Spirit of soul

In the mid 1960s, a music and dance movement called Northern Soul swept across the Midlands and North of England. Now, 60 years later, Bristol finds itself home to one of the UK’s leading Northern Soul scenes.
Words by Isabelle Blakeney

Northern Soul emerged from the British mod scene as young people began to reject mainstream chart music in search of something unique. The subculture – centred around underground Black American soul music with a heavy beat and fast tempo – quickly developed in some of the UK’s northern cities including Manchester, Blackpool and Stoke-on-Trent. Its distinct dance style, which incorporated karate kicks, flips, spins, and backdrops, made it instantly recognisable.

Today, almost 60 years since its inception, the scene is ever-growing, bringing together dancers and music-lovers from all generations in cities across the country. In July, the BBC even hosted its first ever Northern Soul Prom, adding symphonic touches to the classic songs.

What’s more, this month (23 September) marks the 50th anniversary of the original and most legendary Northern Soul club, Wigan Casino. As fans flock to celebrate the anniversary with a huge soul festival in Blackpool, we take a closer look at the Northern Soul scene in Bristol, which has become home to one of the UK’s leading clubs.

Founded by Bristol-based DJ and dancer Levanna McLean and her mum, Eve, together they run monthly club nights at the Old Market Assembly and fortnightly dance workshops at Attic Bar. Levanna found fame on the internet in 2012 when she started posting videos of her dancing. Since then, she’s performed with Pharrell Williams at the 2014 Brit Awards and has curated Northern Soul compilation albums. Here, we catch up with Levanna to talk all about her love for the soulful sounds and what led her to starting the city’s much-loved club…

Where did you first come across Northern Soul, and what initially attracted you to the scene?
I heard about it from my mum, and when I hit my teens, I started to explore music and came across the YouTube videos. From there, I went to my first all-nighter and was instantly hooked. Northern Soul is a very exciting culture and has so many different things – the records, the dancing, the people, the community – and it’s just so much fun. There’s always music to discover and it just keeps getting better.

Tell us about how you came to found the Bristol Northern Soul Club, what the scene was like in Bristol before the club started, and what you wanted to achieve with the club nights and dance workshops…
We started the Bristol Northern Soul Club because we wanted to put on a good-quality music event with some of the true aspects of the original Northern Soul scene, where people could be moved by the music, the culture and the community. If we were going to do Northern Soul, we wanted it to be in the best way possible, combining authentic style with a fresh outlook. People say they feel a lot of love in the room and are amazed to see a whole room of people dancing. It’s such a good feeling to create that, and each time it seems to get better and better as more people are getting into it. The dance workshops are another way to connect with people interested in Northern Soul, and it’s an opportunity for people to get to know each other. Our main aim is to give people confidence. The workshops are such a success – they are always sold out, and they’re not like lessons, but just about having fun.

The club has been extremely popular with dancers of all ages. Were you surprised by the reception?
We wanted everyone to enjoy the club and dancing is an essential part of Northern Soul, so we hoped to see it happen. Our intention was to create a safe space where people feel free to express themselves. We know that when a few people start dancing, everyone just gets involved. It’s beautiful to see, because the whole club is dancing most of the time, and that is something that doesn’t happen everywhere.

‘It’s a super open-hearted, welcoming environment, and people are just pouring their hearts out. It gives you goose bumps…”
Olive, Northern Soul Club regular

In July, Dave Evison, an original Wigan Casino DJ, came to play at The Old Market Assembly. How much continuity is there between the original scene and now, and how would you say the UK scene has evolved over the years?
The UK Scene has spanned 60 years so there is such a long story of Northern Soul, it’s going to always be there. It’s changed over the years, and is changing even more now due to the internet. Hosting some of the original DJs gives our nights lots of context. The new crowd listens to everything they have to say, and can feel immersed in the history. We have taken the best elements of the original scene and created something modern, which is really attractive to newcomers and we think there is a whole new chapter to come.

Bristol is leading the way in creating a new Northern Soul scene of young people. Why do you think that Bristol has taken to it so much?
Bristol is a busy music city with lots of things going on but we are offering something that didn’t exist and is really fresh – the opportunity for young people to enjoy Northern Soul on their doorstep. We have helped to encourage young people to get involved. We now have at least 10 young DJs playing Northern Soul and lots of great dancers so a strong Bristol scene is really starting to take shape here.

Can you tell us about how you came to perform on stage with Pharrell Williams at the 2014 Brit Awards?
I uploaded a Northern Soul dance video and partly used one of Pharrell Williams’s songs. He heard about it and invited me to join him on stage at the Brits as part of his grand finale. It was a huge highlight for me and my journey with Northern Soul has led to many exciting projects. It’s easy to see once you are into the genre just how much it has influenced things from fashion to music – you can see it everywhere.

“Northern Soul nights are great all round-
one of the best nights in Bristol. And with young and old, it’s what you want to
see- intergenerational…”
James, Northern Soul Club regular

How would you summarise the importance and the meaning of Northern Soul to you?
Northern Soul is a way of life, cliché as that is, it tends to become your identity and what you stand for. The idea of searching out something you wouldn’t normally be presented with, digging deeper, and wanting to understand more about music and yourself, is really what Northern Soul does. It changes the way you think and the way you feel.

Where do you see the UK scene going and what are your hopes for the future of the Bristol Northern Soul Club as you approach its two-year anniversary?
The UK scene will continue to grow, and we think that Bristol may become a destination for it as our club nights are exciting with lots of enthusiasm at our club. We have seen young people get into it and adopt an entire lifestyle around it, which was what happened back in the day. We think young people in Bristol are going to embrace it even more and there will be a very strong contingent who start getting passionate about Northern Soul. It will be very exciting to watch. The Bristol scene is now taking on a life of its own and friendships and groups are forming based on a love of soul music, exactly how it all began in the 60s. This year we were nominated finalists for a best event award and we hope to keep offering high-quality events for people to enjoy.

And finally, can you tell me the top three tracks that you’re spinning right now?
Jason Joshua – Language of Love
Candace Love – Wonderful Night
The Tempests – Someday

“As soon as I found the Bristol scene, it was like the missing puzzle piece. It’s bringing new people, new discussions- this event has really opened it up to a new audience, and that’s really cool to see” – Jake, Northern Soul regular

• Bristol Northern Soul Club runs events on the first Saturday of each month at The Old Market Assembly, with ­dance workshops every other Tuesday at Attic Bar. Stay up to date on Facebook: Bristol Northern Soul Club