When the history of youth culture in the capital is discussed, the black soul boys who danced in the dive bars and basements of London in the 1970s are frequently overlooked. In a decade when different style tribes emerged every few months, their impact has received little comment. Yet they created a joyously original scene that laid the roots for today’s thriving club culture.
Much like punk rock, the scene grew from dissatisfaction (for example, West End clubs of the day enforced a ‘colour bar’), and from a desire to express individuality and identity through clothes and music.
The footballer Laurie Cunningham — a pioneering black player who first represented England in 1977 — was part of a group of dance-obsessed teenagers who competed against each other to funk music, while wearing sharp suits.
Born to Jamaican parents in Islington in 1956, the young Cunningham excelled at sport — and this would later come to define his career. Most of all though, he loved to dance.
The Cunninghams lived in Finsbury Park, an area with a large Caribbean population. Locals dressed up for evening gatherings outside shebeens. The men in particular — sporting vibrant coloured shirts and tonik suits gleaming in the lamplight — left a lasting impression. By his mid-teens Cunningham was dressing up in patent leather shoes, suits and ties. A school friend recalls whenever they went out: “You never knew what he was going to come as”.
“Skinheads stood at the back bar drinking, while soul boys and girls danced in groups down the front”
The local dance hall was the Tottenham Royal, a large ballroom with a revolving stage, velvet banquettes and plastic palm trees. It drew teenagers from all over. Skinheads stood at the back bar drinking, while soul boys and girls danced in groups down the front. It was on the dance floor that Cunningham met his girlfriend Nikki, in 1975. They shared a love of funk music and worked on routines together until they were perfectly in step.
Cunningham practised until he knew a track inside out — where it stopped and started and when the instrumental break came in. He loved jazz dancers like Fred Astaire and incorporated moves, such as kick turns and the splits, into his dancing.
“The friends must have been a striking sight as they moved around the cramped dance floor”
Dedicated dancers headed to the West End, and a dingy basement club at 223 Wardour Street, named Crackers. The owners of this financially-challenged piano and rock establishment tried out a Friday lunchtime soul session between noon and 2.30. It soon attracted a very young crowd. The music — import-only funk from America — could not be heard anywhere else in London. DJ George Power, encouraged dance-offs or ‘burn-ups’ and it wasn’t long before the top dancers were holding court on the floor.
Power provided mix tapes to Cunningham and his friend Bert, knowing they could help sell the music to the crowd. The friends had matching suits made, one in white and one in black, and must have been a striking sight to onlookers as they moved around the cramped dance floor. Crackers reached its height during the long, hot summer of 1976. The musician Jazzie B said of it, “Crackers was the start of it all, with people dancing to the right music in the right atmosphere and most importantly with the right people”.
Laurie Cunningham left London in 1977 for Birmingham, when he signed for West Bromwich Albion and rose to national prominence as part of the ‘Three Degrees’, who lit up the First Division with their adventurous style of play.
A uniquely talented individual, who paved the way for the generation of black footballers that came after him, Cunningham may well have inspired black dancers of the future too. You feel that some of his own dance moves might also have worked their way into his flamboyant style of football.
Different Class: The Story of Laurie Cunningham is published on 11 July (Unbound £9.99)
Author Dermot Kavanagh will be hosting an illustrated talk about the life of Laurie Cunningham on 18 July at The Social. Free entry 7pm-10pm.