Music scenes have always been about tribalism. What you listened to defined who you were, especially when it came with clothes, clubs and a language that deliberately set you apart from ‘others’. In the background, those who simply didn’t get passion for and identification with music sometimes tried to ridicule it, differences were most stark – and friction most evident – between rival musical tribes. As usual, at its extremes, this happened in the lens of the media, with exaggerated coverage of ‘running battles’ between Teds/Punks/Mods/Skinheads/Soul Boys (delete as appropriate) doing as much to attract youths to join in and seize their moment in the limelight as did the underlying competition between the factions themselves (and why are battles always either ‘running’ or ‘pitched’ in newspaper headlines? Why not ‘ambling’ or – given the likelihood of alcohol playing a part – ‘staggering randomly’?). Away from the media version, though, the common theme was that loyalty to one’s chosen scene demanded exclusivity. To mix with, or even listen to the sounds of, an opposing scene invited accusations of traitorhood or, worse, the status of ‘plastic’ – dipping into scenes as a fashion accessory rather than living the life as true dedication demanded. There were, of course, defections – often talked of in hushed tones befitting the ignominy of someone crossing to the other side, and with the inference that whoever it was can’t really have been a proper member of the respective cult if they could be that easily converted. For the most part, though, the attitude was that once indoctrinated into your particular scene, there you stayed until death or squaredom (to all intents and purposes, much the same thing) eventually claimed you.

We were young and, given that music was something in our lives that we chose, rather than have imposed on us, the identity it gave us mattered more than any of the other pigeonholes that society attempted to file us in. The nature of music in a pre-streaming era played a large part, too. Adherence to a musical ‘cult’ meant that you would only hear that kind of music in the clubs related to that scene, or through the effort of seeking out records containing that kind of music which was beyond most of our reach. To hear music from any other specialist genre would have meant stepping into that scene – a step that, clad in the ‘wrong’ clothes and with the ‘wrong’ haircut would at best leave you feeling out of place and, at worst, invite a beating at the hands of the opposing tribe determined to protect their scene from interlopers. Dipping into other scenes to see and hear what they were all about just wasn’t an option unless you’d first found a friendly crowd to provide your introduction.

And the crazy thing about it all – and particularly in the case of scenes based on music from the past – we were all mostly listening to different points on the same musical spectrum, broadly early 50s to mid 60s rhythm and blues, with spurs off to give each scene its unique identity. At the risk of massively generalising (and wary of the fact that each scene has its own level of passionate self-analysis seeking to identify just what describes its ‘own’ genre of music), we’ve got rock’n’roll taking R&B and blending it with uptempo country to produce everything from big beat band sounds to rural rockabilly, the Mod scene reaching back to more bluesy R&B, and the soul scene picking up the R&B sound from the mid-60s onwards. In some cases, these scenes involved the same artists and groups as their careers evolved. In our scene-specific introspection, we conveniently or deliberately forgot that no-one went into the studio to record in a genre to be defined by British listeners thirty years in the future! Even the more contemporary punk scene followed the path of small pub rock bands in stripping back the pop sound to a rawness that would immediately have been recognizable to a rockabilly or garage bands of the 50s and early 60s – even if they wouldn’t have related to spiky hair and safety-pins that became the media’s projection of the punk image. I’ve been tempted to try and reflect the relationship between the respective scenes – or, indeed, the people who followed them – in some kind of Venn diagram, but it would either be a gross over-simplification or, if I tried to capture every sub-genre and cult, end up looking like a Spirograph drawing.

So, forty years on from when many of us nailed our musical colours to the mast, what’s changed? Well, for a start, the scenes have changed – surprise, surprise. They’re still there, and bearing the same names, but the passage of 40 years has seen each of them evolve along quite similar patterns. Stephen Riley captured it quite succinctly in his book ‘The Truth about Northern Soul’ when he described that scene now comprising three distinct subdivisions: a cult of rare record collecting, endlessly looking for new material to play, even if some of it isn’t that good; a nostalgia trip, comprising those desperate to preserve the scene the way they perceive it as having been at its height (conflated for some with the peak of their youth; for others involving pursuit of a scene they missed but as they imagine it to have been), and the media-friendly, populist version, exemplified by all the ads on Amazon and EBay for off-the-peg Northern Soul/Rockabilly/Mod/Swing Jive outfits and memorabilia, inspired by, but somehow very different from, anything actually worn or used when the scene was thriving. Sadly, that unholy trinity of variants has a commonality across all the scenes, sapping their vitality and making it harder to find venues that truly capture what the music is about.

We’ve changed, too. Some are happy to immerse themselves in one of the three versions described, and good luck to them – after all, this is supposed to be for fun, not an admission exam to Coolsville Central or the School of Rock’n’Roll. But it seems there’s a growing number of us who’ve retained their hunger to expand their aural library beyond the confines of what would traditionally have been played in their ‘parent’ scene. Put simply, there are too many venues where one is only likely to hear the same couple of hundred tunes played in a slightly different order. In a lot of cases, that doesn’t mean a big departure in what you’re listening to, sometimes just records by the same artists and period, but in tempos that don’t match the dances popular in their own clubs. That’s something the rock’n’roll scene’s been guilty of – if it’s not a ‘bopper’, ‘jiver’ or ‘stroller’, then it won’t get played (and which also produces the opposite effect, again not unique to the rock’n’roll scene, whereby if a record is danceable, it get subsumed into the ‘rockin’ playlist, whatever its provenance). Ironically, this occasionally throws up the paradox where you’ve had a record in the collection for years on a compilation album, but never heard it played out because it didn’t fit – only to see it filling the floor in a different environment. Sometimes, it means pushing the date range out a bit further – if an artist recorded great music in the 50s, what were they doing in the early 60s? Sure, some went off the boil, but others evolved their sound and kept their beat.

Most important is to disregard genre labels; what one person would dismiss as ‘one of them f*ing Northern Soul records’ might just turn out to be equally well defined as ‘a rhythm and blues record I haven’t heard before’ – it all depends how open your ears are to something different. None of this means disloyally abandoning the music we’ve loved for years, just pushing out the boundaries around it; if anything, it reminds you why you loved it in the first place when you see how it sits in a wider spectrum. There’s a variety of different names for this kind of scene: ‘crossover’ is one, but that implies that the genres remain separated and only certain records can bridge the gap between them – or, indeed, that the people listening to them are flitting between them. Our preference is to call it rhythm and blues, emphasising that these neighbouring genres are underpinned by a common musical parentage (and harking back to when the musical press stopped categorising on the basis of the race of the artist and grouped all beat records under the same heading).

The results can be scary, but fantastic. After decades of being in clubs where I was familiar with 90% plus of what was being played (and could be legitimately sniffy of the rest), I’ve spent nights in rhythm and blues clubs, my ears firehosed with records I love but have never heard before. While Mrs M is busy Shazaming them to add them to the wants list, I’m happy just to enjoy the sense of ‘I don’t know what this is, and I don’t have to, but it’s great’. Even better, I’m surrounded by people of my vintage from other scenes going through the same experience, and making new friends amongst folk equally as passionate about music from the late 40s to 60s but who 40 years ago I was supposed to be getting into fights with. There’s something rather fine about listening to a long-time Mod raving over a record we’ve been dancing to for years, and vice versa. There’s the younger crowd, too, very stylish, great dancers (curse them!), who are quite happy to drink in the full range of rhythm and blues sounds, oblivious to the fact that a generation ago they’d have been forced to make a choice between them.

The downside is that it’s giving my bank balance a pasting as there are so many new records to buy, and the record boxes are multiplying, but equally it opens up the potential for lots of modestly-priced records rather than chasing the increasingly expensive items on the rock’n’roll wants list. Most importantly, it’s reignited that excitement about going out to a club because of what you might hear, rather than in the hope that the DJ’s selections from your mutually familiar playlist will chime with your own tastes.

I’m going to new places, hearing new records, meeting new friends and rediscovering the joy of being in a cool place, surrounded by cool people, bathed in cool sounds, which is about as close to eternal youth as we’re going to get.