The story of Northern Soul is one of practically total immersion, dedication and devotion, where the plain concept of the ‘night out’ was elevated to sacramental dimensions. Where devotees pushed their bodies, their finances and sometimes their minds to brutal and unforgiving extremes. For those who went through that involvement every test of faith or endurance was worth bearing.
– From Northern Soul: An Illustrated History.
Northern Soul was a youth movement that rose to prominence in the 1960s where lesser known black soul music from America made it into the clubs of North England. Fuelled by drugs and dancing, this unique moment in time captured the energy of youth in these areas and set the scene for future club culture.
Elaine Constantine is a photographer and filmmaker whose work often focuses on youth culture. Having grown up listening to her older siblings’ Northern Soul records, Constantine developed a deep love for the music of the movement, becoming a part of the scene herself. Her passion for the subject inspired her to direct her first feature film.
The film tells the tale of two Northern boys whose worlds are changed forever when they discover black American soul music. Rejecting their small town existence working the production line, they dream of going to America in search of the super-rare records that will help them to become the best DJ’s on the Northern Soul scene.
Constantine was inspired by the film to create a book documenting the real experiences of individuals in the Northern Soul scene at the time. Written by herself and Gareth Sweeney these personal accounts are accompanied by a mixture of archive photos and stills from the film.
We talked to Elaine to get further insight into the making of the book, film and her passion for the subject.
THE BOOK IS A COLLECTION OF YOUR PHOTOGRAPHS FROM THE FILM, WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO TAKE PHOTOS AS WELL AS DIRECT?
A percentage of the stills you see in the book are actually the stills grabbed from the film footage. I did get the opportunity to get some stills, mainly when scenes had just finished shooting. It was amazing as the dancers just wouldn’t stop. In some cases I set particular scenes for myself and my assistants to shoot stills as a kind of B camera set up. Between the lot of us we literally had thousands of images. I did a large edit and realised that we had so much good stuff we just had to do a book. At the time I thought it should be a coffee table photo-book but then once we were commissioned by Random House publishing and started putting it together, we felt the need for something meatier with an explanation as to what northern soul was and meant to us.
YOU INTERVIEWED OVER 20 PEOPLE FOR THE BOOK – WHY DID YOU FEEL THEIR STORIES DESERVED FURTHER COVERAGE?
I had interviewed a lot of DJ’s and promoters to use as inspiration for the film script. I had got such fantastic stuff on tape from a few individuals that when the opportunity for the book came along I knew that those folk would be great to go back and re-visit.
Myself, and Gareth Sweeny, the writer, then went on a road trip around the UK and interviewed several more people. We decided we didn’t want to really concentrate on promoters or dj’s this time as we had that covered.
We wanted to get it more from the ordinary kids who had attended the all-nighters. Everyone was into the records, that was a given, but some kids were really into dancing, some were really into drugs. Of course we wanted a warts-an-all representation instead of the clean version you always get when you see documentaries on TV so we went after one of the biggest drug suppliers on the scene, now that was a story.
WHAT WERE SOME OF THE MOST INTERESTING/UNUSUAL ANECDOTES THAT YOU HEARD FROM THE NORTHERN SOUL SCENE?
A speed dealer told us an incredible account of his early life and his trajectory into dealing and cooking up amphetamine. He served time for all of this so was happy to give his name. He described how he was arrested on Christmas day following a car chase in the Welsh mountains. When he was telling the story, if felt like a scene from Get Carter – very bleak indeed.
There were also several stories about teenage lads getting over to America to buy vinyl – going into no-go areas and being welcomed because of their knowledge and passion for soul music.
FROM YOUR RESEARCH AND INTERVIEWS WHAT DO YOU FEEL WERE THE LASTING FEELINGS TOWARDS THE NORTHERN SOUL MOVEMENT – AND WHY WAS THE NORTH OF THE COUNTRY THE RIGHT PLACE FOR SUCH A MOVEMENT TO ORIGINATE?
Northern Soul really happened everywhere but London and it’s a bit of a myth that it only happened in the north-west. The biggest, most long enduring clubs were up there but northern soul was an extension to mod culture and was kicking off everywhere in the late 60’s and early 70’s after mod had died out in London. I think what kept it going and what still keeps it going is the music; the desire to find lost music that still may be lurking somewhere in America. Also, there is such a huge back catalogue of American soul music you can still discover tunes you’ve never heard before and still get excited about it.
WHY DO YOU FEEL THE ERA AND SOCIETY AT THE TIME WERE RIGHT FOR IT TO FLOURISH – WHAT WERE THE CONTRIBUTING FACTORS?
I think there are so many factors but I think the most important one was a working class rejection of spoon-fed culture. Weather it be fashion, music or the way we spent our leisure time.
SOME HAVE SAID THAT NORTHERN SOUL OWES MUCH OF ITS LEGACY TO DRUGS SUCH AS SPEED, DO YOU THINK THE MOVEMENT WOULD HAVE HAD THE SAME SUCCESS WITHOUT THEM?
Speed was one of those things that defined who you were at that time, you were not a person happy to go down to the local pub or club and get hammered and cop off with a local. Speed was about staying sharp and fuelling you to dance all night and generally live a nocturnal life away from home at the weekend. When all the drunken masses piled out of the clubs, they then opened up as northern soul venues where kids where just starting their night out. Speed was the perfect compliment to all of this if you did it in moderation.
THE FILM IS FICTION AND THE BOOK FACT – WERE YOU WORRIED ABOUT THE JUXTAPOSITION – WHY DO THEY WORK TOGETHER?
The book being first hand accounts of the real world makes perfect sense as it will only serve to help folk who are not particularly clued up on what it’s all about get a sense of that world before the film comes out. It’s a very misunderstood culture and hopefully both the film and the book will shed a bit of light onto to Britain’s most non-inclusive subculture.
WHY ARE YOU PERSONALLY PASSIONATE ABOUT NORTHERN SOUL?
Beyond my career and family it’s been my life since a young teenager
WERE YOU A NORTHERN SOUL LOVER GROWING UP? WHAT ARE YOUR FONDEST MEMORIES FROM THAT ERA?
My fondest memories are travelling with best friends to all-nighters, getting a good spot on the dance-floor, copping off with lads who were great dancers, the excitement of getting tapes with new records to listen to, new dance-moves to learn, fresh clothes to change into when you are sweating cobs. The feeling that it was all underground and special, the knowledge that all the normal kids hadn’t got a bloody clew what was going down on a Saturday night.
WHAT LASTING INFLUENCE HAS NORTHERN SOUL HAD – SOME CREDIT IT AS CREATING THE FOUNDATIONS FOR THE SUPERSTAR DJ ERA, WOULD YOU AGREE?
The northern soul scene was the first template for what we know today as the club scene. This was the first time kids actually traveled to hear DJ’s sets. Prior to this things were very much about going to your local dancehall and seeing a local band perform cover-songs at request.
When northern soul kicked in it was the first youth movement that spawned it’s own promoters outside of the breweries and leisure companies; therefore these kids controlled their own music and booked their own DJ’s.
The DJ’s that existed before this period were Jobbing DJ’s who actually worked for leisure companies or breweries and had a box full of chart music and family classics.
WHAT PROJECTS ARE YOU PLANNING TO WORK ON NEXT – IS THIS A SUBJECT THAT YOU PLAN TO REVISIT AT ANY STAGE?
I am in the early stages of producing a northern soul documentary for cinema release. But yes, if I could just work and get paid doing, without compromise of course, what I like doing, I could carry on indefinitely.
Northern Soul is currently playing in cinemas nationwide. Find out more about the book and film on the website.