The Wire

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The Mire: Tangents, threads and opinions from The Wire HQ

People get on board

Derek Walmsley

Somehow I'd missed until David Stubbs mentioned it that the longrunning US soul show Soul Train is now up on You Tube. It might have only happened recently, but if you're in the UK this is like a portal opening up into 70s Black America – Soul Train has only ever been glimpsed here in occasional clips in documentaries. They're currently putting up classic old shows recently. When I talked to Jeff Mills a while back, he mentioned the kids doing a soul train in the classroom, and I didn't quite understand what he meant, even though I knew of the show – some sort of conga line? But I guess he meant the communal dance at the end, where over some ridiculously funky tune the audience line up to take it in terms to bust their moves.

This sort of audience participation is really unfamiliar to British (and especially English) types. People clap the beat out precisely, and cheer the breakdown in a Kurtis Blow track without prompting. No fourth wall between audience and performer. The camera doesn't cut away from the dancers or edit the footage in ridiculous ways, it lingers on them. Uptight Englanders look away now.

The kind of seriousness with which the main man introduces the segment – "We now turn our attention to the soul train" – give it a life of its own. That kind of autonomous zone was kind of unheard of on UK TV, where the biggest televisual pop medium was Top Of The Pops, where you had watcher and performer with little in between. (a notable exception – BBC2's Dance Energy show in the rave era). I'll be eagerly soaking these up in the next few days. It's strange, though, considering online media-overload, how fresh and unfamilar this medium, a staple of US TV for decades, somehow feels ...