(Picture source: Wigan World website)
All the hotels I’ve stayed in during my numerous visits to Ireland have had the main 4 British TV channels available. I was grateful of this last week when I wanted to catch an episode of BBC 2’s Culture Show. Presented by Paul Mason, it explored one of the passions of his, and my, youth – “Northern Soul” and it’s mecca during the late 1970’s – Wigan Casino.
Northern soul was the label applied to black American music from the 1960’s and 1970’s influenced by the sound of Tamla Motown which became popular in the North of England during the late 1970’s. But it was more than a type of music. An underground “scene” developed with it’s own fashions, energetic dancing and “All Nighters”. And many of it’s devotees, including me, were keen collectors of the music, seeking out, where possible, favourite rare records.
The “scene” grew out of the Mod movement in Manchester at the Twisted Wheel, a dance club in Whitworth Street in the centre of Manchester. Initially playing soul music which was popular with Mods, the club’s DJ’s started to seek out rare and obscure records, often dug up from warehouses in Detroit and other cities in the USA, with a frantic, uptempo beat and sung with raw emotion. “Motown with a rougher edge” as it was described on the programme.
When the Twisted Wheel closed in 1971, the baton was passed on to clubs including the Golden Torch in Stoke on Trent and Blackpool Mecca. But probably the most famous Northern Soul club of all was the Wigan Casino. Located in the former Empress Ballroom on Station Road the first All Nighter was held on 23 September 1973.
Paul Mason is Culture & Digital Editor for Channel 4 News, and was, until recently, Economics Editor for the BBC’s Newsnight. He’s a “lobby gobbler” (i.e. someone from Leigh, a town five miles from Wigan) and, like me, in his youth was a regular visitor to the All Nighters at the Casino. Yes, I used to turn up at midnight, dancing all night until the final strains of the “three before eight” the next morning. And I have to own up to wearing the essential outfit, including the Spencer’s Bags – 40 inch bottoms (around each leg) with a 32 inch waist.
The programme celebrated Wigan Casino 40 years after the first All Nighter and as well as telling the story of the club included interviews with “soulies” past and present. One of my favourite quotes came from a regular at the Twisted Wheel, the punk poet John Cooper Clarke –
“There isn’t a bad Northern Soul record”
The Casino closed for the last time in December 1981. The local Council wanted the land for an extension to their offices the “Civic Centre” although that was never actually built. The building burnt down a few years and today is buried beneath the Galleries shopping arcade that has been built over Station Road (another example of a public street privatised and inaccessible outside of shopping hours)
(Image source Wikipedia)
But like many music scenes, Northern Soul still survives with original devotees, now in their fifties, attending events all over the country as there has been a revival in recent years. The programme showed that many of them can still “strut their stuff”. And Paul Mason himself, very gamely I felt, relived his youth by stepping out and attempting the dance steps of his youth. I don’t think I would have been so brave to try that on TV, but I have to admit to moving around the dining room at home (when no-one is watching!) while playing records from my collection and on the very rare occasions when I attend a dance at a wedding or event and the DJ spins a “blast from the past”.
These days my musical tastes are quite broad – including soul, rock, jazz and classical – but I still hold on to my collection of Northern Soul records and many of my favourites are included on my ipod and Spotify playlists.
But the Culture Show wasn’t the only programme on the BBC that week about Northern Soul. The previous Saturday I listened to a programme on Radio Four introduced by former Radio One DJ Anne Nightingale, Shine Like Tokyo – Northern Soul Goes East! about the thriving Northern Soul scene in, of all places Japan.