Revisiting the ‘90s Northern Soul Explosion in the UK

Revisiting the ‘90s Northern Soul Explosion in the UK
As a teen, photographer Elaine Constantine became a go-to shooter for nightlife, with some of her iconic shots captured in a new book.

Coming of age in Bury, Lancashire, photographer Elaine Constantine fell in love with Northern Soul after visiting a youth club in 1976. She remembers the kids weren’t really feeling the cheesy and predictable dance tracks until the DJ started playing “You’re Ready Now” by Frankie Valli.

“All these cool kids came out of the shadows and were spinning and doing back drops,” Constantine remembers. “They had this face of conviction. No fear. They were just locked into the track. It blew my mind.”

In that moment, Constantine was hooked on Northern Soul, an intoxicating blend of British mod style and uptempo Black American soul music that emerged during the late 1960s in nightclubs and dancehalls across the north like Wigan Casino, Blackpool Mecca, and Golden Torch.

Drawing inspiration from touring artists like Jackie Wilson and Little Anthony and the Imperials, revellers brought their high flying athletic choreography to the dance floor. The electric, infectious energy proved a transformative moment for Constantine, who too wanted to belong.

Girl lost in Lester Tipton’s 'this won’t change’;
Oscar dancing to Towanda Barnes' 'you didn't mean it’.

As a teen she started hitting the clubs, developing an eye for distinctive details that she would later capture as a photographer. Inspired by Chris Killip’s book In Flagrante, Constantine set off to carve a path all her own, chronicling the UK nightlife scene for youth culture magazines like The Face and i-D during the 1990s.

“I was one of the ‘go to’ shooters to cover all the latest clubs that were springing up in that early ‘90s period,” Constantine says. “Some of the clubs were brilliant in terms of vibes and punters but the music couldn’t beat what I had heard on the Northern scene.”

One Saturday night in 1993, Constantine hit up London’s legendary 100 club, curious to see how Northern Soul scene evolved. Camera in hand, she tried to get a few shots but felt out of sync. Then Lester Tipton’s “This Won’t Change” came over the speakers, welcoming her home again. She dashed her camera bag under a chair and got lost on the dance floor.

Chris and Oscar, 100 club

“That night it all started for me again,” Constantine says. Embracing the culture as a participant rather than “impartial” observer, she began documenting the scene, crafting a vibrant portrait of community collected in the new book, Northern Soul 1993–1996 (Café Royal Books).

While other subcultures faded away over the years, Northern Soul held strong, continuously reinventing itself through the timeless art of crate digging. By the ‘90s, Constantine explains, the scene had gone further underground and become more hardcore than ever before. “What was left was a group of people with a more discerning attitude, acerbic sense of humor, an seemingly even more hooked on vinyl than ever before,” she says.

“I have so many great memories but they blend into many nights out and it’s difficult to separate but one springs to mind. A bloke was wearing slippers on the dance floor. He had sneaked out of the house, but couldn’t get his shoes without his wife finding out.”

100 club record bar

Northern Soul 1993–1996 is out not on Café Royal Books. 

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