Still keeping the Faith

“I’VE never known anything like that last night. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place. When everything finished at 8am, we all just sat on the dancefloor and refused to move until they played some more music. We didn’t want it to end.

“So Russ Winstanley, the DJ who was finishing it all off, just said, ‘fuck it, what are they going to do? Take the licence off us?’ and carried on playing records. We got another couple of hours or so. wigan_casino_all_nighter

“People were just pulling the place apart, taking souvenirs there and then. I came out with a bag full of carpet tiles and the No Smoking sign from the kitchen. It wasn’t much, but it was something”.

When Wigan Casino closed in 1981, for many Northern Soul fans, it really was the end of an era. For Neil Jones, a 17-year-old from nearby Warrington, it was “like losing a relative. Horrible”.

In its heyday in the late Seventies, Wigan Casino was packed out every Saturday night with more than a thousand clubbers, paying a fiver a head, dancing from midnight until 8am. Once a month, there would also be a Friday all-nighter which concentrated on musical golden oldies.

Fuelled by pure teen spirit and, occasionally, not-so-pure amphetimine sulphate, the crowd, which was around 70 per cent male, would spin and gyrate to the heavily-syncopated and lushly-orchestrated American music known as Northern Soul.

Neil Jones first became aware of the music at his local youth club and had soon got into a regular Saturday night routine of convincing his mum he was staying the night at a mate’s house, then hitting the Carlton Club in Warrington for a couple of pints before legging it over to Bankheath Station to catch the 11.07 pm train to Wigan.

The trainload of soulboys hit the town, a mere 12 miles away, just as the pubs were closing and faced the choice of heading along the canal toepath, “where anything could happen”, or running the gauntlet of Wigan’s main drag.

Their principal tormentors were rock music-loving regulars from the Minorca, a pub with a particularly violent reputation, who didn’t appreciate a load of what they regarced as freaks – and freaks from Warrington at that – stepping into their town, pulling their birds, staring at their pints etc. It wasn’t pleasant.

But even when they hit the Casino, Jones and his mates still couldn’t afford to be complacent. The police, prowling up and down the queue outside, “mob-handed”, regularly pulled kids and practically strip-searched them on the spot.

If they survived that, clubbers had two choices as to how to get into the club: ‘the bouncers entrance’ where age restrictions were often ignored, “but you never knew how much it would cost you”, or the main entrance on Station Road.

“That was Hilda Woods’ door,” says Jones, the respect still discernable in his voice. “She used to sit behind a desk, halfway up the stairs, and she was 70 if she was a day. I was well under 18 when I first started going and for the likes of me, she was the main hurdle.

“Even if you could get past the bouncers at the bottom, the battle wasn’t over. If she thought you were too young, she’d tip the wink to the bouncers and you’d be out. You could forget it for the night”.

Once inside however, you could be assured that you’d be getting eight hours of sweet, soul music heaven. The word ‘cool’ ran through the whole scene like ‘Blackpool’ through a stick of rock.

The lads wore 40-inch Spencer’s flares and tight penny round tops and oxblood Timpson Royales. They brought towels and a change of clothes in hold-alls, covered in patches from the various clubs and all-nighters they had visited – “It was like a page in your passport,” remembers Jones.

The girls wore mocassins, Gingham circle skirts and short-sleeved Grandad-style blouses. ‘Style’ was the key. And then in 1981, after a series of ‘Teen Drug Sodom and Gomorrah’-type stories in the Sunday papers, the dream ended.

“Wigan Borough Council had designs on the building, or rather the land on which the building stood,” explains Jones, still clearly bitter at the perceived betrayal. A compulsory purchase order was served on the club and that was that.

“To this day, that land has never been developed,” adds Jones. It’s now an NCP car park. But although for many the focal point on the scene had been destroyed by the mysterious fire which engulfed the Casino shortly after its closure, Northern Soul refused to lie down and die.

A hardcore of three or four hundred die-hards searched out the small-scale events promoted by the original DJs in the dark days of the early to middle Eighties.

Promoting gigs anywhere with a wooden dancefloor, these DJs found themselves playing the same old records to the same old faces in the unfamilar surroundings of church halls, ex-servicemen’s clubs, dance and theatre schools, anywhere in fact that would have them – and that didn’t worry too much about hoary old tabloid scare stories of drug-crazed teenagers.

Their teenage years were long gone then. Now they are even futher away. At the age of 34, you can imagine how often it is that I walk into a nightclub-type environment to find that I’m one of the youngest people in there – that’s not very often, just to be clear – but this is exactly what happened when I visited the North Cheshire Lodge, a theatre school in Heaton Moor near Stockport.

Run by Mark Tobin and Mark Bicknell, two original endlessly enthusiastic Northern Soul fans from opposite ends of the country, the North Cheshire Lodge dance runs once a month. It gradually fills up with people of my parents’ age. One by one, they amble onto the dancefloor and start dancing like no one’s watching, completely unselfconsciously.

Rampant teenage hormones aren’t the only things missing from the scene today. As far as I can make out, the only white powder in evidence tonight is the talcum powder being sprinkled on the dancefloor, before the dancers stamp their feet on it, liberally coating the soles of their shoes to further reduce the friction between the floor and the leather.

Graceful as ballerinas, and often as camp, they move backwards and forwards, effortlessly gliding around like so many ice-skating peacocks, hunching up their shoulders, throwing their arms out, tossing their heads from side to side coquettishly, clapping in the breaks, only heading back to sip from their pints in the breaks betwen the tunes as the DJ announces the next record over the mic. We could almost be back in the golden age of the Casino.

But for older heads, the Casino was merely one element in a weekend packed full of hedonistic excess. One old original I talk to tells me how his weekend started at the Pendulum Club near the Cathedral in Manchester on Fridays; on Saturdays, he’d be in the pub from opening time then head over to the Mecca Ballroom in Blackpool before moving onto to the Casino at midnight.

Then it was back home to South Manchester for Sunday dinner and a couple of hours sleep before heading back to the Pendulum for its infamous Sunday night session. And he’d be up for work first thing Monday morning. And you did all that without drugs, I ask, incredulously. “We just did it on adrenaline,” he replies, mischievously.

It’s just one small example of the revisionism endemic in the scene.

“If you ask anyone about Northern Soul, you’ll get a thousand different versions of the same story,” says Dave Godin. As the journalist and record shop owner who actually invented the term, he should know a thing or two about it.

Godin imported records the USA and sold them in Soul City, his shop in Deptford, at the tail end of the Sixties.

He noticed that the Northerners who were in the shop on Saturday afternoons, down in the capital following their football teams, weren’t interested in the newer, progressive sounds that would later involve into funk, prefering instead the more traditional, driving big beat records typified by early Tamla and Motown releases.

“They didn’t take to funk at all,” he remembers. “When there were a lot of Northerners in, it was an utter waste of time playing those funky records, nobody wanted them. So, to make things easier in the shop, I classified everything into genres, and said to my partners, ‘this one will appeal to Northern soul fans'”.

Godin used the term in one of the review columns he used to write for Blues & Soul magazine and it stuck. Northern Soul was born. And now it’s all grown up into a bouncy 30-something – and it’s still going strong.

The people down at the North Cheshire Lodge are as open and relaxed a group of people you’re likely to meet on a dancefloor anywhere in the world, but at the same time, there’s a definite air of a shared secret, a surreptitious nod and a wink that tells you that you’re in with the in crowd and there’s nowhere else in the world they’d rather be.

This is the best place in the world, with the best music and the best people, ever. And the greatest thing about it? Hardly anybody else knows about it.

Places like the Groucho and Browns have absolutely nothing on the North Cheshire Lodge for exclusivity. It’s not a question of the people here refusing to grow up so much as them refusing to grow old.

They’ve got kids and mortgages and responsibilities, but they still want to dance all night – or a decent amount of it, anyway – to the music they love, surrounded by their mates, just like they did when they were 17. And what’s wrong with that?

On the opening evening of the Planet K run of Robodisco, a club run by the people behind Manchester house label Paper Recordings, David Holmes, the main DJ of the evening, didn’t play a single house record but he kept the floor rammed with Northern Soul classic after classic.

Producers like Holmes, Justin Robertson, and particularly Norman Cook have built entire tracks, in some cases chart-topping hit singles, around blatant steals from old Northern Soul releases. The similarities between Northern Soul and the evolution of the contemporary club scene have long been recognised.

Both involve large numbers of Northern, white, working class youth dressing up in their best clothes, travelling from one end of the country to the other, taking drugs and dancing all night to superstar DJs playing imported black American vocal dance music.

Licensing problems in the mid-Seventies culture vacuum meant that Wigan Casino never served a drop of alcohol at any of its all-night sessions. Similarly, although things are changing now with emergence of brewing conglomerate-sponsored bar culture, in the early days of raving when drugs were more important than booze, Lucozade was so popular that people – well, Adamski – put pictures of the bottle on their record sleeves.

And while both scenes got white men on the dance floor, the night didn’t necessarily just revolve around the mating game.

“I have this theory that soul actually allows men to experience emotions and feelings which society says as men we should suppress,” says Dave Godin, “feelings of tenderness, gentleness, softness. It gives you a legitimate way of expressing those things. And dancing in itself is an expression of psychic longing.

“You can dressed up to the nines if you want, the drugs are there if you want them, you can go for the drink, or the girls, or the boys, but all these things are incidental.

“The prime thing about the Northern Soul scene is what’s in the grooves. For me, that alone commends it. It sounds a bit Pseuds Corner but it’s an aesthetic adventure that people are looking for – and I don’t think you can say that about many things in today’s culture”.

[This is a longer version of a piece which was originally published in the Big Issue in the North in September 1999. Amusingly, it was plagiarised, almost in its entirety, by some crappy local freesheet in Pendle a few weeks after it first came out. Sincerest form of flattery, I guess …]

POSTSCRIPT: There was more to Dave Godin than journalist, record shop owner and guy who coined the phrase Northern Soul. I can’t remember whether he got in touch with me or the other way round, but you could always count on Dave to make a dull day in the office that much brighter.

He was interesting and informed, funny and complimentary, with an obvious and infectious generosity of spirit, even over the phone. And as well as buying the magazine he also read it, which I always thought was a good sign.

Bombed out of Peckham by the Luftwaffe, his family moved to Kent and he got a scholarship to Dartford Grammar School, where he ended up introducing a young Mick Jagger to the blues, something he regretted, it seems, almost instantly. He didn’t make the same mistake a few years later when he took Marvin Gaye to the Top of the Pops studios and Jagger asked him for an introduction. He refused.

Dave got the taste for black American music when he heard Ruth Brown’s Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean in an ice-cream parlour. This was in the early Fifties, when homosexuality was still criminalised and the emotional and physical expression of same-sex desire was tempered by the very real threat of prosecution. You can see why the unfettered, raw emotion of the blues might strike a chord.

He ended up forming the Tamla Motown Appreciation Society of Great Britain and got invited over to Detroit by Berry Gordy, who made him his consultant in Britain and point-man for the Motown review tour that brought Little Stevie Wonder, the Miracles, the Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas to the UK.

I got the impression that Dave thought that it’s never just about the music, but at the same time, when it really comes down to it, it really is all about the music. Does that make sense?

Either way, there was more to him than music-lover, tremendously knowledgeable and sincere though he was. A vegetarian since the age of 14 (he once told me that in the early days of Soul City, Quentin Crisp used to deliver his midday sandwiches .. this is not some allusion to arcane Fifties gay slang – I think), Dave was a conscientious objector to national service, a committed animal rights activist and a convinced, active anarchist.

He moved up North in the Seventies and studied film at Sheffield Polytechnic, before becoming the first director of the city’s late, lamented, council-funded Anvil art cinema, but he also had interests as diverse as Esperanto and Jainism.

I read somewhere that he was also part of some pro-life group – apparently he was the only atheist there – which I find quite surprising, because he didn’t seem like someone who would want to limit other people’s choices. I guess it fits in with his belief in the absolute sanctity of life, but even so, it seems a bit out of character. From my limited experience of him, anyway.

I came into contact with him towards the end of his life, just after he started putting together his Deep Soul compilations. Typically, the music he championed was just beautiful, truly, madly, deeply obscure stuff you’d never heard before from way, way back. And every single one of the artists on the albums were properly credited and paid. It was a labour of love.

Venerated by Northern fans but absolutely unknown to most people outside the scene, Dave remained a very modest, humble and approachable kind of cultural iconoclast, writing letters, cuddling his cat, trying to get well, until his death in Rotherham in October 2004. He was one of a kind.

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