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Heart of Soul, Peckham
Chloe Ackers

Northern soul scenes are thriving despite the cost of living crisis

A nationwide community of young soul fans are finding solace in the dance movement established over half a century ago

It’s an undeniably grim time to be young. The cost of living crisis is rendering basic necessities unaffordable; the relentless gentrification of our cities is creating stark, hollow environments. The government is seemingly intent on quashing any spark of youth culture, and stories of nightlife barely clinging to survival are rife. Yet while much of the arts and culture sector flounders, across the country there’s a surge of youth-led northern soul scenes that are not only surviving – but thriving. In a handful of small venues scattered across this grey island are pockets of colour, culture and community, soundtracked by records with an immortal appeal.

Emerging in the early 70s as a direct response to the political climate of the era, northern soul acted as a source of cultural respite for adolescents in post-industrial northern and Midland towns. ‘Soulies’ exorcised the mundanity of the working week through amphetamine-fuelled all-night dance sessions to a canon of obscure, up-tempo Black American soul records. “The young people in 1970s Britain were looking for new sounds and a new world to be immersed in, and one they could afford to be a part of,” explains Sarah Raine, Lecturer in Cultural Industries at the University of Leeds. “Whilst buying records might have necessitated a healthy wage packet, going to a northern soul event was affordable.” Through a distinct fashion (polo shirts and flares) and set of rules (no drinks on the dancefloor), a sense of community was established among attendees who craved joy to splinter the dullness of their working lives.

Through the ageless, universal allure of heart-wrenching lyrics paired with fast-paced beats, the subculture is experiencing a surge in popularity among Gen Z. But the new scenes, though endlessly indebted to their predecessors, aren’t intent on replicating the movement. “We don’t want to be retro. We don’t wanna be that revivalist club night,” says Will Foot, co-founder of Deptford Northern Soul Club (DNSC) – a night often credited with translating the songs and culture of northern soul to fit a new generation of Londoners. “We just want everyone to do their own thing. As soon as you start dictating how people should have fun, you’re dead.”

Despite the cost of living crisis permeating club culture, nights like DNSC are seeing increased demand, while others are constantly cropping up across the country. This year, DJ trio Heart Of Soul hosted their first night, selling out the 180-cap Peckham Liberal Club and revealing an appetite in the capital for soul. Co-creator 26-year-old Shaafi Parvez recalls his initial disbelief. “90 per cent of the crowd were aged 20 to 30, and most of them had never heard these songs,” he says. “But just by watching everyone’s faces you see them think: ‘oh my god, this is what I’ve been missing’.”

20-year-old scene photographer Greta Kaur-Taylor recalls feeling a similar euphoria upon discovering the soul community. “I just fell in love, it was everything that I had hoped for growing up,” she says. This sense of belonging stems from an atmosphere of inclusivity, with the northern soul scene credited as a safe space that attracts an eclectic mix of generations, women and queer communities. DNSC, for example, attracts a 75 per cent female crowd. “You can be unapologetically yourself. No one’s judging you on that dancefloor,” Kaur-Taylor says.

Part of this atmosphere of comfort stems from the scene’s lack of dependency on alcohol – a residual of its origins as a dance-led movement. While Gen Z’s penchant for sobriety (with 26 per cent of 16-24 year olds in England fully teetotal) may be of concern for much of the nightlife sector, it means soul nights thrive in their ability to offer an attractive alternative for an increasingly sober curious generation. 26-year-old Chloe Ackers, a photographer documenting the collision of newer and more traditional northern soul scenes, says this also attracts clubbers amid an unprecedented era of inflation. “Once you’ve paid your door tax, you spend hardly any money,” she says. “But you still have that escape and relief from the week that we all need right now.”

‘Whether you are that hardcore soul head, talc in the back pocket, spinning like it’s the 70s, or someone who wants to dip their toes in the music: we welcome you with open arms’ – Oliver Nuttall

This is combined with the determination of DJs and promoters to keep nights as cheap as possible. Northern Grooves, a Manchester-based DJ duo comprised of 22-year-old Isaac Lloyd and 24-year-old Oliver Nuttall, operate a free-entry policy, which aims to ensure financial accessibility to anyone in the city. “Our mission was to create a night that would cater to everyone,” Nuttall says. “Whether you are that hardcore soul head, talc in the back pocket, spinning like it’s the 70s, or someone who wants to dip their toes in the music: we welcome you with open arms.”

In the initial days of northern soul, some attendees forged an imagined link between their struggles of existing in impoverished pockets of post-industrial Britain to the Black musicians facing hostility in 60s America. Now, swathes of young soulies describe a connection to those that pioneered the movement over 50 years ago. It’s the golden thread that ties each generation of disenfranchised youth together, pondering the same anxieties and landing on the same solution of dancing away the pain. “I think every time there are patches of austerity, young people will find a way to find joy,” Kaur-Taylor says. Parvez concurs, highlighting Bobby Womack’s ‘Home Is Where The Heart Is’ as a prime example of this. “He’s basically speaking about being down and out, not having a pot to piss in, but as long as you’ve got someone that you love, it doesn’t really matter.”

This penchant for looking on the bright side is a testament to the ability of youth subcultures to emerge like dandelions through concrete, able to find innovative ways to thrive in spite of the bleakness of their environment. So, it’s appropriate that northern soul’s lasting motto is ‘keep the faith’. You’ll catch it embroidered onto patches on some clubbers’ denim jackets and – for the most dedicated – inked into their skin. While subcultures of years gone by may still exist, they often prevail in weathered forms, yet northern soul somehow maintains an authenticity comparable to its first days.

“The search for new sounds in northern soul, the excitement of the dance floor and in meeting new people from all over, the exhilaration of leaving an all-nighter at 8am transcends time and unites the young people who attended events in the 1970s and in 2023,” Raine explains. “We should not undervalue the bodily experience of dancing and the excitement of finding new sounds and a new community.”

And it’s this community that offers a glimmer of hope for club-goers across the country – something Lloyd argues is essential, now more than ever. “When you get on that dancefloor you feel a sense of purpose, you feel connected with people around you,” he says. “That’s what people want. That’s what we want.”

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