Soul, hardship and the inner city

three smiling men in a wood

The Real Thing, courtesy of Liverpool Daily Post and Echo

Soul music's view of the city tends to have little nostalgia and to be very down-to-earth. Soul music emerged from the Civil Rights and Black Power movements in the US. Through their music, soul singers offered a form of protest, addressing the depressing social and economic conditions of inner-city Black communities but also offering solutions for improvement and change.

Soul's emphasis on black pride, identity and unity is clearly evident in songs such as 'Keep on Pushing' by Curtis Mayfield (1964) and 'I'm Black and I'm Proud' by James Brown (1968). The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968 resulted in the increasing fragmentation of the civil rights movement. The music scholar Rebee Garofalo (1992) argues that the confusion and disillusionment of this period is reflected in two songs released by Marvin Gaye in 1971: 'What's Goin' On' and 'Inner City Blues.' Both songs combined Gaye's spiritual beliefs with his increasing concern about poverty, discrimination and political corruption in American society, promoting images of suffering, redemption and life on the backstreets.

This kind of politicised soul music has had relevance for the lives and experiences of musicians all over the world. The Real Thing, for example, is a band from Liverpool who released a soul album in 1977 entitled 4 from 8. The title refers to the four band members and the postal district Liverpool 8, where they lived and where much of Liverpool's Black population was concentrated. The album adapts the familiar concerns and images of soul music to suit circumstances in Liverpool 8 during the mid-1970s, a time when Liverpool was experiencing a severe economic crisis. Unemployment levels were higher in Liverpool 8 than anywhere else in the city, and the album sleeve features a drawing in which Liverpool 8 is portrayed as a site of dereliction.

The album was not a commercial success but a version of one song from the album, 'Children of the Ghetto', was featured in the Spike Lee film Clockers in 1995, and Mary J Blige performed her own version of the song on her world tour of 2002.

The Real Thing did have commercial success with some of their singles, which involved a lighter, less politicised style of soul. Their first big hit was 'You to Me are Everything,' which reached number one in the British pop charts in 1976. Their other hit singles include 'Can't Get by Without You' (1976) and 'Can You Feel the Force' (1979). The records have been played on radio ever since and were re-released ten years later in remixed versions to become hits again. Most recently, the Freeloaders sampled the Real Thing's 'So Much Love' in a top ten hit from 2005.

Today the Real Thing consists of three members, Eddie Amoo, Chris Amoo and Dave Smith, and they perform regularly across the UK. During the 1970s they were a four-piece band, with the late Ray Lake as their fourth member.