Northern Soul – The Drugs
Tales of illicit derring-do, from the DDA of Northern Soul’s pharmacy.
I stayed drug-free at my first few Va Va Northern Soul all-nighters. I’d got attached to a girl from Macclesfield, who was similarly determined not to disappoint her parents, and over following Friday’s, when we started to feel sleepy, the two of us went and sat on the lions at the top of Bolton Town Hall steps, until the buses started rolling out of Moor Lane bus station.
But when you’re the runt of your peer group, you do want to impress the big lads, and having studied them for extreme side effects, and found that they hadn’t grown a tail or an extra head, I finally dipped a metaphorical toe into the amphetamine pool at the Highland Room, in the Summer that the Va Va opened.
We usually arrived in Blackpool in time to dine on what became a regular pre-Blackpool Mecca diet – crisp barms – because I never had much money and wasn’t gonna waste what I had on food.
I’d gone with a Farnworth lad called Carl B*xter. He’d ‘scored’ some Drynamyl blueys, only instead of the usual 5mg these were a paler blue and apparently had 2.5mg of Dexamphetamine, which lessened my guilt because – to my young mind – it only made me half a druggie (no doubt my mum would’ve viewed things differently).
As irony would have it, when the Va Va all-nighter kicked-off in Bolton, I had an after-school job as a cleaner in the Social Security offices directly above the club.
Doctors and medical assessment staff operated within the corridors that I mopped nightly (and badly) and when I’d hurdled my first speed bump, I pilfered the latest copies of the medical catalogue MIMS from their desks, to familiarize myself with the Riker and SK&F product lines, so if you were from Farny or Bolton and you got a copy of MIMS, it was probably ‘acquired’ by me.
For years afterwards I could recite the ingredients of every amphetamine in production, though I’ve always resisted the urge to showcase this skill on Mastermind:
‘Next up is Evvy, whose specialist subject is 1970’s prescription amphetamines?‘
Think I’ll pass on that one…
Its shocking to realise how quickly and completely your idea of ‘normal’ can change, and after those first pills, myself and St* Kl*ck were soon dodging Drug Squaddies Creme and Turner, to get our Friday night supply, in the Wheatsheaf pub around the corner from the Va Va, and within months (maybe even weeks) I’d graduated from nervous novice to full blown whizz head.
As mentioned elsewhere, my weekly cycle of pill-popping usually started at The Blue Rooms in Sale (round the back of Sale Mecca, on Washway Road) on a Thursday night.
The plan was to score my speed for the coming weekend. But invariably I couldn’t resist popping a few (then another few), particularly if I was staying at my Nan’s (she never looked into my eyes like a copper, unlike me shrewd Ma), and the chances are I would not sleep again properly until Monday, though my uneasy, queasy Sunday night pillow tried – usually failed – to still my beating heart and frazzled head.
In the apt words of Paddy Doherty, from those gypsy TV programmes, speed is a ‘du-rty drug’ and you always paid a long and heavy price, for the comparatively short, unnatural high that fuelled endless hand-shaking, jaw-grinding, breeze-chatting, obsessive vinyl flicking, address scribbling, foot-shuffling and (on the subsequent downer) squint-eye’d thwacking.
But the Northern Soul scene demanded a price that youthful invincibility was willing to pay – certainly whilst still healthy and mentally hinged – and one high would be chased with another handful of caps or pills, until sleep deprivation shut your body down…or you head ‘cracked up’ into paranoid splinters.
Over the years I witnessed a lot of people going over the edge. Usually, the mental descent into the cast-iron vice of unreason is slow, twitchy, and a gruelling spectacle – a train crash in stop-motion – though there were also some spectacular implosions.
As I left Wigan Casino one morning, there was an empty police panda car parked directly across the road and some kid was jumping up and down on the roof. Within a couple of minutes, he’d caved-in the car roof and bonnet, and when the absent coppers finally returned, it was not going to end well for this lad. I’d been strip searched in Wigan police station more than once (most memorably with F*tzy from Preston), and judging from my own shifty exit from this impending crime scene, I reckon I was carrying something on my person that I shouldn’t have been.
One of the more bizarre examples of my pill-popping extravagance occurred on those Saturdays that I got dragged shopping around Blackpool with my girlfriend. I hated the whole process-cum-ritual, particularly as Wendie looked at every item on every rail of Lewis’ clothing section…and expected my doe-eyed feedback.
To numb my boredom, I’d sneakily neck a handful of bombers, or the Duraphete powder out of the caps, which one of the Blackpool lads (Minn*w) used to siphon out of his mother’s capsules. Not the best use of illicit resources, and not something to be proud of, either.
But I tell ya, Bro’ – half a dozen black bombers could turn even Primark on a Saturday afternoon into a fekin’ blast!
(‘Of COURSE you look gorgeous, love.. but let me tell you this!‘).
‘Can I help you, Sir?’
‘Yes. Let me tell you this… I had one of those in blue but the buttons were a different colour which made it look a bit daft though I knew when I was buying it that the red one would’ve gone better with my Prince of Wales check pants with the thin red stripe and my cherry red Docs have you got a red one in stock? but doesn’t matter today ’cause I’ve no money on me and I don’t get paid til next…’
(extract from The Pill Head Monologues, which continues in Chapter 97 on page 1,940).
Late one night at the Highland Room, long after my mates had left, I decided to follow them to the Casino. I’d probably got a late score or something, but when asking around for a ride, I could only get a lift as far as the start of the motorway out of Blackpool. So, wrapped in the faux invincibility of Duraphet M, I set off walking – alone – along said motorway.
In those days, the motorway out of Blackpool didn’t have any lighting (think it may still still be the same) and of course cats eyes are invisible without car headlights. Some miles along this dark, empty road, I started striking matches to light up my thumb at the approach of a paltry number of cars.
With my scraggy beard, it isn’t hard to imagine what passing drivers thought about some jay-walking Catweazle with eyes like headlamps (or Charles Manson!), who was making a pumpkin of his hands to light up his thumb: little wonder nobody stopped.
What was I thinking?
As the matches were about to run out, and the invincibility of my plan started to unravel in this tarmacadam wilderness, a car screeched to a halt.
I ran towards it, the passenger door was flung open and a voice hailed from within:
‘Get in, you mad bastard,’ shouted Colin Curtis
Lucky me! Quadrupley so, actually – because Colin hadn’t forgiven me for beating him at tennis on Stanley Park tennis courts (still hasn’t!), he rarely went to Wigan (must’ve been in search of vinyl) and – as he’s never been a drug user – his car used to operate under a strict ‘no drugs’ policy.
On the return leg of a recent visit to Glasgow, I had time to kill at Wigan North Western station in wait of a connection. Rather than hang around the platform, I decided to wander up the main street of my old stomping ground. It was a Tuesday night, shops were shut, pubs were empty and the eery quiet gave ghost to all sorts or memories – good, bad and ugly – though when I got to the top of the hill, facing that gorgeous old church that I never even noticed as a kid, a particularly dark avenue down Memory Lane was agitated.
Back in the day, if there was a shortage of cars – or we were setting out from Bolton rather than Blackpool – we’d get the train to Wigan and catch last orders in the Victoria pub, beside Wigan’s other station, Wallgate.
On one of these occasions, along with girlfriend Wendie, I necked a handful of ‘blueys’ in the Victoria’s pool room. But these weren’t the regular SK&F Drynamyl blueys – these were ‘backstreet blueys’, manufactured by some dumb-down Walter White to cash in on a demand for speed that always outstripped the supply.
Only later did I find out that the stimulant in these ‘blueys’ wasn’t amphetamine, but strychnine. Some twat had learned that in small doses, this poison was a potent stimulant. But what they’d overlooked in their calculations (or more likely didn’t give a shit) was that gluttons like me downed a dozen or more pills at a time, and on that night I ended up in a dangerous state of delirium, locked with Wendie in a cubicle of the ladies public toilets in the centre of Wigan, as mind and body fought the literal poison I’d heaped on them.
We spent the rest of the night rattling around someone’s car beside the Casino, and not surprisingly I was traumatized for days. Over following weeks I was overcome by random, debilitating anxiety attacks, and it was months before I got that shit (along with the psychological residue) fully out of my system.
Another dance with the devil occurred after the all-nighter on Cleethorpes Pier. I was on a bus back the next day, sat beside a lad I didn’t know (or if I did, I don’t remember), and some way in to the journey, he flipped down the table top hinged into the back of the chair in front, chopped out a few ‘lines’ and started snorting.
It looked a bit off colour, but I nevertheless assumed he was sniffing amphetamine sulphate, so when he offered me some I indulged without question. But then something happened, which I’d never experienced before (nor, fortunately, since): it was like liquid gold running through my veins and I sat there, making gentle fists with my fingers as if squeezing two invisible squash balls.
When I went back for more, the lad checked my advance.
‘It’s heroin,‘ he shared belatedly.
I was too far gone to register a red alert (and if I hadn’t been, I’d have butted him, for the sly generosity that wants to reduce everyone else to the same altered state): even then, heroin was the one big no-no, unless you were a psychological fcuk-up, had a death wish, couldn’t withstand peer-group pressure or – like me – someone sold you a dummy.
The kid wrapped some in cig packet foil to take with me.
As we needed to change buses at Halifax bus station, myself, Douglas Ling, Pam, Colin Hargreaves and a few others called in the pub for a swifty.
I ordered half a lager and lime (I even remember my drink – such is the memory of vile delight) and having glugged half of it down, I projectile vomited it all over our table.
I parted company with the others and back in Bolton, I walked from the station to the house of a girl called Rita, who lived in a terrace beside India Mill on Carter Street, just off Rishton Lane. The others in the house had been to Wigan Casino, one of whom was an older lad from St Helens called Sm*key.
Handsome, cool as ckuf, big sideburns, quality full length leather coat and a pretty wife (who also had the familiar emaciated look), Sm*key was in the dangerous league of pill heads and wasn’t fussed about what he pushed down his throat, up his nose or even…
I don’t recall what was said between us, but I’d clearly told Sm*key about the heroin tucked inside my sock, because when my alarm bells reached full pitch, and I was overcome with the impulse to go to the downstairs toilet and flush it away, Sm*key came clattering in behind me as the heroin disappeared into the vortex.
‘What the fuck have you done?’ he hissed, with the demented frenzy of one who knew the dragon intimately and he actually groped after The Precious in the U-bend.
‘That stuff’s bigger than me,’ I answered, which is true for all of us – without exception – and that was arguably the wisest decision I’ve ever made.
I pass that house occasionally, when I’m out cycling, and the thought of what might’ve been, if the persuasive Sm*key had foreseen my impulse and bust his way into that loo ten seconds earlier, gives me the shivers (a shorter life of nicking bikes, rather than riding them?).
It also gives ghost in my heart to those friends and acquaintances who weren’t so lucky, as they innocently – blindly – defiantly – mistakenly – stupidly – arrogantly – self-loathingly – sought a counterfeit heaven on the never-never, and instead became slaves to living death.
Sm*key and other soul bandits – like my old mate Sutty and Ged Rudd – have always fascinated me, both individually and as a type. Charismatic, daring, usually damaged, hard as nails, seemingly indomitable in their mission to self-destruct, they represent the Lost Boys of every generation. And yet… and yet… along a different path, or after a U-turn out of a dead-end, these are the people who fight causes, start revolutions, win wars, and – if they escape the death-whale’s belly – make the best drug counselors. The trick, of course, is to survive long enough for an epiphany to find them, which, in the case of Sutty and Ged Rudd, it did not.
As kids we all look up to someone older and when I was little (from the age of perhaps 8) it was a lad called Frank Powrey. From a large family of Scottish heritage, who lived back-to-back across cobbles with my Nan, Frank went on to Captain the school football team, was Cock of a tough school (who never let his friends get bullied) and I idolised this gifted and generous edger. But at some point – perhaps falling prey to a Sm*key with better timing – he too became a Lost Boy, and descended down a nihilistic path of barbiturates (with Sutty), bongs, pipes, needles and London squats, to a premature end from (I believe) throat cancer, thus the world was deprived of another heart brimming with potential, for want of a compelling direction.
Towards the latter end of my stint as a full-time soulie, I too had started DJ’ing – I opened a couple of Ritz all-dayers, I was doing a Thursday jazz-funk night at De Villes in Manchester and I had a residency at a posh club called Jimmiz (later Berlin) just South of Deansgate in MCR. But to be honest I didn’t like the vogue for jazz-funk (much less ‘disco’), I got bored behind the decks and usually had to be pissed before I could spin the first tune.
I’m guessing it was early in 1980 that I also organised an all-dayer with Colin Curtis, at a club called Manhattan, situated at the top end of Manchester’s King Street (which on Saturday nights hosted the ‘poppers’ crowd).
I’d got into a habit of drinking heavily when DJ’ing, and my recollection of that all-dayer is virtually nil (except I still have Colin’s 12” copy of ‘Atmosphere Strut’).
Next morning, I woke up at home with a banging headache, and next to my bed was a wad of notes and a big bag of pills – Dex, Daps, Filon, Red and Browns, Green and Clears, various Bombers and – Ta Da! – the rare-as-rocking-horse-shit and discontinued PRELUDINE Prellies! (the Beatles first ever drug ingest in Hamburg) that I vaguely recall buying off Cl*ck Cl**k from Leicester.
Seven years earlier I would’ve walked from Bolton to Blackpool for that bag of pills. But by then they just made me feel sick and I spent the rest of the day finding someone to shift them on to, because me and the ‘dur-ty drug’ were finished – adieu, farewell and good fcuking riddance!
Throughout my tenure riding shotgun, Richard and I always had a football in the back of the van/car and we also played tennis, on the public courts behind his house in Hilton Street. I’d previously seen Jimmy Connors play, on a school trip to the Northern Lawn Tennis tournament, where he obliterated my preconceptions that tennis was a game for pampered girlies.
So, when I left school, I signed up for night school classes on how to play, as I got to go free with my dole card. Unfortunately for me (and them!) it was on a Monday night, when I was usually a fractured mess, and I’d ping balls as hard as I could… just like Jimmy, only whereas his landed in the court, mine had everyone ducking for cover (but hey, at least I came primed for good footwork).
So drugs and tennis existed in parallel, and for years these two obsessions engaged in an inner tug of war – one healthy, with the potential to get me mentally and physically able, the other a sickness, which, one way or another, would enslave me to pharmaceuticals, and mess up my body, mind and real soul (the one that can’t be contained on vinyl).
In the end I made the right choice, but not before walking a dangerous tightrope, and whilst Jimmy Connors didn’t exactly save my life, he was certainly the catalyst for me taking another direction (and I must say I’m disappointed not to get even a cursory ‘mention’ in his book, either! ).
If the history of war is written by The Victors, and business and money by The Owners, the story of drug abuse is generally written by The Survivors, and I count myself fortunate to number only amongst this latter group. But getting the right pitch of any related outpouring (essay, novel or script) is tricky, because reality needs to be served up as entertainment, whilst avoiding affected nonchalance, cliché and finger-wagging sanctimony.
Anyway, I’ve arrived at the point where I pull the wheels off my own roller-coaster ride, by making an unequivocal statement:
All those years of mixing with diverse and interesting people, from every region of Britain and walk of life, were ruined, utterly, by one of the two primary elements that brought us all together – ‘speed’ – because it turns users (and always will) into blabbers of pointless fluff, who are incapable of either listening or a two-way conversation, and the chances are it will make of you a paranoid human husk, sucked dry of humanity and calcium, and good for little but being written up as a Dickens-like caricature.
Amphetamines also render you deaf-and-blind to the worthwhile things in life – like intellectual inquiry, reasoned thought, sincerity and real love – and I can truly say that the number of things I heard (or spoke) that amounted to something worth knowing (or sharing), can be counted on my fingers. And – Oh irony or ironies! – the most memorable was uttered in a rant, by the so-called enemy – Blackpool Drug Squad Detective Abbott.
Now that’s what I call the mother of all wasted opportunities!
But the one element deserving of being freed from the flames of a drug life and worthy of a life of its own – in the here and now – for and by today’s youth – is Northern Soul Dancing.