Stuart Maconie on the power of Northern Soul and 6 Music’s All Nighter

BBC Radio 6 Music presenter Stuart Maconie has spoken to Headliner about 6 Music’s upcoming Northern Soul All Nighter, curating the recent Northern Soul Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, and the impact of the genre on his life.

To mark the 50th anniversary of legendary Northern Soul venue Wigan Casino, BBC Radio 6 Music is celebrating on Saturday, September 9 with a night of programming dedicated to Northern Soul.

Broadcasting from 6pm on Saturday, September 9 at to 8am on Sunday, September 10, highlights will include a special Northern Soul edition of The Craig Charles Funk and Soul Show and a broadcast of Maconie’s Northern Soul Prom, which was recorded at the Royal Albert Hall in July. The Prom will also be broadcast on BBC Two on Saturday, August 26 at 7.45pm.

Samantha Moy, head of BBC Radio 6 Music says: “At 6 Music we love to delve deep into the scenes that shaped the UK’s musical history, bringing listeners stories from those who were there, insight from our expert presenters and of course, brilliant music. Stuart Maconie’s Northern Soul Prom was a triumph at the Royal Albert Hall, which was filled with joyous singing and dancing. I’m delighted to be able to share it on 6 Music as part our celebration of Northern Soul.”

Here, Maconie joins Headliner for a chat about the upcoming celebrations and the enduring legacy of Northern Soul…

You recently put together the Northern Soul Prom at the Royal Albert Hall. How did you go about curating the event?

The idea for it came from Hannah Donat who is the artistic director of the Proms. She came to me and asked me, as a Northern Soul fan, if I thought a Northern Soul Prom would work. And I said yes, because in recent years there has been a spate of orchestral and classical version of pop things, which is great and have been successful, but I have sometimes thought, is there a real fit here between the orchestral and pop worlds? But in this case I thought there was because the original Northern Soul records feature orchestras or string sections and brass, they feature a lot of the elements of a symphony orchestras.

The I went away and drew up a list of about 35 tracks, because the other thing is Northern Soul records are very short. So we needed a lot of songs so we needed some segues and things like that. I then drew up what I thought was a good blend of… some Northern Soul things pick themselves, so you want The Night, Frank Wilson’s Do I Love You?, Tainted Love by Gloria Jones. Those things pick themselves and people would rightly feel short-changed if they didn’t hear them.

After that I just picked records I thought were great and gave us a balance of tempo and things that fitted the singers. We had six singers – three male voices and three female voices – so we wanted to get that blend right. And Joe Duddell, who arranged the concert and is well known for his work with the likes of Elbow and James, also drew up a list from what he knew, and we found out we crossed over on about 26 of the tracks. We went back and forth and when we got to rehearsal there was one or two that didn’t work or that we just didn’t have time for. I knew we wanted to both appeal to a mass audience who didn’t know a thing about Northern Soul, but also make sure that people who knew their Northern Soul would like what we played. And it seemed to have worked. The response has been phenomenal.

I thought we’d get some die hard Northern Soul fans come down to London for it and I thought we’d get the people who go to The Proms who are passionate music fans and would be curious. What I didn’t believe was that is seems to have created a phenomenal response. I snuck into the hall for the last few numbers and the whole of the Royal Albert Hall was on its feet. It was incredible. And it was great that there were people who went in who said they didn’t know a thing about Northern Soul and found it a joyous, uplifting and life-affirming experience. I went from thinking, ‘I think we can get away with this’, to thinking it was an absolute triumph.

Did you enjoy the process of pulling everything together?

It was really good fun and very quick. It seems we went from me getting that first email to the night itself in a matter of weeks. Maybe a couple of months, which speaks volumes about the quality of the singers and the BBC Concert Orchestra. They were magnificent. Some people wondered whether these records, which are so joyous and vivacious and full of energy might be feel a bit sanitised in the Royal Albert Hall with an orchestra, but not at all. In some cases, they had even more energy than the originals.

Various genres have either been celebrated or revived in some way of late, be it classical interpretations of dance music, Britpop, post-punk. Is Northern Soul ready for such revision?

Well it never goes away. Burt Jansch once said to me, ‘there is always a folk revival going on’. It’s a bit like that with Northern Soul. It never really goes away, it’s just that more people discover it. This weekend there will be Northern Soul nights taking place all over the country. It doesn’t need to be revived.

Britpop was a moment in time. What I called Britpop back in 1993 was very different to what it became. When I coined that phrase I was talking about The Auteurs, Suede, and Pulp, not Ocean Colour Scene and Oasis. But even so, Britpop is very much that moment, cool Britannia, mid ‘90s. Northern Soul isn’t really like that because the records come from the mid ‘60s to the early ‘70s, it wasn’t based around one specific cultural moment like Britpop or punk. So what happened is people just discover it. Successive generations find out about it and embrace it.

When did Northern Soul first enter your life?

I’m from Wigan, so we like to think we were the capital of Northern Soul because of Wigan Casino. Some will dispute that but I can be partisan. When I was about 12 or 13 going into cafes in Wigan and the odd pub, I’d hear these records all the time that were great that I just assumed were big hits. Then when I went away to college I’d say, ‘you know The Snake by Al Wilson?’ and you’d realise people had never heard of these records. This was because Wigan had the Casino, and Northern Soul was big places like Wigan, Bolton, Stoke, Wolverhampton, so I realised it was quite a cult scene.

I was too young to go to the Wigan Casino all-nighters but I knew the music really well through youth clubs and things like that. Then they started the early sessions on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, which I could sneak into. And it’s never left me. I love it, and I never have any trouble introducing people to it because if you like the drama and romance of great pop music it’s hard to dislike.

You can listen to this interview in full below.

The Craig Charles Funk and Soul Show, Northern Soul Special (6pm-9pm), The Northern Soul Prom (9pm-12am) and All-Nighter Playlists from Golden Torch, Wigan Casino, Twisted Wheel and The 100 Club are produced by TBI Media.

Morning After Mix, Northern Soul Special (4am-7am) and Lights On With Stuart Maconie (7am-8am) are produced by Audio Always.