Northern Soul: A Personal History
Notes from the epicenter of Northern Soul’s Big Bang
It’s not often I can pinpoint what I was doing on a given date, let alone one from forty odd years ago.
But I have near-perfect recall for the 23rd of September 1973, which is the morning Wigan Casino opened its doors for the first of many Northern Soul all-nighters.
I’d arranged a ride in one of a fleet of cars heading on to Wigan from Blackpool Mecca’s Highland Room. But I ended up entwined with a pretty brunette from Burton on Trent, who asked if I wanted to share her (and her friend’s) guest house room on Blackpool’s South Shore?
‘Indeed I do!’
I forsook my lift to Wigan Casino’s opening night and spent whatever cash I had on her drinks. Come night’s end, she went to the loo with her friend and when I was the last person left in the Highland Room, it dawned on me that I’d been had-over for a half-dozen lager and blacks (which I probably ‘borrowed’ ‘cause I was always skint!): the girls had done a side-shuffle through the alternate exit in the lobby.
At 4 am I was sitting on the steps of a deserted Blackpool Mecca, licking my wounds and no doubt pondering the good time my mates were having in Wigan. Whilst considering climbing the walls of the bus depot behind the Mecca and sneaking onto a comparatively warm yellow bus until morning (it wouldn’t have been the first time), a local drunk wobbled past, on his way home from a lock-in at one of Blackpool’s Working Men’s clubs (remember those, anyone?).
‘What’s up, lad? Nowhere to stay?’
I told him about my pretty brunette.
‘Come on. You can have the couch,’ he beckoned.
Latterly, I would’ve been wary of such an offer. But back then I was a teen schoolie, and I made the spot decision that this bloke was OK. He lived with his Ma in one of the streets off Bloomfield Road, and I sat chewing my face off on the living room settee until his mother got up. Withstanding my protests, she insisted on cooking me a full English fry-up: for reasons I am about to explain, getting it down my throat caused great difficulty, and for years afterwards I couldn’t look an egg in the eye without nausea.
The elephant in the Northern Soul ballroom has always been amphetamines, often skirted over with a nudge and a wink and dressed up in blurry euphemisms; one such, from Blues and Soul Magazine in the 70’s, stated that ‘there was enough energy at the Torch to light up the whole of Stoke‘.
And probably Staffordshire, too!
But the detail omitted was that the energy was provided by medical grade amphetamines, manufactured by pharmaceutical giants Riker in Loughborough, and Smith, Kline & French, which had been jemmied out of local chemists, or siphoned from your aunt’s bottle of slimming pills. Put plainly, ‘speed’ was as integral to the Northern Soul scene as the vinyl spinning on the decks, and without it there would have been no all-nighters.
Back in the day, my weekend started at the Blue Room at Sale Mecca on a Thursday, then on to Blackpool Mecca on Saturday night, Wigan Casino until Sunday morning, and ended in a twitching, exhausted heap after a Sunday all-dayer like The Ritz in Manchester, which still lives up the road from what was the Hacienda (and pre-COVID I passed it weekly).
After leaving school, I’d got a job at a textile mill and on my way to the 6 am early shift on a Monday, I was so delirious through lack of sleep I sometimes thought I was being followed…by my own shadow!
Even then I did not consider my pill-popping to be right and proper behaviour, and much of the youthful attraction was owed to the fact that it damn-well wasn’t.
But wherever drugs are part of the story, there is usually hypocrisy and double standards, and what for cultural icons like a Rolling Stone, a Slit, a snooker player or Andre Agassi is a good marketing angle from which to launch a book, people in lesser paid (though usually more responsible) professions are not allowed a past-life with blemishes, and too often we reward liars for their success rate.
I should add that enforcing the reality of ‘what was’ is not an endorsement of drug culture; rather, it’s a reaction to the all-conquering platitudes, lies, puff and interminable PR-speak, that poisons the heart of all good writing and journalism.
In the case of Northern Soul, it is also an inconvenient truth for the marketeers who want to sell you the next (old) new look without the stigma, and which talking heads like Russ Winstanley seem happy to edit out… (for a fee?)
‘You were part of a wonderful, friendly, atmospheric movement,’ platitudinizes Wigan Casino’s original DJ, for a ‘documercial’ masquerading as something else.
That it was artificially induced is conveniently thrown out with the bath water so people can sell you the bubbles. I suppose the funniest example of selective editing has to be the healthy living breakfast cereal ad, which must’ve inspired many a titter over a nine o’clock Horlicks!
In those days, each sizeable town seemed to have a combo of drug squad detectives (police, eh – remember those?).
In Bolton it was Creme and Turner and in Blackpool they went by the name of Abbott and Tasker (no prizes for guessing their nicknames).
I first met Detective Tasker when getting off the X60 bus one Friday evening, at the terminus that used to live just inland of The Manchester pub, when he confronted me at the entrance whilst carrying my ‘soulie’ travel bag.
‘We don’t want your sort in my town,‘ he stated whilst shunting me back inside the bus station, where I was ordered to get on the next bus home (‘Why certainly, Officer!’)
As soon as he turned his back, I pegged it across the concourse – by then, I knew those backstreets as well as a local – and couldn’t wait to tell Mouse and my Blackpool mates, to top up my street cred..
Anyhow, it was Abbott and Tasker who provided the first serious challenge to my blind acceptance of this indulgent lifestyle. One night out in Blackpool (in the lobby to the Highland Room, I think) a rum lad and supplier-of-plenty called Rob Brockh***t confronted Messrs Abbott and Tasker, about why they were intent on stopping us having a good time?
‘Don’t talk to me about a good time. Babies are born into this world every day without limbs and without food to survive. And here you lot are, just fucking yourselves up,’ snarled Abbott with genuine conviction.
Thud! Our smirks hit the floor. Each looked to another to muster a riposte but nobody stepped up, and Abbott’s words left an indelible mark on this Catholic conscience, though they made little impression on Rob.
The foundation stone of Northern Soul was one of the most powerful cocktail’s ever mixed by a generation, and this maelstrom of elements amounted to an almost unbreakable (and often fatal) spell.
Start with a punishing rhythm and add amphetamines to pump you to the beat. Throw in blood-vocals with the resonance of a hymn to inspire weekly worship, spiced with simple, mantra-like lyrics to stir both yearning and acute sentimentality. Then, declare rare vinyl as your Holy Relics and throw in some reactionary ‘nobody gets us’ ardour for good measure.
Like I say – One of the most potent cocktails known to teenage (wo)man. But if you take either of the two main ingredients out of this potion, the spell is broken and real life will gradually creep back in.
Even for a healthy teenager, such excess was hard to maintain, and my only kind memory of that shitty job was the lunchtime retreat to the wall of the motorway, which sped noisily alongside the mill (which still stands, and the traffic still does). Perched high above the busy tarmac, I dreamed of faraway places like Stoke, Leicester, Wolverhampton and Blackpool, where my fellow soulies were similarly trapped in mundane workdays and pining for the weekend that had passed, until we were sufficiently rejuvenated to look forward to the next one.
In fact this is an abridged definition of most people’s time of youthful glory and living dangerously: half a week recovering and reliving the past, and the other half living in expectation of another unhealthy fix of fast living.
Strangely, the thing I least remember about Wigan Casino is the dancing. I suppose this is because one dance blurs into the next, and each buzz was dependent on your condition when your favourite intro broke free of the speakers. But I often did more bla bla bla than dancing, and sometimes it took me four hours to get out of the cloakroom. Soon, we’d be plundering milk bottles from the blocks of flats near the Casino, and made to feel very unclean by the pungent whiff of chlorine at Wigan baths. Then it was back to Blackpool in sufferance, or off to an all-dayer for more of the same, until my bloody shadow was chasing me down the street again.
Northern Soul was a contradictory phenomenon, because it was a cutting edge dance movement that was inspired and sustained by music from the past, and although it (eventually) became famous around the world, it was played out on a relatively small provincial stage; hence the subsequent deluge of politicking, back-biting and parochial bickering about whose version of The Faith is kosher (it seems worse than ever now the drugs have worn off, though I neither know nor care who says what about whom…much less why).
In the days of the Torch in Stoke-on-Trent, and particularly the glory years of Blackpool Mecca, there was a rich seam of music waiting to be mined. But Northern Soul had sowed the seeds of its own ruin in the collector’s rule of rarity – just ’cause it’s rare doesn’t mean it ain’t shite – that developed out of the late 60s and Manchester’s Twisted Wheel.
As I later outgrew the restrictions of the Northern Soul badge, and a dress code that plummeted sharply from ‘mod-cool’ to daft Dex’s Bay City Rollers, it came to seem ridiculous that black American musicians had to remain undiscovered and condemned to a life of poor obscurity, so that us lot had something suitably rare to dance to, because ultimately this was the requirement, and DJ’s, club promoters and traders in rare vinyl have made more from those records than the majority of musical performers who gave them life: hardly musical emancipation, wouldn’t you agree?
Musical boundaries are not redefined and expanded in dusty Stateside warehouses or King’s Lynn Soul Bowls, but by musicians and songwriters with living skills; preferably with the ever-rarer desire to communicate something more worthy than X-factor fame-lust (so many singers – so many agents – so little substantive art).
To my ears, the meaningful album attained a flawed perfection in Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’, in which Marvin soared (fleetingly) above the trappings of the musical production line, fame and a fucked-up personal life, and for me this album has never been bettered (there’s a telling snapshot of Marvin’s flip-side in Bobby Womack’s autobiography).
However, because Northern Soul’s Conservative clerisy held that rarity was of greater value than quality, and Penny Black-type rarity is NOT the mother of artistic invention, the standard of Northern Soul music was destined to fade into mediocrity, as it ran out of superlative commercial failures to inspire our amphetamised dance steps.
In truth, I was uncomfortable with the quasi-religious status bestowed upon The Faith from day-one, and the over-simplified exaltation of rare soul’s unknown soldiers, who had supposedly been martyred on the commercial altar of souled-out junk.
Primarily because the good folk on whose efforts Northern Soul was built did not sing and make music so they could be somebody’s poor America cousin. They wanted to be heard and to make a living from their skills, not traded on obscurity out of record boxes at Wigan Casino and Cleethorpes Pier.
In the main, the lyrics were cobbled together from strands of common sentiment and then ‘cut on a shoestring’ by some wannabe Berry Gordy: ironically, had they fulfilled their true ambition, we would never have shuffled a brogue to their thumping beat (they would’ve been just too darn… too darn… too darn commercial).
As I grew older, there was also the problem identified by Kant, in that whilst music might inspire feelings, it rarely gives more than fleeting shape to ideas - challenging people with ideas is the realm of the written word, which trumps every other medium of expression (and which is subject matter for work with greater ambition than the one you now read).
Artistic interpretation of anything with cult status is notoriously difficult, and the cutting room floor of many a screen venture is littered with good intentions.
Tony Palmer’s 1977 Northern Soul documentary fell short because the edgy kids really didn’t want a part of it, the drugs were omitted (they had to be, otherwise he would’ve shut the place down for us) and he insisted on making it about the ee-by-gum Wigan working classes, when the reality was that Northern Soulies were from every walk of life and background.
Using Dave Withers as a main point of focus was certainly an inspired choice, for few have been more sincere (and obsessive) about the music than Dave. But the out-takes that someone from Bolton put on youtube a while ago told a fuller story – a long line of wide-eyed folk queuing to get in who were clearly all off their heads.
More recently the film ‘Soul Boy’ paid attention to period detail and it is difficult to criticise Elaine Constantine’s Northern Soul film, because many of the scenes look authentic, she rightly put the drugs at the centre of the film and she shows a skilled photographers attention to darkness and light.
But the hazards of placating both the history boys and many invested parties, whilst appealing to (and educating) a mass audience, is nigh on impossible, and without the fiery spark of inspiration most scripts descend into mediocrity along a cheap necklace of cliché-encrusted platitudes.
I believe there’s still a good television story to be got from Northern Soul (I have just the script!), but it needs freeing from the shackles of the past and those inflexible custodians, who’d have us looking forever backwards through rose-tinted specs.
Films like Northern Soul and Soul Boy make me realise how famously good Cameron Crowe’s script / movie ‘Almost Famous‘ actually is, reaffirming the case for a writer’s full ownership of the story, and putting a great script above (and before) all other film-making considerations… which is why so few truly great movies ever get made.
As aficionados will know, Richard Searling (see separate piece) is one of the original Wigan Casino DJs, a soul venue promoter and arguably Northern Soul’s main player, and the two of us go back a long way. I have fond memories of my time on the road with Richard, and I danced the Six Million Steps from the Va Va to jazz funk nights at Angels in Burnley, which he hosted with dance club veteran Paul Taylor before the rave scene properly exploded.
I had much less in common with Ian Levine, but I liked the cranky clever-clogs nevertheless, and his awkward, say-what-you-see social skills were like a publicly-schooled version of Tourettes. A curious amalgam of obsessive collector and impatient seeker of the next big thing, Ian Levine was (nay, still is!) a walking-talking archive of soul music knowledge, and for those who put dates-and-detail before dance steps, Ian is the king (though if it came to a challenge, I’m sure Richard would make it a contest).
With a look of Billy Bunter on dress-down Friday, and the microphone manner of a school Librarian who’d been asked to step in and run the disco, Ian ‘and this one goes something like this’ Levine was possibly the most monotone and unnatural DJ I’ve ever encountered (apparently they can’t shut him up between discs these days: is he back on the Billy?). But BOY does he know his stats.
Blackpool Mecca’s Highland Room
Ian Levine played Blackpool Mecca with Colin Curtis, and the difference between the Mecca’s Highland Room and Wigan Casino is tricky to synopsise (as many of us went to – and appreciated – both), but I’ll have a go.
As well as hardcore Northern soulies, the Highland Room attracted a relatively small band of trendy Blackpool locals, plus regulars from further afield, who rarely went to Wigan, didn’t really do much speed and who basically came along because the scene was different from the usual Saturday night vomit.
These lot were a refreshing bunch, as they were all cool dressers, and from ’73 to 1977 Blackpool Mecca pretty much trounced everywhere else for imaginative, groundbreaking dancers, because – unlike Wigan towards the end – these people both dared and wanted to be different, as opposed to being fearful of not fitting in with the daft dance code forming in the wings (those fcuking Conservatives again!).
A uniform of bags, ninety four pockets, back-drops and sweaty vest was simply not for them, and you knew that neither Blackpool nor an insular music scene could contain them for long (at least two ended up as hairdressing Art Directors – Rene Gelston and Martin Smith – in the glory years of Vidal Sassoon).
These and other (often passing) progressives were attracted to Levine and Curtis, because they were always pushing the boundaries and breaking new records, and to the Highland Room in particular because you could dress up (and also get a night’s sleep…if you wanted one).
By contrast, you simply had to be off your nut at Wigan, and the Casino became nostalgic for its past almost as soon as it got started: one heading forever forward, the other destined to look forever backwards, to ‘Listen to those Memories‘, as a Casino badge from the oldies all-nighters plainly stated.
As Levine and Curtis moved towards jazz-funk and disco, and the staunch Wiganites became evermore entrenched in the past, the opposing poles of progressives and retros used to collide at the Ritz all-dayers in Manchester every few weeks, which for a time was an uneasy mix of the two musical genres. But when Chris Hill turned up to do a set, with a crew of southern soulies from Canvey Island, most of the old school went the way of Elvis and followed Shelvo out of the building.
It is a view held by many soul folk that House music was ‘manufactured’, but generally speaking this is a falsehood. Northern Soul’s rule of rarity meant that those with the rarefied labels pretty much ran the show (and still do), and you didn’t get those records without money. Contrastingly, the House and Garage revolution was truly democratic because kids were finally free to turn out dance music for themselves, without the strings associated with a Motown-like production line (whether failed or successful) so entertainingly documented in Standing in the Shadows of Motown.
Admittedly, there was nobody to oversee the musical output, so a large percentage of it was destined to be repetitive, drug-inspired gar(b)age. But I suppose that’s one price of the freedom to express.
Historically, it is the rule breakers who kick-start underground cultural movements. But bad boys, cutting edgers and lime-lighters rarely flourish in the same environment (unless lime-lighting is the sole point of the exercise), and when television lighting brought a mainstream media glare to Wigan, the edgy types, who were an essential ingredient in Northern Soul and Wigan Casino’s air of cool, took cover in the shadows, and backdrops for the cameras were sprung by latecomers clambering onto a well-lit bandwagon.
My primary regret about the days of Northern Soul is that I was stupid enough to lose all my photographic prints and negatives: like a tit, I just stuck boxes of them in the bin when having a tidy-up tizzy fit.
In those days, my enthusiasm as a photographer lacked vision, but I took my Praktica to many venues and I had quite a collection of photos, including Richard at the Casino, Colin Curtis, Janet and Ged on the Stanley Park tennis courts, Larry Lightening, Smokey and a regular rogues gallery lining the walls of the Highland Room (as well as the lovely Les Cockell, Bernie Golding and a host of others), and dance floor photos from the Mecca’s Highland Room, Wigan Casino, the Blue Rooms and Carolines in Manchester. I suppose the person who should be happiest at my loss is Ian Levine, as the pictures of him snogging the pocket rocket Christine Goika in the Highland Room didn’t show his truer side (not a match made in Heaven that one, eh Ian?).
Contrived talk of a Northern Soul revival – or that the scene needs new blood to survive – seems to run on a loop, though the indomitable engine that rumbled towards Elaine Constantine’s eventual film did nourish enthusiasm and some good dancers, but many (both arrived for and) left the scene with the film crew.
But then why hang around on someone else’s patch?
The same music has already transported many (backwards) from youth to a pensionable age, and there’s no new batch in sight.
Contrastingly, look at rock music and how it clearly flourishes because the genre is continually being expanded and reinvented by innovative bands and artists.
Similarly black music, house, dance music and all the related sub-genres, where the young are always doing new things and pushing their own boundaries: here, at least, the old stuff can be reinterpreted in the mix.
But Northern Soul has to be the only music culture on the planet, where innovation is forbidden and the people who listen and dance to the music – unlike clubbing DJ’s – will never be allowed to reinterpret as they see fit, nor rewrite the rules to ring in the new.
So Northern Soul arrives back at the same old paradox: how does it survive?
Well it does survive, after a fashion.
I’m not immune to the powerful pull of nostalgia and at one of Richard’s recent Blackpool Tower extravaganzas, which are a triumphal Northern Soul version of Last Night of the Proms, I got to pondering a question others have asked: who are all these people, and why – if they went to Wigan – do I not know any of them?
The answer is they most likely didn’t (and therefore I don’t), but then if your Casino membership card was a qualification for entry it would’ve died out ages ago.
The fact is that Northern Soul has morphed into the opposite of what it originally was: rather than a daring youth culture, it is now a ready-made scene for people of a certain age, and the one dance culture in which it is permissible for you to join up late, learn to dance later, and for your dad to get up and show you how it’s bloody-well done.
I suppose this is no bad thing, particularly when seeking out old friends – as I have done over the years – and if youngsters are happy in the knowledge that all their best lines (and moves) will have been spoken (and danced) before. However, like the first time around, free-thinkers and musical innovators will soon be on the move, to fertile pastures where individual skills and vision can flourish. Or, more likely, they’ll be nowhere to be found.
I loved the music then and I still do, and I feel privileged to have been there, for that spectacular, spontaneous combustion – which can never be re-created, only re-enacted – and I’m even happier I survived with body and soul intact, for there were many who did not.
We danced, we lived dangerously and it was unique. But if I could go back in time, would I give the floor a final dusting for one more bob and shuffle?
Maybe. But my time might be better spent finding the youths I knew then but didn’t, if you get my meaning, though this time when they were ON their heads and OFF the dance floor, because the real Northern Soul life was dependent on an unnatural weekly high, and the subtleties of friendship just got bulldozed by the Saturday night rush and shat on by the inevitable come-down.
But unless Mr Levine can arrange it with the good Doctor and his tardis, it cannot be. So I settle for warm remembrance of how beautiful you all were in the glory days of your youth.
When we were the epicenter of every dance floor and the known universe, for we were soulies once and young.
In memory of Sutty, Bootlace, Ged Rudd, Les Cockell and many others. And one lad I did get to know whilst ON my head, the lovely Paul Crane from Blackpool, who died last year.