What’s Going On? - Soul at the Crossroads
Prologue — hey wha’s happenin?
Originally titled Soul Wars — a New Hope, but I try not to be too provocative. OK, so I don’t try that hard, but it’s what elevates Art above politics.
Has anybody, DJ or otherwise, recently thought twice before playing a record, whether it’s actually any good. Whether they recognise a record because they like it, or like it because they recognise it, and recognise it because they’ve heard it thousands of times over many years, everywhere they go.
Something similar happened in the mid-nineties when lots of people realised for the first time just how many Beatles songs we all know and, spurred on by unprecedented bombardment by the combined media, translated quantity to quality.
Alternatively, whether somebody likes a record because the only other people who like it are like- minded people who are ‘ in the know.’ Does anybody suspect one of their friends of secretly buying something on CD they couldn’t find or afford on CD, but don’t have access to a lie detector?
As Soul Fans, we know too well the potential for people to listen to rubbish, and it’s naÃ¯ve and arrogant of us to assume we’re immune from this. Like any art form, Soul Music gets better before it gets worse, but it does get worse, drastically worse.
Nobody sensible thinks the best Soul Music is the stuff everybody knows: Commitments/ Blues Brothers type stuff, Stevie Wonder, Barry White, and the secret is to know when to stop. I like to think I go far enough before it starts to get rubbishy, but I would wouldn’t I and this is where it becomes important to listen to other Music to contextualise within an ever increasing framework, encompassing Northern Soul ( NS ), Rare Soul, Soul, Black Music, Music, the Arts.
An understanding of Art in general can only enhance an appreciation of Soul Music and how can anyone possibly know Soul is the greatest Music on earth, which it is, if it’s all they ever listen to?
This article began life as an update on the Soul Scene in the North East ( NE ) but grew into a review of where the scene is and where it might be going. In fact it grew and grew and grew and I apologise for that, but the problems of the Soul Scene are not small.
On another site, BOF ( Boring Old …( doggawn it baby you guessed it )) has just said I Ramble On ( Led Zeppelin ) after a couple of pages about Danny Bakers offering on the Beeb about Classic Rock albums, so I’ve stopped tweaking and adding to it and asked my clever son to upload it forthwith.
It takes a good hour to read so I’ve divided it into sections for ease of reference, and anybody who doesn’t recognise them should maybe consider country and western.
Those sufficiently interested to learn or contribute will relish it, and the rest will probably have stopped reading by now; but beware, if the cap fits you may find yourself wearing it, and it may prove uncomfortable reading for some.
Although I’ve listened to stupid amounts of Soul over the last 20 years, I’ve also listened to stupid amounts of Jazz, Reggae, Blues, Rock and lots of other things too. I felt certain some people in the NE, only listening to Soul, or Soul and Jazz, would have forged ahead. On the contrary, we were getting away with better music 20 years ago and it’s hard to think what people have been doing, beyond trying to figure out what the latest crossover and R+B are, and hanging on to, and in some cases reverting back to vinyl as an excuse for everything. But why are so many soul fans looking for excuses not to go places that play quality Soul?
In the late eighties the future of the Soul Scene seemed bright, particularly from the barren wasteland of the NE. While the Weekenders weren’t based in the region, it was no secret that this is where they emanated from and, if Alex had no credibility among Soul Fans, others among us did. Alex had all but lost interest in Soul, thinking Jazz more arty and intellectual, even though his idea of Jazz didn’t exceed Grover Washington Jnr and the Jazz Juice albums. When he needed to become a Soul Fan again to get his slot at Caister, he decided Jazz had been exhausted by the Jazz Juice and other compilation albums. A hundred years of Jazz reduced to a dozen or so albums compiled by a very young Soul Boy who didn’t know his Sonny Rollins from his Rosemary Clooney, and now plays dance through the night on Radio 2.
It fell to me to tell Alex what to play and he would refer to me as his Soul Man if a London DJ or an American artist rang him while I was there. Once I arrived at his house only to be told he’d had Leon on the phone, like this was normal. OK, who’s Leon I asked. Baby you know you hot today, you guessed it again.
I thought of him as my post disco and smooth Jazz man. He eventually got the weekender he always wanted, and now every region in the country, bar the NE, seems to have one.
There are very few people left in the NE who remember a brilliant Soul Night in the region. Consequently, it seems people either don’t think it’s possible or don’t actually want one; unless of course it’s theirs.
With the exception of Frankie and me, the region has never really had anybody playing records they haven’t first heard a ‘ proper ‘ DJ play — ie one from somewhere else. Alex used to lay claim to the Jackson Sisters, which is embarrassing enough, but he first heard it played by Max Reese, tucked away in Cambridge. There seems to be an assumption in the NE that people from other regions will always play better music than someone from the NE.
My old mate Colin Johnson is enjoying something of a rep these days, occasionally even guesting outside the region. I recently asked him what he plays and he admitted - all the records I introduced him to 20 years ago. Sounds good to me I said, though I have always avoided them. In fact everybody playing Modern Soul in the NE seems like they are desperately trying to play the same records I was desperately trying not to play 20 years ago.
I’m somewhat surprised by some of the people who have emerged as major players, seemingly because they have decided they are, so just behave as if they are, without ever seeing a live band, reading anything or buying a record without first hearing an established DJ play it.
The NE ( and probably beyond ) needed a bomb up its proverbial with some ( big ) heads banged together, so if they don’t want to listen to what a Good Soul Night can entail in the second decade of the third millennium, they can read about it.
What’s Happening Brother? — What’s been shakin up and down the line?
I first noticed the NE Soul Scene was in crisis going to see the various live acts we’ve had over recent years including James Brown, George Clinton, Maceo Parker, Terry Callier, Irma Thomas, Mavis Staples, Azymuth, Ornette Coleman, Femi Kuti, Swing out Sister, Larry Garner, Chilites, Mary Wilson, Michael Roach, Tavares, Temptations, Four Tops, Charles Walker, Fatback Band, Jack DeJohnette, Polar Bear, Eugene Hideaway ( or as we say up here Haddaway ) Bridges and Leon Ware. With odd exceptions, Soul Fans generally make excuses and stay away. Maybe they’re all going to see hip hop acts, though I understand CDs have now overtaken vinyl for mixing.
Incidentally, the wider musical community isn’t doing much better. A friend of mine is the drummer in a top Prog-Metal revival band and also teaches drums. His idols are Miles Davis and Frank Zappa but he didn’t go to see Jack DeJonette, legendary drummer who’s played with just about every Jazz Great of the last 50 years, including Miles ( on Bitches Brew no less ), supported by Polar Bear featuring prominent British Jazz drummer Seb Roachford, ( also of Acoustic Ladyland and Basquiat Strings ); nor Frank’s son Dweezil, who I’ve seen 3 times in as many years.
It will be interesting to see if he makes Trilok Gurtu, another legendary Jazz/ Jazz Rock/ World Music drummer due in the region.
There’s a plethora of Soul Nights in the NE these days; too many in my view, though I understand the North West has dozens. A review of the ones I’m familiar with might be useful. Anybody not from the NE might want to skip the next few pages although I also discuss some nights in the North-West and Yorkshire and, in any case, I imagine the overall picture is similar everywhere.
Apologies to any ns nights on Teeside or North of the Tyne; I know at least one of the Newcastle nights boasts a vinyl only policy but I don’t know if the music is better because of this.
The first thing to say is there aren’t any good Soul Nights in the NE, which isn’t to say you will never hear any quality Soul or enjoy a good night out.
When I became active again after 10 years in West Yorkshire, loads of ill health, kids etc, several people, including Frankie Lucas, Colin Johnson and Mickey Powney told me the quarterly Seasons of Soul near Newcastle was the best night in the region.
I was therefore a little surprised when it was more Walkers/ MacMillans than Fleetwood, Morecambe, early Southport Soul Room - something of a retrograde step in my view; indeed, no less so than the ns nights. Music policy is sublime to ridiculous: Modern, Northern, 60s, 70s, 80s, Jazz, Jazz Funk, Funk, disco, pop soul, Latin and new releases from regulars Deano and Dave Baker and guests culled from night clubs and wine bars in Newcastle and around the NE; which may be why so many Soul Fans seem to have stopped going.
I recently had an exchange of emails with someone who questioned how you can have a Soul Night and not play people like Marvin, Curtis, Teddy and Al Green. I think s/he missed Modern Soul which of course preferred Leon Ware, Leroy Hutson, Anthony White and Sidney Joe Qualls, and I let it hang that we got Womack, War and Wilson ( Jackie ). Perhaps I spoilt him at the Manor House.
The Northern/ Modern scenes sometimes get a little carried away with this theme. When Leroy Hutson did Fleetwood, Alex made one of his all time, world famous gaffes when he claimed Curtis Mayfield was nothing without Leroy Hutson. Apart from the amazing music by the Impressions before Hutsons career had even begun, and apart from them not really contributing to each others music, whether as singers, songwriters, musicians or producers; Hutson made enough extraordinary music to fill up a CD, but Curtis Mayfield was one of the greatest human beings who ever lived.
Interestingly, Hutson was with the Impressions for 2 ½ years and only made 1 album with them, so will have spent a lot of time singing Curtis stuff, which must be the best education imaginable in song-based music.
On its release circa 75, a review of JJ Barnes Groovesville Masters said the only difference between JJ and Marvin Gaye was that Marvin was probably a multi- millionaire. Apart from Marvin being somewhat obsessed by the taxman, and most of his wealth going up his nose, JJ made a handful of great records while Marvin was one of the greatest artists of any art form from any period. Berry Gordy described him as the truest genius he ever met, and he met a few.
Hoochie Coochie have put on some decent and half decent acts and play some half decent music. When there’s no band on, it’s middle aged men trying to pick up middle aged women to night club music which was upfront in the eighties but we don’t yet know whether it will have any historic resonance, and I for one am doubtful.
Modern Soul was at the level of I’m so Happy and Benny Troy and, while I’m happy to take credit for introducing most classic Modern Soul records to the North East, along with Frankie and Ron Edmundson, these were definitely nothing to do with me. Having said that, prior to Leon Ware, we got Cory Blake and Denise LaSalle Here I am Again, so things may be looking up.
His monthly Soul on Sundays is a noble venture but he seems to have already succumbed to the allure of those who peddle ns, of whichever denomination ( including Rhetfords version of Just Soul ), as the ultimate in Soul Music, which is not only ridiculous, but preposterous.
I fear it will end up just more half-heartedness, more mediocrity, more politics, more vinyl for the sake of it. The cynic in me thinks perhaps he’s been seduced into believing his 20,000 vinyl records won’t come to nothing.
It’s interesting to note that he had Charles Walker, prior to Leon Ware the most cred act from the point of view of Soul, give or take Candi Staton ( depending on the time and place ), but none of his purist connoisseurs made it, and only Deano made Leon Ware.
Furthermore, he’s advertising the venue as part of the Sage Jazz Festival and I shudder to think what modern day ( Jazz, Funk and ) Soul people play to a Jazz crowd. Like pop people playing to a Soul Crowd I imagine.
I have said before that the Swallow in Gateshead is the best of the nostalgia nights but, as with elsewhere, I don’t see the point in bringing in guests like Colin Curtis and Kev Roberts just to play the same records as the resident DJs. That said, all credit to the promoter for having the courage and vision to put on CC.
Sister Andrea told me she’s doing a Jazz Funk Night there but I hope she recognises the seventies legacy and reflects this in the DJs. Frankie used to DJ when it was a 2 room event but, while I know he was at a previous one, he wasn’t DJing and, in any case, Frankie held on to ns longer than most.
For the first time in ages, Durham has its own Soul Night, at the Gala Theatre. Chocker full of people, some of whom used to travel to Wigan, but would never dream of making the journey to Aycliffe or Easington on a Saturday night now.
Some hadn’t seen each other for 35 years which made for a good night out, but the minority of serious punters weren’t impressed; once they get into Motown they’ll never get back out, I commented, and the next one was advertised as a Motown and club night, which ranged from Epitome of Sound to Billy Ocean — yes that Billy Ocean — via the Isleys worst ever record — Disco Nights - all in shiny, shiny vinyl and leaning heavily toward the latter.
The promoter, who isn’t from the region, took the view that a not very good soul night is preferable to no soul night, while I think the last thing the NE needs is another poor night.
Even more alarmingly, s/he seemed to think that no Soul Night is preferable to a brilliant Soul Night with a little room playing CDs.
To my knowledge, Terry Jones is still bringing his Village Soul to Sunderland though I can’t find any trace of it anywhere. It’s 6 years since I’ve been and I’m told it’s not what it used to be, which wasn’t that remarkable anyway. Sunderland has always been something of a mystery to anyone outside its catchment area who isn’t a season ticket holder.
The Big Club at Aycliffe is a popular same 200 records night with some really dodgy stuff thrown in for bad measure. It’s a most enjoyable night out with many visitors who should know better. A group of girls go every time and set up their own buffet and lose their shoes to dance around their handbags to the Motown stuff. Haven’t been since they played Judy Street.
Never been to the Hydra Soul Night cos the satnav closes down as you enter Aycliffe and you end up in an industrial estate, which I’m told is very near. Apparently it’s a fair night but strictly the Same Old Thing.
The Rafa Club in Aycliffe claims, with some justification, to be the most progressive ns night in the region. Ran by the Shoulder brothers, it boasts local hero Paul Acklee who seems to have no shortage of grannies to flog to finance his record box.
I’m long in the tooth for this sort of thing, and I don’t hear it as the future of the Soul Scene any more than stompy Wigan classics or 80s nightclub music. It’s a nice little room, friendly with cheap booze, the music isn’t bad but it isn’t great, at least it’s different. A bit like going to a weekender and finding only one small room with a minority interest.
Nevertheless, the NE is certainly lucky to have it and it probably deserves your support more than any other ns night, not least cos Paul Shoulder is one of the most genuine lads on the scene.
Incidentally, I don’t hear late 80s Modern Soul as the future either, though I think people need to catch up with that, and probably New York Disco and 70s Jazz Funk too, before we will get a Soul Scene for C21st.
The Cricket Club in Bishop, formerly the Coachman in Darlington, and maybe now the Wild West Club in Leeholme, offers an alternative approach to forwarding the cause of rare Soul. Been a few times but never for long and I’m not really sure what it is. Its manifesto seems to be that a £5 record can be as good as a £5,000 record which strikes me as stating the bleedin obvious and thinly veiled politics. You won’t hear anything terrible but you’re not likely to hear anything amazing either.
The value of vinyl, whether expensive or inexpensive, is a minuscule part of Soul Music discourse which most Soul Fans neither know nor care about and most who do use as a stick to beat us with.
I have always thought that, while there are many good commercial Soul records and many good rare Soul records, broadly speaking, the overwhelming, vast majority of Great Soul Music falls somewhere between these two poles, and this is the stuff which is largely ignored by successive generations of DJs on the scene.
I was at one night and somebody who’s into such things was telling me this record is 4K and that one’s 2K and another is 3K when Richard Temple came on, one of the best and most important NS discoveries ever, which I can’t believe you don’t hear at every revival night, and blasted them back into oblivion.
Back at the Bridge at Catterick seems to have gone quiet, despite having Mike Charlton and Gaz Simons. A victim of its own success, the venue and Music was OK but it claimed a Just Soul policy and delivered a mix of northern and modern. The first one I went to was full to the rafters of people, most of whom missed mid-seventies Northern and late eighties Modern and seemed intent on convincing themselves they were part of something really special. Then Soul Sam turned up and played Joy and Pain and Benson Love x Love. I often wonder whether people realise there are many great records that have never been played on the Northern, Modern or Jazz Funk scenes; lots and lots and lots of them.
Worst of the dinosaur nights is the Engineers Club in Darlington which I haven’t been to since Judy Street and blame for me not being able to go back to the Big Club on the same principle.
Chatting with Big Ron Edmundson and we were saying how this was when we stopped listening to ns first time round. For me, if James Coit was the final nail in the coffin, Judy Street was the longest and the sharpest.
The Grange in Darlington has a Black Music policy on Saturday nights rotating Carlo, Ewan Renton, Massey, Paul Harrison and others. It’s more night club/ wine bar and the model seems to be Seasons of Soul but with a mostly regular Darlington crowd.
Easington has the longest running night in the region with an impressive large room playing safe northern and a modern type room which seems like an afterthought and hasn’t really taken off. Can’t knock stuff like Flowers and Cory Blake, even if we were chasing them over 20 years ago, but Love don’t you go through no changes makes me think this sort of level can’t be maintained.
It also hosts Jazz Funk/ 70s nights and the last one I went to offered an erratic mix of Edwin Starr Back Street, ns, disco, jazz funk and modern. Sister Sledge, Cashing In AGAIN? My Baby’s got Esp — not something I would play but a fair record if it’s the worst in your box, if it’s the best you’re in trouble.
This was the level of Modern Soul in the NE in the mid- eighties when myself, Frankie and Ronnie arrived with our backgrounds in Golden Age NS, Seventies Jazz Funk, Deep Soul and Just Soul and took it up a whole heap of notches, and this was when I decided to do another Manor House, focusing on Classic Modern Soul, something I’d hitherto avoided.
All of the Soul Nights are essentially the same, whether they play the same 200 records, the next 200 or the 200 after that, they’re all predominantly preoccupied with obscure plastic. I suppose, for anybody who thinks that’s all there is, it doesn’t really matter where they go to hear them.
People who don’t just want the same stuff, but things they don’t know or at least aren’t sick to death of, won’t come because they assume it’s just going to be more of the usual. Like someone I met recently who went to Italy to see John Gary Williams, Syl Johnson and Otis Clay, but doesn’t know vinylism and crossover exist.
Despite its shortcomings I am always first to defend the Soul Scene to its critics. Like Phil Collins allowing himself to slag off progrock because he was a part of it ( and not because after nearly 40 years and godzillions of units shifted, discerning listeners still think of Gabriel as THE singer in Genesis ), I feel justified in offering constructive criticism to the Soul Scene because I think we should improve rather than abandon it and I think these critics need some grasp of NS and Modern to be a complete Soul Fan.
The most encouraging thing I can say about the NE is that the North West and Yorkshire ain’t doing much better.
Lowton is much like Easington but with Richard and Ginger playing the same records as Dom, Rick and Barry at Easington. The Modern Room is more adventurous than Easington, if unremarkable, but also poorly attended.
Blackburn hosted a 3 room all-dayer over the August Bank Holiday which seemed to all but kill off the Modern Room, at least while I was there. Or was it the music? Tried in vain to get there in time for Glynn Thornhill, the only type of Soul DJ who excite me these days, and if he can play stuff even long term partner and cohabitee Queen Ethna doesn’t know, he must be pushing boundaries. On my previous visit, there was a wedding in the hotel and I thought I’d crashed it by mistake when I went in the northern room. Others agreed, it seemed much better this time with stuff like the Montclairs — always a better record than the Carstairs in my view — Esther Philips What a Difference, Cameo Find my Way and the Pointer Sisters, which I’m amazed doesn’t get more spins on the nostalgia scene. Perhaps they are thinking more about what they play.
Nolan Porter did a PA which reminded me why I generally avoid 1 or 2 hit wonders who can’t really sing any more. The third room was the most tantalising, threatening an eclectic mixture from DJs like Curtis and Dean Johnson, who will always keep you guessing, but the equipment crashed during both their sets. I enjoyed Grooving on a New York Afternoon more than I ever did at the time, but sorry Dean, I still consider it second rate Jazz.
I have mentioned the It’s Just Soul nights at Rhetford before but will only add a couple of things here. Before the journey home, my wife and I retired to the lounge for coffee but I kept popping in to hear what was being played. After one pop, Freddies Dead was on and I said - it’s brilliant but I had always played another track off the album. When it was followed by No Thing on Me I said — OK I’m convinced. However, in general it’s like Eric Morecambe said, they play all the right artists but not necessarily the right records; a bit like Andy Peebles.
I have thought for over twenty years, this was the way to go, but not from the perspective of NS ideology. Vinylism has no place anywhere but there isn’t even the semblance of an excuse here, and you need people who’ve been doing Just Soul all along, not people who are basically into Rare Soul, picking up bits along the way. Anybody who was doing NS in the seventies will remember hearing all sorts which would not nowadays be thought of as NS.
The Just Soul part of Rhetford is hegemonic with the night mostly encompassing bog-standard Modern, some dreadful stuff I took to be crossover and Just Soul, with the odd exception, either clumsily selected, more pointless obscurity or at the level of Radio 2. Like most Soul Nights you’ll probably get half a dozen records that excite you, admittedly a different six to the usual ones, but it’s hardly the breakthrough they and their followers claim. It’s perhaps best summed up by the scene in Diamonds are Forever, when Bond shoots the wrong cat.
My only other excursion outside the NE last year was to the monthly night in Keighley. I had planned to go to the RAFA but the missus ran off with the satnav and I figured it would be quicker to get to West Yorkshire than to a night in neighbouring Aycliffe I’d been to half a dozen times recently.
I was pleasantly surprised. Although they have a vinyl only policy, it doesn’t seem to be just an excuse for playing not very good music. The Modern Room was closed due to alterations which I think improved the mix and, after about an hour, I was ready for more familiarity. Presumably this was heralded by House for Sale but I decided - when in Keighley - and went for a curry before my journey home.