Northern soul in New Society, 24 January, 1980 by Ian Walker.
The Wigan Aesthetic
Pink and blue fluorescent tubes, hung crudely from the ceiling, don’t make much impact on the darkness. But from up here in the balcony, where some come to sleep and some to drink coffee, it looks as if there are still about a hundred dancers down there, even though it is five in the morning.
They spin, jump, do the splits, crash forward or backward onto their hands, spin again like whirling dervishes in their baggy jeans and full skirts, clap in time to the music. The records are from the cities of the United States. The dancers are from all over the north of England. Most come here every Saturday night and Sunday morning for the Wigan Casino all-nighter, the mecca of northern soul.
“I used to dance,” says Mick, a cop from Liverpool. “Now it’s just a matter of listening.” He half closes his eyes, “So many soulful sounds.” Mick remembers the first all-nighters, in the early sixties at the Twisted Wheel in Manchester, birthplace of northern soul. When that closed down he went to the Torch at Stoke, then the Va-Va at Bolton. He has been coming to Wigan most Saturday nights since September 1973 when the all-nighters started up at the Casino.
It is a problem, Mick says, trying to explain to mates that it is rare soul singles and not roulettes which are spun at the Casino: “You say there’s no gambling, then they say, ‘Oh, you go on the piss there, then?’ You say there’s no drink. Then they say, ‘Oh, you go fucking all the women then, eh?’ You say there’s none of that either. It’s an all-night dance club. They think we’re all mad.”
No booze, no sex and no fights either. “Say you got to a disco, bump into someone, you get beer all over your face,” says Biba, who travels down here from York. “Here it’s ‘Sorry pal. You all right’?” Mick nods. “You never get fights here, never,” he adds, with Scouse emphasis.
You get a lot of pill-popping, though: amphetamines to help the dancers make it through the night. The going rate for speed is £2 for three pills, presumably more than the skinheads asleep on the balcony floor could afford. “If one of us takes a week off everyone wants to know why,” says Mick, when he’s come back with the coffees. “It’s amazing, you know, the care that people have got for each other down here.” He insists on buying the coffees: it’s his scene, he is the host.
Set up on a bare wooden stage four foot above the dance floor are the DJ’s turntables. Dancers jump onstage to deliver requests on bits of paper. This is a “rare soul scene”: DJs and fans alike pride themselves on digging out obscure rhythm and blues singles that flopped Stateside, making them hits on the northern soul circuit. DJs have been known to pay up to £500 for rare singles (often one-off demo discs) and dancers travel hundreds of miles to hear them.
Backstage, behind the turntables, a man from Birmingham who has NORTHERN SOUL RULES OK tattooed on his arm, and who is here with his wife Joy, says, “The old crowd live for this place. We work all week for this.” Phil and Geoff, from Newton Aycliffe in County Durham, nod agreement. They have got 400-odd singles between them, at their flat. “But it’s not quantity, it’s quality isn’t it?” smiles Phil. “That’s it.”
Each record ends with a swarm of hands raised aloft clapping, showing appreciation. No one dances in a couple, and no one comes here to find a mate anyway, so there’s none of that buzz of chatting-up technique which fills the short silences between records at discos. None of those beer-swilling predators ogling from the sidelines, like there had been six hours previously at the Wigan branch of the northern nightclub chain, Tiffany’s, where I’d gone till the Casino opened its doors at 12.30 am.
At the Casino the DJs are judged by the quality of the records they play, not the slickness of their chat. And the place to shop for quality soul is over the Atlantic. Records that are rare (and expensive) in Britain can be picked up for next to nothing in America. Disc-jockey Dave Evison says that he enlisted the help of black cab drivers in taking him up to Harlem and the South Bronx when he went over to New York. He tells me an anecdote about a friend of his called Kev Roberts whose idol was an R & B artist called Eddie Foster. “Kev went over to America. One day in San Francisco he got into a cab and the driver of that cab was Eddie Foster. That’s the truth. A ten million to one chance.”
The black American: a soul brother to the young white English worker. It’s six in the morning and there’s still close on a hundred white Negroes of the frozen north down there on the floor dancing.
I go downstairs to a small room which is the hangout for hard-core fans and collectors. One lad is telling another he spent £600 on records last year. Everyone flicks through the racks of singles and soul fanzines set out on trestle tables. One fanzine, Soul Source, is edited by Chris Fletcher, a 23 year old ex-miner. He had an accident and “jacked it up,” picked up an offset litho machine cheap and taught himself how to use it.
“I understood the principles – one blanket to the next, water repels ink – and it was just trial and error. The first issue didn’t look good, but it was great at the time. We were jumping about, you know.”
A black drug dealer wearing a black velvet bow-tie with a black topcoat and white silk scarf, and followed by two women in skirts slit to the top of their thighs, makes his entrance into this backroom. The place becomes, for the first time tonight, tense.
People want speed, but this guy is not to be trusted. He has ripped off the all-nighters before and is insisting that just one man goes outside with the money to get the stuff off his hoodlums, who are outside in the car where anything could happen. Someone says this dealer is a pimp and a gangster, that his men use guns, and that he has been known to arrange for Black and Deckers to make holes in kneecaps. After much running around the pill-poppers decide not to risk it. The word goes out that the cops are outside and the dealer, the man, disappears out of a side door with his two whores. “The music, the people and the gear [amphetamines] – that’s why people come here” someone says by way of an explanation.
Sitting down clutching his singles purchases is Kevin Joss. He works as a turner in Newton Aycliffe. He is married, with a four year old baby. “Saturday afternoon I always play football, set off from home about seven . . . the worst thing is driving back the next day. It’s three and half to four hours, to get back at 12 or 1. Then it’s watching the football on telly, going to bed when it’s finished and getting up on Monday, if you can.”
Ian Bates, and engineer from Nottingham and introduced as a “real fan,” joins in the conversation. Kevin is saying that he once had to stop going to all-nighters. Ian screws up his face, “People say they aren’t coming down here any more, but I don’t know what I’d do . . . what else do people do? Just knock around and go down the pub and get pissed? That’s alright, but it’s better down here. I’ve got mates from all over the country and the music here’s the best in the country, in my opinion.” Ian gets £40 a week take-home. In 1979 he missed just two all-nighters.
In a couple of hours’ time the Wigan townsfolk will be eating their breakfast. Most of them want the Casino closed down. Ian Bates tells me that the Casino is owned by the council and if Labour had won the election it was going to be turned into a “multi-storey car park or office block or something.”
This desolate old Casino, just opposite the bingo hall, off the Wigan high street. What can you say? Remember the opening sequence of the film version of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning where Albert Finney says something like “I’m out to have a good time. That’s all there is to it. The rest is propaganda,” as chucks his towel at the lathe?
The Wigan Casino is one place in which soul fans can prove to themselves, and to others, that the working routine is just that: a clock which ticks in time to a production line. Stay up all night, dance till it hurts and what the hell?
It’s 7.30 in the morning and the fans are starting to collect their coats and say goodbyes. The last three records on the turntable, every Sunday morning, are Long after tonight is all over, Time’ll pass you by and I’m on my way. “When they play that for the last time, when it shuts down for good,” says Ian, “it’ll be brilliant.”
The yellow street lamps are on, but unnecessary in the early light. A red-eyed procession winds up the road, past the Lite Bite chippie and Terry’s Discount, towards Wigan Baths. They will be open at a quarter to nine, and you can get tea and toast there.