Splash of Soul - how music of northern clubs captures hearts in east Bristol

October 06 2017

IT'S three o'clock on Sunday afternoon and the dance floor is starting to fill.

IT'S three o'clock on Sunday afternoon and the dance floor is starting to fill. The beat is unmistakable, or at least it is for people in the know. Because this is northern soul - and it's alive and kicking in the middle of Speedwell.
The bi-monthly event, called Splash of Soul, takes place at Barton Hill Rugby Club in Speedwell and is the brainchild of three like-minded soulies keen to recapture the buzzing soul scene of the north of England.
The pals - Martyn Johnson, Jimmy Manu and Malcolm Beedle - take it in turns to play 45-minute sets and also enlist the occasional guest DJ just to add a new dimension to the mix.
Soul snobs might be disappointed but the music isn't exclusively played out on original vinyl. Ironically, this may well be the reason Splash of Soul is so successful. All that's required is that a tune has a good beat and makes you want to dance. The value of a record has no truck with this crowd.
"It's what comes out of the speakers which counts," insists Martyn, a 61-year-old van driver.
"Some parts of the scene are all about original vinyl but we don't care; we'll play off CD, although 70 per cent of the music we play is vinyl. We don't worry if a record doesn't cost £1,000 ."
Martyn, who lives in Stapleton, is referring to the extortionate amounts of cash that some northern soul DJs will pay for original vinyl. And when he mentions £1k, he's not joking - the most expensive northern soul record sold was the Frank Wilson classic Do I Love You (Indeed I Do) which went for a staggering £25,742 in 2009.
"We're not trying to be smart and clever and don't profess to know everything about northern soul, rare soul and R&B," says Jimmy, 58, a building site manager who lives in Kingswood.
"I play vinyl but most people don't come up to look at whether we're playing original vinyl, represses or CDs - they're not bothered. They just want to have a good time.
"Certain people look down their noses if you're not playing original vinyl but we don't care what people think. If they don't like that then they don't have to come."
Malcolm - known affectionately on the soul circuit as Malc the Talc - has been DJ-ing since the 1980s. He admits to spending a lot more on original vinyl than Martyn and Jimmy, shelling out £800 for Danny Owens' You're A Little Too Late.
"I'm lucky enough to have a lovely set of original vinyl which I've collected over the years but I've got no problem with others playing from CD or repressings," said the 57-year-old postman.
"I don't show off about my collection; it's just something I'm passionate about. It's more fun waiting for originals to come up for sale. Sometimes I might have to wait a year but if I wanted to buy a repressing of the same song, I could probably look on the internet and find it straight away.I buy original vinyl because I enjoy them and want to play them to other people in the hope that they'll enjoy them as much as I do."
The three met through the Bristol soul circuit, their passion for music and DJ-ing leading them to think about getting something off the ground themselves.
Martyn said: "Up in the Midlands and the north the northern soul scene is thriving, you have a choice lots of venues where you can go to hear it. We travelled up to a few dos on Sunday afternoons and it just seemed to work. We thought 'Why not give it a go here?'"
Splash of Soul has been running for nearly two years now, gradually gaining momentum as word spreads.
The name was something Jimmy had been carrying around in his head, a nod to the Reggae Sunsplash events at Crystal Palace he used to attend in the 1980s. Visitors need only have one thing in common - a love of northern soul, or at the very least, a curiosity to find out more.
"If a stranger turns up, it won't be long before someone starts talking to them and asking their name and where they're from. That's how friendly it is," Martyn says.
Like most northern soul devotees, Martyn clearly remembers the day he discovered the musical genre which was to remain close to his heart for the rest of his life.
"It was 1975 and I was in Jersey on holiday. There was a group of northern lads dancing to this brilliant music and I'd never seen dancing like it. It was nothing like the way people in Bristol danced. I wondered what the hell was going on but I was hooked."
It was also 1975 when Jimmy, a lad of 16, discovered northern soul. From his home in Huntingdon, he travelled to various venues to catch top soul DJs. Later, he became a regular at the 100 Club in London and the Ritz in Manchester, moving down to Bristol 20 years ago.
"Huntingdon was a hotbed for soul music. I loved it from the minute I heard it."
It was a similar story for Malcolm, who was a mod in the 1970s and thought that meant listening to the Beatles. It wasn't until he and his girlfriend, now wife, Cath, chanced upon a club in Prince Street, Bristol called Steamers in the late 70s.
"When I walked through the door and heard this music I'd never heard before, I was smitten. I knew then this would be the music I'd be listening to for the rest of my life."
Jimmy's clubbing days took a bit of a back seat until about  four years ago when he hosted a charity northern soul event at the Begbrook Club after his wife had been treated for breast cancer. He started to go looking for local soul events, meeting Martyn and Malcolm in the process.
"We started up Splash of Soul and the rest is history, as they say," said Jimmy.
Martyn dismisses the idea that northern soul is elitist:  "The scene has been misinterpreted as 'cliquey' because northern soul isn't as widely available as mainstream music but to me, it's friendly. No one takes any notice of how you dance, you just get into the music and the music takes you. It's all about the beat."
Malcolm, who lives in Downend, agrees: "There's something about Splash of Soul at the rugby club that makes people feel relaxed. They don't have to worry about whether they're the greatest dancer. Some places feel intimidating and people don't even feel they can ask the DJ for a  particular record but that's not true of Splash of Soul. It just really, really works."
The trio have been branching out, holding occasional evening charity bashes at Lockleaze Community Centre and the Begbrook Club. More recently, Splash of Soul evenings at the Crafty Cow pub in Gloucester Road have been popular and look like becoming a regular fixture.
Martyn has high hopes for the future of the local soul scene.
"There's more northern soul in Bristol now than there was five years ago which bodes well for the future," he said.
"A lot of people are in their 60s and 70s and can remember it from when it first began. But it's not just for older people who remember the original scene. The youngest person I ever saw at a northern soul night was a 10-year-old and he really knew the music!
"I'd love Splash of Soul to be an event that is worthy of the scene in the north, but at the end of the day our aim is for people who like soul music to come along and enjoy themselves."
The next Splash of Soul takes place at Barton Hill Rugby Club, Duncombe Road, Speedwell, on Sunday October 29 from 2-8pm. Entry is £3.