Soul crazy, after all these years

For 2,000 devotees of northern soul, a weekend in a Norfolk holiday camp is a very special event.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
"My mum always used to go on about The Beatles and I promised myself I'd never be like her," laughs Shirley, as she bustles around making breakfast in the kitchenette of the holiday chalet she is sharing with five friends for the weekend. "I told myself I'd move with the times, but look at me, I'm just as bad. I'm stuck in a time warp too," she beams proudly. "I'm just as bad. I'm just a dedicated Soul Girl."

Shirley is one of at least 2,000 soul "kids" - most of them well into their thirties - who have travelled from all over Britain and packed into the chalets of a sprawling holiday park on the bleak Norfolk coast for a three-day soul extravaganza.

Shirley, who drove up with her friends from Northampton the previous night in a hired minibus, is a bona fide member of the Soul Family, as the thousands who religiously travel all over the country for this and half a dozen other annual soul events like to be known. Clannish as they are, the Soul Family have never had a distinctive image like mods or punks. They don't stand out as an obvious, identifiable group, but that simply adds to their "exclusivity". So far, soulies have outlasted every other group except Teds in their diehard dedication to the music of their youth. Long enough, in fact, to be threatened now with a mini-revival that could blow their cultish cover.

The first soulies sported white socks and wedge haircuts, pegged trousers and Fred Perry T-shirts, and followed the dance craze for so-called northern soul, rare grooves and jazz funk - black American dance music which crossed the Atlantic and swept British clubs in the late Seventies and early Eighties. The veteran DJ Robbie Vincent, who founded and still plays at the Caister event, defines the music, rather strictly, as "post-Motown R&B and jazz- influenced Philadelphia Soul".

Glastonbury, Reading and the Isle of Wight are all justly famous for their music festivals, but Caister, a minor resort on the edge of Great Yarmouth, probably doesn't ring any bells for most people. "This is a very exclusive event," explains Brian Rix, organiser of Caister's twice- yearly Soul Weekender. "We try to avoid publicity because we always have to turn people away as it is," says Rix a little sniffily. "And we only want people who are serious about the music. We don't want people coming along who have just read about it somewhere and think it sounds like a laugh. That's not what Caister is about."

With the recent release of a top-selling Eighties Soul Weekender compilation album, (featuring tracks by Freez, Luther Vandross, and The Fatback Band), classic soul looks set to be the subject of the next nostalgia-driven musical revival. Mike Flowers brought back easy listening and Oasis paid tribute to Burt Bacharach, but the current big hit single "Fast Love", by George Michael, pays tribute to a 1981 soul classic, "Forget Me Nots", by Patrice Rushen. A taste, no doubt, of more to come.

The music was accessible but cultish at the same time. "In the mid-Seventies, all we had was public service broadcasting, basically Radio 1, which was run by a group of men who were older and pretty out of touch. There was no outlet for populist black dance music," says Robbie Vincent.

Vincent and club DJs like Chris Hill, now 52 and the top-billing name at Caister, travelled to the States in search of soul and rare grooves. Vincent then played his latest discoveries on his Saturday morning BBC Radio London show, which soon acquired a dedicated following. "I found out that if I played a new soul record on my show at 11.10, by 11.30 you couldn't buy it anywhere in London. The record stores only stocked 300 or so of an imported single and people listening went straight out and bought them."

The original Soul Kids, underground and obscure enough to be trendy but without being threatening, passed most people by. They weren't angry or rebellious. All they wanted to do was dance. While punks were sticking safety pins through their cheeks and pogoing, soulies were busy applying cherry lip gloss, doing dance duels in deck shoes and grooving around white handbags to Earth Wind and Fire in places like Canvey Island in Essex, Southport near Liverpool, and Wigan Casino just outside Manchester.

And they've never stopped. Around midday Saturday in Caister, the Soul Family are emerging, stiff-legged and hung over, from the neat, cream chalets that stretch endlessly towards the overcast horizon. They have already done their first 10-hour stretch of hardcore drinking and dancing on Caister's packed, beer-slippery dance floors flanked with giant papier mache palm trees. Another two days of the same lie ahead. The music in the main hall has already started up again. Campers are being summoned to the dance floor over the tannoy. A Pool Party in the compound's exotic indoor waterpark kicks off in the afternoon.

Dazed-looking people wearing whistles on strings, cut-off shorts and Dolce and Gabbana jumpers wander about breakfasting on takeaway pizza and chips, porridgey legs exposed to the bitter Siberian winds gusting in from the North Sea. Security is tight. Everyone is issued with a laminated ID card, and vans full of security guards in black uniforms patrol the site, checking the perimeter fence. As usual, the event was sold out and hundreds had to be turned away.

Henry, a 37-year-old businessman from southwest London, is proud to have been present at the first Weekender, at Caister in 1979. "A mark one Cortina was definitely the car to be seen in then," he reminisces fondly. Today the car park is crammed with BMWs and the odd Ferrari, and punters now book their pounds 70 Weekender tickets on Amex Gold cards. Caister may be windswept and tacky, but in Henry's opinion it has never been bettered.

He and his friends tried Glastonbury once but thought it was "soft". "Musically it was too diluted," says Perry, "they just seemed to have a little bit of everything." And while club music like House and Garage and more recently Ragga and Jungle are the natural successors to the original northern soul cult, Henry and friends don't exactly feel comfortable, being twice the age of most of the people there.

"We don't like the drugs either," says Henry, echoing an opinion widely held by those at the event. The original soulies' drug of choice was "poor man's coke" - speed, snorted to keep them going on the dance floor right through the night. But anything else, acid or ecstasy, just gets in the way of the music and dancing, which is apparently the real buzz for everyone who makes their way to Caister. Specialist record stalls next to the dance floor are run by devotees like Gary Dennis, a DJ who still regularly travels to the States in search of rare grooves which can sell for several hundred pounds.

"What I don't want you to think is that the Soul Weekender is for flabby old blokes trying to relive their youth and get off with a bunch of younger women," says Rix finally. That, he wants to make it clear, is not what Caister or the Soul Family are about. He is already getting bookings for the next event in October.