Pot, Pills And Vinyl: How Northern Soul Went Acid In The 1980s


As we pulled up in David’s work van, Brenton was already on his way out of the door. Momentarily, I thought we had violently leapt through an unseen fissure in the fabric of universal time-law physics: I could have sworn that was a 1940s city spiv running towards us, the type that occasionally hovered looking shifty in the margins of my grandmother’s photo albums from the Blitz years. Was he dodging puddles or running from a hovering doodlebug? His waxy yellow mac was failing to defy the relentless grey November downpour, the obligatory wide brimmed trilby hat already saturated. As he got closer his matchstick-thin top-lip moustache underlined the point entirely; here was the London borough of Bexley’s one remaining soldier of the home-front 1940s nylon war.

‘Watcha!’ he said to no-one in particular, as he took the front passenger seat. I was the newly arrived cub scout, and so my alloted position was firmly in the back.

‘What fucking time do you call this, David? And what the fuck is this utter piece of shit you are forcing me to acompany you in? Arseholes!’ He whacked the passenger door with an elbow to ram home the point.

David’s response — and as I was to discover, the default response to Brenton’s ever caustic criticisms on nights such as these, was to laugh a Benson & Hedges’ catarrh infused cackle whilst simultaneously lighting up the next one in the never to be broken chain. David took a moment to take in this harrassed B movie extra that had just firmly ascended. He smiled admiringly.

It would be on the cufflink of the following morning’s dawn, after we had safely returned our suburban time traveller back home, that David would explain hs best friend’s strategic style mission. It was the winter of 1989 and there were, broadly speaking, three quite distinct, if somewhat monotonous, sign systems that crowded out the floor at any northern soul ‘do.’ On the one side were the mods, of course. This particular look had never flat-lined, but by the late 1980s it was distinctly for the youngsters. It usually made its appearance in the mode of a kind of factory standard (quite out of keeping with the original ethos, as the primal fathers of the scene would remind each other). They all affected the look that Paul Weller was sporting on his album covers some ten years earlier — a few daring pioneers attempted his recent outfits from the more effete Style Council photo-shoots, but it was all quite uniform, even if the brief acid jazz craze saw a few love-beads and psychedelic shirts ruffle up the inclination to dress by numbers.

And then there were the skinheads, and as everyone knows, the delinquent cousin of mod. In the late 1980s this strangely unique English phenomenon, our very own Vespula vulgaris of the council estate, was going through something of a revival, and known more commonly as ‘bonehead.’ However, the skinheads that frequented our northern soul dos had nothing in common with that lot —instead they took pains to recreate the look of the football terraces and Margate seafront of 1969. Not for them the bleached jeans, bomber jackets and right-wing badges of the Lesser-spotted bonehead, although this kind of subtle nuance was probably lost on any terrified Bengali grandmother walking home alone down Bethnal Green highroad at midnight in this, the fag-end of the 1980s.

But on nights like these, and at the other end of the bar, would be a just as tightly knit gang whose allegiance was, first and foremost, to 1950s rock and roll. The look was distinct, and, just like the Paul Weller clones, it was all about the hair. There was no doubting that the boys’ quiffs were quite wonderful creations. If Northern soul was not their first passion, they would still enjoy a night out where the music being played was probably a decade too late for their tastes, but it shared the American rhythm and blues heritage of course. If a northern soul ‘alnighter’ was happening – more than likely in a draughty old church hall somewhere in the outer London suburbs — the adjoining car parks would play host to a few of these disciples of rock n’ rolls’ massive post war Buicks or Cadillacs. In the late 1980s they could still be picked up for a song in the pages of Exchange and Mart. Here these motors would be mansplayed all over the vicar’s designated parking bay, petrol fumes lazily oozing like testosterone, engine metal cooling malevolently.

But Brenton decided he wanted nothing to do with any of them. although he knew people on all sides of the divides of course. He looked down his pencil thin moustachioed underlined nose at them all — pathetically unoriginal. Although Brenton had never been to art school, he got the art school punk elite ethos.

And so Brenton had decided to signify his arrival at nights like this with the look of a man hungry for an alternative to coupon rationed whale meat or sawdust filled sausages; for him the das ding was the unconscious acknowledgement of the lost world of his grandparents —one glance his way and you would be forgiven for momentarily wondering if it was that cursed U Boat blockade that was to blame for his hollowed out cheekbones and missing teeth. But no, snap out of it. This is the 1980s, remember? In actual fact, Brenton was a well paid chef at one of the top London hotels and it was his long time addiction to amphetamine that that was to blame for his permanently funereal look. And so he cut an entirely singular figure in the nightclubs we haunted, with his washed out Fair Isle slipover and gangster spats. The occasional city yuppie that stumbled down the basement stairs on the look out for a late licence after the pubs had shut would be forced to do a double take.

But for now, David started the motor up and we were on our way. He half looked over his shoulder in my direction. ‘Brenton, this is Sal. I told you about him remember? He was the one with the Vespa…’

David’s explanation trailed off at Brenton’s mournful interruption about the pissing weather. Trilby now removed, he was checking his pomade’d hair in the passenger mirror and decrying the probable choice of music the hapless DJ’s were likely to present at tonight’s do.

‘That Bruce Leigh is a fucking idiot. Wouldn’t know what northern soul was if it came and fucking bit him on the leg. And all his fucking records are represses.’

Represses. Repressed? Return of the repressed? It was all a mystery to me.

David cackled his default response as the dark city rushed past, window wipers smearing hallucinogenic yellow across the screen as Lou Pride sang I’m Coming Home in the Morning on the van stereo.


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