‘People That’s Why’ by the Idle Few is a perennial Northern Soul favourite, ideal for filling dancefloors and for home listening. It is a song all about universal fellowship, helping those less well-off, materially or spiritually. It remains gloriously uplifting, spirit revivifying. It is a burst of blue-eyed soul, thrilling and arresting right from the opening attack of drums, the heraldic fanfare of brass, and is at times a veritable cavalry charge of a track and at others a beautiful piece of sincere testimony.
Mentally, because of when it was first heard here, this song will always be associated with The Teardrop Explodes’ ‘Reward’, with that jeep full of madcaps haring around Liverpool’s docks, brass blaring out. And in a fantasy world Dexys perform ‘People That’s Why’ with Kevin marching on the spot, arms and eyes raised to the heavens, in prayer mode, Big Jimmy leaping around, Seb pounding away on his drums, and all that. It would have worked, it really would.
The Idle Few recorded ‘People That’s Why’ right at the end of the 1960s. They were an Indianapolis group, who had been around a while, and somehow hooked up with Juggy Murray, the Sue supremo, who was starting a new venture Blue Book which, as Cash Box reported, was intended as “an independent label focusing basically on the underground pop & blues idiom”. It seems the Idle Few single would be the only release on Blue Book. And again, it appears, the Idle Few would release nothing else, which is a shame as the flipside, their own composition ‘Land of Dreams’, is more of an abstract soul blast, which hints at great things and feels strangely 1981-ish.
‘People That’s Why’ was written by Billy Vera, one of those fascinating marginal music figures, loved here forever through composing ‘Don’t Look Back’ which The Remains immortalised. He was apparently unaware of the Idle Few’s recording at the time. Whose choice it was to go for that song is perhaps lost in the mists of time, but Juggy Murray would certainly be aware of Billy’s songwriting, as they worked in the same Brill Building environment earlier in the 1960s.
Billy worked under Chip Taylor’s umbrella as a writer at April-Blackwood, in a set-up which at one time and another took in Ted Daryll, Al Gorgoni, Evie Sands, Alice Clark, and Billy’s sister Kathy McCord. And Juggy Murray had got Chip Taylor to work with Jerry Ragovoy, and they came up with ‘I Can’t Wait Until I See My Baby’s Face’ which as recorded by Baby Washington for Sue is one of the wonders of this wicked old world. Billy Vera himself was as great a singer as he was a writer, and his song ‘Storybook Children’, which Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler suggested Billy record with Judy Clay, worked an absolute treat, revealing a natural chemistry between the two singers.
And they, Billy and Judy, would go on to make a brilliant LP together, back when it was radical for a blue-eyed soul singer to be working with a black artist. Unfortunately searches for clips of them performing together prove fruitless, for as Billy put it when Judy died: “Our little revolution was never televised. We were never taken up as a cause by the limousine liberals of the day. This may have something to do with the fact that our audience was mostly everyday blacks and working-class whites.”
Judy later had a huge hit here with ‘Private Number’, her duet with William Bell, a soul staple, and she’s there on Van’s Moondance and His Band and the Street Choir too, and isn’t it great to read ‘Domino’ was a Twisted Wheel favourite in the club’s twilight days? Then those of us who lost our hearts to the very many magnificent compilations Ady Croasdell’s Kent label has released gradually learned about Judy’s artistry, from Scepter to Stax and beyond, from ‘You Busted My Mind’ on Dancing ‘Til Dawn, and ‘Turn Back The Time’ on Big City Soul Sound to ‘My Arms Aren’t Strong Enough’, ‘Haven’t Got What It Takes’, ‘Lonely People Do Foolish Things’, ‘I Want You’, ‘The Greatest Love’, ‘Since You Came Along’, ‘He’s The Kind of Guy’, and so on, with every track a show stopper, a scene stealer.
Of all his compositions Billy Vera’s ballads were the best, like ‘Good Morning Blues’ on his LP with Judy, and another bottom-of-the-glass torch song ‘Are You Coming To My Party’ from his own solo LP for Atlantic. ‘People That’s Why’ was also written as a ballad, and on his own demo version Billy sings it slow, far slower than the Idle Few’s Ronnie Bennett, and it was recorded as a deep soul ballad by P.J. Proby in 1967 for his aptly titled 1967 Enigma LP. It can be disorientating to hear P.J. take it so sedately, and while he is the better singer and indeed performer, technically, sometimes that is not what’s needed. And given the song’s message, perhaps P.J. is not the most convincing in this role. He hardly comes across as Abou Ben Adhem.
Somehow, in the bizarre way these things worked, in the mid-1970s, the Idle Few’s ‘People That’s Why’ became popular in the Northern Soul world, and apparently was a favourite at the Blackpool Mecca, being closely associated with one of the DJs there, Colin Curtis (who would be immortalised on Chapter and the Verse’s ‘Black Whip’). Ian ‘Mastercuts’ Dewhirst’s very useful The Northern Soul Story series devotes a volume to the Mecca and its broadminded music policy.
There was in 1975 an unofficial repressing of the Idle Few’s Blue Book 45. It was also scheduled to be reissued by the Grapevine label, but was replaced by Dena Barnes’ ‘If You Ever Walked Out of My Life’, in 1980. It did, however, appear on a Grapevine compilation LP, This Is Northern Soul, which came out at the end of that year, and which remains one of the most wonderful things ever, being one of the more irregular collections from that scene.
Pete Smith, writing in-depth about Northern Soul compilations in the late 1980s for the Owl’s Effort fanzine, questioned whether the LP ever actually appeared, though later in a feature on Grapevine for Record Collector he mentions the LP suffered through distribution problems, this presumably being right at the end of the relationship between the Grapevine label and its distributors RCA. Incidentally Pete also contributed to another issue of The Owl’s Effort, providing a disorientating 12-page history of Northern Soul in the media, through the prism of the publication Black Music.
So, God bless the day that a copy of that This Is Northern Soul LP on Grapevine somehow, and it seems improbably, turned up for a pound in a clearance box. This would have been in the early 1980s, in Whomes’, along the Broadway, here in suburban South East London, in a shop which was in existence for over a century, selling musical instruments and later televisions and hi-fi equipment, a lot of sheet music and some records, though for that there was plenty of competition, particularly from the excellent Cloud 9 nearby and across the road there was OK Records.
It was a long way from the Casino soul scene, but Whomes’ was an appropriate place to buy the LP, being a few yards away from the street where the Tamla Motown Appreciation Society was founded, which was a lovely surprise to discover in Richard Barnes’ beautiful Mods book with the address on a membership card printed as Church Road, Bexleyheath, and the T.M.A.S. originator Dave Godin was the person to come up with the convenient Northern Soul tag. And, indeed, the Silver Lounge coffee bar was then still just up the Broadway from Whomes’, where way back when Dave first heard black American R&B on the jukebox courtesy of Ruth Brown’s ‘Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean’, though how the hell that sort of music made it to the suburbs is a good question. The jukebox had long gone by the early 1980s, though their cream slices and the frothy coffee were still exotic and a bit of a treat from time to time.
At a pound, the LP had to be bought on spec, even though Eddie Holman’s was the only familiar name, and it was more usual for him to be slowing things down when it came to dancing. It was probably the best ever pound spent. Track after track of fantastic music, and often very odd sounds too. That Grapevine compilation This Is Northern Soul has never appeared on CD, though it is on YouTube spread over four parts, and ‘People That’s Why’ itself only seems to have appeared on one other compilation, which is Kev Roberts Presents 100% Casino Volume 2 on Goldmine Soul Supply from the late 1990s, where it is one of a handful of old Grapevine releases featured. Kev’s collection is an excellent if rather cheap (though not now) and cheerful set, but even the tackiest, least aesthetically pleasing Northern Soul CD is worth having, for the chances are it will include something that is pretty special from this world of seemingly endless riches.
Half of the tracks on This Is Northern Soul had appeared as Grapevine singles, and many of them were originally the output of small American labels like LaBeat out of Detroit, Cuppy, Alpha and Liberty Bell from Philadelphia, and Ready from New York. Highlights include the driving rhythmic acoustic guitars on The Agents’ ‘Trouble’, which aptly is oddly reminiscent of Vic Godard’s What’s The Matter Boy? Then there was the magnificent Luther Ingram instrumental ‘Exus Trek’ and the vocal version ‘If It’s All The Same To You Babe, and Tony Middleton’s majestic ‘To The Ends of the Earth’, one of the monumental recordings he made with the great Claus Ogerman.
In fact, there are so many great tracks on there, like the wonderfully named Fluffy Falana’s ‘My Little Cottage’, Gil Blanding’s ‘Rules’, The Masqueraders’ ‘I Got The Power’, and the rollicking ‘I’ve Got Something Good’ by Sam & Kitty, the feline half being the only example of a female lead on the LP, with a wild guitar break to boot. Generally, these are not ones that have appeared too often elsewhere since, with the possible exception of the Luther Ingram tracks.
Grapevine between 1977 and 1980 released 50-odd singles, and three compilations. The labels were mostly distinctively yellow, and Judy Street’s ‘What’ was the one that almost made the national charts in 1978, having been featured in Tony Palmer’s This England Wigan Casino documentary. Most of the label’s output was targeted at the Northern Soul audience, but Grapevine’s main man John Anderson sneaked in the occasional more modern soul and funk sounds, notably the gorgeous ‘Give Me The Sunshine’ by Leo’s Sunshipp.
John passed away at the start of October 2019, and emotional tributes have been paid by many within the Northern Soul community to a man who it is widely acknowledged made the scene possible. He was what would in more modern terms be called an enabler, albeit an unwitting one. The stories about his record dealing are legion, but crucially it was not he usually doing the telling, which is quite remarkable. It is completely discombobulating to consider the logistical challenges overcome calmly by this young Scottish guy who went to America on a regular basis, a pioneer and visionary undertaking these regular road trips to seek out the abandoned soul 45s, shipping them back home in bulk, arranging storage (apparently at times in an old church, like Big Al and his white economy in The Beiderbecke Affair), selling them on to DJs and collectors, many of whom he made trek out regularly from England’s North West to the Norfolk coast, and seemingly keeping the respect of all those he dealt with, within the wide soul, funk and jazz community over many years, which is even more remarkable.
The idea of his Soul Bowl set-up being out there in King’s Lynn is brilliant, not least because it conjures up the possibilities of Peel, Penman, and Sebald shaking down Portland Street at some stage in the 1970s. Many of John’s loyalist customers never made it to Soul Bowl, but the internet bears testimony to the stories of many whose lives seemingly revolved around John’s mailing lists, and there are all sorts of lovely tales about people desperately trying to get through before school or in their lunch hour, sneaking into the boss’ office or trying to find a working telephone box to get their order in. There are plenty of these anecdotes fondly shared on soul forums, but the opportunities to read John’s own words are few and far between.
One exception is a three-part interview published in the early 2000s by Big Daddy, coinciding with the reactivation of the Grapevine label. This had John billed as the ‘King of the Record Dealers’ and Snowboy did the honours, presumably being a long-time customer at Soul Bowl helped make this possible. John comes across really well, with some great comments about how Northern Soul was never really his thing, being more of a vocals than a beat man, and about record collectors in general, almost echoing Johnny Rotten’s words about how music is for listening to, not for shutting away in a cupboard as an investment opportunity.
Big Daddy, around this time, caught the spirit of the age quite nicely. It was a magazine (and quite a glossy one too, in its way) very much rooted in hip-hop and b-boy and girlo culture, and being somewhat in the tradition of Grand Royal and Straight No Chaser. It was edited by George Mahood in Nottingham, and one of its big selling points was the regular Funk 45 Files contributions from Dante Carfagna (of Memphix) and Egon (from Stones Throw) where these guys who, around the time of Cut Chemist and the Shadow’s Brainfreeze and Product Placement, were part of the whole cratediggin’ phenomena went one further and started publishing the stories of the people behind these lost 45s. It was fascinating stuff, providing inspirational illumination of lost histories, peaking perhaps with the essential Stones Throw Funky 16 Corners compilation.
In some ways Big Daddy, with its in-depth interviews with the likes of Dennis Coffey and David Axelrod (around the time of his Mo’Wax return), fostered an aesthetic that led to Wax Poetics and Numero Group’s Eccentric Soul series. Importantly, too, there were interviews with key UK figures like Dave Godin and John Anderson. And maybe best of all there was Dave Tompkins’ epic illustrated 16-page poetic essay on Paul C, the engineer at 1212 studios in New York, which dwarfed his Grand Royal workout on Miami Bass, and Dave’s unique writing style is already very wreck-a-nice-able.
In the same issue there was also a complementary interview with ‘No Sleep’ Nigel, another engineer revered by underground hip-hop devotees, and there were plenty of references to him working at Cold Storage studios in Brixton, but no mention of This Heat, though in fairness when The Wire ran a history of Cold Storage there was no mention of ‘No Sleep’ Nigel and his work on London Posse’s Gangster Chronicle and Thoughts Released by MC Mell’O’, two pioneering UK productions, which is the way things tend to work.
There was no mention of Joy Division either in the John Anderson interview Big Daddy ran, and no real reason there should be. Although, again, to be fair, that maybe wrong, as the first part of feature has gone missing, from the vaults here at least, and it would be pretty difficult to replace as it came with a fantastic cassette, The Funk 45 Files, one side mixed by Egon and the other by Dante, which is now very much sought-after, and which still gets played a lot here, having survived longer than the magazine it came with.
While it seems a reasonable thing these days to aspire to know less about Joy Division, the whole episode where the group in its infancy came to be in the studio with John Anderson, courtesy of RCA, has a certain fascination as it is so unlikely. Leaving the musicians to one side, the other dramatis personae are fantastic. There’s John Anderson, the King of the Record Dealers, whose Grapevine label was fronting this operation. There’s Richard Searling, revered Wigan Casino DJ and a link between Grapevine and RCA whom he worked for in Manchester. That’s a pretty good start.
Then there was Bernie Binnick, a music business veteran, who was John’s partner in Grapevine, and whose pedigree was perfect, taking in Swan Records, where his activities included The Beatles, Link Wray, Freddy Cannon, Three Degrees, General Johnson and The Showmen, and Micky Lee Lane whose ‘Hey Sah Lo Ney’ was memorably covered here by The Action (incidentally John Anderson’s specialist subject seems to have been UK soul, beat and R&B like Cliff Bennett etc.). Bernie went on to run the Marmaduke label (with Len Barry for a while) and others, before getting into the wholesale side, becoming invaluable to John Anderson because he knew everyone in the States soul scene and knew where all the cut-outs were hidden away.
And there was Henry Stone who, apparently, originally had the yen for dabbling in the UK punk scene, though what actually happened has been retold so many times that it’s become rather like Chinese whispers, so who really knows now? Anyway, Henry was the guy behind Florida’s TK Records, and much more, so can legitimately claim to have changed the disco and pop landscapes, with a remarkable roll call taking in Betty Wright, Timmy Thomas, George and Gwen McCrae, KC & the Sunshine Band, T-Connection, Dorothy Moore, and Anita Ward. Away from the hits Soul Jazz put out the excellent Miami Sound compilation in 2003 which drew on the fantastic funk and soul 45s Henry’s empires put out. At the end of the 1970s, with disco’s demise, Stone was looking for new kicks, and was naturally attracted to the commercial potential of punk. Instead, ultimately, he found the answer in rap, investing in the Sugar Hill label, having, like Nik Cohn and many among us, had his head turned by the Sugarhill Gang’s 'Rapper’s Delight'.
So, some impeccable credentials, sure, but perhaps they were cast in the wrong roles, with the wrong script, which adds an element of farce, and makes the whole thing that much more entertaining really. And despite the short space of time, the small budget, the basic premise was a good one: to take the stormy blast of punk and the power of soul and fuse the two. A misguided idea? Well, around that time The Saints added a brass section, and covered Otis’ ‘Security’ and Aretha’s ‘Save Me’, and soon Vic Godard and Subway Sect were putting together a Northern Soul set of holiday hymns and covering Tony Clarke’s ‘Landslide’, then Dexys were at number one with ‘Geno’ and doing fantastic ferocious reinterpretations of ‘Seven Days Too Long’, ‘Breaking Down The Walls of Heartache’, ‘The Horse’ and Cliff Bennett’s ‘One Way Love’, so no, not really a misguided idea, not at all.
The pre-Joy Division RCA sessions by Warsaw, which John Anderson oversaw, do still have their charm, notably the version of ‘Novelty’, and very definitely the recording of ‘No Love Lost’ which explodes around the three-minute mark with something that sounds like they’re playing with the riff from Van’s ‘Gloria’ or Aretha’s ‘Save Me’ or Otis and Carla’s ‘Tramp’ or whatever. And then there is ‘Interzone’ which is based around another remarkable riff, the one from Nolan Porter’s ‘Keep On Keepin’ On’, an irregular Northern Soul favourite which John Anderson, presumably, had tried to get the group to record, though they couldn’t or wouldn’t, depending on whom you listen to or read, though it was a neat idea, musically right for a group slipping into the heart of darkness, and such a great song, which became another great song, so that’s some legacy in itself.
Part of the eternal fascination with the RCA tapes is that they show a young punk group at the crossroads, young men trying to find their voice, and within a year they would have made remarkable progress, releasing Unknown Pleasures, getting on the front page of the NME, and appearing live on BBC TV performing ‘Transmission’, one of the songs recorded with John Anderson. It is impossible not to mention that TV appearance. It’s something many people have never been able to forget. Saturday evening, 15 September 1979. It was something else, literally.
Something Else was the name of an occasional youth TV programme on BBC2, really only worth watching for some fantastic one-off musical appearances, like an astonishing performance by Dexys doing ‘I Couldn’t Help It If I Tried’, with Kevin Rowland seated on a chair, eyes closed, hands cupping his mouth, dressed like a member of the French Resistance. On this episode of Something Else there was The Jam and Joy Division, which was just about perfect, and in its impact like having an ice-cold shower, frightening almost in the intensity of the performances. Remember, this was a time when relatively few people had videos, and many would have watched it in black and white, but the two groups and what they did that evening stayed with many of us watching. Probably The Jam and Joy Division are not naturally linked in pop historians’ neat little tales but they certainly were very much a part of the same thing that evening.
This would be the first many had really seen and heard of Joy Division, and certainly the first time they would have witnessed Ian doing that dance, but it was also the look of the group that caught the eye: the neat muted clerical or almost military garb, the smart hair, Bernard’s almost soul boy look, his tie, the unease triggered by Peter’s beard, the low-slung bass like The Ramones, Ian’s unsettling discomfort, his compelling intensity, screaming “dance, dance, dance to the radio” which would later be conflated with The Casualeers’ Northern Soul evergreen, and perhaps raises a question of whether that was coincidental given Richard Searling and John Anderson were present when it was first recorded.
And The Jam, who were massive at the time, and remember also this was at the end of the summer when the mod revival was all the rage, before 2-Tone took over. Paul looked fantastic, too, and that’s important. Like one of the many disorientating, wonderful things in Dave Tompkins’ virtuosic vocoder book is when, amid all the alien madness, the black secret technology, the decay and salvage of scientific invention, he mentions The Fearless Four’s pioneering ‘Problems of the World’ and states that “looking at the cover one can’t help but admire how Tito’s blue Le Tigre golf shirt matched Tito’s Italian boating shoes”. These things matter.
Weller, then, so lean and sinewy, and the way Paul had of leaning into the mic with venom and menace, but deadpan and blank, and that noise they created as a unit, and this would have been the first time that the wider public had heard ‘The Eton Rifles’, little suspecting how prescient this would be, and there was that song and there was ‘She’s Lost Control’, both played that day, which would come back and haunt us forty years on, becoming part of the tapestry of life along the way, but the funny thing is that they have been played here willingly far fewer times than any of the songs on that old Grapevine This Is Northern Soul compilation, and in particular ‘People That’s Why’ by the Idle Few, which must prove something about the relationship between what we admire and the music we actually listen to.