“Hailed as the only Northern Soul and Motown Bar in the Midlands, the Night Owl club in Digbeth celebrates its first year anniversary after establishing itself as an entertaining and unique attraction amidst Birmingham’s already vibrant cultural venues. From the moment you walk in, you’re greeted by the vintage furnishings, the professional turntable decks, and the glittering disco ball hanging above the dance floor. Unlike many clubs where the decor feels like it’s been haphazardly picked from a cheap catalogue, in the Night Owl you feel like each item was bought with painstaking detail to establish an aesthetic that compliments the music just as well as it furnishes the club. Celebrating their one year anniversary this July, the Night Owl Club has gone from very humble beginnings to swiftly earning its place as one of Birmingham’s hidden gems. Like a miniature festival the whole weekend was given in celebration of their first anniversary. Starting Friday evening and ending Sunday, each night thundered with fantastic music and colourful dance moves that powered through into the early hours of the next day. During the weekend there were also Jerk BBQs, vintage clothing sales, vinyl fairs, and live music taking place during the afternoon.
If you’ve never heard of Northern Soul, I would hasten to compare it to Motown. A genre of soulful music with a solid rhythm that’s perfect for dancing to. In many ways Northern Soul is an off shoot of the Mod culture from the 60s, young people were throwing off the archaic conservatism of the fifties and revelling in the new waves unorthodox music and fashionable styles that were perforating Britain at the time. Predominantly associated with releases from Motown records in the 60s, Northern Soul pertains to a very specific genre of music; individual singles cherry picked from the countless records imported from the States, favouring soulful vocals with a fast, hard beat. As such Northern Soul records were few and far between and clubs such as the Twisted Wheel, Wigan Casino, and Blackpool Mecca that could boast whole set lists filled with these coveted songs exploded in popularity. Remember this was a time before online streaming and music recognition software, so when DJs refused to reveal the names of the records they were playing you were forced to go to these places to enjoy the music. In fact even if you did know the names of the tracks, due to their obscurity, you could still scarcely find them in record stores. Despite mainstream music eventually turning toward Disco and Funk in the late 70s, the movement that celebrated this specific niche of music has never seemed to die off. For many the movement has merely been bubbling under the surface; with its rich legacy, instantly likable music, and the occasionally inspired feature films, Northern Soul has perpetuated itself effortlessly by easily appealing to the next generation of toe-tapping troublemakers.
So Friday night I donned my white vest, smart trousers, and shiny shoes, looking to channel my inner Kevin Bacon and show off what little I had learned in the five minutes of introductory dance classes I had found on Youtube. Arriving at the club I discovered Friday was, through look of the draw, one of the quieter nights. There was a decent crowd on the floor that night, yet leaving just enough room to cut loose and get footloose to my heart’s content. In many ways I feel as though the Night Owl is the antithesis of modern night clubs. You don’t go to the Night Owl to get drunk, or go out on the lash, or to go out on the pull. The best way to describe the Night Owl, synonymous with the whole Northern Soul movement, is that it’s all about the dancing. When you go there you won’t know all the songs being played, but realistically you’re not supposed to; in fact many of the DJs pride themselves on playing songs you won’t recognise, but you’ll like them anyway. Similarly at the bar, when you order a drink you’re not greeted with some concoction of fruit flavourings laced with cheap antifreeze. Drinks are for taste rather than intoxication, when you get something from the bar you can be sure it’s the good stuff. The staff are friendly and courteous, not at all as desensitised and coarse as the usual broad street bouncers and barmaids. Overall you get a sense that everything in the club is tailor made to create an enjoyable experience, from the comfortable leather sofas for relaxing, to the sprung wooden dancefloor to make those leg drops easier on the knees.
My frightfully sore feet rested easily from Friday’s antics as I took the next two days to enjoy the less frantic of the Night Owl’s celebrations. Thankfully for me, I managed to take this time indulging my weakness for Carribean BBQ. Nothing replenishes the health better than a plate of Jerk Chicken. Both afternoons were catered by Errol Morris of Yumyums catering, and after hearing people rave about it all Friday night I was happy to confirm that the rumours had not been exaggerated. As I sat down to my delicious meal, taking in the DJ sets around mid-afternoon, I took Saturday to talk to a few of the regulars and even sneak in one or two interviews with the people in charge of running the club. Sunday was a smashing day, after spreading the gospel of Errol’s jerk chicken I even brought along a friend to join me (which the Night Owl were kind enough to let me bring along). The last afternoon had a vintage clothing sale, vinyl stalls, and live music. The Heels were playing when I arrived, a band familiar to many who frequent the live music scene in Birmingham, known for their great mix of Ska, Reggae and Soul. I finished up my last day by interviewing one of the masterminds behind the Night Owl, Richard Priest, who had been around during the peak of Northern Soul at the Wigan Casino. The interview gave a nice perspective on the music and the club in general. Seeing how each of the owners and members of the Night Owl have worked together to make such a venue possible was fascinating to observe. If you sat down and spoke to one of the regulars there you could see the passion that they had for the venue. All the music, the decorations, the dancing, it was a spark of culture that we didn’t know we missed until it was dropped on our doorstep. Looking back I wish I had mustered the strength to jump into the Saturday and Sunday all-nighters, yet looking forward I can see many future all-nighters spent in a little corner of Digbeth that’s thumpin’ to the beat of my heart.”