The Northern Soul movement has marked 2 significant anniversaries this year – the launch of the weekly All-Nighters at the scene’s most famous venue, Wigan Casino, in 1973, as well as the opening of its foundation club, Manchester’s Twisted Wheel, 10 years earlier. A new book, ‘Northern Soul – An Illustrated History’ was recently published by Virgin Books, its co-author, Bury-born Elaine Constantine, also the director of the upcoming film ‘Northern Soul’. The book has been well received by Northern aficionados, Constantine (and Gareth Sweeney) congratulated for their insightful overview of the movement, which is enhanced by the anecdotal offerings of some of the DJ’s, dancers and collectors who epitomized Northern Soul. Alongside the music and the clubs in which it featured, the book also highlights the drug culture that played such a major role, amphetamines fuelling its development.
The movie is due next year, although it’s still to receive a release date. I was invited to a recent screening in London, but was unable to make it along. From all accounts it’s the real deal, capturing the essence of Northern Soul in a way that the 2010 film ‘Soulboy’ failed to do. If, as is hoped, ‘Northern Soul’ connects with a younger cinema-going audience, we’re likely to see a renaissance of this underground phenomenon that has refused to lay down and die. Even now, almost 32 years since the final record was played at Wigan Casino, the movement boasts a healthy network of venues and DJ’s, not only in this country, but internationally. With its original clientele reaching their old age, a new wave of enthusiasts would be timely, injecting fresh energy and momentum, so I’m intrigued to see how this film will resonate with a generation to whom the Wheel and the Casino is ancient history.
Just a few months ago, BBC 2’s ‘Culture Show’ focused on the Northern Soul movement in a poignant half hour feature, where journalist and broadcaster Paul Mason, a former Casino regular, re-visited his roots, re-connecting with the scene today after more than 30 years detachment. You can view the programme, ‘Northern Soul: Keeping The Faith’ in full here:
But what exactly is Northern Soul, and what sets it apart from Soul in the traditional sense?
It all stems from the British love of Detroit’s Motown label, and its subsidiaries, including Tamla, Gordy, Soul and VIP, which eventually served to instigate this subculture of dancers and vinyl diggers. These records were released under the umbrella of Tamla Motown in the UK, the label becoming hugely successful in the process, something of a British institution, spawning hit after hit after hit. The Motown sound was originally, along with Ska, and other R&B / Soul releases on labels like Stax and Atlanic, the music of the Mods. Whilst Mod originated in London’s Soho during the late 50’s / early 60’s, by 1967 the club scene in the capital had moved more towards the psychedelic direction popular music had veered off into, with venues like UFO and Middle Earth usurping The Scene and The Marquees, which were original Mod haunts (although many former Mods embraced it, others rejected the Hippie culture, symbolised by long hair, taking a defiant approach by becoming part of the emerging skinhead movement). Mod, however, continued to hold sway up North, with the weekly All-Nighters at Manchester’s Twisted Wheel, a magnet for the scooter-riding hordes (including my older brother, Phil, who made the pilgrimage from Merseyside on a few occasions). Motown, as I’ve previously stated elsewhere, might be described as the original Disco music, or, to be more precise, provided a large percentage of the first wave of music played in the discotheques of the 60’s, and at The Twisted Wheel and other Soul music strongholds DJ’s began to dig ever deeper in their quest to unearth rarer records, especially those released by smaller labels from Detroit (some of which featured the Motown house band, The Funk Brothers, illicitly moonlighting elsewhere). Often these were limited promo-only pressings that had never gained official release. Once one of these rarities took off with the dancers, the scramble was on for other DJ’s to find copies, leading to a lucrative market for record dealing on the scene as certain singles would cost the DJ’s more than they could earn in a week, or even a month. DJ’s traded on the exclusivity of the music they played, and Northern enthusiasts would travel great distances in order to hear records that only the DJ in that venue possessed. As Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton’s book ‘Last Night A DJ Saved My Life’ (1999) so succinctly put it, Northern Soul might be described as “a genre built from failures“.
As Funk came to the fore in the early 70’s, there were a significant amount of people who didn’t move with the times, but clung onto that 60’s Soul vibe. This trend had been spotted a couple of years previously by Dave Godin, a champion of black American music since the 50’s who was largely responsible for the formation of the Tamla Motown label in the UK. It was Godin who coined the term Northern Soul in reference to the type of music Northern football fans who stopped off at his London shop, Soul City, might buy on the trips to the capital in the late 60’s. After visiting the Twisted Wheel, where Godin, also a writer for Blues & Soul magazine, eagerly enthused about the energy of the scene up North, becoming one of its biggest advocates, the movement began to gain greater profile. For more about Dave Godin, check out my blog post ‘The Original Soulboy’:
The Twisted Wheel had opened in 1963 at its original location in Brazennose St, with DJ Roger Eagle, a black music evangelist who’d moved to Manchester from his home city of Oxford in 1962. Eagle is regarded as the forefather of Northern Soul, even though he’d moved on in a different musical direction before the scene took root at the club’s subsequent Whitworth Street premises towards the end of the decade. He felt that the music suffered when pilled up dancers demanded ever-faster tracks, ‘stompers’, as they’d later be called, which jarred with Eagle’s more eclectic taste. One of the main DJ’s pioneering the shift towards ever-rarer singles was the wonderfully named ‘Farmer’ Carl Dene (Carl Woodroffe), a Wheel regular since the Brazennose days and avid R&B / Soul accumulator since the early 60’s. He dug back into his collection whilst resident at The Catacombs, a smaller but important Wolverhampton venue, building a reputation for unearthing previously hidden gems. These he’d loan to the DJ’s at the Wheel where they’d receive greater exposure, kick-starting a vinyl gold-rush unsurpassed in terms of the sheer, insane passion and commitment it would engender. One of the tracks revived by Dene was an obscure 1964 single by The Tams called ‘Hey Girl Don’t Bother Me’, which quickly became a Northern favourite and, following it’s re-release in 1971, would go all the way to the top of the UK chart, illustrating the influence this growing movement was beginning to generate within wider popular culture. It’s thanks to individuals like Godin, Eagle and Dene, who, via their obsessive love of black American music, laid the foundations for this remarkable subculture. A highly recommended book about Roger Eagle, ‘Sit Down, Listen To This!’ was published last year – I blogged about it at the time:
With the Wheel and other Soul clubs providing the focal point, re-issues of old records, including ‘Hey Girl Don’t Bother Me’ and another Farmer Carl re-discovery, Tami Lynn’s ‘I’m Gonna Run Away From You’, began to make the UK chart. This built upon the groundwork of Tamla Motown, which had seen a number of tracks become British hits a few years on from their original release, due to their popularity in the Soul clubs. Examples of this phenomenon resulting directly from exposure on the Northern scene are The Contours ‘Just A Little Misunderstanding’, The Elgins ‘Heaven Must Have Sent You’ and San Remo Strings ‘Festival Time’. There were also revival tracks by pop artists that found favour in the Soul clubs, most notably mid-60’s releases by The Newbeats (‘Run Baby Run (Back Into My Arms)’) and Frankie Valli (‘You’re Ready Now’), which crossed over to the UK chart, reaching #10 and #11 respectively during the early 70’s. These records by white artists were referred to as ‘blue eyed soul’, and provided unlikely Northern floorfillers for artists such as Petula Clark, Gene Pitney, Bobby Goldsboro, Helen Shapiro and Paul Anka.
As I hope this piece will illustrate, Northern Soul back in the 70’s was a much broader church than many might imagine. Whilst the stompers were central to the scene, especially when Wigan Casino was at its peak, not everything ran at breakneck pace as is often suggested, the movement instead encompassing a whole spectrum of styles and tempos. The scene was notoriously snobbish about its music, dropping a previously loved record like a hot potato because it had subsequently achieved commercial success. This fervent elitism played a major part in the success and longevity of the movement, and is also the reason why a track many might consider as Northern as they come, like Jackie Wilson’s ‘(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher’ isn’t Northern Soul according to those at the cutting-edge, despite the fact it was a big favourite in the Soul clubs following its original release in 1967. Its sin was that it became a UK hit in 1969, just before the Northern scene got into its stride, so, along with a whole heap of Tamla Motown tunes that are Northern in every respect but their failure to connect with the masses, it was banished to the realm of pop. This is why another famous Jackie Wilson track, ‘I Get The Sweetest Feeling’, this time a 1968 recording, which, on the surface, given its much mellower vibe, is far less stereotypically Northern than ‘Higher And Higher’, is considered a bone fide Northern classic. ‘I Get The Sweetest Feeling’ didn’t become a hit until 1972, having broken out of the Northern scene, then in full swing.
So, with the various aspects considered, I’ve put together an epic 3 hour 20 minute podcast selection of records that I hope will reflect Northern Soul in its wider context, from the nailed on classics to those with more nominal status. What can’t be disputed is that each and every track included has been spun, at least somewhere at one point or another, under the Northern Soul banner. There are 70 tracks in all, with just 3 artists having more than 1 inclusion, the aforementioned Jackie Wilson, the great but tragic songstress Linda Jones, and Frankie Valli, who appears here both solo and with the Four Seasons. The idea to put this podcast together grew out of a CD compilation I made for myself back in the 00’s to listen to whilst driving. I called the collection ‘Soul Food’, and the intention in sharing it now is for it to act as a solid introduction for those wanting to hear what Northern Soul was all about, in all its diverse glory. I’d also like to think that it will evoke fond memories for those who were there at the time. The fact I wasn’t a part of the scene has hopefully allowed me to approach this selection in a more objective way than someone embroiled within it, who may not be able to resist the inclination to pack it with tracks nobody else, apart from other ultra-obsessives may know, or who might want to brush a few of the inclusions under the ‘you had to be there at the time’, carpet. Consider this, if you will, a beginner’s guide, of which I love all of the selections, each in its own way – just wonderful wonderful uplifting music. You can stream / download via SoundCloud:
Although I was never personally involved in the Northern scene, I came to know some of its main players as a result of my Jazz-Funk associations, including DJ’s Colin Curtis, Richard Searling (whose partnership with Russ Winstanley provided the classic Casino pairing), Ian Dewhirst (aka Frank) and Les Cokell (via Spin Inn, the Manchester record shop), plus record dealer / promoter Bernie Golding and Blues & Soul columnist Frank Elson (as well as numerous people who used to go out on the Northern scene). One of the anomalies of the scene is that it never took off in my home city of Liverpool, where the leading DJ’s of the era, Les Spaine and Terry Lennaine, took things very much in a Funk direction (in a similar way to how things evolved in the South). That said, having grown up on a healthy diet of 60’s Soul, the Northern scene was a source of fascination and I’ve always appreciated much of the music connected with this remarkable subculture. By way of contrast, the ‘Music Played In Discotheques’ mix I did (with accompanying text) for the Silent Disco event at Liverpool’s Tate Gallery in 2009 reflects the more Funk-based groove coming out of the speakers at Merseyside clubs during the period 1972-1975:
When I moved to Wigan, the very heartland of the Northern Soul movement, to take over the residency at the club Wigan Pier in 1980, the scene was on its knees, Wigan Casino struggling in its forlorn efforts to re-create the halcyon days of the 70’s. The following year it was (seemingly) all over, the Casino closing down and, as if to rub salt in the wounds, the hallowed building destroyed by a fire just a few months after the club’s demise. As the Casino declined, the Pier was in its ascent and would be named the North’s Top Club by readers of Blues & Soul, the magazine that had done so much to promote Northern Soul in previous years. It was a case of ring out the old and bring in the new as Jazz-Funk, and subsequently Electro-Funk, became the musical choice of a new generation of black music fanatics. The Pier, which opened in 1979, certainly played its part in the Casino’s downfall, but the Northern scene was already in a negative spiral, the Pier only hastening its decline.
One of the most common mistakes journalists write about me these days is that I was a Casino DJ, therefore leading to the false impression that I started out playing Northern Soul. The Wigan connection is what throws them, but the Pier was a very different venue to the Casino. It was a then state of the art New York-style club featuring the latest dance music, mainly from 12” and albums, and with the emphasis very much on sound and lighting. This was in contrast to a rundown old ballroom where 60’s 45’s were played over a tinny system. It was chalk and cheese, and by the end of 1981, Wigan Casino and the once vibrant scene that had centred around it was already a relic of a bygone age. During the late 70’s, US influenced venues in previously Northern-dominated areas like Angels in Burnley, The Warehouse in Leeds and, of course, the Pier, had caught the imagination of a younger audience and rendered the Northern Soul clubs well and truly out of date. A number of its most admired DJ’s had also begun to specialise in Jazz-Funk.
This process had started half a decade earlier when the Casino was at the height of its powers (in 1978 it was named best club in the world by US trade magazine Billboard, an honour previously bestowed upon New York’s Studio 54). Key to the rise and fall of Northern Soul is the Blackpool Mecca, and its Saturday night sessions, which began in 1971. The Mecca, along with the Casino, The Golden Torch in Stoke-On-Trent, The Catacombs in Wolverhampton and the club that kicked the whole thing off, The Twisted Wheel in Manchester, are widely regarded as the most important venues in the scene’s evolution. The main thing that set the Mecca apart from the rest was that, whilst the other venues held All-Nighters, with their speed charged audiences dancing until the following morning, the Mecca closed, as was the norm for clubs back then, at 2am. It came to prominence after the police had targeted the early Northern scene, shutting down many venues due to their drug associations. Launched with DJ’s Tony Jebb (formerly of The Torch) and Les Cokell (who played the final record at the Twisted Wheel), the Mecca kept the Northern flag flying whilst there was no viable All-Nighter option on offer. (The Catacombs continued to hold All-Nighters, but, due to its limited capacity, wasn’t a realistic alternative to the much lamented Twisted Wheel and Golden Torch.) The Casino would eventually fill this All-Nighter void in 1973. The Mecca however, continued to play a pivotal role, even as the Casino built its legend. People would go there first before heading over to Wigan, less than 25 miles away, where the Casino’s doors opened at 2am, just as the Mecca’s closed. As the crowd at the Mecca thinned from 1am, with people leaving to get to the Casino in time for opening, the music policy became more experimental during this concluding hour, enhancing the Mecca’s reputation for innovation. There are compilation albums dedicated to the tracks first played during the final hour at Blackpool Mecca.
Having taken up the baton from Cokell and Jebb (also Keith Minshull), it was the legendary DJ partnership of Ian Levine and Colin Curtis that made sure the Mecca remained an essential port of call on the Northern circuit. Levine is credited with more Northern ‘discoveries’ than anyone else, with so many of the movement’s classic records uncovered by him on regular trips across to the US. His family had Stateside business interests that enabled this obsessive of obsessives to sit in warehouses stacked with dusty 45’s all day long, selecting anything that had the right labels, the right names on the labels, or just looked interesting. Even though he wasn’t able to listen to them there and then, these records were so cheap that it was worth a punt on a whole stack of singles in the hope of finding a few hidden nuggets amongst them. Levine would bring these singles back to Blackpool, sometimes shipping thousands of items at a time, and him and Curtis would systematically sift through them, sorting out the wheat from the chaff before unleashing their exclusives at the Mecca. This process instigated a number of UK chart hits, as this underground music continued to find its way into mainstream consciousness.
It was Levine and Curtis who brought about Northern Soul’s infamous schism by playing contemporary 70’s releases alongside 60’s rarities. Many ‘soulies’, as the scene’s followers referred to themselves, would have happily seen them burned at the stake for such heresy, but others embraced this progressive direction, in effect splitting the scene down the middle. A key record in this transition was 1973’s ‘It Really Hurts Me Girl’ by an obscure Detroit group about to disband, The Carstairs. Interestingly, this turned out to be the first track remixed by the great Disco Mix maestro, Tom Moulton. Levine had heard the record on the radio in Miami and, following some detective work, found that it had only been pressed for radio promotion, the official release subsequently shelved. He eventually unearthed a copy back in the UK via one of the scene’s best-known record dealers, John Anderson, who’d been buying unwanted US radio promos in bulk from numerous stations. The record, having blown up big time at the Mecca, would mark the beginning of ‘Modern Soul’, as it was termed. Levine and Curtis began to play more contemporary releases, and as the decade unfolded, with Disco coming to the fore, would feature an increasing amount of new records during the mid-70’s, including tracks like Tavares ‘Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel’, Crown Heights Affair ‘Dreaming A Dream’, Vicki Sue Robinson ‘Turn The Beat Around’, Esther Phillips ‘What A Difference A Day Makes’, Betty Wright ‘Where Is The Love’ and The O’Jays ‘I Love Music’. Another Mecca favourite, Gil-Scott Heron’s ‘The Bottle’, would provide a taste of things to come for Colin Curtis, who was destined to move away from the Northern scene to become one of the great Jazz-Funk DJ’s. Curtis was also right in the thick of things when House music was first played in this county, although this is rarely cited. Levine began to produce his own records, Disco-influenced tracks with a Northern sensibility like ’Twenty Four Hours A Day’ by Barbara Pennington (a huge New York club tune), ‘Baby I’m Still The Same Man’ by James Wells, ‘Reaching For The Best’ by The Exciters, and ‘You’re Magic Put A Spell On Me’ by L.J. Johnson. After a stint as DJ at Angels in Burnley, he would become resident at the country’s premier gay venue, Heaven in London, on its opening in 1979. Levine would be largely responsible for the rise of the Hi-NRG genre in the early–mid 80’s, writing and producing million-sellers ‘So Many Men, So Little Time’ by Miquel Brown and ‘High Energy’ by Evelyn Thomas. He would later work with a number of boy bands including Take That, who, at Levine’s instigation, had hits with a couple of 70’s Disco tracks – ‘It Only Takes A Minute’, originally by Tavares, and ‘Could It Be Magic’, a Barry Manilow composition inspired by the Donna Summer recording. (File under strange but true – Levine is also one of the world’s foremost authorities on all things Dr Who!)
Whilst the Mecca was innovating a new approach, the Casino believed it was keeping the faith by continuing to mine for 60’s obscurities. This wasn’t a bottomless pit however, and it was becoming more difficult to find tracks of a similar quality to those that had been discovered in the preceding half decade, certainly not in the quantity of previous years. In an effort fill the vacuum, the Casino would become associated with some controversial selections of its own, including the theme from the 60’s children’s TV show, ‘Joe 90’ by Barry Gray & His Orchestra, along with another TV theme, ‘Hawaii Five-0’ by The Ventures. Things hit an all time low with the inauspicious launch of the Casino Classics label, when one of the tracks on the first release, a remake of Doris Troy’s 1965 single ‘I’ll Do Anything (Anything She Wants Me To Do)’ turned out not to be by Lenny Gamble, the name on the label, but British radio presenter Tony Blackburn. This was a twist on the ‘cover up’, a technique where DJ’s made up a fictitious name / title for a record they wanted to remain exclusive to them, with other DJ’s unable to track it down because no such record existed. This notorious episode added to the growing opinion that the Casino was crassly cashing in on its success by issuing 2nd rate material including a tepid, contemporary cover of ‘Joe 90’ by the Ron Grainer Orchestra. The Casino’s cool had taken a blow a few years earlier, in 1975, when 2 chart hits, both bearing the town’s name, had taken Northern Soul overground: Wigan’s Chosen Few with ‘Footsee’ and Wigan’s Ovation ‘Skiing In The Snow’. ‘Footsee’, which took a 1968 recording from little-known Canadian band, The Chosen Few, and sped it up, adding air horns and crowd noises for atmosphere – many people assumed it was the Wigan Casino crowd they were hearing but it was actually a recording from the 1966 FA Cup Final between Everton and Sheffield Wednesday. When the track appeared on TV’s Top Of The Pops, without a band to promote the record, it was accompanied by dancers from the Casino. This was the first time Northern Soul dancing had made it onto the small screen. ‘Skiing In The Snow’ was a cover of a Northern favourite by The Invitations, performed by a band adorned in Casino clobber. Many Casino regulars regarded these as embarrassing novelty singles, unreflective of the scene they loved. Lurking in the shadows was the notorious figure of Simon Soussan.
I wrote about Soussan in the May ’77 edition of my Time Capsule series, and his association with 2 tracks, one that subsequently became the most expensive Northern Soul single of all, Frank Wilson’s ‘Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)’. A copy of this, at the time of writing, had sold for a cool £15,000, but has since changed hands once again, this time for over £25,000! The other track, Shalamar’s ‘Uptown Festival’, was not a Northern release but drew its inspiration from the movement. I’ve reproduced the Time Capsule section below:
Shalamar’s ‘Uptown Festival’ is a record with a fascinating story on a number of different levels. It starts with Simon Soussan, a legendary if somewhat infamous figure on the Northern Soul scene – a French Moroccan who was based in Leeds. With an eye for business, Soussan was allegedly the biggest bootlegger of rare singles during Northern Soul’s golden era in the 70’s. He became a notorious figure as a result of the various ‘scams’ he came up with, and Ian Levine, in an interview with Bill Brewster some years ago, summed him up in the following way; ‘He damaged the scene and people have still not forgotten him after 25 years. He’s still a figure of contempt. But he did discover a lot of great records. He went on to become a successful disco producer’.
Re-locating to Los Angeles in the mid-70’s, Soussan had set up a record-exporting business in collaboration with Selectadisc in Nottingham. It was here that Ian Dewhirst (DJ Frank on the Northern scene) hooked up with him. Dewhirst, just out of his teens, had come to the US in order to search for Soul rarities, which he’d send back to his partner in the UK, another important player on the scene, Neil Rushton, who would later play a major role in promoting the Techno movement. Inspired by the success of ‘The Best Disco In Town’ by the Ritchie Family (see Aug ’76 Time Capsule), Dewhirst suggested that a similar styled Motown medley would work well. Soussan thought a medley of Northern Soul favourites would be better still, but Dewhirst, realising the limitations of this, especially with the US audience in mind, argued that a Motown medley would appeal to a much wider market. Soussan was persuaded that this was the way to go and lost no time in taking the bull by the horns and pulled the project together. This is how ‘Uptown Festival’ was born. Financed by Soussan, his wife, Dewhirst and Rushton, a team of anonymous session musicians were recruited and Ike & Tina Turner’s LA studio was hired for the recording. Musicians used in the sessions included El Coco’s W. Michael Lewis and Laurin Rinder and the Los Angeles Philharmonic String Section amongst many others. One of the vocalists featured was former Ikette, Pat Powdrill, who remembered her dealings with Soussan being less than satisfactory; ‘He told us this was a demo for his home use. Simon Soussan took the track to Soul Train Records and made a bank. Patty Powdrill got nothing. Ha ha, isn’t that horrible?’
However, before the track was signed by Soul Train, the label set up in 1975 by the famous host of the TV show, Don Cornelius, Soussan had had a meeting with Tom DePierro at Motown’s LA offices. It was here that he came across an extremely rare single called ‘Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)’ by Frank Wilson, which had been pressed, but never issued, on Motown’s Soul label in 1965. Ian Levine takes up the story; ‘Tom DePierro was quite high up at Motown. He was a very nice gay guy. He had got one of the only two copies that were in existence of this single. According to Frank Wilson, they pressed up some copies and, because he was producing Brenda Holloway, Berry Gordy collared him backstage somewhere and said, ‘Hey man do you really wanna be an artist with all the hassles?’ So Frank says, ‘You’re right Berry I’m not going to be an artist.’ Berry destroyed the records, but somehow two survived. Soussan borrowed the copy off DePierro. Every month he would ask for his record back and Soussan would say (mimicking Soussan’s French accent) ‘Oh, baby, I bring it tomorrow’, not knowing that he’d sold it to Les McCutcheon, future manager of the band Shakatak. Tom DePierro got AIDS and went to his death bed without ever getting the record back off Simon. Soussan bootlegged the Frank Wilson as Eddie Foster. He sped it up slightly’. The Frank Wilson (aka Eddie Foster) single would become a Wigan Casino classic and, in 1999, the 2nd copy, which had turned up in Canada in 1990, would change hands for a world record £15,000. The Northern Soul connection also extended directly to Shalamar, who got their name via The Shalimars, whose 1966 Verve single, ‘Stop And Take A Look At Yourself’, had been a Northern favourite. ‘Uptown Festival’ would go on to become a massive US Disco hit, just missing the top spot, whilst reaching number 30 on the UK chart. As a consequence, a permanent line-up of Jody Watley, Howard Hewett and Jeffrey Daniel was brought together, and the hits came thick and fast all the way through to the mid-80’s. Daniel, previously a Soul Train dancer, is also acknowledged as being the person who brought body-popping to this country, following a British TV appearance by Shalamar in the early 80’s.
Ian Dewhirst would return to the UK soon after the recording of ‘Uptown Festival’, where he’d go on to DJ at one of Britain’s pioneering New York style discotheques, The Warehouse in Leeds. Later down the line he’d head up Fourth & Broadway in the UK before going on to devise the brilliant and hugely influential Mastercuts compilation series, amongst many other ongoing contributions to the documentation of dance culture. He’s also a member of the Six Million Steps crew and does a weekly radio programme, The Original Mastercuts Show, on Starpoint Radio, with 6MS partner Alan Champ. Simon Soussan went on to produce Disco projects including Arpeggio, Pattie Brooks and French Kiss, often re-writing tracks from the Northern Soul scene to bring them into a Disco context. ‘Love And Desire’ by Arpeggio, for example, was ‘Stronger Than Her Love’ by The Flirtations. Little has been heard about him since the demise of Disco and his whereabouts are currently unknown.
It’s these kind of stories, and stories within stories, that make the Northern Soul scene so intriguing to me – truly a music with its own mythology. Another Time Capsule selection, ‘Exodus’ by the Biddu Orchestra, evoked memories of a local lad, Alfie Mutch, who’d turn up from time to time at the Penny Farthing, a club I worked at back in 1977, when the record was released:
The only person I knew who went to Wigan Casino, the best-known of all the Northern Soul venues, was a local hard knock called Alfie Mutch, who was a number of years older than me and definitely someone you wanted to be on the right side of! Alfie would turn up at the Penny every now and again on a mid-week night, when the club was pretty quiet, and I’d play a couple of Northern tunes for him to dance to. The track I most associate with him is the Biddu Orchestra’s ‘Exodus’, not the most cutting-edge of records if Northern was your thing, but given that there was no demand for it where I was playing, I only generally bought the ones that managed to find their way into the charts. I liked quite a lot of the Northern stuff, but even if circumstances had been different, I don’t think I could ever have become a Northern Soul specialist when there was so much brilliant Funk about. Some of the greatest black music of all time was made during the 70’s, but this wasn’t what was being played at places like the Wigan Casino, where 60’s rarities remained the general rule.
Apart from when ‘Footsee’ by Wigan’s Chosen Few was on Top Of The Pops in early ‘75, I hadn’t actually seen anyone dance in a Northern Soul style. That was until the following summer, when I pitched up a tent in the woods and camped outside Butlin’s in North Wales with my friend Derek Kelsey (aka Derek Kaye), sneaking in through a broken fence during the daytime and returning in the early hours. Some of the people holidaying there were into the Northern scene and would get up and dance when the DJ played their type of tunes. The two records that will always remind me of that holiday were ‘Cochise’ by Paul Humphreys and Al Wilson’s ‘The Snake’, both of which I immediately purchased on my return home, and would later be amongst the stuff I’d play when Alfie Mutch turned up.
Although the music didn’t really catch on in my neck of the woods, Northern Soul made its mark via the ‘fashion’ of the time. I thought I was ultra cool in my ‘bags’ with their 30” bottoms and 4” wastebands, which I wore as part of my school uniform, as well as when I was out, this time with ridiculously high platform shoes and, usually, a skin tight cap sleeve t-shirt. This look was finished off with a thatch of ever so carefully blow-dried shoulder length hair and what must have smelt like a cup full of Aramis. I’m sure most people have experienced fashion disasters in their youth, but some of the stuff (or should I say combinations of stuff) that we were misguided enough to wear in the 70’s takes some beating – no wonder it’s often referred to as the decade that style forgot!
Alfie got to see the Time Capsule article and contacted me as a result. Still very much a part of the ongoing scene after all these years, it was great to catch up with him. I got to know a few things I hadn’t realised, including the fact that he was part of the local scooter crew, Axis, that I’d seen razzing around New Brighton during the early 70’s. However, the greatest revelation came after I’d asked him if he’d seen ‘This Is England’, the 2006 Shane Meadows film that comments on the skinhead movement. His answer came as a massive surprise – ‘seen it? I was in it’, he told me. When I questioned him further it became apparent that he didn’t mean ‘This Is England’, but ‘This England’, the landmark Wigan Casino Granada TV documentary from 1977. Alfie, it turns out, was the dancer in the red vest. This blew me away as I’d seen these clips so many times, but never realised who it was. This is, famously, the only footage of Wigan Casino, so it turns up in pretty much every documentary about Northern Soul. The programme was regarded by many Casino regulars as something of an intrusion given the main lights were turned on to film the dance shots, interfering with the normal run of the night and spoiling the atmosphere. Others felt that the exposure the Casino was going to get as a result would ruin things, sparking an unwanted influx of people who didn’t understand the nuances of the movement. ‘This England’ is available to view via YouTube:
The distinctive style of dancing grew out of the moves that some of the R&B acts displayed when they toured the UK in the 60’s. In the recent BBC Culture Show piece, mentioned above, former Casino regular Fran Franklin stated that the dancing was a consequence of the Bruce Lee Kung-Fu films of the 70’s, which is somewhat misleading – the style may have been embellished by moves adapted from Bruce Lee movies, as was the case with the Bronx B Boys, some of the best Northern dancers also seriously into martial arts, but you only need to watch the clip below of Little Anthony & The Imperials performing ‘I’m Alright’ on Canadian TV in 1965 to trace its true origins. This group have a strong Northern pedigree, with classic tracks ‘Better Use Your Head’ and ‘Gonna Fix You Good’. Back in the Twisted Wheel days, before Bruce Lee had ever hit the cinema screen, some dancers were already employing an array of backdrops, spins, flips and floor moves.
The Northern Soul scene would also have, by default, provided something of a safe a haven for gay males, especially still-closeted gay males, who couldn’t express themselves in the mainstream clubs for fear of being found out and the ridicule that would ensue. In the pre-Saturday Night Fever 70’s, the very idea of a man dancing on his own provoked scorn, and would unleash a volley of taunts labelling him a ‘puff’ or ‘queer’. It was only in 1967 that homosexuality was legalised in this country but there was still great hostility to the very idea, especially within the working class. However, at clubs like Wigan Casino you could lose yourself in both the crowd and the moment, and dance to your heart’s content with nobody batting an eyelid. In the mainstream clubs it was the girls who took the lead, the boys only venturing on the dancefloor either with a girlfriend or in order to make a move on a girl who’d taken their eye. It was all a mating ritual, especially when the DJ’s played slowies so people could get close up, whereas on the Northern Soul scene sex was way down the list of priorities. People didn’t go to a club like Wigan Casino to tap up, as we used to say, it was a completely different kind of ritual taking place, more spiritual than carnal. You could be gay in the Casino and no one would be any the wiser, your sexuality just wasn’t an issue, people were only interested in the important things – the music, the dancing, the drugs, the camaraderie. Even alcohol wasn’t necessary – in fact it would more likely have spoilt the vibe had they been able to serve it, with All-Nighters falling outside of the normal licensing hours. It’s interesting to note that in the early 80’s the leading DJ’s on the gay scene in both the North and South just so happened to be Northern Soul legends, Les Cokell at Heroes in Manchester and Ian Levine at Heaven in London. The uptempo side of the Northern scene undoubtedly influenced the style of music they played in their venues and the emergence of Hi-NRG, especially via Levine’s productions, as previously mentioned, but also thanks to Cokell and Leo Stanley’s ‘Castro Connection’ column for the early Mixmag, then called Disco Mix Mag.
Although it was black music they were infatuated with, the Northern Soul audience was made up predominantly from the white working class. There were some black people on the scene, but they were very much in a small minority. The black kids in the 70’s, generally speaking, were always forward looking when it came to their musical tastes, so old Soul 45’s weren’t going to cut it. Instead they were into the latest Funk and Dub Reggae, and later Jazz-Funk. The black crowd were also largely anti-chemical in those days, the majority strictly herbal when it came to their highs. Although some old soulies play down the scene’s reliance on speed, in the form of an array of pills referred to by the street names of black bombers, dexy’s and prellies amongst others, the fact of the matter was that it was a crucial element, just as ecstasy would later be during the Rave era. One book that left a strong impression on me was ‘Nightshift’ (1996) by Pete McKenna, which goes right to the underbelly of the Northern scene and its seedier aspects, giving a real eye-witness insight into those times, a taste of how it actually was, pulling no punches in its description of the drug use and its casualties. ‘Northern Soul – An Illustrated History’ exposes, warts and all, the drug culture attached to the movement, which didn’t stop at taking pills – some began to inject speed for a swifter rush, whilst other enthusiasts ended up heroin addicts or, worse still, dead from overdose. Ant Wilson illuminated the darker side of the Casino in the following quote from the book; “There used to be a lot of stealing, ripping off. There were areas of the Casino you’d rather not have to walk through. There’s always been this pseudo-criminal fringe on the scene, attracted by the underground nature of everything else around it. I was shocked by the first time I went to the loo at the Casino. It was just full of needles.”
The legendary Liverpool Funk DJ, Les Spaine, made an interesting analogy regarding the way some of the record dealers operated; “I just thought ‘these people just aren’t real Soul fans.’ I think a lot of real Soul fans who were into the Northern scene were used. I could see very little difference between the way the people who ran the Northern Soul scene carried on, and drug dealers with junkies. Now that might sound extreme but you analyse it. They had their market, they got it hooked and they kept it hungry.” He had a point when you consider that DJ’s who were beginning to make a name for themselves started the find they were being priced out of the market, not able to make enough money from their club appearances to keep up with the records they felt they needed to have. The reason Ian Dewhirst went to the US, as touched upon above, was to search out records to bring back home to play. He had begun to make a name for himself via appearances at Cleethorpes Pier and Samantha’s in Sheffield, not to mention the Casino, and increasingly found that if he showed interest in a record, the dealer was likely to phone other DJ’s, letting them know it was something Dewhirst was after, in order to up the price by getting a bidding war going. The final straw was when he ended up being forced to pay over £100 for a record he was originally quoted £50 for a few days earlier. This was at a time when £100 amounted to more than a month’s wages for a lot of people.
Once the scene started losing some of its best established and upcoming DJ’s to Jazz-Funk in the late 70’s, the writing was on the wall. After a series of ‘final nights’, which some saw as a cynical ploy to prise a bit more money out of its dying embers, the final record was played at Wigan Casino on December 6th 1981. This wasn’t, as many would imagine, ‘I’m On My Way’ by Dean Parrish, the concluding track of the hallowed ‘3 Before 8’: the 3 tracks traditionally played before the Casino closed at 8am – the other 2 being ‘Long After Tonight Is Over’ by Jimmy Radcliffe and ‘Time Will Pass You By’ by Tobi Legend, which were played 3 times at the end of the final night by DJ Russ Winstanley. Instead, Frank Wilson’s ‘Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)’ was deployed on the spur of the moment as a ‘one more tune’, demanded by the last soulies standing, who were determined to nostalgically milk every final ounce out of this sacred space that had enriched their being with life affirming good times.
In a previous blog piece from last December about Brian Cannon’s current ‘Northern Soul – A Photographic Journey’ project, I wrote about that oddball esoteric joyous melancholy record that is ‘Time Will Pass You By’: “I remember thinking about another famous Northern Soul track, in fact one of the most famous of all, Tobi Legend’s ‘Time Will Pass You By’, and the emotion Wigan Casino veterans must experience when listening to it all these years on, given the song’s subject matter and the associations this must evoke. Once young and vibrant men and women who lived for Saturday night, now, in many cases, are grandparents who in previous generations would be tucked up warm with a mug of Horlicks, not out on the floor in some civic hall. ‘Time Will Pass You By’ was, of course, one of the fabled ‘3 Before 8’ that always closed the Casino All-Nighters. It’s a song that, as the title states, is about the passage of time, and how important it is to embrace the moment – a poignant message summed up in its chorus; ‘Life is just a precious minute baby, open up your eyes and see it baby, give yourself a better chance, because time will pass you right on by’.”
After the Casino, the already dwindling Northern Soul crowd dwindled some more. I remember a couple of Jazz-Funk All-Dayers I played at during the early 80’s where the 2nd room hosted Northern Soul. There was hardy anyone there, just a few dozen friends of the DJ’s. It was all pretty bleak to see how far the mighty had fallen. These Northern Rooms soon vanished, with the Jazz Rooms taking over, so that by 1983 you could have been forgiven for thinking that Northern Soul had completely vanished off the face of the earth, the new electronic dance music a world apart from those now antiquated 45’s.
With a twist of irony, it was down South, at London’s 100 Club, where Northern Soul found a new lease of life, recuperating during the 80’s and connecting with the next generation via their 6T’s All-Nighters, held to this day. (Stafford’s Top Of The World continued to valiantly fly the flag up North during the darker days of 1982-86). These 6T’s events, launched in September 1981, just a few months before Casino’s closure, are now the longest running in Northern Soul’s ongoing history. In another development, having moved to London from his Scottish homeland, Northern dancer turned DJ, Keb Darge, began to re-assess the more Funk based releases that came into his possession via bulk purchases when he was searching out rare Soul. Cast aside as ‘junk music’ at the time, Darge would apply his Northern Soul ethos to these equally rare Funk 45’s and, along with London DJ Snowboy, subsequently pioneer a new direction, dubbed Deep Funk, proving, once again, that you actually can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
The Northern Soul scene had been forced to scale itself right down, but then began a process of regeneration, the movement gaining a fresh foothold in the shadows, which is where it’s remained ever since – known to those who know about it, but otherwise hidden from view. That said, in more recent times, the music and symbolism of the overall movement, has been co-opted in numerous ways, most notably via a series of Kentucky Fried Chicken TV ads in the mid-00’s featuring tracks like ‘I Can’t Get Away’ by Bobby Garrett, The Flirtations ‘Nothing But A Heartache’ and Frank Wilson’s ‘Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)’. This has placed once obscure US soul relics into every living room up and down the country and illustrates how Northern Soul’s cool and kudos remains intact after all this time. The video to Duffy’s 2008 chart topper ‘Mercy’ featured Northern dancers, the movie ‘Soulboy’ was released in 2010, and earlier this year, Fred Perry, the classic Mod brand, launched the Northern Soul-inspired Twisted Wheel range of clothing.
So now, with the primer of ‘Northern Soul – An Illustrated History’, Elaine Constantine’s upcoming movie is all the more eagerly anticipated. Especially at a time when youth culture could do with a shot in the arm to shake people out of the X Factor induced sedation subjected upon a generation of kids who are now reaching an age where they should be the ones who instigate the subcultures to come. I’m really hoping Constantine’s film, and Northern Soul’s incredible example, helps serve this purpose. The fact that she had the foresight to set up ‘Dance Clubs’ in London and Bolton (where Casino DJ Richard Searling first made his name at Va-Va’s in the early 70’s), preparing 500 under 25 year olds for the dancefloor scenes in the film, making sure their moves are authentic, suggests a film where attention to detail is primary. The clips on the website are testimony to this. This process on its own has already served to inspire a flock of new young converts to the Northern Soul cause, so it’s not a case of whether a renaissance will happen once the film hits the big screen, but to what degree – it’s quietly underway already.