With all the music documentaries around it might be hard to believe that there exists an underground movement “whose story has never been told”. But genial rapper Rodney P makes a good case, care of BBC4, for jazz funk as a defiantly British riposte to the American soul juggernaut of the 1970s. Against a backdrop of stinking uncollected rubbish and National Front marches, a generation of soul kids lived to dance their nipples off in sweaty Soho basements. Drinking wasn’t a priority, not when you had mad twirls and acrobatics to perform.
The format of the documentary is entirely standard, with its opening montage of hyperbolic statements and parade of scenesters interviewed in empty nightclubs. The story, however, is fascinating and there’s a wealth of evocative stills and clips showing off the fashions — flappy strides, skin-tight tops — and magical moves. It was a London scene, spawned by the children of the Windrush generation. You can detect a slight snobbishness in the brief handling of Northern soul: too white, too provincial and the tracks, being rarities from the 1960s, too old.
A new sound was emerging and the DJs, white and black, were its pioneers. There was American import Greg Edwards, who helmed Capital Radio’s programme Soul Spectrum: “I liked this funky-jazzy thing!” Zany Chris Hill was “a very quirky white man with a really big nose” and big hands, too, judging by one comment: “He literally had the crowd in the palm of his hand”. George Power, sadly no longer with us, launched the legendary nightclub Crackers, which venerable commentator Robert Elms claims was “still probably the best club I’ve ever been to”. The dancing in these “new churches of sound” seems to have been largely a male, peacocking affair. Ritamaria Boxill is one of the few female faces, talking austerely about her “signature moves”.
The general air of misrule fed, it’s theorised, directly into punk. The documentary’s thesis, and the photographs tend to bear this out, is that the transgressive “soulheads, funketeers and boogie dancers” heralded a cultural shift towards inclusion — gay and straight, black and white — and the blurring of gender boundaries. This was also to reach beyond punk to the Blitz kids and New Romantics. Due respect is paid to Top of the Pops, which, weekly throughout the 1970s, featured interchangeable funk bands that seemingly had come into existence to make one hit song each. Of course, you could say the same about many of the pop acts, too.
Beyond the sociology and earnest cultural commentary, it’s all great fun, with people joyfully exclaiming “That’s the funk!” and “It was a spiritual thing.” As for the sound, it's exemplified by the groove of Imagination's classic floor-filler “Body Talk”. Booty-shaking is practically obligatory.
On BBC4 from July 24 at 9pm
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