The UK's first soul weekender was held in Caister-On-Sea in the spring of 1979. Conceptualised by Robbie Vincent, one of the era's most popular pirate radio DJs, the event was an instant success, attracting 3000 punters. By the mid '80s, copycat events had sprung up around the UK.
Alex Lowes, founder of Southport Weekender, was a regular DJ at many of these early events. Lowes had been a soul music fanatic since the late '70s. As a 15-year-old he regularly travelled from his home in Newcastle to Wigan Casino, the legendary Northern Soul club. But Lowes quickly grew bored of Northern Soul, which was still rooted in the stomp of '60s Motown. Cutting edge sounds were hard to come by locally, so Lowes began organising coach trips around the UK to hear new dance music. Later, he began DJing and promoting his own parties, primarily just to hear the music he liked played out. In doing so he amassed a loyal following of like-minded black music fans. The peak was probably his Sunday night parties at Macmillan's, a Yorkshire club that attracted over 1000 people from all over the North of England to hear a mix of jazz funk, soul and disco. This lead to national gigs and slots at soul weekenders.
Lowes saw a gap in the market. Soul weekenders were great but they were often hundreds of miles away from where he and his mates lived. What's more, he felt they didn't represent "all the underground music that we thought was relevant." In truth, some of the bigger weekenders were simply a bit cheesy, focussed as they were on big soul anthems and boozy shenanigans.
Lowes had a chance meeting with the owners of a holiday campsite in Berwick-Upon-Tweed near the border of Scotland. In October of 1987, he launched the first UpNorth Weekender, which would later evolve into Southport. He convinced his friends and friends of friends within the soul scene to come, creating a relatively small but close-knit crowd. He also amassed a lineup of British DJs from the soul and jazz scene—names like Bob Jones, Colin Curtis and Bob Jeffries.
"There was only about 600 people at the first event," Lowes says. "It was in a little, windy holiday centre. We had the main room playing hip-hop, jazz funk and the beginnings of house. We had a soulful room and a jazzy room. I didn't have a clue what I was doing and from a financial point of view it was a bloody nightmare! But there was such a good vibe. I could see we had something special. It just grew from there."
After the first event, UpNorth moved to a site in Blackpool. Lowes was short on funds, so he took a car loan from his day job, sold the car without the employer's knowledge, and then threw his next event six months later. Dave Gardner, a close friend of Lowes', came on board as operations manager—he's been keeping the wheels of the weekender turning ever since. The second event doubled in attendance as word spread of UpNorth's forward-thinking music policy and friendly vibe. The third edition attracted over 2000 people.
UpNorth launched at a time when UK dance music changed immeasurably. The late '80s explosion of house music in the UK, inspired by Ibiza and fuelled by ecstasy and clubs like Shoom, is well documented. What's less discussed is that many of the UK's earliest house evangelists—Danny Rampling and Paul Oakenfold, for instance—were all active DJs on the soul scene before going Balearic. Lowes was close to the changes that were underway in youth culture—he even attended the pivotal Ibiza trip where Rampling and friends chanced upon ecstasy and Alfredo. By 1988 many of the more traditional soul weekenders, most of which shunned house music, seemed irrelevant. In contrast, UpNorth managed to find the thread that ran from old school soul and jazz to modernist styles, and in doing so found moved with the UK's changing tastes.
After three events in Blackpool, Lowes moved to a site in Morecambe, then on to the Pontins Holiday Camp in Southport in 1990, where the event would remain for the next 20 years. As the popularity of the party grew during the '90s, so did the calibre of the guests. Heroes from the New York house scene, such as Louie Vega, Roger Sanchez and Tony Humphries, were booked to much acclaim. Many of the live acts, some of whom would later go on to worldwide stardom, earned Southport a reputation that belied its small size. A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Roy Ayers and Loleatta Holloway all featured in the early '90s. Lowes still rates a performance by Seal, who was at the time an unknown performing with Adamski, as one of the best Southport has ever heard.
The jazz room was also a hugely important feature of Southport's early years. Here many of the UK's best dance crews would battle it out to super-fast jazz-break records. The jazz-dance scene had roots in '70s London, but in the '80s it had turned into a truly unique subculture. Many dancers had their own look—suits and spats were a favourite—and their own repertoire of lightning fast spins, kicks and dips. Dingwalls, a London club run by Gilles Peterson and Patrick Forge, became the epicentre of this scene in the early '90s. When Dingwalls closed in 1991, Southport became one of the few arenas for hardcore, competitive jazz dancing.
The influence of Southport's jazz room was far-reaching. Masters At Work, perhaps the biggest house producers of the era, were inspired to take on a new musical direction after tasting this uniquely British stylistic interpretation. As Kenny Dope explains, "We walked into Gilles Peterson, in the jazz room, and we were like, 'What the hell is going on in here?' Everybody was dressed in suits, shoes. Dancing their asses off, sweating. That was my first experience of seeing that to an Art Blakey record that was 168 beats per minute. That's what inspired the broken beat." The result was a new MAW alias, Nu Yorican Soul, and two groundbreaking songs: "The Nervous Track" and "Mind Fluid." Those records became underground hits and sparked a transatlantic exchange of ideas between New York house and British eclecticism. Without those records, and the subsequent Nu Yorican Soul album, it's unlikely genres like UK garage and broken beat would have sounded anything like they do today.
Although soulful house music has arguably been Southport's biggest attraction in recent years, the festival's music policy is remarkably wide. Techno, broken beat, alternative jazz and Brazilian rarities have all regularly featured. Since the '90s Southport has also been one of only a handful of large events in the UK that have supported urban music wholeheartedly. Over the years, R&B, reggae, UK garage and liquid drum & bass have all been represented.
This far-ranging music policy helps explain why Southport has attracted such a racially diverse crowd. It's arguably the most mixed event of its size in Britain. Likewise, the age range of Southport's attendees spans generations. It's one of the few events of its kind where 18-year-olds and 50-year-olds share the same dance floor. This has much to do with the loyalty of its followers, many of whom have been attending since the '80s. This diversity is perhaps the one thing that is truly unique to Southport. As Lowes said just before the final weekender, "The cultural mix and the age difference is something that will be really missed."
Recent years have been some of the best in Southport's history, which is notable for an event that's been going for so long. Since moving to a bigger site in 2011—Butlins Minehead—Southport seemed to go from strength to strength. Their 50th party had a ridiculous list of talent, ranging from Chaka Khan and Brazilian vocal legend Marcos Valle to Moodymann and Ben UFO.
It would then seem strange that the 52nd event was to be Southport's last, but while there were years when Southport would sell out before announcing any acts, by 2015 demand was lower than expected. The explanation for low ticket sales seems to have as much to do with Southport over-reaching themselves as anything else. In 2014 Lowes ran events in Minehead, Croatia and a one-off heritage event back in Southport. It wasn't just the dip in attendance that's been the problem, it's rising demands of the crowd.
"Things are expensive and expectations are huge," says Lowes. "People talk about festivals now, and that's fine if you've got 20,000 people and you've got your own burger vans and bar, but the figures just don't add up. Everyone asks me, 'When are you getting Stevie Wonder on?' I'm like, 'Give us two million quid and we'll do it.' We're a victim of our own success, really. It's not that we don't want to carry on, it's just financially, it's almost impossible." These factors forced Lowes and his team to make 2015 their final big weekender.
In many ways the last ever Southport was a typical one. Classic house and soul anthems caused the biggest reactions of the weekend, while on the fringes, acts like Marcellus Pittman, Ron Trent and Culoe De Song provided a forward-thinking counterpoint. The highlight was Masters At Work's finale, which peaked with Nu Yorican Soul's Southport-inspired classic "It's Alright I Feel It."
The crowd were, unsurprisingly, in a hugely good mood all weekend. Southport brands itself as the "world's friendliest party." That's a bold claim, but it feels legit. For many regulars, Southport is the biggest three days of the year. As such, there seemed to be a continual air of celebration, tinged with disbelief that the end was in sight.
Southport is more than just friendly: it has a singular energy. It's a place where people really dance, which may seem like an odd thing to say for a dance music event, but a notable section of the crowd have proper moves. There's a lack of posturing, and an enthusiasm on the dance floor that's infectious. Arguably even more so than the music, it's the crowd's effervescent attitude that makes the event special.
One word I picked up on during the weekend was "family." Southport attendees often refer to each other and the organisers as such. It's clichéd, but it's also appropriate. "We get presents every year," says Lowes. "People bake us cakes. Bottles of rum from some obscure island in the Caribbean. All sorts of stuff, man!" There's also literal families that have been created via Southport. "There's kids been born," says Lowes, "people have been married at Southport."
In an emotional goodbye speech after MAW finished their set, the organizers urged the crowd to "get home safely and stay in touch."
Lowes said there was an incredible depth of feeling as he stood on the stage viewing the final moments of an event that's been his life for almost three decades—so much so that he couldn't just walk away from what he'd built. Southport reached out to their fans via social media to get a consensus on what to do next. Lowes was clear that Southport in its current incarnation is finished, but there's an opportunity to launch a smaller event with the same spirit.
"We've had almost a 1000 emails. Some of them are five- or six-page Word documents. Some of the stuff that's come through, it's quite inspiring, to be honest. I'm taken aback by how much people want it. I think people feel they don't need a massive amount of DJs. Maybe we'll do longer sets or have one less room. If you'd asked me three weeks ago if I'd do another event, I'd have said, 'No.' But now we're looking at it. When you get that many emails you've got to."
He then went on an interesting aside. "My solicitor helped try to save Darlington Football club [from administration] and he said to me, 'Southport Weekender has at least three times the fanbase they have, and with more passion, too.'" To put that in context, Darlington FC were a club with over 100 years of history and were the pride of a town of over 100,000 people. The idea that fans of a soul weekender for 6,500 people could have a comparable following is remarkable. Put simply, people really love Southport Weekender.
Whatever happens next, Lowes will not be cutting any corners. On the numerous occasions I spoke to him he often came back to the idea that he just wanted to give people real value for money. "I'm a firm believer in doing a party to the best of my ability. Southport weekender, as a brand, has had a lot of respect for a lot of years, I feel it would be wrong to dilute." Even on the last event, there was no hint that Southport were trying to turn much of a profit. The production and sound for the Powerhouse room was especially impressive, and certainly not cheap. "I don't do this to try and make money," says Lowes.
And so the Southport vibe will continue, if in a smaller, different form. The related SuncéBeat events will remain in Croatia, but they are their own offering. There are a huge number of great weekenders in the UK. Bloc. and Bangface are two successful examples, but in keeping soul music at its heart, Southport offered something truly unique. There are other soul weekenders still running in the UK—in fact, Caister, the one that started them all, is still going, though its music policy and aging punters are firmly rooted in the '70s. Southport was the last soul weekender that could appeal to a younger generation. As it ends, it's hard to imagine a new event taking its place.