Graded on a Curve: Various Artists,
The Best Northern Soul All-Nighter… Ever!

England’s Northern Soul movement—which exploded at about the same time the Mod Scene was waning—was based on an odd but simple aesthetic: Let’s all go to one of the many soul clubs to be found in the Midlands and the North of England (Wigan Casino, Manchester’s Twisted Wheel, or the Golden Torch in Turnstall, to name a few) to take lots of amphetamines and dance all night to the sounds of obscure American soul records—the more obscure the better.

The scene boasted a set of rules every bit as codified as those of Mod, and inherited Mod’s fashion sense and affection for leapers. But Northern Soul was far more America-looking. And Northern Soul’s identification with black American culture (although plenty of white artists made the soul cut too) went beyond the musical to the political; it was no accident that the economically downtrodden youth of depressed Northern England adopted the clenched fist of the Black Power salute as a symbol to be found on many of the patches worn with pride by the attendees at all-nighters from The Twisted Wheel—which was ultimately shuttered after being declared a drug haven—to the Catacombs in lovely Wolverhampton.

But what made Northern Soul a true record geek’s Mecca was its emphasis on seeking out and popularizing (for the larger part) rare mid-1960s 45s by relatively little known American soul artists recording on small regional labels such as Detroit’s Ric-Tic Records. Its adherents’ fanatical quest for the obscure bordered on mania. Have you heard The Fascinations’ cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Girls Are Out to Get You”? You haven’t? Well I just bought it at Dave Godin’s record shop in Covent Garden! Let’s dash off to my house and spin it!

That’s the great thing about 2001’s two-disc The Best Northern Soul All-Nighter… Ever! Because most of its 60 tracks are obscure—there are exceptions, of course—you get to experience the same thrill of the new that the kids at the Wigan Casino or Blackpool Mecca got to experience those many years ago. The more electrifying tracks you hear by such artists as Major Lance (“You Don’t Want Me No More”), Shirley Ellis (“Soul Time”), Bobby Sheen (“Dr. Love”), and Wynder K. Frog (“Green Door”), the more you’ll want to hear. And before you know it fascination has mushroomed into addiction.

I have my Northern Soul favorites—“There’s a Ghost in My House” by R. Dean Taylor (the Canadian who gave us “Indiana Wants Me”) is so cool Mark E. Smith of The Fall saw fit to cover it, while 211 Contours’ “Just a Little Misunderstanding” is a stone cold soul classic. Rose Batiste’s “Hit and Run” is a girl group thrill, while J.J. Barnes’ “Our Love Is in the Pocket” will leave you delirious. As for P.P. Arnold’s “Everything Gonna Be Alright” it’s stately and magnificent, while Just Brothers’ “Sliced Tomatoes” cuts a groove so deep you can dance through it. And Ellis’ “Soul Time” is a wake-up call for the ages.

Equally wonderful are the relatively obscure cuts by artists you know. “Break Out” by Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels features a wiry guitar and great punk vocals, while “Here I Go Again” by Archie Bell and the Drells is sheer soul loveliness. And who would have expected Frankie Valli to appear on a soul compilation? Yet his “You’re Ready Now” is pure dance floor brilliance, as is the Ramsey Lewis Trio instrumental “Wade in the Water.” As for Dobie Gray’s “Out on the Floor,” it’s a dance club call to arms if ever I’ve heard one.

America had Disco; England had Northern Soul. They’re both great, but I wish Northern Soul had found its way here. The explosion of American soul music in the mid-1960s left lots of great songs unheard, and it’s strange indeed that it took a kind of British Invasion in reverse (via this excellent compilation, and others) to turn me onto its vastness. If you love soul music, The Best Northern Soul All-Nighters… Ever! could just be your gateway to a New World of very, very cool sounds.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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