Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club didn’t seem like the sort of place to premiere, Young Souls a film about Northern soul. East London’s denim-clad pretensions seem a world away from the rootsy diehard vibe of the northern soul scene. But the fact is, soul is spreading.

  Dean Chalkley, music photographer, journalist and the man behind Young Souls, grew up as a mod in Southend in the ’80s, so knows more than your average filmmaker trying to get in on the soul thing. He also studied photography at Blackpool, itself one of the high churches of Northern soul, home to thelegendary Mecca club in the ’70s. 
 
  In a recent issue of 125 Magazine, themed on religion , Chalkley produced a photo-feature dedicated to soul culture. “As soon as they said religion I was like, this is the moment. Keep the faith, Northern soul – it’s a perfect fit.” The follow-on was Young Souls, three years in the making, which features some of the same faces and dancers.
 
  Countless books, documentaries and featurettes will tell you the same – rather old – story. Officially, Northern soul was centred on Wigan Casino, the inconspicuous club that turned the dour, post-industrial town in Lancashire into the home of the most famous soul club in the world. A 1978 Billboard magazine survey voted it as much, beating New York’s Studio 54, in comparison a vainglorious pit of society kicks and cocaine-fuelled disco fever.
 
  As with any religion , tall tales, myths and a fair dose of rose-tinted specs get woven in. It wouldn’t be such a good story otherwise. A number of films, like 2009’s Soul Boy, have tried to re-tell the story to those who were not there. Most people are inclined to say they have failed.
 
  Chalkley’s 10-minute short is not your standard Northern soul offering. It actually tries to penetrate the passion/obsession. Unlike previous films, which try and let the music (and some knowing, we-were-all-there-weren’t-we references to the Winter Of Discontent) explain the subject, Chalkley shoots an impressionistic black-and-white image of the scene. It’s an experience, not a narrative. “I’m not trying to make a definite statement about northern soul. For anyone trying to do that, it’s a very hard task. You’re always going to be held to account.”
 
  So Young Souls does not go in for all that retro fun. It is set in the now, along with the odd Adidas kit bag, Oxford bags and vintage motor. But in recent years the soul scene has attracted younger and younger audiences. And this is what makes the film such a success. It records the present day’s scene while duly acknowledging the past.  “Now is a good time, a perfect time, actually. There’s something happening which is very healthy. I think people are trying to break away from conforming.” Chalkley believes London is fast becoming a central venue for this new interest in soul, far from its traditional centres in Northern towns and cities like Stoke and Wigan.
 

 
 
Move's being busted...
 
   Jo Cook, 35, from Twickenham, cameos in Young Souls. She’s another Londoner too young to have experienced the Casino, Mecca or the Torch. “I’ve been on the scene for like 10 years. I got into Northern through the mod scene, but I still like both. The Northern soul dos go on later, so I just like to go to everything I can and dance all night.”
 
  Northern has always been a dancers’ scene, as well as a collectors’. “It’s possibly one of the only music forms where you can go to a nightclub that lasts all night, and you’ve got people who are over 50 and they’re not being looked at as weird”, Chalkley says. “They’re actually the best dancers!” Now younger people are getting wise too. A string of northern soul dancing schools and tuition DVDs have started doing the rounds for those who want a quick step-in to club moves. 
 
  It’s all very different to how it began, Chalkley remembers. “Back in the late-’60s through to the ’70s, people would go to a club, see someone dance and then go home and practice. Now people want to be taught a bit more, and why not?”
 
  The point is that soul is “all about the music”. It’s a dictum repeated by soul connoisseurs and beginners, badges, graffiti and record labels up and down the land. “You don’t have to dance like a genius dancer to enjoy the music.”

 
   As for genius dancers, there’s Liam Beckett. Liam, 19, a bricklayer from Sheffield. He won the Blackpool Weekender Dance Competition last year, making him Northern soul’s World Dance Champion.  “It’s such a good thing to get into it,” he says. “It’s a close-knit scene, a big family really. Young people who like it and are into it, as long as they’re having a good time, it’s good. We all sort of stick together.”
 
  Now more people are sticking together. Liam sees Northern as a meeting-place for different sub-cultures; mods, skinheads, suedeheads, and now, more and more younger people. “But we’ve all still got one thing in common – love of soul.” After that, he says, comes the fashion, the records, the scooters and the dancing.
 
  Northern is a resort for those tired of the same old Saturday night clubbing scene, in myriad ways that it may be didn’t in the ’70s. For some it’s a way of dressing, others it’s a whole lifestyle. “Music is shit nowadays, I’ve always preferred ’60s Motown and soul. I got into it from my dad.” Liam remembers the first time he went to a Northern club, in Sheffield. “I went to KGB when I was about 15. It was dead dark, in this shitty little basement, playing proper raw soul which I’d not heard before. I was fascinated by the dancing.”   Liam started to teach himself how to dance, watching others on the scene and then practising in his bedroom. “I picked it up over two years, dancing in my room and watching all the Wigan videos off the internet.”  A few competitions later, and he has been asked to dance live on-stage with Plan B at the O2, and will feature in A Northern Soul Film next year, which is being directed by a woman who went to the Casino growing up. The film-makers have been careful to include plenty of new (and established) young people on the scene.   And so northern soul has come full circle, and now with a new generation of faces - collectors, dancers, scooterists or just soul-lovers – whether they’re in Bethnal Green, Sheffield, or anywhere else up, or down, the country.
 
Text: Tom Rollins
 
Dean Chalkley is involved in two soul and R’n’B nights in London – Black Cat at The Silver Bullet in Finsbury Park, and Shake at The Boogaloo in Highgate.

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