Friday, April 26, 2024

BBC Proms is the Life and Northern Soul of the Party

The BBC Proms is a music festival that can trace its roots back to 1895, beating Glastonbury by 75 years. 

Attracting audiences from all over the world, its traditional appeal attracts more ball gowns than waterproof ponchos, however the BBC is aiming to change all of that, or at least to bring it up to date with orchestral concerts dedicated to popular music as well as the classics.

The first toe in the water was in 2023 with ‘Northern Soul at the Proms’ which featured a line-up of six powerful singers and the BBC Concert Orchestra, racing through a selection of popular soul tracks - not all of them hits, which is partly the essence of Northern Soul.

For anyone not familiar with the genre, Northern Soul is a music and dance movement that emerged in Northern England and the Midlands in the early 1970s, featuring American soul music which was itself a spin-off of the industrial origins of Motown. Wigan Casino is the club where the all night dance marathons allegedly started, though other clubs were quick to follow including the Blackpool Mecca, the Golden Torch in Stoke-on-Trent and the Catacombs in Wolverhampton, making the Midlands city the perfect place for the BBC to take the Proms on the road with shows in London, Manchester, Sheffield and Gateshead to follow.

Whilst Northern Soul is associated with a particular style of music, it is really best known for the free, high energy, expressive form of dancing. Many Northern Soul classics would be unrecognisable outside of the clubs as they are songs which attracted little attention in the US when originally released, often on independent labels. The music varies in pace but the themes are consistent and the passion with which the songs are performed creates an energy which is irresistible. Every one is, quite literally, a dance floor filler. Adapting the music to an orchestral canvas would seem a challenge, yet the creators of the Proms have pulled this off with significant style, aided by a rotating line-up of six singers, each bringing a unique approach to their contribution to the evening.

Whilst the singers were spectacular and the orchestra were powerful, lively and uplifting, the real stars of the show were the audience. Strangely, for a genre so rooted in its audience participation, the Halls had chosen to fill the ground floor with seats rather than leave standing and dancing room, as they do for other shows. However, once host Stuart Maconie opened the evening and the orchestra set the pace with ‘Turnin’ My Heartbeat Up’, originally performed by The MVPs, the clapping picked up instantly and the dancing was quick to follow. Before long, fans were jumping and weaving up and down empty rows and the aisles filled up with the characteristically gymnastic movements of Northern Soul… to call them fans is an understatement. Northern Soul isn’t just something that they like, it’s who they are. They are ‘soulies’.

During the interval, Brian and Julie told the story of their own love for the music and everything that goes with it. Brian first started visiting Northern Soul clubs at the age of 15; just 54 years ago. He and Julie still travel all over the country to weekend festivals where they meet up with old friends and make new ones. Brian runs a Facebook page dedicated to sharing photos from dances and he estimates that he knows over a thousand soulies, either by sight or by their distinctive dance styles. The conversation is regularly interrupted by people running over to hug Brian, to say hello, to reminisce. The sense of community is powerful, it’s diversity and inclusion, decades before anyone was talking about diversity and inclusion.

Most of the songs performed in the show were favourites of the audience but perhaps not widely recognisable. Notable exceptions were two songs famously covered back in the 1980s by Soft Cell. ‘What’ was originally released in 1965 and performed by none other than Melinda Marx, daughter of Groucho Marx. The ubiquitous ‘Tainted Love’ was first recorded by Gloria Jones in 1964 and covered by Soft Cell in 1981, bringing together many musical communities who all lay claim to a love of the song. It certainly gets everyone on their feet at any wedding, ironically.

During the occasional breaks in the show, host Stuart Maconie wove together a story of the history of Northern Soul, from its musical origins to the devotion of the fans through the communities and the clubs that celebrated the simple joy of being alive with all night dance parties, ending at eight in the morning. At Wigan Casino, the night’s dancing would always reach a signature conclusion, three songs known as the “three before eight”; Jimmy Radcliffe’s ‘Long After Tonight Is All Over’, Tobi Legend’s ‘Time Will Pass You By’ and Dean Parrish’s ‘I’m On My Way’. These songs were, of course, a fitting and mandatory conclusion to what was a thrilling evening of entertainment. Back in the 1970s, these songs would have signalled that it was time to go home, but not tonight. After the briefest pause, the aforementioned ‘Tainted Love’ picked the pace right back up for an uplifting finale which had everyone on their feet, cheering for more.

Logistically, it’s not easy to get an orchestra off and back onto the stage, so the promise of an encore was no surprise to anyone. 'Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)', originally by Frank Wilson, took the energy of the evening even higher and, in the big picture of the history of the Proms, was an entirely appropriate alternative to the ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ made famous at the Royal Albert Hall every year. The audience didn’t rush out into the street as is often the case with shows like this. There was still much laughing, chatting, reminiscing and hugging to be done, thanks to the tremendous vision and skill of the BBC in bringing this event to reality.

Lifelong soulie Brian says it best; “Northern Soul, it’s a way of life. It’s a big Northern Soul family”.

Peter Freeth



Images: Peter Freeth


  1. What a fantastic evening this was, so many northern soulies there and dancing in the isles,there is nothing like this when we are all together for one thing the music and dance,there was never any trouble on this scene we all looked after each other, no one allowed to bring drinks on the dance floor, we all used talc but not allowed anymore,each time you go out make new friends it’s brilliant, and if you mention northern soul in conversation what ever time of day we all seem to have a link,well was really good meeting Peter his photos from the show are fantastic thank you for sharing, hope to meet you again at another event like this KTF

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