The Times Article 27th August 2008
August 27, 2008
The return of Northern Soul
Next month it will be 35 years since Russ Winstanley booked Wigan Casino for its first Northern Soul all-nighter, starting at 2am on a Sunday morning. The faithful paid 75p each to dance until 8am to rare black American records - and though the price has gone up a bit, the scene is now bigger than ever.
It was Wigan Casino that partially influenced Robert Stigwood to make the film Saturday Night Fever, and household names from Peter Stringfellow to Mick Hucknall were inspired by the Northern Soul scene. When ITV showed a documentary on the Casino for its This England strand in 1977, it reached an audience of 27 million and the reverberations are still being felt.
Look at the video accompanying Duffy's No1 single Mercy. There in the darkness of a small club, young lads pirouette and footsie to a Detroit-influenced Sixties soul groove. TV adverts featuring Al Wilson, Frank Wilson and others have appeared plugging everything from cars to KFC. There's instant street credibility to be had for any artist or brand associated with a scene that has always been wild, free and grass-roots.
The phrase Northern Soul was coined by the late London journalist and rhythm & blues guru Dave Godin in his weekly Blues & Soul magazine column in June 1970 to describe a danceable type of rare soul cherished in clubs across the North and Midlands. The sound was based on the 4-4-2 beat of the Four Tops' Tamla Motown classic I Can't Help Myself, although it would come to be associated with faster stompers as heard during the Wigan Casino era from 1973 to 1981. But the most important element was its emotional, soulful content.
The momentum of the scene in the Sixties derived from the British white working class, which instinctively saw common causes that linked it to the black American experience. But in Britain the marker was class, not race. Godin once said that it's not the colour of your skin that counts against you so much as the way you talk or your educational disadvantages or what your daddy does for a living.
The greatest aspect of Northern Soul is its resolute determination to call its own shots. Although plenty have tried, it has never been owned by an elite. Godin reinforced this by adopting the signs and slogans of America's black civil rights movement: the clenched fist and “Keep the Faith” badges. He even kept it safe from the Hush-Puppied cultural élite in London by including the word “Northern” in the name. The headline of that particular column was “That Soul Sound with the Up North Groove” and his reference was the club where it truly began, the legendary Twisted Wheel in Manchester.
At 4pm one recent Sunday afternoon in Manchester United are playing in the FA Charity Shield against Portsmouth at Wembley and the city centre is semi-deserted. But, as I walk down the steps into an almost unchanged Twisted Wheel, a blast of humidity greets me. Almost 200 soul fans are packed into the darkness. Smiles greet me as the promoter, Pete Roberts, a 1968 Wheel original, guides me through the crowded interior with not a foot of dancefloor free. A fair proportion of the people look as if they should be drinking mild and playing bingo, but every dancer is in time - many have driven from as far away as Birmingham to spend the afternoon dancing to Inez and Charlie Foxx, Homer Banks and Willie Mitchell.
The DJ box sits on the tiny stage that once held Junior Walker and the All Stars, Edwin Starr and Bluesology (featuring a young Elton John, who, whenever he plays Manchester, always says at the start of his set: “Fond memories of the Twisted Wheel”, to a huge roar from the crowd). These people are incredible, they make the rave generation seem like Victor Meldrew on a caravan holiday as they dance to a driving beat brewed in the ghettos of black America. The emotion and joy are overwhelming for an outsider such as myself.
When auditions took place in London for Duffy's video it quickly became obvious that the professionals couldn't cut the mustard out on the floor. One young soul fan who was there, Liam Quinn, suggested that the videomakers visit a soul all-nighter in Manchester and witness the real thing. Knocked out by Quinn and his friends, the director cast them. Duffy herself was so impressed by the tunes that Quinn introduced her to that instead of a support act she chose Quinn to accompany her on tour and DJ a full set of Northern Soul records. She even booked him to play at her and her sister's birthday party.
Quinn is one of a number of young people disillusioned by “scenes” that are overmarketed and overhyped, where the image of the performer created by a record company's publicity machine is often used to cover up the fact that their sound doesn't quite cut it. “When I was a kid growing up in Port Rush in Northern Ireland,” he says, “I liked a lot of different music, but felt a bit bored, like someone else was telling me what I should like. My older brother had a birthday party and the following morning I found a CD that some one had left. It just said Northern Soul. I listened to it and was just blown away. It had Frank Wilson's Do I Love You on it, but every track is burnt into my consciousness. It was so emotional.
“I started my own soul night in Belfast, just to meet other people who were into these sounds, and started travelling whenever I could to all-nighters in Scotland and northern England.”
Quinn eventually moved to Manchester and, along with fellow twentysomething devotees and DJs Paul Barker and Paul Walker, started up the Beat Boutique nights. “We wanted a club that might appeal to our age group. We have a monthly crowd of maybe 200-plus youngsters, mostly under the age of 25, and it's growing all the time,” Quinn enthuses.
And the music has repaid his devotion.
“I've been all over the world DJing since the Duffy tour. In fact I'm off to work at a huge soul weekender in Seattle. The music has changed my life, and I know I'm not unique in that way.”
Though more scattered, the scene now is bigger than ever, with dedicated Northern Soul conventions in Los Angeles, Hamburg, Gothenberg, Las Vegas, New York, Detroit, Chicago and Tokyo. The records, always expensive and collectable, now fetch a king's ransom, especially on the Japanese market. This popularity is reflected on the internet, with sites dedicated to its infamous clubs - the Twisted Wheel, the Golden Torch, the Blackpool Mecca - and its DJs such as Richard Searling, who has a long-running-soul show on Smooth FM in the North West.
There are online juke boxes, recommended lists of records and footage of performances at Wigan Casino all over YouTube. Although the original vinyl prices have gone through the roof (in 1996 the guitar great Kenny Burrel bought Frank Wilson's Do I Love You for a reported £15,000; a demo of Darrell Banks's Open the Doors to Your Heart went for a mere £900), compilation CDs and the internet are opening up the scene to those who for years have had their noses pressed against the glass looking in. The greatest achievement is that a whole generation of soul fans from the Sixties and Seventies has saved, catalogued and cherished a raft of independent black American culture that otherwise would have been lost and is now making it available to the next wave of enthusiasts.
This month, filming began on a new British film called Souled Out in Stoke-on-Trent (a hotbed of soul, known by many on the scene as Soul-on-Trent, and with a reputation for having the best dancers). It is set at Wigan Casino in 1974 - the club's vast dark interior is being re-created in Kings Hall in Stoke - and stars Alfie Allen, younger brother of Lily. Quinn and his mates have been drafted in, but this piece of nostalgia, however true to the spirit of that legendary venue, will never be able to truly capture the uniquely private exhilaration of what is Britain's gift to the legacy of black America.
The Wigan Casino 35th Anniversary party is at the Grand Arcade Casino Café, Station Road, Wigan on Sept 20. Beat Boutique all-nighter, third Friday of every month. Ruby Lounge, Manchester (0161-834 1392). Twisted Wheel Sunday sessions, second Sunday of every month, with an all-nighter on the last Friday of every month. Twisted Wheel, Whitworth Street, Manchester (0161-236 1010)
TERRY CHRISTIAN'S FIVE TOP SOUL TUNES
Darrell Banks: Open the Door to Your Heart
(1966 USA Revilot, UK Stateside and Black London promo)
Darrell Banks was tragically shot dead in the street a couple of years after this was released. The flip side Our Love is In The Pocket is another big favourite.
Sandi Sheldon: You're Gonna Make Me Love You
(1966 Okeh records)
Produced by Van McCoy. Legend says it reached the Twisted Wheel via the Wolverhampton DJ Froggie Taylor who bought it from a dealer who got it in a bag of records he bought from John Peel.
Eddie Parker: Love You Baby
Tracked down in the Eighties working on a car production line in Detroit, Eddie Parker has God-like status for his two monster records I'm Gone and this ten-ton truck of freneticism and vocal power.
Frank Wilson: Do I Love You
(1965 Soul S3519)
A run of 500 of these was pressed as Tamla Motown promos in 1965, only two are known on the scene, the rest were destroyed. A true northern treasure.
Gerri Grainger: I Go to Pieces (Everytime)
(1972 USA Eric, UK Casino Classics (BMG))
Makes my eyes brim with tears every time I hear it. A sentimental whirlwind: pass the Kleenex, a tear is painting my cheek.
harry crosby, peterlee, county durham
Howard, Newton Aycliffe, durham
Soul in the City, Bromley, UK
jamie , harrogate, yorkshire
Martin Chippendale, Halifax, UK
Neil Marsh, Chatham, Kent
Dave Godin (RIP), Portsmouth,
Betty Swan, London ,
Chris, London, UK