Shimmying to Northern Soul at a Hidden Cocktail Bar in East London

Walking down the narrow stairs that lead to London’s Discount Suit Company, I have to watch my head. The 18th-century corner building in Spitalfields is a dream spot for a hidden cocktail bar, with low ceilings that are extra low at the entrance. Located in the stockroom of a former street-level tailor shop, this basement wasn’t designed to host hip East Londoners looking to cut loose. But here they are, packed into the dimly lit space with exposed brick walls, wooden beams and leather loveseats perfect for hushed conversations, despite the loud buzz.

I squeeze my way in at the counter where bartenders are shaking cocktails to old soul tunes. The upbeat vibe here is provided by a 45 spinning on a turntable at the corner of the bar. The song changes, and the familiar first bars of “Tainted Love” fill the air, but something is different. It is not the well-known 1981 Soft Cell opening with bleeping and blooping synths, it’s the smoother, dancier original from 1965 that hit the airwaves when this building was still in the business of making cheap suits. The raspy voice on the track belongs to Gloria Jones: an American musician who found belated fame in the U.K. where she earned the nickname “Northern Queen of Soul.”

December 2, 2019
An illustration of a person dancing with records

This is the moment that opened my ears to northern soul, a genre that took off in Manchester and other northern U.K. cities in the late 1960s. As American studios shifted to pumping out funk and disco, DJs from up north scoured London’s record stores in search of obscure uptempo American soul tracks to bring home for Mod kids to dance to. The trend spread throughout England long after Motown Records closed up shop in Detroit in 1972.

These songs endure to this day in bars and clubs all over the country. I can’t help but join in and shimmy to the music on a makeshift dance floor in this neighbourhood that was once home to French weavers, then Jewish tailors and now Bangladeshi textile workers. When I’m ready for another drink, I realize that, in London, history lessons aren’t confined to museums – they are in the walls and in every beat.

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