Like a lot of people I first became aware of Stuart Cosgrove through the Radio Scotland programme ‘Off The Ball’. Many a Saturday afternoon I’ve listened to his irreverent chat with co-host Tam Cowan, joined in their raucous laughter and tut tutted at the pair’s more outrageous mockery. Amazingly he programme has been on air for twenty-one years. From listening in I gleaned that Stuart was well informed about the game of football, an excellent communicator, astute and entertaining, came from Perth and was a St Johnstone supporter.
I was very mistaken in forming an impression that his main interest in life was football and was unaware of his passion for soul music and his earlier career writing for the black music paper Echoes and with NME. Although the topic of music and soul can creep into Off the Ball – including last Saturday when there was some chat of ‘Soul nights next door to Kilmarnock’s grounds.’
Neither had I realized the how successful Stuart was in television. I thoroughly enjoyed London Paralympics in 2012 – the year he picked up numerous awards including a BAFTA and Royal Television Society award for Channel 4's coverage of the event. In 2005 he was named Broadcaster of the Year in the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Awards and he’s also been awarded a BAFTA Scotland Award for Special Achievement and Industry Excellence in television
It’s remarkable that he’s managed to fit such diverse achievements into his life – his academic achievements are impressive: A graduate of Hull University, he completed a PhD. in modern American theatre history and won a UK Academy Award for his post-doctoral essay 'The Zoot Suit and Style Warfare’ – (this is something I would love to read as I have long been intrigued by style and sub-cultures and a favourite book of mine is Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning Of Style). Stuart also studied at Wharton Business School, University of Pennsylvania and the John Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. The years he spent in America, his knowledge of the country’s social history and its music have provided him with plenty of material and inspiration for his writing.
Stuart Cosgrove’s first book, co-written with Paul Reas, Flogging a Dead Horse: Heritage Culture and Its Role in Post-industrial Britain1 was published back in May 1993, however, I first became of him as a writer when he took part in Glasgow’s Literary Festival, Aye Write, in 2015. Detroit 67 – the year that changed soul was published in February the same year.
During the festival I spent a lot of time at The Mitchell Library and picked up the book to read a chapter or two over a coffee. I’m usually a reader of novels but I got so hooked that I bought a copy. More than a year down the line, it’s still sitting on our living room table and I return to it again and again It’s a fantastically detailed, well written book, with wonderful photographs, which covers a twelve month period of drama and change in twelve chapters; the story of Detroit in the year that ‘changed soul.’
‘It is the story of Motown, the breakup of The Supremes and damaging disputes at the heart of the most successful African-American music label ever.’
‘Set against a backdrop of urban riots, escalating war in Vietnam and police corruption, the book weaves its way through a year when soul music came of age, and the underground counterculture flourished.’
As a teenager, who was hooked on Motown since The Marvelettes ‘Please Mr Postman’ was released in 1961, I found the story of Berry Gordy’s record company enlightening and absorbing. For example, the details of the relationships between the three Supremes, Diana Ross, Florence and Mary Wilson. Little did I know that when I was belting out Baby Love with the young typists in the typing pool at Brown and Polson in Paisley, that the three singers were dropping from exhaustion and that their ‘promotional smiles’ hid ‘simmering resentments’ – that poor Mary Wilson felt trapped between the ‘unhappy Florence’ and ‘the ambitious Diana’.
The format of the book describes events in Detroit through each month of the year of 1967, charting the rise of Motown against the backdrop of escalating crime, the civil rights movement, black militancy and opposition to the Vietnam war. It describes the corruption and crime in Detroit, where as many as ten homicides were registered each week, and explains how as a consequence the music industry suffered. Also how by moving the locus of his company to Los Angeles Gordy ‘unintentionally undermined the creative energy of soul.’
New edition Available from Amazon from October 2016
In contrast to Detroit 67, Stuart Cosgrove’s book Young Soul Rebels is a personal history in Northern Soul, where he reveals his life as a young man experiencing ‘the ultimate underground music scene’, which outlasted the better known youth cultures of punk and rave.
I was particularly drawn to this book because back in 2013 I became fascinated by the Culture Show Documentary Northern Soul: Keeping the Faith directed by Maurice O’Brien so I was familiar with Wigan Casino and the music and have watched the film on You Tube many times. (Oddly enough when I went along to meet Stuart at BBC Scotland, , I bumped into Maurice.)
I really enjoyed this book and reading about Stuart’s personal experiences and how his love of soul was shaped. I felt quite jealous of his extraordinary all nighters as in 1971, at the time his ‘northern soul journey seriously began’, I was more likely to be up during the night with my baby son. Like Stuart’s sister I was a first generation Mod and a fan of Otis Redding and Wilson Picket but I was nowhere near so cool and no collector of rare R & B imports. I can relate to many of the cultural references in the book and the fashions of the time but how I envy those young people who traveled hundreds of miles to all night events at the Twisted Wheel, the Golden Torch and Wigan Casino to experience what Stuart describes as: ‘the fanatical height of spiritual cool.’
Again this book has amazing images that capture the dress (I particularly like the photo of Stuart all set for his first trip to Torch, in the garb of ‘the Scottish soul boys), the dance and the amazing characters, who were part of scene. Stuart shares the details of his own background; being raised in a single parent household in Perth, after his dad died in a tragic accident when Stuart was only eight; and his time as a student and life-changing meeting with teenager Pat Walsh, who introduced him to the Northern clubs.
The story of Stuart’s growing passion for Northern Soul and fanatical collecting of rare vinyl is set against the social history of the period and addresses issues and events including amphetamine abuse, Thatcher’s Britain, the north-south divide, the miners’ strike and the Yokshire Ripper. He also discusses the impact of new technologies:
‘By the new millennium, northern soul should have been dead in the water, but spectacularly in the summer of 2006 it rose from its slumber …and new digital technology triggered a resurgence.’ YouTube created a vehicle or ordinary people to share their northern soul moments.
‘Within months of You Tube going mainstream, almost every significant northern soul title had been uploaded and commented upon.’ It progressed to go ‘beyond trophy discs to northern soul’s back catalogue of the unknown, the underplayed and the super rare.’
Stuart explains how Facebook has played an important part as a vehicle for connecting northern soul fans, highlighting on line events, promoting new venues, commemorating the old and organizing reunions such as at The Perth City Social Club – one of the many reunions in a scene that he suggests celebrates itself more than any other subculture. I’d say that there’s no-one happier than Stuart Cosgrove that a scene that should have died long ago appears to be in such ‘rude and uncompromising health.’
Stuart’s next book Memphis ’68, due for publication in 2017, will deal with another year and a different city. However, whilst no doubt his research will have been equally rigorous, unlike Detroit 67, the story of a city in America during a single year is told in relation not to specific events but through the lives of different people.
When we met Stuart was just getting ready to head off to Sri Lanka, with his wife Shirani, who is a Sri Lankan Tamil, and their young son, Jack. Stuart is a very affable, enthusiastic man but when he mentions his family his tone and demeanor change and theirs a different light in his eyes. I think it may be fair to say that soul music, is not after all, his main passion.
He was delighted to be travelling to Sri Lanka with his family, via a stop over at Dubai, as one long haul flight would be too much for his wee boy. He explained what a joy it is for them to go to Sri Lanka as it’s only in recent years that it’s been possible to enter the country. He’s also thrilled that they’ve now purchased the house where his wife lived with her family in the North of the country, more or less in the centre of the war zone. The house has an interesting history, has been used for many purposes and was partially destroyed in the civil war.
There’s always the possibility that he may write about this part of his life – like he says: ideas for writing come into his head every minute of the day.
Pat Byrne, 2 August, 2017.
Young Soul Rebels: A Personal History of Northern Soul, 19 May 2016 by Stuart Cosgrove
Detroit 67: The Year That Changed Soul 19 Feb 2015 by Stuart Cosgrove
Theatres of the Left, 1880-1935: Workers' Theatre Movement in Britain and America (History Workshop)1 May 1985 by Raphael Samuel and Stuart Cosgrove
Hampden Babylon: Sex and Scandal in Scottish Football 7 Jan 2002by Stuart Cosgrove
Flogging a Dead Horse: Heritage Culture and Its Role in Post-industrial Britain1 May 1993 by Paul Reas and Stuart Cosgrove
Stuart’s books can be purchased online at Amazon and at many bookshops.