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American Journey: I finally get to see Motown

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Paul Mason | 03:46 UK time, Sunday, 14 September 2008

When I was 15 years old I ran away from home for one night to dance in the world's greatest disco. The year was glamourous: 1975; the location not so glamorous - an old dance hall in Wigan, (a mining town in the North of England). Actually I was two years in advance of Wigan Casino being nominated by Billboard Magazine as the world's greatest disco; and three years of being allowed to go in there legally. I've been remembering my time as a Northern Soul fanatic today as I have toured Detroit....

I've been to the Ford plant, to see a jobs fair aimed at getting the (mainly African American) workforce to give up their jobs and move out of Detroit for 100,000 dollars. I've met people reduced to tears within seconds of the camera rolling because of what's happened to their town (I know the feeling when I think of mine). But above all I've had the humbling experience of filming in Detroit's "Black Bottom" district.

This looks like the lower 9th ward of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit it: many houses are burned out or wrecked: even some that would have had a pinstriped Foxton's guy in London putting six noughts after the selling price. Many have been foreclosed. Much of it is overgrown like the final resting place of Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. The population is friendly, laid back, getting on with life. But the disaster that hit it was not natural: it was economic.

Basically the recession of the early 1980s ripped the heart out of industrial Detroit and it never came back. It looks like a nuke hit it and the government forgot to send in rescue teams. And here is its relevance to the economics of today.

Detroit reminds us what happens if you go into a recession and never come out. Even though entire economies rarely do this (but see Japan since the 1990s) entire regions do suffer in this way - it's now clear to me that this is the fate of Michigan's industrial cities. It also reminds us what happens if the whole economic model your town is based on disappears and the politicians, unions, civil society groups etc can't come up with a viable alternative.

Strolling through these small clapperboard porch-and-lawn streets today however I felt pretty proud, amazed, invigorated to be in the streets where Tamla Motown was born. I tried to imagine what it must have been like to have full employment on these streets, and to invent an entire popular music culture so human, authentic and global that a bunch of white mining-town kids on the other side of the ocean would create a cult around it, with Brut after shave as the incense.

In case you have no idea what I am talking about, this is Tamla Motown; and this is what Northern Soul was like.



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