Where did you grow up?
I was born in Lambeth and up until 1953 I had no interest in popular music whatsoever. My tastes were exclusively classical. But around about this time, I had started to get as far as one could in those days, what would now be called world music. I started taking an interest in different cultures; Indian, Indonesian and so on. Funnily enough, I’ve never found any other musical form alien. That’s what where I was at musically on this fateful day; we used to save our dinner money to go to the Silver Lounge Ice Cream Parlour on Friday evening after school and we used to buy knickerbocker glories.
On this particular day, they’d got a brand new jukebox in. Looking back on it now, I think it must have been one that had come from an American airforce base because it had 45 rpm records in it which had only just been introduced into Britain (they were introduced into Britain about a year after they were introduced in America). So that was novel. There were a lot of black American records on it. I was in there with a friend from school, and there were some young men putting money in the jukebox and playing records and the first one I heard was Ruth Brown’s ‘Mama You Treats Your Daughter Mean’. That was my road to Damascus. I just couldn’t believe it.
I went over to the jukebox to see what it was that was playing and one of the young men who’d put it on, saw my interest and said, “Do you like that record?”
I said, “Yeah! What is it, I’ve never heard music like it.”
And he said, “Oh, it’s called rhythm and blues. It’s music that coloured Americans make.” I got my little notebook out and he showed me which record was playing.
He said, “If you like that one, you’ll like this one,” and he pointed out something else.
He must’ve taken pity on me, realising I was a schoolboy, and he gave me some money so I could play a record. There was Smiley Lewis on there and a very early Fats Domino. I was hooked. Funnily enough at that time, too, I’d just got a new three-speed record player that had a 45 facility on it. I thought, I’m going to start collecting these records. And I’m so glad I did!
45s were introduced in 1953, and it was at least six years before sales of 45s eclipsed 78s in Britain. I think there were several reasons for this. One was partly because 45s cost sixpence extra which was quite a bit in those days. They were really badly marketed; the psychology was, ‘Well, why should we pay more to get less?’ I found in shops, there was resistance. Shopkeepers would say, “Oh, they’re just silly plastic novelties.”
When the rock’n’roll phenomenon came about – I think it was at its height in 1957 in Britain – to me it was all old hat. I thought I’ve been into this for years. I noticed in America that white artists were covering black artists’ songs. The phenomenon of the cover record. I thought that was very off. They sanitised it. The first impact of hearing the Ruth Brown record that day was just how adult the music was compared to the pop music of that era, which was Doris Day and Frankie Laine.
This song – ‘Mama You Treats Your Daughter Mean’ – it was about adult passions and adult interaction I think this is a significant part of black American music. It isn’t – or wasn’t – focused on this teenage phenomenon. That came later with marketing and so on. It was certainly true that until the mid-seventies at least, black American record buyers covered the full age spectrum. It wasn’t just teenagers. There were local record stores run by black American people, often couples, who would sell black music.
When did you start going to clubs?
The gap between 1953 and 1957/58 when the rock’n’roll phenomenon took off, was a long long period. Much longer than, say, four years would be now. You also have to bear in mind that the phenomenon of the disco was way off in the future. In fact, I would actually put disco’s start at around 1962 and I think it was very much tied in with the Twist, which I think was a very key development in British culture. It’s sad in a way, that it seems to have been forgotten.
Well, ‘The Twist’ did two things. First of all the record was issued and it didn’t do fuck all. The original was issued by Hank Ballard and it didn’t do anything. I think what happened was, it was because the Twist took off in America, and as a result everyone was doing a record with Twist in the title. What happened was I think the British record industry could foresee that all these Twist records were in the pipeline, so it was very much in their interest that the Twist took off here to some degree in order to market these records. As a result, they reissued the record by Chubby Checker, and with the record came dance instruction on how to do it. I think they had people on TV programmes demonstrating it.
In America, of course, there were dozens of dance crazes: the Mashed Potato, the Locomotion, the Wa-Watusi, the Madison, the Stroll and so on. We also have to remember that Britain is not a dance culture, despite what they say. It may have become one via importing dance from abroad, but it is not indigenous to this culture. The only form of dancing that is indigenous is clog dancing, which is totally different to black American music in as much as it emphasises the off-beat, whereas European dancing emphasises the beat. I’ll give you a good example of how this can be proved. If you go to some sort of drunken wedding party and say they’re playing black music all the way through; everyone will start dancing on the off-beat and as the drinking gets heavier and people revert to atavistic forms, you will find that they will dance on the beat.
This cultural difference played a big part in our acceptance of black American music. Anyway, the Twist was significant because... it got a lot of publicity and promotion and after a fashion it took off as a dance form. Prior to the Twist the dance forms which were acceptable in Britain were jiving or what was called smooching, body-to-body dancing; that was outside the context of pure ballroom dancing. Although very few people mastered it, the result of the Twist was that it became acceptable for people to get up on the floor and, more or less, do whatever you want.
A Twist, rather than The Twist?
Yeah. And thus modern freeform expression dancing was born. At the time, I thought this was great because it enabled everyone to get up on the floor and have a go. One of the things with jiving, is that I think it’s quite a skilled dance to do properly, and it has to be learned. In a sense, this is what the Twist destroyed. At the time I thought this was a good thing, now I’ve got my reservations. In retrospect, why I think there’s a great downside to that is that one of the great advantages that jiving had going for it was the learning of a rudimentary skill and, as a result of acquiring this, was also a rites of passage thing.
Another thing that the Twist demolished was that prior to the Twist of asking a partner to dance still prevailed to a degree. Boys would ask girls to jive, and girls would sit and wait until a male partner asked them. But there was also the freedom of two girls to dance together. Whereas, the only thing two boys could do was jitterbug, which was rare anyway. Most places had banned it anyway, because it was so dangerous. That was what was great about the Twist: it stopped all that silly wallflower nonsense. People probably don’t even know what the term wallflower means now, but that was the girl who sat by the wall waiting for someone to ask her to dance and nobody did. It’s in the lyrics of the earlier black America records like Etta James’ ‘Wallflower’.
Prior to this, though, there were a few places which, the first I can remember, was at the Lyceum in the Strand, it had been converted into a dancehall and on Saturday nights and Sunday nights they used to have a big band there, Oscar Raven Band. It was sort of ballroom dancing. But on Sunday afternoons, they started this experimental thing of playing records.
Was this the Ian Samwell gig?
It might well be that. In those days, the concept of a DJ, as it’s known today, was really just an engineer, somebody who put the records on. I can’t even remember if the records were announced or not.
What kind of records were they playing?
There was a good sprinkling of black American records in there. Black America was always the soundtrack to the more reprehensible aspects of society. It was always associated with seedier aspects of life. For instance, the only places you could go to hear black American music, and you must remember the BBC dominated the airwaves in those days and Radio Luxembourg was not half as good as people remember it to be, were lowlife pubs and transport cafés. Dumps, in effect. They would tend to play blacker records, which I think in itself is significant. And the Lyceum did play a lot of that sort of music and, of course, it attracted those kind of people. What were the outlaws; or certainly people who did not identify with the dominant ideology of the time. Rebels.
So what kind of people were going to the Lyceum at that stage? Were there blacks going?
Oh no no. This is another thing one’s got to make quite clear in the history of black American music in Britain. When we had Soul City record shop, which operated between 1967 and 1971, if we had a black face in the shop, it was a novelty. We sold nothing but black American soul records. Some of these black Britons did not associate with black American music. The music they liked was all nostalgic stuff that reminded them of home. If you look it at it, you can understand it. If Hungarian immigrants come to Britain, why should they take to English music? My own perception of black immigration in Britain, in its early days, was that it was deeply homesick and in a sense, too, was never considered like for always: ‘Well, one day perhaps we’ll go back.’
Black Americans were subject to two different diaspora. One from Africa and the second was their almost expulsion from the south. Okay, technically it was voluntary. But black Americans belonged to the south.
You mean voluntary in the sense that mass emigration for the Irish was voluntary during the last century?
Yeah. I think this is very important in understanding black American culture. In a sense all of it is southern. African music is not musical. It’s rhythmic. It’s interesting in the case of James Brown. As much as I love James Brown – and I’ve met him – but speaking as a musical critic, James Brown’s strength is rhythmical not musical. He’s not good on tunes and melody. That’s what’s good about him though: he speaks to your rhythmic genes rather than your melodic genes. Now the whole phenomenon of black American music, and I would argue that all pop music stems from black American music, other than indigenous European forms like music-hall. So what happened was black people brought this tremendous rhythmic musical culture with them from Africa and when they reached the south and came into contact with what was, in a sense, Western European music, it was the alchemy of blending these two that produced this magical thing. To me it’s poignant that such a tremendous cultural gift should come out of such human misery and pain. This is why I loathe to the marrow in my bones such people as the Rolling Stones. To me they are as reprehensible and exploitative as the very people who owned the slaves. They have done what exactly what American slave owners did.
Where did you go from the Lyceum?
I always felt there was nowhere in Britain that operated a no compromise policy, which is what I wanted.
Black American records, you mean?
Where were you going to get your fix?
Well the Lyceum was very important, I can’t stress that enough, because I think in some ways was the first place that I ever knew that could merit the name discotheque, although, funnily enough, the term was introduced by Chubby Checker again, with his record ‘At The Discotheque’. We should remember that the concept of the discotheque was French in origin.
It’s no coincidence that I used the black American term ‘keep the faith’, which is the equivalent of keep your chin up, don’t sell out, don’t let life grind you down.
When did that get appropriated in northern soul?
In the sixties, because I always used it as the sign-off for my column in Blues And Soul. I have this theory, psychologically, that why I think black American music has such an appeal for white males in Britain, it’s because it’s an emotional outlet which is allowable or sanctioned. There are very few emotional outlets for men; in fact, we’re usually taught to despise our emotions.
When did you start writing your Blues & Soul column?
And what kind of records did you write about?
Contemporary black American music. I think the first article I ever wrote was for a magazine called Blues Unlimited. It was on Mary Wells before she had a hit with My Guy. My column was certainly very influenced by early Motown. I think the impact of early Motown on black American music should never be underestimated. What Gordy did was start to take characteristics of black American music and incorporate them into secular performances. I’m not saying for a moment that he invented soul music, because this was a development that came along. The first article I wrote was called the Girls In Soul Are The Greatest and this was a sort of survey of female soul singers among them Barbara Lynn and Mary Wells.
When did this music manifest itself in clubs?
Well, as a result of this article The Girls In Soul Are The Greatest, they got a tremendous mailbag response, from people saying how good it was.
Where did soul (the term) come from?
I think it was probably credit to Billboard, because they have been very influential in defining American black music. They invented the term rhythm and blues and the reason they did it, prior to that, they were called race records and Billboard didn’t like this term. (By the way, I remember Carla Thomas telling me that she was a member of the NAACP in Memphis and this was at a time when to be a member was a death warrant. She said, you couldn’t tell anyone you were a member.)
Can I ask you to go back to the column you wrote and its response...
Yeah, around about the same time, too, I also started the Tamla Motown Appreciation Society, because I was very unhappy with the way their records were being handled over here.
Did they have a distribution deal then?
First of all they went to London. I’m not knocking the London label, they did a lot of good work for black American music, but I think they basically relied on American servicemen. People forget the country was awash with airforce bases and the like. Then they switched to Fontana which was pretty hopeless because they had no track record for black music at all. They released ‘Please Mister Postman’ and it didn’t do a thing then they switched to Oriole.
When did you start the TMAS?
61 or 62. The response was small, but what it lacked in numbers it more than made up for in enthusiasm and fervour.
And you actually ended up working with Berry Gordy, didn’t you?
Yeah. Well I started this fan club thing, but it was more than that really...
More of an agitator?
Yeah, and a bonding thing, too. I always opened every newsletter with ‘Dear Swinger and Friend’. Of course, swinger meant something different then to what it does now! Then it meant ‘hip’. Blues & Soul was very much a rallying point and, without wanting to sound immodest, my column in particular was. How my column became particularly popular was with the emerging disco scene. People would look to my column as a source for tips. It didn’t always work, of course.
When did it start taking off, and how did that link in with the disco scene?
It would be around about 1967.
Had you been to places like the Twisted Wheel by that stage?
No. It would’ve been later.
Clubs like the Scene, Ad Lib, Flamingo?
Oh yeah, but I didn’t write about them in my column.
Did you know people like Guy Stevens at the Scene?
Oh yeah, and also he programmed an awful lot of black American records. He was a very well intentioned person was Guy. He was a bit flaky. He was very into his drugs, but in general people were into drugs. I think he was very easily influenced. He was a person who desperately wanted to be a name. I didn’t know him that well, I think he was a very insecure person, who genuinely wanted to help black American music take off. I think with Guy, he was very into black British culture, he wanted to hang out with and be accepted in black culture.
What was he programming at the Scene?
Blues. A lot of blues. Also there were the beginnings of schisms between black music fans, too.
What was the schism? Between blues and more uptempo soul?
Yeah. Some friends and I tried to form a Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame. I remember the first name mentioned for this was Sam Cooke. And he was denounced as a pop singer rather than a soul singer, and I can name the people who were on that committee: Dave McAleer, Keith Richardson, Charlie Gillett. They all vetoed it. So I pulled out.
Why was it that you think your column started getting popular. Was it because of the growing number of discos?
I was often championing or reviewing records that were either popular, or becoming very popular, in the north. It was the beginning of the schism between north and south and why I coined the term northern soul.
What year was it?
It must’ve been about ’66 or ’67. We had the Soul City record shop and in some ways the term came about because of the changes that were going on in the American scene. What was happening there was a new form which was doing very well in America. This is what subsequently came to be termed funk, although we didn’t use it then. James Brown was very instrumental in this. What happened was London DJs and record buyers tended to slavishly follow the charts. London DJs, for example, would come into the shop look at the Billboard chart and read off the top five, “Have you got these?” What they were thinking was, ‘Well, if it’s good in America, then it must be good.’ But what I noticed in the shop and we used to get a lot of people from the north come down to follow their football teams and a trip to Soul City was part of the day’s agenda
Where was it?
Firstly in Deptford High Street, then to Monmouth Street. I think it’s an occult shop now.
Do you know any of the people coming down from the north?
I can’t remember any names. Being a specialist record shop, we relied on playing records in the store since we got no back up from radio or anywhere else, so the shop would get crammed full of people and we would play records. What I noticed was that people who came from the north were not buying what was subsequently called funk. What they wanted was the more non-avant garde, as it would have been. There were three of us in the shop, me, David Nathan and Robert Blackmore. What I did was start using the term northern soul meaning that when we’ve got a shop full of people from the north only play northern soul to them. That’s how the term took off. This gap became even wider, and I think that’s why the term took off. There were a lot of disparaging comments went into print about northern soul.
Why do you think that was?
Patronising attitudes towards anything outside of London. And these people, being control freaks, didn’t have a dominant input into it. I’d be personally slagged off by Tony Cummings, one of my arch-adversaries. I said to Tony, “You must remember soul music is not a religion.” With his subsequent career development, I was right: he was treating it as a religion. He’s now a born-again Christian vicar.
Tell me about your first trips to Twisted Wheel and places like that?
It was like a blur. What would generally happen was I’d perhaps be invited somewhere and the Wheel in Manchester was one of the first. There’d be a reception committee of fans at the station which was lovely. Then we’d go off somewhere for a drink, or if I didn’t arrive till late, then we’d go to the club, which would usually be an all-nighter, I was much younger then, but god these things could be exhausting. Another thing you must remember: the northern soul scene was also a drug scene.
Roger Eagle told me that northern soul was created by drugs and not the other way round.
I’m glad he said that. Roger Eagle?
The original DJ at the Wheel.
My view towards drugs, I’ve never compromised my view, even at the height of my popularity on the northern soul scene, I risked everything by writing an article called Ampheta-Soul, which actually tackled the drug issue head on. Basically what I was saying was that I was anti-drugs, well, not anti-drugs, but the more cold sober you are in experiencing life, the better it actually is; the more intense. Dutch courage is false courage.
What is your assessment of northern soul now looking back on it?
I think the good qualities are without a doubt that it kept some superb records alive which they wouldn’t otherwise have had. The downside is what we’ve mentioned about the DJ. When the northern soul scene was its most vigorous, there was this tremendous search for obscurities, and a lot of great records surfaced as a result of this. But after a while, the chances of discovering some old masterpiece diminish. All the masterpieces have surfaced.
Also, too I was very into de-mystifying records. For example if I went somewhere and some DJ had some exclusive cover-up I knew, I would immediately blow the whistle and review it. Fuck it. Because they were putting their own ego above the singer, the composer, and everyone else and I couldn’t abide that.
I can’t remember now. I remember I got a white label copy of a record sent me by Van McCoy himself of a record by the Ad Libs, that they’d made. It hadn’t even been issued in America. I was going to Wigan Casino on the Saturday after it had arrived on the Friday. It was an absolute stunner, northern soul tune. ‘Nothing Worse Than Being Alone’, it was called. I said to myself, ‘Oh wow, Van, great,’ here’s something I can take up with me, so I took it up. It cleared the floor. And the DJ took it off halfway through. He gave it back to me. He didn’t actually say it, but I could read his face: ooh, you’ve fallen flat on you face with that one. I was so angry, you know in a year’s time you’ll be fucking begging me for a copy of this. Sure enough, it becomes on of the biggest northern soul records.
Who was the DJ?
I think it would be unfair to name him.
Do you see the DJs on that scene as archeologists of music?
Well, one of the real problems of the northern scene was the emergence of the DJ as a personality, someone who didn’t have the interests of black America at its heart. Then we got the phenomenon of searching for obscure records for their own exclusivity. Covering them up, which didn’t help the artist or anyone else at all. As soon as a record got reissued they’d drop it from their playlist like a hot potato. It could be argued that DJs, in some ways, have done as much harm as they’ve done good. They have a vested interest in control.
Could you argue, though, that the DJ is an outlaw?
The only caveat I would put on that is that so long as they’re trafficking in quality. But I think a lot of people lose the thread. I was at a soul weekender once and a guy had a 45 he was selling that he’d dropped the price from £1,250 to £1,000 and I said, “Oh God, can I have a listen to that record? I’d really like to hear what a thousand poundsworth of soul sounds like.” Honest to God it was like a President B-side. It was nothing. This is the trouble with capitalism and art: when art takes on value. Berry Gordy used to have a slogan on the Gordy label: It’s what’s in the grooves that counts.
© DJhistory.com 2011. Interviewed by Bill Brewster at Dave Godin’s home in Sheffield on 21st September 1998.