Listen to this track by British post-punk by way of soul music collective Dexys Midnight Runners. It’s their second UK single and first number one hit “Geno”, as taken from their 1980 album Searching For the Young Soul Rebels, their debut.
A few years before their Trans-Atlantic, and worldwide hit “Come On Eileen” for which they are best (perhaps solely) known outside of the UK, it was this song that made their name, eschewing the usual post-punk textures of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Instead, this tune embraces Northern Soul and ’60s mod-scene flavouring instead. Guitars, bass, and drums were therefore augmented by Hammond organ, and big horns – classic and essential soul elements, all.
Clearly there were links to the burgeoning second wave of Ska in Britain as well, with bands like Madness and the Specials using a similar approach, instrumentally speaking. But, in some ways, Dexy’s provided a stronger tie to music as created and championed in Britain from the mid-60s.
“Geno” is exhibit A, a tune that is named after Geno Washington, an American soul singer based in Britain around this same mid-60s period. Washington was the frontman to The Ram Jam Band, a popular showband who’s audiences were made up of US servicemen (like Washington himself had been), and British soul and R&B fans alike.
But by 1979-80, what was it that Dexy’s were saying about the state of musical play by the time this song came out? Read more
Listen to this track by Sheffieldian one-time Human League splinter group, and sonically ambitious hitmakers in their own right, Heaven 17. It’s their smash UK single “Temptation” as taken from their 1983 album The Luxury Gap.
One of the features here is guest vocalist Carol Kenyon, who sings in a Northern Soul influenced style, contrasting the synth-pop groove. The tune would also incorporate a full orchestra, creating even more textural contrast, and producing a high-charting single that year for the band, reaching number 2 in the UK pop charts.
The Luxury Gap was the group’s second record, after 1981’s Penthouse and Pavement. The band had been one of the most prominent proponents of Northern synth pop, although initially split off from the Human League, a project that was abandoned by keyboardists Ian Craig-Marsh and Martyn Ware. They’d left the band in the hands of vocalist Phil Oakey. That version of the Human League under Oakey’s leadership would become an international success with a new line-up.
But, Craig-Marsh and Ware had pop smarts of their own to draw from. Read more
Here’s a clipof no-bullshit, bona-fide Northern soul star Ann Sexton with a 2008 performance of her 1974 single “You’re Losing Me”, originally put out on small label Seventy-7 records. Sexton is yet another link to the recent, and very encouraging, classic soul revival which has seen the recent rise of Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, Amy Winehouse, Jully Black, Joss Stone, and many others. As a result, Sexton has dusted off some of her material from the classic mid-70s period, found now to be just what the crowds are after.
Not to be confused with the Massachusetts poet of the same name, our Ann Sexton was an obscure artist in her home country, made into a name on the British Northern Soul scene like so many others. Even though she remained inactive as a performing musician since the 1970s, a resurgence in popularity found Sexton featured at a 2007 Baltic Soul Weekender festival in Germany where she was greeted with great enthusiasm. The clip above is taken from an appearance at the very same festival the next year.
Sexton is a proponent of one of my favourite sub-genres of classic soul music – Southern soul. In Sexton’s case, her popularity in the 70s Northern Soul scene in Britain is kind of ironic. Of course, that ‘North’ refers not to the Mason-Dixon line, but rather to to clubs in the North of England where otherwise obscure soul singles were played by local DJs and made popular as dance music. It remains to be something of a trend that British music scenes tend fill the role of curator of the best in American music, in some cases music which has gone unnoticed or remains to be underappreciated in America itself.
Much like the work of similar soul singers like Ann Peebles and Candi Staton, you can smell the sweat off of this kind of music. Sexton kicks it with this tune, the sound of a woman who knows what she wants, what she doesn’t want, and isn’t afraid to say so. There is a certain toughness to this kind of music, which to me is better testament to female empowerment than in any “I Am Woman” anthems of the era.