-ridden than a typical Motown release. The scene is revealed to have been essentially about dancing and a shared love of Soul music but there are some interesting distinctions to be found amongst the audience. The late-Sixties post-Mod founders were sharp-dressers for whom fashion was everything, but as the beats got faster in the Seventies, the dress code in some clubs became more casual and the dancing became more athletic. Some interviewees suggest that the Seventies scene provided the ideal weekend escape from the depression of the energy crisis and the three-day week, while one interviewee asserts that the secret and discerning nature of the scene represented one of the few ways that a member of the British working class could experience a feeling of elitism. Chapters entitled The Twisted Wheel, The Catacombs and Blackpool Mecca (The Early Years) tell the stories behind three pioneering Northern Soul clubs. This disc includes performances by Dobie Gray, Bobby Paris, William Bell, Rose Battiste, J J Barnes, Lou Johnson, Bob Relf, Eddie Holman, Pat Lewis, The Montclairs, The Artistics, Billy Butler, Clifford Curry, Mary Love, Evie Sands, Edwin Starr, Robert Banks, Carl Carlton, Doris Troy, Sandi Sheldon, The Olympics, Bobby Sheen, Leon Haywood, Bob Brady, Bunny Sigler, The Five Stairsteps, Barbara Lynn, Otis Leaville, Richard Temple, Dee Dee Sharp, Eddie Parker, Phillip Mitchell, Bobby Hebb, Billy Harner, Jo Armstead, Jay & The Techniques, The Orlons, Laura Lee, Irma Thomas, Barbara Mills and Willie Kendrick. Interviewees include Sandi Sheldon, Tobi Legend, Frank Wilson, Frank Beverly, Yvonne Baker, Brenda Reid, Jimmy Ruffin, Kim Weston, Sidney Barnes, Bob Brady, Gene Chandler, Garnett Mimms, Melvin Davis and Chuck Jackson.

Disc 2: Hallowed Ground (254 min.)

A good portion of this disc is devoted to telling the stories behind several of the scene's important night-clubs from the Seventies. The Torch in Stoke-On-Trent was one of the first Northern Soul clubs to attract a really big crowd (over 1600 at a time) and it is lauded as being a kind of prototype for the bigger clubs that followed. When the local authorities closed the club down, its patrons and DJs moved on to The Top Rank, Hanley. Blackpool Mecca (The Golden Years) details DJ Ian Levine's time at the Blackpool club: his efforts to introduce more funky and contemporary Soul sounds resulted in 'Levine must go' protests being staged by some outraged regulars. Others liked his Miami and New York Soul selections and the club developed a reputation for attracting the coolest and best-dressed dancers. Perhaps the most famous Northern Soul club, The Wigan Casino endeavoured to stick rigidly to the traditional Sixties stomping beat associated with Detroit and Chicago Soul. Other clubs covered include The Ritz in Manchester, Cleethorpes Pier and Cleethorpes Winter Gardens, The Scabby Donkey and (from the Eighties) The Top of the World, Stafford and The 100 Club. Other chapters include The Dancers, The Magazines, The Producers (which features interviews with Billy Jackson, Carl Davis, Frank Wilson, Richard 'Popcorn' Wylie, Bobby Eli, Jerry Ross and Ian Green), Compact Discs and Reissues, Obsessions, On the Radio, A Northern Soul Calendar and How Northern Soul Changed Our Lives. This disc includes performances by The Dramatics, Jimmy Thomas, The Vonettes, Cindy Scott, Jimmy James, The Superiors, The Royal Jokers, Johnny Moore, The Tempos, The United Four, The Apollas, The Carstairs, The Three Degrees, The Blossoms, James Fountain, The Vel-Vets, Mel Britt, Barbara Pennington, Terry Callier, Gene Chandler, P.P. Arnold, Melvin Davis, Tony Middleton, Alfie Davison, Sisters Love, Gil Scott-Heron, Ronnie Walker, The Del Larks, The Velours, Sam Dees, Tommy Ridgley, Gwen Owens, Deon Jackson, The Four Larks, Sidney Barnes, The Dells, Lee Andrews & The Hearts, Freddy Butler, The Tymes, Jackie Day, Diane Lewis, The Dynamics, The Platters and Erma Franklin. Interviewees include Robert Knight, Phillip Mitchell, Phil Perry, Alfie Davison, Jo Armstead, The Carstairs, The Flirtations, Pat Lewis and Carl Carlton.

Disc 3: Sex, Drugs and Northern Soul (251 min.)

This disc acts as a kind of round-up of loose ends. The Fashions covers several bases and notes the distinction between the suits and shirts worn at the Blackpool Mecca and the flared jeans and sports vests worn by the more athletic dancers at the Wigan Casino. The Record Collectors looks at the avid vinyl collectors who are still managing to discover previously unheard/unknown Northern Soul releases to this day. The Journalists features interviews with the writers Tony Cummings, Frank Elson, Bob Killbourn and Vivien Goldman. The Infamous Simon Soussan and The Les Cokell Story are dedicated to the exploits of two well-known characters on the scene and The Feuds details the rivalries that raged between various journalists and DJs. Other chapters include The Bootleggers, The Pills, The Books, The Record Dealers, The TV Programmes, The Influence on Pop Music (featuring Pete Waterman), Record Executives & Crossover Hits, The Tailor-mades (new songs recorded in the Northern Soul style), Sex on the Scene, The Motorcity Story, The Funniest Moments, Northern Soul in the 1980s, Northern Soul in the 1990s, The Mecca Revival Night and The Future. This disc includes performances by Maxine Brown, Sheila Ferguson, The Gems, The Sapphires, Herb Ward, Jimmy Burns, Barbara Mercer, The Sequins, Sandra Phillips, Theresa Lindsay, Kenny Bernard, Marvin Smith, Lou Ragland, Herbert Hunter, Ken Williams, The Shirelles, Lorraine Chandler, Frank Wilson, Barbara Lewis, Richard 'Popcorn' Wylie, The Just Brothers, Robert Knight, Yvonne Vernee, L.J. Johnson, Evelyn Thomas, Tommy Hunt, Jerry Williams, Major Harris, The Volcanos, Ray Pollard, Jackie Ross, Garland Green, Carolyn Crawford, Ronnie McNeir, Frances Nero, Emanuel Lasky, Bobby Hutton, Bettye Lavette, Chuck Jackson, Kim Weston, Little Ann, Brenda Holloway, The Flirtations, Dean Courtney and Tobi Legend. Interviewees include Gwen Owens, The Artistics, Edwin Starr, The Dells, The Dramatics, Evie Sands, Jimmy James, Yvonne Vernee, Bettye Lavette, Emanuel Lasky, The Four Larks, Ronnie Walker, Paul David Wilson and Pat Lewis.

The 1999 VHS release of The Strange World of Northern Soul ended here, but this DVD presentation adds a further three discs worth of bonus material.

Disc 4: Motorcity - Part One (243 min.)

By the mid-Eighties, Ian Levine had progressed from being a young DJ on the Northern Soul scene to being a record producer with a number of million sellers under his belt. Tentative endeavours to record a couple of his favourite former Motown artists in 1987 soon snowballed into the launch of Motorcity Records and an audacious attempt to rekindle the careers of as many former Motown artists as he could find. Over a five-year period Levine recorded over 800 songs by 108 of the artists that had remained in Detroit when Berry Gordy shifted his centre of operations from the Motor City to Los Angeles in 1972. It's an incredible story that features some incredible footage: the 1989 reunion of 60 former Motown artists outside the Hitsville USA building which culminates with many of them decamping to the building's studio for a group sing-a-long, footage of a similar gathering in Los Angeles, music videos, interviews with the artists, footage from the recording sessions, US TV news pieces and TV show performances, etc. Quality of this footage fluctuates somewhat: the majority of the footage is good to excellent but some is very poor. That said, the sound quality is generally good to excellent, or thereabouts, throughout. Several former Motorcity Records employees are also interviewed, giving firsthand accounts of their dealings with the label's artists and their time spent in Detroit. This disc includes performances by The Velvelettes, Earl Van Dyke, The Adantes, Barbara McNair, The Motorcity Allstars, Mary Wells, Kim Weston, Richard 'Popcorn' Wylie, Sylvia Moy, Choker Campbell, Ronnie McNeir, Ivy Jo Hunter, Frances Nero, Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, J.J. Barnes, Billy Preston & Syreeta, The Fantastic Four, Saundra Edwards, Sherri Taylor, Marv Johnson, Linda Griner, Mary Wilson, Barbara Randolph, The Satintones, Three Ounces of Love, The Monitors, Hattie Littles, Frank Wilson, Billy Griffin, G.C. Cameron, The Marvelettes, Herman Griffin, Ortheia Barnes, Frankie Gaye, Beans Bowles & The Swinging Tygers, The Originals, Pat Lewis, The Elgins, James Epps, Joe Stubbs, C.P. Spencer, Carolyn Crawford and Liz Sands. Interviewees include J.J. Barnes, The Elgins, Kim Weston, Pat Lewis, Edwin Starr, Eddie Singleton, Barbara Randolph, Jimmy Ruffin, Chuck Jackson, Yvonne Allen, Brenda Holloway, Wanda Rogers, Louvain Demps, Chris Clark, Bobby Taylor, Gladys Horton, Linda Laurence, The Undisputed Truth, Mary Wells, Marv Johnson, Richard 'Popcorn' Wylie, The Velvelettes, Frank Wilson, Sylvia Moy, Martha Reeves, Hattie Littles and Sylvester Potts.

Disc 5: Motorcity - Part Two (110 min.) and Togetherness (directed by Adi Denney) (111 min.)

Disc 5 opens with the conclusion of the Motorcity Records story. While the label scored some hits in the UK and Europe, and also staged some successful package tours, within five years its operations were no longer financially viable. Various employees and artists mull over what went wrong while also reflecting on and celebrating the positive aspects of the project. It is revealed that there has been a resurgence of interest in the label's recordings in recent years. Also included is an extended version of the Motorcity Story chapter from disc 3. Togetherness is a documentary which covers a Northern Soul Weekender held at the Cala Gran holiday camp in Fleetwood, Lancashire during October 2000. In between the dancing and the record trading two cultures are seen coming face to face on camera when several American Sixties Soul artists perform live on stage in the North of England for the fans who continue to hold them in high esteem. Frank Wilson, clearly moved by the reception he received, likens it to old friends meeting for the first time in many years. This disc includes performances by (Motorcity) J.J. Barnes, Ronnie McNeir, Barbara McNair, The Monitors, The Contours, Ivy Jo Hunter, Mary Wells, Chuck Jackson, Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, The Motorcity Allstars, The Marvelettes, Vee, Bettye Lavette, Louvain Demps & The Adantes, The Elgins and The Lovetones. (Togetherness) Jimmy Thomas, Gene Chandler, Kenny Bernard, J.J. Barnes, Richard Temple, Frank Wilson, Snake Davis & The Suspicions and Bobby Patterson. Interviewees include (Motorcity) Joe Billingsley, Johnny Bristol, Jean Tyrell, Sheree Payne, Linda Lauranceson, Pat Lewis, Sylvia Moy, Edwin Starr, Eddie Singleton, Marv Johnson, Kim Weston, Frankie Gaye, Bettye Lavette, (Togetherness) Frank Wilson, Jimmy Thomas and Snake Davis.

Disc 6: The Making of The Strange World of Northern Soul (directed by Adi Denney) (251 min.)

The Strange World of Northern Soul was initially intended to be a three-hour film that featured thirty artists. This disc tells how the project mushroomed into a twelve-hour film that featured 131 artists. More and more lost Northern Soul performers were found as the film crew zigzagged their way through twenty eight different regions of the USA and the decision was made to keep on filming. When it was realised that tracking down original master tapes and licensing original music tracks would prove to be financially prohibitive, it was decided to simply record new versions of all of the songs that they intended to use. I'm no expert (my personal experience of Northern Soul goes no further than the contents of some choice compilation CDs) but the resulting re-recordings sound remarkably authentic to me. And all of the artists concerned have retained great singing voices. This disc also features fourteen new performances, two chapters that were dropped from the original film (The Mid-week Venues and All Points Bulletin), a look around Sigma Sound Studios, a tribute to Otis Leaville, a variety of unseen interview footage, a tour of a gigantic record store and some bloopers amongst other things. This disc includes performances by Frank Wilson, Gwen Owens, Gene Chandler, The Carstairs, Lee Andrews & The Hearts, Bobby Hebb, Bobby Paris, The Delfonics, Maxine Brown, Yvonne Vernee, Ronnie Walker, Marvin Smith, P.P. Arnold, Melvin Davis, Pat Lewis, The Dramatics, All Points Bulletin, Barbara Lynn, Jackie Ross, Bobby Sheen, Herb Ward, Tobi Lark, Sidney Barnes, Bobby Hutton, Otis Leaville, Jimmy Burns, Barbara Pennington, Bunny Sigler, Kim Weston, Royal Jokers and Mary Love. Interviewees include Bobby Hebb, The Superiors, Jimmy Conwell, Theresa Lindsay, Dee Dee Sharp, The Tymes, Eddie Holman, Bettye Lavette, Herbert Hunter, Melvin Davies, The Dramatics, Don Storball, Pat Lewis, Bob Relf, Otis Leavill, Barbara Lewis, Eddie Singleton, The Dells, Sidney Barnes, Bobby Eli, Weldon Arthur McDougal, The Four Larks, Bunny Sigler, Jerry Ross, Carl Davis, Frank Wilson, Lou Johnson, Bobby Paris and Tommy Ridgley.

This release must surely be one of the most remarkable musical documentaries ever assembled and the programme makers should be justifiably proud of what they have achieved here. It's a quite unique mix of musical, social and cultural history and it's a story that is told by the people who actually lived it. Prior to this film, many of the featured artists were just names on obscure record labels: they hadn't even left behind a publicity photo let alone film footage. Some of them are truly astounded and moved to discover that their songs, songs that they thought the whole world had forgotten, have been bringing pleasure to people on the other side of the world for over thirty years. All of the footage here is special but there are some really magic moments: Frank Wilson performing 'Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)' live on stage at the Togetherness Weekender, Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops leading the Motorcity Allstars through a rousing rendition of 'I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)', Bunny Sigler's extended interview (complete with impromptu performances on an acoustic guitar), etc. The list is endless. The only downer here is the roll call of participants who have sadly passed on since the original film was made in 1999.

Levine's team and Wienerworld have set something of a new benchmark with this release, which should please anybody with an interest in the history of popular music, and its attendant sub-cultures, particularly if they have a liking for Soul music. It's a real shame that every other musical sub-culture out there couldn't be documented in such detail. If this review has left you curious, simply ask yourself whether you stop and listen whenever tracks in the mould of 'I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)' by The Four Tops, 'Band Of Gold' by Freda Payne, 'Stop In The Name Of Love' and 'Come See About Me' by The Supremes, 'Rescue Me' by Fontella Bass, 'This Old Heart Of Mine' by The Isley Brothers and 'I Get The Sweetest Feeling' by Jackie Wilson come on the radio. If you do, chances are that you are ready to enter The Strange World of Northern Soul.

These discs boast really long running times but the picture quality remains largely excellent. The quality of some of the Motorcity footage does dip as noted above but the historical importance attached to this footage justifies its inclusion. The sound quality is pretty much excellent throughout.

These discs are PAL Region 2 and are not intended for playback in the U.S.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Strange World of Northern Soul rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent (see note re portions of the Motorcity footage)
Sound: Excellent (see note re portions of the Motorcity footage)
Supplements: A twenty page booklet which includes articles by Neil Rushton & Ralph Tee and an artist selection option
Packaging: Three keep cases in a hinged card box
Reviewed: August 3, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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