"Rock Me a Little While" by Kim Weston, a northern soul classic. Photo: Michael Sveikutis/Flickr
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Tracey Thorn: With music, we often only hear the side of the story told by men

When it comes to music such as northern soul, there is a tendency to regard men as the experts, relegating women’s stories of what it felt like to be there to the status of anecdote.

I settled down the other night to watch a TV documentary on northern soul. It was interesting in many ways, if a little predictable in its format, which mostly consisted of a series of talking heads. But as it went by I couldn’t help noticing that all the talking heads were men. I looked at my watch. Twenty minutes had passed and not a single woman had spoken.

Meanwhile, in the photos and footage of the era that rolled by on the screen, I spied lots of them. There they were, throughout the Sixties and Seventies, dressed up to the nines, heading out for the night or on some dance floor, living for the weekend. And on the soundtrack there they were again, singing at me, the voices to much of the music. The story unfolded, the girls danced and sang, and they looked and sounded glorious. And still the guys did all the talking.

Eventually three women were interviewed in the hour-long programme, for about five minutes in total. I took to Twitter and complained – not furiously, more wearily – and met with a barrage of agreement, a lot of it from women confirming that they, or their older sister, their mum or their aunt, had loved going out dancing at the Twisted Wheel and Wigan Casino, had been part of the northern soul scene while it was happening.

All those girls in the photos and the films, they were real, and I wished that someone had taken the trouble to find them. I wanted to know why they went, what they wore, which records they loved, but no one had thought to ask them.

Admittedly, there’s a lot about the northern soul phenomenon that embodies what we regard as a “male” way of perceiving and interpreting culture. As a music scene, it is as much about rareties, and collecting, and obsessiveness, and the acquiring of esoteric knowledge, as it is about dancing. It seems to represent a particular mindset: that unless you own all the correct records and have them arranged in alphabetical order, your opinion doesn’t count. And as it is often men who catalogue the history of musical genres in such painstaking detail, there is a tendency to regard them as the experts, relegating women’s stories of what it felt like to be there, what it meant, to the status of anecdote. Men have expertise, while women have experiences.

It’s easy to feel intimidated by that. When I was writing my book, Bedsit Disco Queen, I had moments of worrying that I wasn’t sufficiently well informed; that I might get a fact wrong, muddle up a release date or a B-side of some obscure single I claimed to have bought. I feared that my own direct, lived experience of the period and music I was documenting might not be enough.

When most of the voices you hear talking about music are those of men, you can start to doubt your own authority. I had to keep reminding myself that I was trying to write the kind of book that I wanted to read, and that if I was going to complain about there not being enough female versions of pop history, then I couldn’t very well shy away from writing one myself. Too often, women get the message that they are not the experts on any of these things, and that’s a pain.

So it matters, partly because balance and representation always matter, but also because it means that as things stand we often hear only half the story, and miss a wealth of detail, of difference, of variety. If Elaine Constantine, who has just directed a feature film called Northern Soul, had been given more screen time than, say, Peter Stringfellow, or if Kiki Dee had been asked what it felt like to hear your vocals become the soundtrack to a generation’s experience of clubland, the programme would have been enriched.

Most of all, if we had seen Levanna Mclean, whom you may know as the northern soul girl dancer whose videos have gone viral in the past year or so, we would have got an insight into the enduring power of a genre of music and its style. Check her out now on YouTube, as over a million people have done, dancing down the street to a mash-up of Pharrell Williams’s “Happy” and Velvet Hammer’s obscure late-Seventies song, also titled “Happy”, and feel the joy – and you’ll know what I mean about what is so often missing. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser