Subjective Thoughts On A Neglected Scene
The British Soul Scene: a dance meritocracy, a dress aristocracy created by and for a working class elite - revisited.
Picture youth culture in the late seventies and eighties and you imagine New Romantics and Futurists, maybe Mods and Rude Boys. By neglecting the importance of the Soul Boy, the history books are telling a warped and incomplete story of British youth culture.
It lasted longer than the Punk, Mod and New Romantic scenes. It laid the foundations for global dance music as we know it, and yet the East London Soul Boy scene is more often than not portrayed as a kind of social footnote, an also-ran in the history of youth culture.
Even at the time, back in the seventies and through to the early eighties, the Soul Boy was often vilified, his style of dress lampooned - the wedge haircut, the plastic sandals, the straight jeans, the white socks - and yet the Soul Boy aesthetic is at the core of contemporary British menswear as we now know it, the beginning of the casual and the street style obsession with sportswear, vintage and country classics.
As a club subculture, the Soul Boy lineage continues to this day - from the Summers Of Love In Ibiza to the drum'n'bass scene, the broken beat to grime and to funky house. Without pirate soul stations such as Invicta, Kiss and Horizon there would be no Choice FM, Kiss FM or Jazz FM.
But why has something so powerful and popular been so blatantly short-changed?
It operated on its own internal logic, a set of coded principles, which excluded the uninitiated and made them feel more than a little uncomfortable. Soul Boys and Soul Girls made up their own rules because the pre-existing rules tended not to work in their favour. They went to clubs on Saturday afternoons in Soho. Then they set up clubs in bars and pubs in farthest Essex. They held clubs that ran all day - starting at noon and ending late at night in West London. They did weekenders in Caister. They did parties in London Zoo. If a club became too popular, patronised by the hangers-on, they'd simply shut up shop and move to somewhere else.
They listened to records that never got released in the UK. Imports, rare, expensive and remote - records by artists whom had never heard of the Greyhound, Spats, Crackers, Gossips or Lacy Ladies. More so than the Punk, the Soul Boy was the star of his own scene, because he followed DJs, not venues, not bands. And the DJ - Froggy, Chris Hill, Dez Parkes, Derek Boland, Paul Anderson, Robbie Vincent, Greg Edwards, Steve Walsh - depended more on the clubbers - discerning, enthusiastic and involved - than they did on him.
The clothes were like the dance moves - weapons for battle, competition where styles would be redefined on a weekly basis, the suede tasselled jacket, giving way to the cheese cloth shirt, then the Hawaiian shirt and the string vest…the skinny jeans (straights), the pleated trousers (pegs), the shorts, the dungarees, the Prince Albert slippers and plastic sandals…But while no style was left unturned, danceability was the key factor here, not static posing.
Eventually bands came out of the scene - Heatwave, Central Line, Light Of The World, Incognito, I-Level, Level 42, Linx, Beggar & Co, Freeze, Loose Ends - many out of major labels like Ensign, Mercury, GTO Records. When they eventually made it on to Top Of The Pops it was as if they were an embodiment of a scene, not stars separate from their core audience.
Ultimately, it was a scene which evolved so quickly, existing within its own coded realm, that it was hard to commodify and even harder to exploit - and that's just how they wanted it.
The Soul Boy took the world and turned it upside down - as disenfranchised citizens subject to racial abuse, sus laws, institutional racism in school and the prospect of unemployment after school, is it any wonder they created such a radically different world from their middle-class counterparts, a world so radical and class-facing that even today's cultural critics - the self-appointed arbiters of taste and youth culture history - prefer to belittle it or ignore it completely?
Some great Soul Boy tracks:
James Mason, Sweet Power
Lonnie Liston Smith, Expansions
Central Line, Walking On Sunshine
Tania Maria, Funky Tambourine
Patrice Rushen, Number 1
Maze, Joy and Pain
Bernard Wright, Haboglabotribin'
Dexter Wansel, Life On Mars
Dedicated to Paul 'Tubbs' Williams and Steve 'DJ Froggy' Howlett RIP.