New Steps in Pop Music's Continuing Dance Along the Racial Fault Line
People gravitate to good music, and the right music plus the right people at the right time add up to an official scene. But sometimes, there’s no telling what kind of people that music scene will then attract, or what will happen when they all get together.
Especially when race gets thrown race into the mix.
Take jazz, for example. Throughout the early 1900s, it took shape in mostly all-black milieus: tent shows, rent parties, juke joints, and nightclubs (not to mention a bordello here or a speakeasy there). As its popularity grew during the ‘20s, it piqued the interest of thrill-seeking whites, who flocked to establishments like the Cotton Club in Harlem to hear the music in its allegedly natural habitat (that being the community of Harlem, not the venue created solely with white audiences in mind). A decade later, musicians both white and black advanced jazz into its swing era, when it enjoyed its peak period as America’s pre-eminent pop music – which wouldn’t have happened, most likely, had not white audiences started kicking up their heels to it.
Much the same thing happened with R&B in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. The difference this time was the indignation of white grown-ups over their children seeking out those rockin’, unabashedly black beats. But try as they did, everything from promoting sanitized versions of R&B songs to trying to ban it outright, they couldn’t stop white kids from finding their way to the big new sound – especially when they saw a white guy not much older than them, one Elvis Aaron Presley, carrying on with his version of R&B (plus country, schmaltz and a hint of gospel) on national TV.
On the other side of the fault line lies country music, which used to be somewhat integrated before the marketers got a hold of it. In their respective formative years, country and blues musicians routinely borrowed from each other, and black country performers even got some occasional love from major venues like the Grand Old Opry. But as far back as the ‘20s, record companies started referring to the music white country musicians made as “old-time”, and drew clear categorical distinctions between it and the blues music the black folks were making, the better to help keep white record buyers from unwittingly giving their hard-earned coin to a black performer. Those distinctions stuck, to the point where even an A-list country star like Charley Pride seemed like the world’s biggest outlier because he was a black guy.
The Story of Northern Soul: A Definitive History of the Dance Scene that Refuses to Die
(Portico; US: Aug 2011)
White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race
(Verso; US: Sep 2011)
These are simply the most obvious examples of how race can complicate a sub-culture that gravitates to a particular form of music. Two recent books show how knotty the whole thing has become, even though the only thing the worlds they explore share in common is that in both cases, the audiences are almost all white.
Consider, for starters, the curious case of northern soul. That name does not represent, as is often assumed, an actual musical genre. It refers to a scene, or even a state of mind, more than a distinct category. Northern soul is the moniker that arose to brand the phenomenon of white British youths dancing their weekends away to American R&B records of a mid-to-late ‘60s vintage. Those records weren’t made in the UK, nor designed for a UK audience. They were American-made, hoping to hit the American charts (not all of them did, or climbed very high if they did, but hold on for more on that). Yes, these records happened during R&B’s soul era, but the only thing “northern” is that this scene sprung from urban areas in the northern UK.
If the scene were just a matter of kids in one part of the world grooving to hits from elsewhere, that would be one thing. But northern soul takes the global pop crossover notion one crucial step further: the R&B these kids craved never exactly crossed over. Outside of Motown and its packaged tours to England during the ‘60s, American record labels hadn’t made an effort to market themselves abroad (getting proper distribution and radio airplay at home was work enough, thank you). Instead, it was the audience itself that crossed over to find the music – literally.
A handful of northern soulsters, possessed by the thrills of both the music and the hunt, made pilgrimages to America, found their way to record distributors and other depositories, and brought back records they’d only read about in British music trade magazines. As those records become the life of the dance parties, they also became commodities for collectors and aspiring deejays. The larger collectors, in fact, would set up shop in the clubs while the dancers were getting busy, with prize catches on display for sale or trade.
But while those records were prize catches in England, they were on their way to obscurity back home. We’re not talking about the biggest R&B hits of the time – not the Motown classics, or even the numerous R&B chart-toppers that never became across-the-board pop smashes. No, the northern soul scene craved authenticity, which became defined as “something the squares outside our cocoon have no idea even exists.”
Thus, a scan of a northern soul playlist from the ‘60s will reveal titles like “I’ll Be Loving You” by the Soul Brothers Six and “Long after Tonight Is All Over’ by Jimmy Radcliffe. I’m sure there were tons of great songs in the mix, but I’ll be doggone if I’ve heard of 90 percent of them – and I grew up listening to this era’s black pop, right here in the U.S. of A. I actually thought I knew my stuff when it comes to ‘60s R&B, but clearly, the sharpest northern soul buffs would leave me in the dust with their encyclopedic knowledge of labels and acts long ago forgotten in their native land.
In time, some labels realized there was a buck to be made overseas, and R&B records could be found in stores that stocked imports. The bigger black acts of the day picked up on the Motown model, touring the UK to enthusiastic crowds. But when the soul sounds of the mid-‘60s morphed into the funk and jazz-funk of the late ’60s, the northern soul scene faced a choice – stay faithful to a sound that was on the wane in its birthplace, or embrace the evolving new grooves.
Here’s where that racial fault line begins to come into view. Black America made a political, social and cultural transformation in the ‘60s; by the end of the decade the R&B of even a few years earlier was already far out of step with the new reality. The old hits were still beloved, but the bulk of the attention was bestowed upon music that spoke to and of the moment’s urgency. Meanwhile, the northern soul scene – people from another country, and virtually all white – had no connection to the milieu from which the music sprang. All they knew (and this isn’t a knock against them) was that it had a great beat and you could dance to it. Their emotional investment was with the music, not its relationship to the broader black American society.
Just the Grooves and Melodies
Some clubs chose to follow the music wherever it led, and started programming more current records (again, with an eye towards finding the rarest of the rare – northern soul dj’s were the antecedents of today’s hip-hop cratediggers). Others chose to keep holding on to the tried and true soul sounds. Either way, one can only wonder if either side knew much about what was happening in the black American world at the time, or the place of its pop music within that world. Apparently, the music was received as just grooves and melodies, disconnected from its homegrown context. (In fact, the fault line between continuing with the old sound and following the new, plus increased police crackdowns on some of the parties and an ageing-out of the original crowd, helped dry up the northern soul scene by the mid-‘70s).
The story of British kids falling under the sway of American blues records in the early ‘60s and starting bands based on them is well known to most American rock fans. Similarly, a handful of music historians have given attention in recent years to the role reissued folk and blues records played in sparking the ‘60s folk music boom. But I’d wager one of the rare singles in my parents’ attic that most American black folks who grew up with R&B have no idea at all the northern soul phenomenon even exists. Fortunately, David Nowell’s The Story of Northern Soul: A Definitive History of the Dance Scene that Refuses to Die reports the scene’s twists and turns with the exhaustive detail of an insider who knows everyone in the scene worth knowing.
Nowell is clearly closer to breathless fanboy than dispassionate researcher, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. He communicates what made the scene so special to its participants, and how those good times still ring in their ears. He’s also sharp enough to fully consider the business aspect of northern soul, how it resulted in a market for CD reissue packages of all those obscure ‘60s dance faves (which, to bring the ironies full circle, are available only as imports in the country of the music’s inception), and how those reissues helped the phenomenon survive its early-‘80s nadir to thrive anew – kinda like disco, another dance scene that refused to die. This book was originally published in 1999; the 2011 version brings the story up to date, as northern soul has found life all around the globe (except, still, for the American ‘hood) and across the Internet.
What Nowell doesn’t do is engage any of the broader race-related issues the northern soul phenomenon raises. Was that seeming lack of awareness about black America a good thing for the northern soul scene? Did it free people up to simply love the music on its own terms? Or did it make possible a fetishization of the culture, to conflate obscurity and authenticity? One could easily wonder what black folks in the UK back then thought of such doings; if they had an opinion one way or the other, Nowell doesn’t report it. And now that northern soul – or, to be precise, the American R&B the scene was birthed around – is approaching 50 years old, what do its fans think or even know of the pop music black Americans are actually listening to in 2012?
Readers might not have time to ponder those questions if they start scouring the Internet looking up any of the playlists Nowell includes from northern soul fans, deejays and collectors. And even folks who haven’t paid a lick of attention to R&B stars of days gone by since their heyday will probably be happy to note that, thanks to people half a world away in more ways than one, some of those stars still get an occasional paycheck and feel some love from adoring fans.
Where the difference between blacks and whites isn’t much on Nowell’s mind in his study, it’s front and center in White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race. Not only is it a notable entry in the burgeoning field of punk rock studies, it merits a spot in cross-cultural studies, as well.
The 58 selections in this anthology run the gamut: major essays by established authors; excerpts from influential pop culture texts; reviews and think pieces by widely read music critics; and first-hand accounts, interviews and related missives from punks themselves. Together, they show how punk was a battleground where questions of racial identity regularly butted up against each other, and that they weren’t always resolved amicably (if at all). But that’s not a condition exclusive to punk.
Thus, it’s really not all that surprising that Norman Mailer’s oft-cited essay “The White Negro” (1957) would help set the context for the ensuing dialogue. Editors Stephen Duncombe (the academic in the mix) and Maxwell Tremblay (a drummer in a punk band) note that Mailer’s conflation of African-American outsiderness and exotic, counter-cultural hipness (a notion Mailer hardly invented, nor was the first to articulate) was manifested in some of the early punk activity vis-à-vis race. It’s certainly a fair consideration when looking back on Patti Smith’s “Rock ‘N’ Roll Nigger” (1975), the friction between Los Angeles punks in the late ‘70s and the denizens of a rundown apartment hotel where much of the city’s early punk scene coalesced, and various other punk attempts to link race and rebellion.
But punk’s eternal dialogue with itself about race goes much further than that. There’s the question of the Clash, whose political awakening (and some classic songs) came in large part after racial flare-ups in England in the mid-‘70s. There’s the presence of the skinhead movement within various punk circles. Most crucially, there’s the issue of whether punk ever was truly accepting of all cultures, or whether punks of color were supposed to check their heritages at the door before entering the mosh pit.
The latter conundrum sparked the Race Riot dialogue, which played out on bulletin boards and in zines throughout the ‘90s and early ‘00s. Punks of color poured their hearts out decrying the racism they felt in the white-dominated scene, while others wondered why those discussions kept happening, and if anyone had even paid attention when those laments cropped up in punk’s first wave. But rather than issue scorn against the punk scene for its obtuseness, consider that the very same issues have come up in numerous counter-cultural and progressive political movements since the ‘60s, from early feminism to gay rights to Occupy. It’s one thing to proclaim oneself against the status quo, but it’s time for a gutcheck when compatriots of color sense the same ol’ same ol’ of white privilege-fueled ignorance (or ignorance-fueled privilege) upon joining the ranks.
White Riot does an excellent job of bringing this dialogue to a broader light, presenting and confronting the issue more forthrightly than many accounts of other movements have done. It also helps fill in some crucial gaps in punk’s own lineage by simply proving that punk was not all white. Not only were there (and are) black and Latino punk bands in America (yes, besides Bad Brains), but punk has spanned the globe, with scenes all over Latin America and influences even in contemporary African pop (such as the South African band Blk Jks).
What Duncombe and Tremblay don’t quite do is fully flesh out both sides of the conundrum punks of color face. Not only do they often get grief from the “punk” half of the equation, but also from the “of color” half too. Afro-Punk founder James Spooner gets to some of that in his introduction to the anthology, and some of the first-person narratives speak to that feeling as well (as does the new memoir Violence Girl: East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage, a Chicana Punk Story by Alice Bag, who fronted the ‘70s L.A. band the Bags). But that larger story has yet to be told within a multi-cultural context, even as the post-blackness meme asserts that there is no one proscribed way to be black and still be accepted as such by other blacks.
Obviously, northern soul and punk are breeds apart in many ways. The former was essentially a weekend party scene with few grand ambitions beyond Saturday night, the latter adopted an oppositional stance in carving out space for itself in the world. Northern soul at its peak was virtually devoid of black participants (there are barely any black faces in the club photos Nowell includes in his book, aside from the performers), while there have been punks of color virtually since day one, so it’s impossible to say if the same cross-cultural tensions that exist in punk might also have come up in northern soul.
The biggest similarity is that both northern soulsters and punks of color found something crucial – danger, excitement, validation, and a sense of personal freedom, among other rewards—in another culture’s music and crossed over to it. We’ve seen how that played out in jazz and R&B, when whites discovered something incredible that sprang from black culture. Punk was that rare occasion in which the exchange went in the other direction; neither side was prepared for the reactions that greeted them.
Taken together, The Story of Northern Soul and White Riot tell us more about the vast, complicated middle ground where culture, race and music co-exist, or try to. It would be awfully nice to think that it’s all just music, and music doesn’t have a color. In theory, it doesn’t. In practice, that often depends on who’s in the crowd.