At last, the true history of Northern Soul and Wigan Casino is out there

Celebrated author, Northern Soul expert and LEP Business Editor David Nowell reflects on BBC 4’s Living For The Weekend, available on BBC iPlayer.

Saturday, 9th August 2014, 10:27 am
David Nowell
David Nowell

Northern Soul was seen as a passing musical fad when it burst into the nation’s consciousness in the mid 1970s.

Strange, then, that they are still making TV programmes about it in 2014 and talking about “revivals” every five minutes.

The BBC’s latest venture into the strange world of Northern Soul was a pretty good attempt to put it into the proper perspective.

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Northern soul Wigan Casino the all nighters of the 70's

Northern Soul: Living For The Weekend was a decent one-hour documentary as part of a BBC4 series.

The Something Else production team didn’t fall into the usual cliched traps, and showed some insight into what to an outsider must be a baffling sub-culture.

But the downside was seeing many of the “usual suspects” appearing on camera one after the other, in many cases repeating off-quoted lines.

Strange also how the capacity of Wigan Casino, the greatest club of them all, seems to grow as the years go by.

Now we are being told there were 3,500-4,000 people in some nights, when it held about 2,000.

We also keep being told that “all the regulars worked in factories or in dead-end jobs”.

Erm, not everyone, lads!

Not everyone with careers wanted to admit what theydid for a living, especially the off-duty coppers!

And quite a few of the DJs made a decent career on the back of Northern Soul, promoting events, working for records labels, etc.

Having said that, this documentary told it more or less like it was.

Northern Soul, for the unitiated, is basically rare 60s soul music.

The unknowns, the flops, the B-sides basely often – but not always – on the Motown sound.

Detroit had it own sound and local labels, as did Philadelphia, New York and so on.

It was these labels that the British DJs sought after when “new” sounds turned a little funkier in the late 60s and early 70s.

They craved the 60s beat – and the only way to find it was to hunt down the 45s and play them to amphetamine-fuelled youngsters in manic underground venues like the Twisted Wheel in Manchester, Blackpool Mecca, and the Torch in Stoke on Trent.

Blackpool’s Ian Levine told the documentary how he would spend days in Miami sifting through piles of old records which he could bring back to England.

Followers would travel from literally all over the country to hear the rarest sounds. When the Torch closed in 1973, the all-nighter mantle was taken up by The Casino Club in Wigan.

It didn’t happen by accident, despite what some might tell you.

The Casino had been holding sold-out soul nights for years. (I know,because my missus used to go and ordered to me stress that!)

When manager Mike Walker and DJ Russ Winstanley launched the all-nighters, the Northern Soul movement went into orbit.

This atmospheric venue with a huge sprung wooden dancefloor and an overflow room called Mr M’s was the spiritual home of Northern Soul from 1973 to its closure in 1981. The documentary faithfully covers the “commercialisation” of the scene.

Oh, how we cringed when Wigan’s Ovation appeared on Top of the Pops singing a watered-down white pop version of Ski-ing In The Snow.

How we stayed away when we were told the TV cameras were coming for an ITV documentary. (They had to have lights full on to film in those days, and by all accounts it was an awful night).

Nice to see some of the out-takes from the original This England documentary being used in this latest effort, along with the usual scenes.

Can it really be more than 30 years ago??

The Casino was the most wonderful atmospheric and sometimes slightly scary venue in the world, and our lives revolved around it for many years. Living in Chorley, I could decide on a whim at midnight that I was going and be there in half an hour – alone or with mates, it didn’t matter.

The programme refreshingly also focussed on the split in the Northern Soul scene, when Ian Levine and sidekick Colin Curtis started playing 70s stuff at the Blackpool Mecca. These guys were mixing 12 inch singles in the mid-70s, influencing a generation of dance DJs and alienating many fans of 60s soul.

Wigan’s Russ Winstanley told the programme how he drove away after the final night at the Casino in 1981 and had a quiet sob, knowing that life would never be the same again. Quite a few of us did.

You literally did not see some friends from Scotland, the Midlands, London etc ever again because the scene had lost its focal point.

Northern Soul has never really been away and the widely-respected DJ Richard Searling is still promoting events today, often with fellow DJ Kev Roberts.

Now there are Blackpool Tower weekenders, Stoke all-nighters, and Prestatyn weekenders attracting up to 3,500 punters.

There are some young faces – like the Wigan Young Souls – but, to be honest, most of us are not as young as we were.

The BBC documentary included an interview with Elaine Constantine, maker of the new drama film Northern Soul. It has already had a preview screening in Manchester and should hopefully get a distribution deal later this year.

That brought us right up to date with young dancers being filmed acrobatically dancing like we did in the 70s.

Ah, the where’s my brogues?

David Nowell is the author of Too Darn Soulful, The Story of Northern Soul (Portico).