Life and soul
With a bit of ritual, special outfits and a strong sense of camaraderie, Northern Soul is a music and dance passion for Dave Stubbs that perfectly complements his Freemasonry. Sarah Holmes finds out more
Leafing through a red leather box of vinyl, Dave Stubbs suddenly jumps to his feet. ‘Ah! This one! This record is magic,’ he beams. Turning to an old-fashioned record player, he carefully places the unsheathed disc on the turntable and drops the needle. A crackled silence is followed by the stomping bass of John Leach’s 1963 track Put That Woman Down. The music rumbles through the two-up, two-down terrace in Shrewsbury as Dave bounces on the spot, face to the ceiling and arms open wide, crooning in time to the gravelly vocal.
It’s the kind of passion usually reserved for the front row at a music festival, but here in the humble setting of his living room, Dave’s exuberance practically bursts through the walls. He is a music fan, quite obviously, but with a particular taste for the B-side American soul tracks of the 1960s.
Unlike the populist songs of Motown, this music was harder, grittier and less palatable for mainstream audiences. Even so, it found a devoted fan base in the Mod-inspired subcultures of northern England. From 1970 onwards, journalists such as Dave Godin referred to it as Northern Soul, and underground clubs like Twisted Wheel in Manchester and The Golden Torch in Stoke-on-Trent began hosting Northern Soul all-nighters.
Like so many, Dave Stubbs first came to the music as a teenager in his local youth club. ‘It was the older lads, the ones sneaking into the Northern Soul all-nighters, who introduced us to the music,’ remembers Dave. ‘That’s how we learned to dance; we just copied what they were doing. It was all experimental.’
Thanks to the genre’s athletic dance style, Northern Soul fashion was dictated by the need for practicality. Loose-fitting clothes such as baggy Oxford trousers, Ben Sherman-style shirts and sports vests became the accepted uniform. Dave looks every inch the genuine article in Wrangler Bluebell jeans, a check shirt and a flat cap. ‘It’s not a costume for me. I walk around in these clothes every day,’ he says. Although vintage shops are the main source of his authentic 1970s wardrobe, his most prized possessions have been passed down to him by fellow ‘soulies’.
The only incongruity in his outfit is the masonic ring on his right hand. As a member of Salopian Lodge of Charity, No. 117, Dave balances his time between Northern Soul and Freemasonry. ‘My great grandfather was a Freemason, so it was something that always interested me,’ he explains.
A military man for most of his youth, Dave served in Iraq in the early 1990s and his living room is adorned with paraphernalia of his time there, including a framed certificate of commendation for his work with Operation Desert Storm. But it wasn’t until leaving the army that Dave became involved in the Craft.
Having become a county standard bearer with The Royal British Legion, he got talking to a Freemason while on duty at the Shrewsbury Flower Show and was proposed as an initiate. ‘I know a lot of lads from the military who are involved in Freemasonry,’ says Dave. ‘It’s something that we look for after a military career – that sense of belonging.’
It didn’t take long for Dave to introduce his brethren to the belting world of Northern Soul. Every month, he organises a Northern Soul night at the masonic hall on Crewe Street, the proceeds of which go towards maintaining a World War I memorial commemorating the Shrewsbury Freemasons. Simon Curden is a regular attendee and, like Dave, has a passion for the Northern Soul scene: ‘It’s fun, keeps you fit and is part of a fantastic social world. It’s not so different from Freemasonry.’
It’s not just members who benefit from Dave’s musical interest. This summer, his friends and family will get a glimpse into the Craft when he hosts his Northern Soul-themed wedding reception at the masonic hall in Shrewsbury. ‘My fiancée Polly is a Freemason and a Northern Soul fan too, so it’s a place that’s close to both of our hearts,’ says Dave. ‘It’s not surprising that so many people who enjoy Northern Soul are Freemasons too. I find the two interests very complementary. On the Northern Soul scene, we’re often called soul brothers and soul sisters, and just like a masonic lodge, we all stick together.’
Watching Dave cut his way across a dance floor, it’s no surprise he was cast as an extra for Elaine Constantine’s 2014 film, Northern Soul. In celebration of the premiere, Dave hired out the local cinema, selling the tickets to family and friends, and giving the proceeds to the local Freemasons’ memorial.
It was his involvement in this BAFTA-nominated documentary that won him the starring role in a national Shredded Wheat advert last year. A mini film showing the ritual leading up to a Northern Soul night out, it captured every moment of Dave’s meticulous routine as he got ready. ‘The ethos is all about turning out smart,’ explains Dave. ‘So from the moment you wake up on a Saturday morning you’re ironing shirts, shining shoes and listening to records. It’s a whole-day ritual.’
For three days, a film crew camped out in Dave’s front room, interviewing his friends and family on his lifelong devotion to the Northern Soul scene, and the philosophy behind his passion. ‘They could have hired an actor,’ he says, ‘but I think they chose me because I actually live the lifestyle. It’s in me as a person, so there was no need for pretending.’
Luckily, Dave’s brush with stardom didn’t go to his head; he didn’t even keep the lifetime’s supply of Shredded Wheat that he received after the advert. ‘We tired of it pretty quickly, so we gave it to the homeless shelter down the road,’ he says, keen to add that money was never going to be a motivating factor: ‘Northern Soul is my passion and I wanted to show other people what it is like, and hopefully share the joy with them.’
While Northern Soul was predominantly the preserve of Suedeheads and Mods in the 1970s, over the years its following has diversified; nowadays you’re just as likely to find youngsters tearing across the dance floor as the original soulies. ‘Nobody will judge you for letting go and having a good time in Northern Soul,’ explains Dave. ‘It’s all about the shared love of the music. You can completely lose yourself in it, and it feels amazing.’
Such is the adrenaline rush of the Northern Soul all-nighter that often, Dave says, he’ll return home at 7.30am only to head back out to an all-dayer by noon. ‘It becomes a lifestyle, I suppose,’ says Dave. ‘Just like Freemasonry, it’s not about money, and it’s not about connections. It’s about camaraderie, and living in a way that makes you feel good.’
‘Nobody will judge you for letting go and having a good time in Northern Soul.’ Dave Stubbs
Out on the floor
Starting off in venues such as Manchester’s Twisted Wheel in the late 1960s, Northern Soul’s unique brand of fashion and dance quickly spread to other UK dancehalls and nightclubs like Chateau Impney in Droitwich, The Catacombs in Wolverhampton, the Highland Room at Blackpool Mecca, The Golden Torch in Stoke-on-Trent and Wigan Casino. With the beat becoming more uptempo, Northern Soul dancing became more athletic and started to feature spins, flips, karate kicks and backdrops.