Soul Civil War

This feature originally appeared in Record Mirror, November 20th 1971. 

Soul Civil War!
…the feud that rages between North and South
Tony Cummings reports

The pop Press have suddenly wakened up to a situation that the specialist soul Press has been carrying on about for a long time now, that in the North clubs pack ’em in playing soul.

As explained in a previous ‘Echoes’, this doesn’t knock out all Southern soul fans, the media may think the North is heavily into soul but a cynicism has crept into many a Southern soul fan’s assessment of their boogalooing Northern counterparts –

‘So a few dedicated soul freaks worry, not without cause, about the deceitful impression given to the massed pop -buyers of what soul is. Oddly enough, the type was originated and is now perpetuated, not by the accursed media, but by a portion of soul fans’ (Record Mirror, 11th September 1971).

Do Northerners, or their self-confessed champions agree that their insistence on keeping the discotheques dancing to a never-ending thumpety thump Detroit beat is harming soul or that their liking for old stereotyped trivia has little to do with the passion, the beauty, or the involvement of soul? You must be joking! –

‘Record Mirror also carried an article relating to the “up-North soul scene” which, although somewhat ambiguously written, amounted to an attack on the Northern scene in general, condemning it for shallowness and lack of true soul depth! In short, the article was a scurrilous blasphemy and its tone of dogmatic pedantry and doctrinaire authoritarianism was truly in keeping with the times in which we live’ (Blues & Soul, 68).

When ‘Black Hits – No Soul’ appeared I expected, and got, a shoal of criticism. Much was irrelevant – all reviewing is of course a statement of personal opinion, such an obvious fact should not need clarification – but a little was well founded – well, it was a long time since I’d journeyed ‘up North’.

I knew the records played but possibly, just possibly, the music needed to be heard in the environment of a Northern club before the hidden depths of musical magic spilled out from the amplifiers blasting ‘In Orbit‘ or ‘Darkest Days‘. So I, Clive Richardson and Roy Stanton of Shout, Lou McDermott of the London Blues Society and Mike Booth of Record Centre, hired a coach, filled it with R&B fans and set forth to the Blackpool Mecca. And the friendly, soulful North?

‘I don’t care how far you’ve bloody well come, you can’t come in with long hair like that’.

The speaker was one Mr Pye, the tight-lipped, dinner-jacketed Manager of the Blackpool Mecca. Mr Pye showed an amazing determination to re-enforce the possible prejudice and derision felt by the coach load towards the Northern soul scene without anyone getting near a Ric-Tic rarity.

Mecca establishments have the ties and suits hang-up so restrictions were checked out earlier on the ‘phone – but hair length had mysteriously escaped mention. In an angry editorial in the latest Shout, Roy Stanton questions the morality of a situation where an establishment rejects long-hairs but turns a blind eye to pill pushers, who ‘despite their Edwardian outlook capitalise so obscenely on their younger generation’ and even hints at more sinister reasons for the snub. But the situation for Blackpool soul fans is less involved with such basic moral issues. To hear soul you must restrict your appearance to a carefully defined pattern and when entry is obtained, expect and get a similar restriction on the music played.

These restrictions were obvious to Mike Booth, the only one from the party who entered Mecca’s hallowed gates, though ‘You’re not with those London troublemakers?’ from the man at the door hardly spelt welcome. He was pleased that at least a few non-mid-period Detroit records were played, Paul Humphries and The Cool Aid Chemists and instrumental James Brown, and the deejay was a very nice guy, indeed he pleaded with the management in vain for the lifting of the hair-bar, but monotony could not be avoided as record after record was played with the arrangement, mood and style lifted exactly from the previous one.

Mike met the eccentrics that evening, a guy who has Ric Tic tattooed on his arm, guys who service the deejays with totally unknown mediocrity (do they realise what a come down it is to London fans when they eventually get hold of Mel Hueston’s ‘Searchin’‘ and find out how mundane it is?) and guys who dismiss every slow record as non-soulful. Mike’s confusion on coming back to the coach is understandable: “the Mecca was like being in a crowd of lunatics all telling you how mad you are.” The saddest part though of the North vs. South affair happened before the turning away of the multitude.

For several meandering columns Blues and Soul’s Dave Godin wrote with unbelievable optimism about how the Ric-Tic groovers are helping service the cause of soul. They are, in fact, damaging the cause of real soul and could conceivably eventually destroy it, as far as British releases go. After mountains of total irrelevancies (and pages still to come no doubt) about purist outlooks and ‘setting ourselves up’ (seen any good Dave Godin Seals Of Approval recently?) he ends with a plea for total soul unity –

‘It is unlikely in my opinion that soul music will ever be an overwhelming popular commodity in Britain, like say, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, etc. so surely it is better to realise our minority position and not let the small differences of opinion that exist become magnified out of all proportion into gigantic issues? It’s a storm in a teacup. You like soul funky? Great. You like it up-tempo? Great. You like it heavy? Great. You like it teeny-bopperish? Great. You like it mean, moody and magnificent? Great. But remember, it’s soul music that you like’. (Blues & Soul, 70).

The obvious inference, of course, be glad that any soul hits. In fact, people who really care about rhythm and blues music seldom are as stupid as this and realise that good pop records are better than bad pop-soul records and that a succession of dancing-string irrelevancies ultimately harms the image of soul, and must affect what sort of black records get released in the UK.

Be joyful that the Tams and Al Green hit, they deserve to, not because they’re by black singers but because they’re good. Let’s hope ‘Barefootin’ in China Town‘ or ‘It Ain’t Necessary‘ never make the charts, their contribution to Northern dancers’ egos may be immense, but their contribution to soul is nil.

`How can you call “monotonously, insiduously ordinary” such in-demand records as ‘I Feel An Urge Coming On‘ by Joe Armstead, ‘Hit And Run‘ by Rose Battiste, ‘A Mighty Good Way‘ by Robert Banks, ‘It Ain’t Necessary‘ by Mamie Galore, ‘Little Queenie‘ by Bill Black’s Combo, ‘The Next In Line‘ by Hoagy Lands, ‘Feels Good‘ by Bobby Wilson or ‘Every Beat Of My Heart‘ by the Du-Ettes’. (Ian Levine, Blackpool, letter September ’71).

And in the twilight world of Northern soul rarities, records are dropped from clubs’ playlists once the audience get the record as well as the deejays.

You prove how ill-informed you are by imagining that “Chains Of Love” by Chuck Jackson, “What’s Wrong With Me Baby” by the Invitations and “I Got A Feeling” by Barbara Randolph are in-demand oldies. The first two lost their popularity over a year ago. The third lost its popularity 2½ years ago’. (Ian Levine).

And what of soul in the South? Is a distorted soul scene better than no scene at all? When soul ceased to have the right sort of image, London, and all points further South, dropped its soul clubs in favour of progressive pop. Now the only London haunts you can hear R&B blasting from a deejay’s sound system are few and far between.

In the West End there’s the Roaring Twenties, the Cue Club or further out obscurer places like the Railway, Harrow or Mr Bee’s, Peckham, but beautiful clubs though they undoubtedly are, the majority of their clientele want the black underground – reggae. If you want more than the occasional James Brown between the latest Jamaican pre-releases, London doesn’t have a soul discotheque … or does it?

Until a couple of weeks ago, what you had to do was come out of Mile End tube station, turn left, walk for a quarter of a mile and there’s a pub, the Fountain. Every Thursday, a deejay, Terry Davis, played the sort of records which persuaded soul fans to journey 10 or 15 or more miles to sit or stand, grabbing the sounds. There were hangups – no dancing; it’s a pub, so youngsters were kept out; and it wasn’t particularly large; but at least it showed that R&B fans do exist in London.

The non-dancing thing oddly proved the Fountain’s greatest advantage. What Terry loses in atmosphere he makes up for in not being restricted to a continual dance beat and played a much larger cross-section of what soul is, and should be made to appear. The Motown oldies, the Jerry-o’s and James Brown’s blasted forth but also Ralfi Pagan’s “Make It With You,” the Dramatics’ “What You See Is What You Get,” George Perkins’ “Crying In The Streets,” even, incredulously, the Showmen’s “It Will Stand” and Etta James’ “Roll With Me Henry.”

London badly needs some soul discotheques but at least there were Thursdays at the Fountain – until recently. Terry has been sacked, the management decided to turn Thursday’s over to semi-progressive schlock like the other nights. As they said, “We’ll get a bigger crowd with long-hair music.”

After ten years on Twitter, it’s time to call a halt.

Ten years ago today, I tweeted for the first time. News of the fledgling venture – then only a few months old, with just over 50,000 users – had reached my corner of blogland, and for a few days there was a small flurry of sign-ups, as we all took turns at answering the question we were being asked: not “What’s happening?”, nor its predecessor “What’s on your mind?”, but simply “What are you doing?”

For those first few months – before @replies, hashtags, retweets, automatically abbreviated URLs and integrated image hosting – we cleaved closely to the strictures of the question, and answered it mainly with present participles. It’s a creative project, we told ourselves: a series of pauses in the day, when we homed in on the here and now, and shared snippets of our realities. Tweets stood alone; conversations were largely frowned upon.

None of us foresaw what Twitter was to become. I had my first hunch when my partner K – who, rather to my dismay, had never bothered much with blogs – became fascinated with my timeline, stealing glimpses whenever he walked past the laptop. I couldn’t quite work out why, when blog posts had left him cold, tweets were drawing him in. But it was happening everywhere, with escalating rapidity, especially after people in the public eye started following the lead of early adopters such as Stephen Fry.

Gradually, the scope of the service expanded. Chatting became easier, and less irksome to onlookers. You could keep up with new blog posts, freed from the bother of feed readers – or you could micro-blog right here, with pics and links. You could commune with celebs. News stories might break here first. Via searches and hashtags, you could gauge responses to issues of the day. You could raise your profile, promote your work, build your brand. The whole world was here now. With minimal effort, you could stay informed, tracking the zeitgeist, swimming at the front of the slipstream.

Spambots were a nuisance, trolls a rarity. That soon switched around. Things started getting nasty. Outrage became a common currency. There were many casualties. But on we scrolled, as our reflective pauses and quick quips mutated into an ever-present dripfeed of hyperbole and hot takes.

Ten years on, the world’s a darker place. Some of us have been here before; the Thatcher-Reagan years felt like a tunnel from which we might never emerge, for instance. But then, there have always been two realities: the global, led by news stories, and the personal, informed by our immediate surroundings and experiences. The former has always had a bearing on the latter, of course – but it feels now as if the boundaries are blurring. By bleeding the two together so seamlessly and efficiently, Twitter is constantly thrusting harsh outer realities into delicate inner receptors.

This no longer feels healthy or useful. Twitter largely stopped being fun a long time ago; now, it feels like a drain on the collective well-being.

I’m dealing with it by re-compartmentalising. I’ll keep up with the news like I used to, at ring-fenced intervals. For the rest of the time, I’d rather be present in my own reality – which, to my great good fortune, happens to be a pleasant place to dwell. And I’d like to recover some of my lost attention span, too. Long reads. Books. Analogue media in general.

I can live with being second to breaking news. Hell, I can positively thrive without having whatever fuckwittery the fuckwits are spouting today repeatedly shoved under my face. I’ve seen enough Express/Mail screengrabs, Hopkins/Mensch smackdowns and Johnson/Trump GIFs for one lifetime, thanks all the same.

Besides which, ten years is long enough to be doing the same thing every day. Most of those formerly blogging early adopters moved on yonks ago, and my real-life friends are almost all on Facebook (which has its own multiple irritations, but compensates for them with companionship, conversation, and a “Hide All From…” option which I take constant glee in wielding). I no longer have stuff to pimp, or a profile to maintain.

I’ve been planning to do this for weeks. As the old saying goes, it feels like unchaining myself from a lunatic.

Adieu, Twitter. We’re done.

Randomising the record collection #28: Simple Minds – Promised You A Miracle

#8171 – Simple Minds – Promised You A Miracle
(12-inch single, 1982) (Discogs tracklisting)

28 simple minds

Aha, I thought, this will be an appropriately sardonic commentary upon our post-Brexit times; what fun I shall have, drawing lines from the past to the present! Far from it, though: this is an almost wholly optimistic love song, shot through with a sense of infinite possibility, which became a hit single at a time when pop itself was probing new possibilities.

Everywhere you looked in the first half of 1982, bands were vaulting from cult acclaim to overground appeal, without (yet?) fatally diluting their original sense of purpose. Just off the top of my head, The Associates, Japan, Echo and the Bunnymen and Bow Wow Wow spring to mind. There were, of course, many more.

(Something analogous happened in the mid-Nineties, too – although perhaps the borders were left too open for too long, without an effective points system to hang on where am I going with this shut up move on.)

Despite all the praise that was heaped upon them in the corners of the music press which held the most personal sway, Simple Minds were never one of “my” bands, and “Promised You A Miracle” was the only record of theirs which I ever went out and bought. Beyond 1985, I was done with them completely; they had become too broad-brush, too foghorny, too flag-wavy, too stadium. But the “Promised You A Miracle” of my memory was an airy, sprightly, shimmering thing, as much a part of the New Pop as, say, “Poison Arrow” or “Party Fears Two”.

Playing it again today, I can hear more of the band they became, and less of the band I thought they once were. The track strains for the sky, but it never quite breaks its earthly shackles. Perhaps the shackles are at their loosest in the final, repeat-and-vamp-to-fade passage of this extended version, as the band locks into a cyclical progression that can never resolve, while Jim Kerr ecstatically extemporises, leaving language behind.

The two instrumentals on the flip side, both produced by Steve Hillage, have worn pretty well – particularly the icy, magisterial synth-funk of “Theme From Great Cities”, which crossed over onto New York dance floors as electro was starting to emerge. (I know it better from “The Real Life” a juddering 1988/89 reworking by Freddy Bastone, a.k.a. Corporation Of One, who spliced it with a “Bohemian Rhapsody” vocal sample and placed it somewhere between freestyle house and early techno.) They offer a glimpse of an alternative future for Simple Minds, had the lure of arena-friendly big-statement-rock not proved so strong. Had they followed such a path, I might have walked with them further.


Randomising the record collection #27: The Gorillas – She’s My Gal

#584 – The Gorillas – She’s My Gal
(7-inch single, 1976) (Discogs tracklisting)

27 gorillas

I’ve got other, more important stuff to do today. No change there, then – but faced with a need to scale down my obsessive post-referendum news/social media fixation, I must conjure up a fresh displacement activity. And so, as “She’s My Gal” has been in my direct line of vision for the past three months, patiently stacked behind the office hi-fi, perhaps it’s finally time to dispatch it back to its rightful resting place around the corner, nestling between The Go-Go’s and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci.

In the autumn of 1976, impatient for the arrival of UK punk on record, I was casting around for the nearest substitutes. Six years ago, writing about Dr. Feelgood in The Guardian, I made mention of this transient phase.

For those of us who were impatient for British punk rock to make the leap from enticing music-press buzz to ­tangible vinyl product, Dr Feelgood and their compatriots at the rowdier end of the pub rock scene – Eddie and the Hot Rods, Count Bishops, Tyla Gang – were as close an approximation as we could find to the music we had read about, but could only piece together in our imaginations. Ahead of the punk eruption, these John the Baptist figures were leading the charge, showing that rock music could be reinvigorated by a high-energy, no-nonsense, back to basics approach.

And so it was with The Gorillas, an equally rowdy product of the London pub-rock circuit, and this release for one of the UK’s first independent labels, Chiswick Records. Having already hoovered up as much as I could find from the Stiff label – Nick Lowe, Tyla Gang, Lew Lewis and, most crucially of all, The Damned – I was now turning my attention to their spiritual counterparts, and “She’s My Gal” duly became the second of five near-consecutive purchases from Chiswick (a run that was only broken by “Anarchy In The U.K.”).

As much a perpetuation of bovver-glam as a prefigurement of punk, the catchy swagger of “She’s My Gal” bridged my listening gap more ably than most. I shall place it back among the G’s with fondness.

Randomising the record collection #26: Elaine Hudson – No More The Fool

#644 – Elaine Hudson – No More The Fool
(7-inch single, 1990) (Discogs tracklisting)

26 elaine hudson

Elaine Hudson had made her mark in 1989, duetting with Sydney Youngblood on the title track of his successful debut album Feeling Free. Now it was Youngblood’s turn to return the favour, supplying incidental vocals on Hudson’s first single. Indeed, the whole Youngblood songwriting and production crew were pressed into Hudson’s service, with Youngblood himself taking a co-writing credit.

In its 12-inch incarnation, “No More The Fool” is an amiable, well-sung pop take on classic soul tropes, with pleasing piano and strings, that’s only marred by the inclusion of that Soul II Soul rhythm track, which had become ubiquitous around the turn of the Nineties.

In this respect, Team Youngblood – and producer Claus Zundel in particular – had previous form, drawing criticism for their heavy reliance on Jazzie B’s signature sound. Cocking a snook at the finger-waggers, they had even released a “Jazzy Who?” remix of “Feeling Free”, which committed further acts of plunder. And of course, there was Youngblood’s big hit “If Only I Could”, whose backing track is barely distinguishable from Raze’s “Break 4 Love”.

As shameless as these lifts might have been, at least they were competently executed. But with the 7″ remix of “No More The Fool” – which is the version I own, and you’ll search in vain to hear it online – the machinery jammed. Ditching the Soul II Soul rhythm, Zundel smothered the song with a generic James Brown breakbeat, mixing it so high that the rest of the track fades into murky near-inaudibility. Hudson’s vocals are so buried, that she might as well have been singing beneath six inches of soil, and Youngblood’s vocals are mixed so low that the ear struggles to make them out at all. In fact, the overall sound quality is so utterly, utterly terrible, that it beggars belief that this mix was ever cleared for release. Perhaps it sounded better on the CD single, but all I can hear is the thoughtless ruination of a otherwise pleasant song.

It bombed, of course – and by the end of the year, Hudson’s major label recording career was over. She now works as a wedding singer in Birmingham, Alabama. She looks happy, and I’m glad about that.

Randomising the record collection #25: Daryl Hall & John Oates – Family Man / One On One

#600 – Daryl Hall & John Oates – Family Man / One On One
(7-inch single, 1983) (Discogs tracklisting)

25 hall oates

Two days on from Tina Turner, we’re back with the Finnish DJ’s job lot. This copy is a good deal less battered than “What’s Love Got To Do With It”, with a level of surface noise that’s easier to tune out. “Family Man” is the clear A-side, but for this European release, it’s been bundled with its predecessor “One On One”: an equally big hit in the US, which did much less well over here.

In 1983, Hall and Oates were at the peak of their success. H2O, the album which housed both these tracks, was their eleventh release and their biggest seller; it also gave them their fifth US chart-topper, “Maneater”.

“Family Man”, the album’s sole cover, was released by Mike Oldfield in the spring of 1982, with vocals by Maggie “Moonlight Shadow” Reilly. Although Hall and Oates remain fairly faithful to Oldfield’s arrangement, they’ve taken liberties with the lyrics, adding lines to later verses that make its “hooker rebuffed” story less clear-cut. This time around, the hooker’s prospective client changes his mind too late: “he waited much too long, but by the time he got his courage up, she was gone.”

“One On One” is a gentler affair, more in the tradition of the duo’s blue-eyed soul style, with none of the A-side’s clenched rock bite. It’s a love song wrapped round a sporting metaphor, which talks of playing the game, setting the pace, taking time out and so on.

If I’m sounding neutral here, it’s because I’ve always been basically neutral towards Hall and Oates. Their earlier work – with the exception of the heavenly “She’s Gone” – was too mature for my teenage ears, and their Eighties hits – with the exception of the equally heavenly “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” – didn’t chime with my expectations of Eighties pop. That said, both tracks have worn well; history has been kind to this type of glossy AOR-pop, and it wouldn’t surprise me to hear “Family Man” at retro nights for cool millennials.

So maybe it’s time for me to dig into those early albums – the first two produced by Arif Mardin, the third by Todd Rundgren – and close this gap in my knowledge.

Yeah, I’ll stick them on a playlist. That’s what I’ll do.

Randomising the record collection #24: Quincy Jones – Q’s Jook Joint

#2330 – Quincy Jones – Q’s Jook Joint
(CD, 1995) (Discogs tracklisting)

24 quincy jones

Six years after Back On The Block, an album which I loved and played a great deal, came its sequel: another journey through diverse styles of black music, both old and new, which was equally crammed with guest appearances from artists of all generations.

On the 92-second intro, Jones’s guest roster reaches surreal proportions; 29 voices are heard, ranging from Marlon Brando to Queen Latifah, Dizzy Gillespie to Bono. We get the picture; he’s a well-connected guy. The trouble with this approach, though, is that the names threaten to distract from the music. You end up forever checking the sleeve notes, just in case a historic collaboration (Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder!) passes you by.

Clocking in at 70 minutes, the album suffers from a certain amount of mid-Nineties fill-up-the-CD bloat; some tracks drag on too long, particularly the closing pair of “quiet storm” wind-downs, and some of the interludes could have been cut. The shiny, brittle, over-separated production also screams “Nineties CD” – you couldn’t ever imagine this on vinyl – but such were the times, and perhaps it’s unfair to slate a Nineties CD for sounding just like a Nineties CD.

There’s also the issue of Sequel Syndrome, and diminishing returns. Where Back On The Block dazzled you with its scope, Q’s Jook Joint sometimes feels too worthy, too cosy, too respectful, too respectable. That said, there are, of course, plenty of delightful moments. With a cast this strong, how could there not be?

I was reading only yesterday, in David Toop’s 1984 history of hip hop The Rap Attack, about the vocal freestyles that Eddie Jefferson created from jazz improvisations, and so was particularly struck by Brian McKnight’s fine update of Jefferson’s vocalese style on a reworking of James Moody’s “Moody’s Mood For Love”, complete with a sax solo from Moody himself. Later, I watched Phil Collins performing “If Leaving Me Is Easy” on a 1981 Top of the Pops, and found myself marvelling, quite despite myself, at the quality of the vocals, songwriting and arrangement. Collins guests here on Duke Ellington’s “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me” – backed by a large brass section, with great solos from Joshua Redman on sax and Jerry Hey on trumpet – and he acquits himself commendably, which is a big surprise. Elsewhere, there are enjoyable covers of The Brothers Johnson’s “Stomp”, Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” and Jones’s own “Stuff Like That”, the latter voiced by its composers Ashford & Simpson alongside Brandy, Ray Charles, Chaka Khan and The Gap Band’s Charlie Wilson.

This must have been a massively demanding project logistically, but it’s also manifestly a labour of love, and you can feel that love shining all the way through. These are all people who Jones admires, from living legends to brand new talents, and no-one other than Jones could have brought them all together. Perhaps inevitably, the whole doesn’t exceed the sum of its parts – but you can only applaud its ambition and spirit.