Northern Soul Music
The Road To Wigan Casino: A Personal Journey
By Tony Craig
Last September saw the 40th anniversary of the first Saturday night, All-Nighter disco from midnight to dawn, at Wigan Casino, the UK spiritual home of Northern Soul in the 1970’s. Now let me tell you, Wigan is not the most fashionable town in the UK, stuck up North, far from the metropolis of London. However, in 1976, the club boasted a membership of 100,000 people and, in 1978, it was voted the world's number one discotheque by Billboard Magazine, this during the heyday of the Studio 54 nightclub in New York City.
When I went there, an ignorant Southerner, the first thing that struck me was the enormous crowd of kids in the queue outside, which snaked around the block. All of them were carrying suitcases or holdalls and bags. I thought that we were going to a dance, not abroad! However, when I asked Mike Walker, the Manager, what that was all about, he told me to wait until two o’clock and I would find out alright for myself. Well, I didn’t have to wait that long! The minute I stepped inside the cavernous dancehall, I was struck in the face by the heat. It was sub-tropical and the carpets on the stairs squelched, so that you felt like you were walking on treacle. Even the walls were sweating! By two o’clock, I had already seen scores of the dancers there onto their second or third change of clothing. It was disgusting, sticky, heaving with noise and bodies, but great fun!
It was obvious why it was such a great place too. Everybody was there for the music and the dancing and you could sure as hell dance to the music. Unlike Liverpool and The Beatles, though, the music didn’t originate from Wigan or thereabouts. In fact, Northern Soul is a misnomer. The music played on the dance floors came from records produced in the States in the latter part of the 60’s, which were based on the heavy beat and fast tempo of the Tamla Motown sound. It was not, however, the stars on the Motown roster, like Diana Ross, who energized the kids. The stars were artists, long obscure, who recorded on regional record labels, such as Ric-Tic and Golden World Records (Detroit), Mirwood (Los Angeles) and Shout and Okeh (New York/Chicago) etc., which had sprung up in the U.S. during that period. Thousands of single records were released at that time and the sheer volume of vinyl output meant that most would die a death without exposure, irrespective of their artistic merit. They were also usually only manufactured in small numbers with a narrow distribution and often never made it into the shops on the other side of town.
The music originally came over to the UK with merchant seamen working out of the ports in the north of England, such as Liverpool and evolved into Northern Soul via the club scene in the sixties, clubs like Manchester’s ‘Twisted Wheel’, which closed in 1971 under pressure from the police etc. due to its reputation as a drug haven. However, the start of the ’70's saw the rise of influential DJ’s, such as Russ Winstanley, as leading lights and the power behind the new club scene. Such DJ’s like Ian Levine and Richard Searling would go to the States to physically trawl through record stores and warehouses for lost gems, and, as long as it had the ‘sound,’ the rarer the cut, the more sought after it was and the more valuable it became. Indeed, the Northern Soul scene was a collectors’ paradise and many records changed hands for hundreds of pounds at the Casino due to their rarity! For some of the original artists, all of a sudden, years after their initial release, these discarded records brought them unexpected fame, though very little in the way of royalties, as few new copies were ever pressed.
To understand the development of Northern Soul, one must put the UK music scene in the seventies into perspective. Access to pop music back then was heavily dominated by the BBC with Radio 1 and BBC TV’s ‘Top of The Pops’. There was no internet or club culture as such or all the channels and outlets we have today and the record charts were largely determined by both the major record companies’ A&R music policies and the exposure gained on the BBC. The public was force fed the musical diet of these two overwhelming influences. Well, the kids up North bucked this trend and found their ‘own’ music. It was too large a scene to be called ‘underground,’ but it never really went mainstream either. Ironically, Northern Soul got its name from Dave Grodin, a music journalist, who owned the Soul City record store in Covent Garden, London. He coined the term to describe the records, which all the football fans used to seek out in his store, unsuccessfully most of the time, while down for the day to watch their teams playing in London.
It was not just the music, though. The Northern Soul scene produced its own dance style and fashions, which are still instantly recognizable if you go to any YouTube video of that period. You certainly had to be fit to be out there on the dance floor all night with all the backdrops, spins, flips and moves often inspired by American soul acts like Jackie Wilson and Little Anthony & The Imperials, etc. I know my eyes popped when I saw some of the action at the Casino and this was way before break dancing had come to the UK.
Essentially, Northern Soul was a nostalgia genre. It was all about discovering lost sounds, masterpieces which were not recognized in their time. This often included over-looked B-sides. It was also about creating their own place and identity in society for lots of kids neglected by mainstream UK.
However, it never really spawned its own original music and artists. The few attempts to ‘cash in’ on the Northern Soul boom were regarded frostily by the purists. Marc Almond of Soft Cell recorded ‘Tainted Love’, originally recorded by Gloria Jones and a huge Casino favorite, but it was really a pop record and broke Soft Cell into the mainstream UK charts. Nevertheless, many of the original U.S. acts did play at Wigan, like Dean Parish, who is still a favored star and recently appeared at the 40th Anniversary Concert. Tommy Hunt, too, who had been on the American music scene for years as a soloist and a member of the U.S. group, ‘The Flamingoes,’ was another singer who made regular appearances at the Casino and who gained great respect from the crowds. By the ’70’s, he had relocated to England and being in the right place at the right time, it seemed a no-brainer for him to start recording again in the UK.
I guess that is where I came in, as my writing partner, Eddie Adamberry and I wrote several songs for Tommy Hunt around that time. One of them, ‘Loving on The Losing Side’ became his signature tune and is still played on the Northern Soul scene today. It even charted in the UK Singles Chart. Tommy will be 80 this year and is still going strong, doing live performances. He is amazing! For me, the really gratifying thing is that at the end of last year, after all this time, a compilation CD, “Tommy Hunt - A Sign of The Times: The Spark Recordings 1975-1976,” was released on the Shout! label with many of the songs Tommy recorded during that period. (It is available on both Amazon and the UK iTunes Stores). There are six of Eddie and my songs included on this CD. So, as you can imagine I am pretty pleased about it.
As for Wigan Casino and Northern Soul, they were always going to be vulnerable to new trends, such as disco and funk, coming along and, inevitably, without crossing over to the mainstream, they were always going to remain a niche genre in the music industry. Maybe, though, that was how the true fan wanted it anyway. It was also very much a Northern working class movement at a time when Margaret Thatcher was just about to put the boot into the working class up North.
In the end, it was the local Municipal Council, who finally sealed the Casino’s fate when it issued a closure order on the grounds that the land was needed for civic development. However, before it could be demolished, the Casino burnt down of its own accord and today, where it stood all those years, is a car park.
However, Northern Soul lives on! Currently, not only are there still All-Nighters and a Northern Soul club scenes which refuses to die, but a whole new generation have discovered the music, even as far afield as Japan. The Northern Soul fan motto is KTF, ‘Keep The Faith’ and there are still thousands out there who have done just that!
To listen to more of Tony Craig's music visit his website here