Paul Mason continues to be much in the news despite having left his job as the Economics Editor at Channel 4. He is an itinerant prophet of post-capitalism and high-profile supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. If his prominence can be attributed to any single issue, then it’s the economic crisis in Europe.
He has proven himself equally adept at conveying the pummelling of calculators in Berlin and the sense of despair in an Athens coffee shop, and he can do the political equations linking the two with a style few can match. In short, he is one of the indispensable voices of our troubled times. But have you ever seen him dance? I have.
Not in person of course. In a 2013 documentary for the BBC, Mason dug into his youthful obsession with northern soul, gamely taking to the dance floor in an attempt to find a lost sense of rhythm. Perhaps youthful obsession is a misleading term: northern soul takes lifetimes hostage. Mason puts in a few cameo appearances in Stuart Cosgrove’s Young Soul Rebels: A Personal History of Northern Soul, which testifies to the length and sharpness of the claws possessed by one of the UK’s most important musical sub-cultures. It should be understood that the emphasis is very much on the personal. The book is heavily autobiographical but that has certain advantages when combined, as it is, with passion and expertise. Cosgrove offers a candid account, with his own experiences and friendships thrown up against a backdrop of changes in British society. You can almost feel the literary strain as he pushes himself in a bid to convey the emotional impact of hearing a great song or visiting a great club for the first time. The results are mixed but usually entertaining.
The names of largely unknown artists glisten on page after page like beads of sweat on the forehead of a twirling dancer but you get the impression they come to Cosgrove without exertion. It all looks as easy as digging into the pocket of your jeans and pulling out a handful of smash but such levels of knowledge were apparently not uncommon. The northern soul scene thrived on the celebration of obscurity and the competitive acquisition of rare records from America. Indeed, there was a sense of status to be gained in going to extreme lengths to acquire music and fans thought nothing of travelling hundreds of miles to visit clubs and legendary all-nighters.
Stuart Cosgrove: Once helped himself to records in the Library of Congress.
When you pledge your allegiances so fiercely it perhaps isn’t surprising when social conventions fall by the wayside. The law of the land is there to be flouted and Cosgrove’s confessions include robbing from the Library of Congress. Led by a Professor of English at George Mason, Cosgrove and a group of students took crates of records from an archive hanger in Baltimore. In one of the crates, Cosgrove found an unpublished manuscript by Arthur Miller. This is an extreme example of the lengths collectors would go to get their hands on rare records. However, the need to dig ever deeper into the junk boxes of vintage-era soul was partly conditioned by the strict limits placed by some adherents on what was acceptable and what was not. For a time, the northern soul scene was riven by disagreements about authenticity.
Authenticity is likewise a prominent theme in Alan Harper’s Waiting for Buddy Guy: Chicago Blues at the Crossroads. The material for the book was collected during visits to Chicago in the late 1970s and early 1980s after which point an earlier project was shelved for reasons that are never explained. Harper’s knowledge of the blues had been massively expanded during his time at university where he had access to an excellent archive of blues recordings. He put this to academic use by writing a dissertation on the subject, also fronting a local radio show he seems convinced no one listened to. By the time he arrived in Chicago, its famous blues scene had shrivelled significantly from the days of Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf and others. A handful of club’s remained, with the work of musicians boosted by Living Blues magazine and Alligator Records. But these were small-time operations and no one was making much money. Harper’s account is easy-going and conversational but his deep knowledge is undisguised. It is an affectionate account of a cultural moment passing into memory.
Many of the people featured, it’s probably fair to surmise, would have done an Eleanor Rigby and taken their name to the grave with them if it weren’t for the likes of Harper and other keen fans. Something of his devotion to the music is conveyed by an appendix which lists all the club gigs he attended on his visits and the musicians they featured – Sunnyland Slim, Hip Linkchain, Mad Dog Lester Davenport to name but a few. The book takes its title from the oft-advertised but rarely seen Buddy Guy, now an international star and by the time of Harper’s visits already an increasingly distant figure on the scene that launched his career. Even at the Checkerboard Lounge, which he part-owned for a time, Guy was elusive and the price of a can of Old Style beer was a more solid indication of his presence than the bill for the night’s performances: If the price increased, so did the chance of Guy appearing as advertised.
Despite some overarching similarities between the books, a couple of distinguishing features between the two music scenes need to be highlighted. First, the Chicago blues scene towards which Harper gravitated was anchored in live performances rather than the DJ sets of northern soul. Recordings were often found to be poor representations of live performances, Alligator being a rare exception, whereas with northern soul everything revolved around the records. Second, the communal relationship and sense of shared identity between northern soul fans were almost as important as the music itself. The primacy of the relationship between the fan and the musician in Harper’s account is largely unchallenged by other relationships. And yet the similarities continue to assert themselves. Like Cosgrove, Scottish-born Harper was eventually drawn to America after an apprenticeship of infatuation with its music. When he writes, ‘finding out about this largely forgotten and increasingly obscure music satisfied some urge I had to get to the bottom of things’, he could easily be talking as a northern soul rather than blues obsessive.
If both books address questions of authenticity in relation to music, that doesn’t mean the stakes are the same. Ian Levine, one of the best-known DJs on the scene, became the focal point of disputes about the definition of northern soul because he was willing to play new releases and disco at the Blackpool Mecca, much to the annoyance of those who favoured the 1960s stompers played at Wigan Casino. In principle, Cosgrove supported the move to ‘a more modern rare soul policy’ even if in practice the results were not exactly stimulating. The disagreements had the potential to get heated but it’s not clear that they contained within them echoes of any great social issues. The transformations on the Chicago blues scene, however, were closely bound up with racial anxieties. On the surface, the issues also seemed to be about musical form. Harper writes: ‘A lot of people like the blues because it was old. Just as certain songs were standard fare, so were certain phrases and certain sounds, while the primal feel and emotional connection that so engaged its devotees had to be regarded, surely, as non-negotiable.’ These were essentially the expectations of a typical white audience and their engagement with the music limited its evolution as their economic importance on the Chicago scene came to dominate. Harper found ‘this distorted view tended to isolate the blues from its musical hinterland, like a specimen in a jar’.
The harmonica player Carey Bell preferred white-owned clubs on the Northside because they not only paid better but because he believed the audiences were more knowledgeable and appreciative of the music. His son, Lurrie, however, had an ideological attachment to playing in black clubs but these had come to consider blues a diminished musical form in the age of soul, funk and disco, further compounding the importance of white tastes. Harper argues this attempt to capture a definitive form of blues was not only restrictive but ahistorical. Even Robert Johnson’s repertoire included ragtime and gospel songs but it was the early record producers who started the process of isolation by insisting performers discard other forms and record straight blues songs. The prohibitive impulse also extended from the music itself to the performers.
In conversation with a white, liberal intellectual, Harper faced an accusatory implication because he suggested a white player was one of the best in Chicago. This was the other side of the authenticity debate, where even the supreme skills of Eric Clapton didn’t quite make the cut against your run-of-the-mill performer from the Mississippi Delta or Chicago’s Southside. Like proclaiming the greatness of the white basketball player Larry Bird during the 1980s, this was precarious territory and everyone’s motives were suspect. But then, Clapton himself, at certain points during the 1960s, might have whacked you with his acoustic six-string if you’d suggested he was a better player than Robert Johnson. As Harper puts it: ‘The implications were at once racial, cultural, historical, geographical, and, for all I knew, culinary, but more important, this was a view that seemed to encourage a distinction between the musician’s credentials and the music itself.’ He reserves strong words for fanatical blues purists who considered only certain forms legitimate, promoting a ‘specious distinction’ and ‘imposing a kind of tyranny of white taste’. These attitudes crossed the Atlantic, possibly even had their roots here. European promoters wanted bands with black musicians, believing their punters had an iron-clad idea about what an outfit from the urban blues capital of American should look like.
These two books are products of obsession and it’s hard to talk about musical obsession without laying your hands a little on the concepts of religion. There were catechisms, initiation rituals and publications that served the same purpose as the Gospels. Clubs like B.L.U.E.S, Kingston Mines, the Checkerboard Lounge, the Twisted Wheel, the Golden Torch, Wigan Casino and Blackpool Mecca were places of spiritual uplift, occasionally even transcendence. Even the Allanton Miners’ Club near Shotts could be transformed from the mundane. Cosgrove frames northern soul as a variety of fundamentalism, a mentality he had been conditioned to adopt by a church upbringing led by his mother and his father’s socialism. As he recalls: ‘This was in every respect the Devil’s music, and I had travelled hundreds of miles from home to sip with the deranged serpents that slithered so gracefully on the floors.’
One theme not explored in sufficient detail in either account is why these forms of music and their conjuring of America should take on quite such an emotional significance for specifically white youths in Britain. Without doubt the music must have spoken to their own cultural and socio-economic experience but if the reaction was in some way practical it must also have been imaginative as well. It might be a simple as saying poverty in Detroit or Chicago was viewed as being more romantic than its equivalent in Stoke or Manchester, even if that wasn’t the case. In this sense it’s important to note that Cosgrove and Harper would have been unusual in travelling to America in the 1970s and 1980s. For most British music fans, Detroit or Chicago would have been as unknown as Heaven or Hell. Indeed, the potential for music to act as an unreliable guide to complex realities is revealed in Cosgrove’s surprise at encountering members of the black middle class as a visiting student at Howard University in Washington D.C.
Young Soul Rebels ends, not inappropriately, on a high as he details the ways social media and YouTube have allowed northern soul to rise again. While Cosgrove was still at Channel 4 he had a meeting with two young graduates looking for a grant to promote their digital music platform Mixcloud which would go on to become a ‘favoured home’ for northern soul fans. The shift from a predominantly industrial economy to a digital one seems to have had the reverse effect, however, on the blues clubs of Chicago, further diminishing a scene that was already passing its peak when Harper first encountered it. What is left has been co-opted by the tourism industry and that spells the end of the road for any self-respecting music scene.