Dex Drugs and Northern Soul
Looking back on a time of youthful excess, at Wigan Casino and Blackpool Mecca’s Highland Room.
It’s not often I can pinpoint what I was doing on a given date, let alone one from forty years ago. But I have near-perfect recall for the 23rd of September1973, which is the morning Wigan Casino opened its doors for the first of many Northern Soul all-nighters.
I’d arranged a ride in one of a fleet of cars heading on to Wigan from Blackpool Mecca’s Highland Room. But I ended up entwined with a pretty brunette from Burton on Trent, who, midway through the night, asked if I wanted to share her guest house room on Blackpool’s South Shore?
Indeed I did!
I forsook my lift to Wigan Casino’s opening night and spent whatever cash I had on her drinks. Come night’s end, she went to the loo with her friend and when I was the last person left in the Highland Room, it dawned on me that I’d been had-over for a half-dozen lager and blacks: the girls had done a side-shuffle through the alternate exit in the lobby.
At 4 am I was sitting on the steps of a deserted Blackpool Mecca and trying not to think about the good time my mates were having in Wigan. I was considering climbing the walls of the bus depot behind the Mecca and sneaking onto a comparatively warm yellow bus until morning (it wouldn’t have been the first time). But a local drunk wobbled past, on his way home from a lock-in at one of Blackpool’s working men’s clubs.
‘What’s up, lad? Nowhere to stay?’
I told him about my pretty brunette.
‘Come on. You can have the settee,’ he beckoned.
Latterly, I would’ve been wary of such an offer. But back then I was a teen schoolie, and I made the spot decision that this bloke was OK. He lived with his Ma in one of the streets off Bloomfield Road, and I sat chewing my face off on the living room settee until his mother got up. Withstanding my protests, she insisted on cooking me a full English fry-up: for reasons I am about to explain, getting it down my throat caused great difficulty, and for years afterwards I couldn’t look an egg in the eye without nausea.
The elephant in the Northern Soul ballroom has always been amphetamines, often skirted over with a nudge and a wink and dressed up in blurry euphemisms; one such, from Blues and Soul Magazine in the 70’s, stated that ‘there was enough energy at the Torch to light up the whole of Stoke’.
Mmm. The detail omitted was that the energy was provided by amphetamines, manufactured to industry standards by pharmaceutical giants Riker, and Smith, Kline & French, which had been jemmied out of local chemists, or siphoned from your aunt’s bottle of slimming pills. Put plainly, ‘speed’ was as integral to the Northern Soul scene as the vinyl spinning on the decks, and without it there would have been no all-nighters.
Back in the day, my weekend started at the Blue Room at Sale Mecca on a Thursday, then on to Blackpool Mecca on Saturday night, Wigan Casino until Sunday morning, and ended in a twitching, exhausted heap after a Sunday all-dayer like The Ritz in Manchester, which still lives up the road from what was the Hacienda (and I passed it only yesterday).
After leaving school, I’d got a job at a textile mill and on my way to the 6 am early shift on a Monday, I was so delirious through lack of sleep I sometimes thought I was being followed…by my own shadow!
Even then I did not consider my pill-popping to be right and proper behaviour, and much of the youthful attraction was owed to the fact that it damn-well wasn’t.
But wherever drugs are part of the story, there are usually double standards, and what for cultural icons like a Rolling Stone, a Slit, a snooker player or Andre Agassi is a good marketing angle from which to launch a book, for people in lesser paid (though usually more responsible) professions is a no-mention.
In the case of Northern Soul, it is also an inconvenient truth for the marketeers who want to sell you the next (old) new look without the stigma, and which talking heads like Russ Winstanley seem happy to edit out.
‘You were part of a wonderful, friendly, atmospheric movement,’ platitudinizes Wigan Casino’s original (wedding….meow!) DJ, for a ‘documercial’ masquerading as fact. Geddaway! That it was artificially induced is conveniently thrown out with the bath water so people can sell you the bubbles.
I suppose the funniest example of this alternate reality has to be the healthy living breakfast cereal ad, which must’ve inspired many a titter over a nine o’clock Horlicks!
I should add that enforcing the reality of what was is not an endorsement of drug culture; rather, it’s a reaction to the platitudes, lies and interminable PR-speak. Anyhow, the first serious challenge to my unquestioning acceptance of this indulgent lifestyle came one night in Blackpool, when a lad called Rob Brock (name trimmed to protect the guilty) confronted two drug squad Detectives, Messrs Abbott and Tasker, about why they were so intent on stopping us having a good time?
‘Don’t talk to me about a good time. Babies are born into this world every day without limbs and without food to survive. And here you lot are, just fucking yourselves up,’ snarled Abbott with genuine conviction.
Thud! Our smirks hit the floor. Each looked to another to muster a riposte but nobody stepped up. Abbott’s words left an indelible mark on this Catholic conscience, at least.
Putting the nostalgic bollox to one side, the foundation stone of Northern Soul was one of the most powerful cocktail’s ever mixed by a generation, and this cocktail of elements amounted to an almost unbreakable (and often fatal) spell.
Start with a punishing rhythm and add amphetamines to pump you to the beat. Throw in blood-vocals with the resonance of a hymn to inspire weekly worship, spiced with simple, mantra-like lyrics to stir both yearning and acute sentimentality. Then, add rare labels for the obsessive compulsives (necessary to keep the whole scene supplied), and throw in some reactionary ‘nobody gets us’ ardour for good measure.
Like I say. One of the most potent cocktails known to teenage (wo)man. But if you take either of the two main ingredients out of this mix, the spell is broken and real life will gradually creep back in.
Even for a healthy teenager, such excess was hard to maintain, and my only kind memory of that shitty job was my lunchtime retreat to the wall of the motorway, which sped noisily alongside the mill (which still stands, and the traffic still does). Perched high above the busy tarmac, I dreamed of faraway places like Stoke, Leicester, Wolverhampton and Blackpool, where my fellow soulies were similarly trapped in mundane workdays and pining for the weekend that had passed, until we were sufficiently rejuvenated to look forward to the next one. In fact this is an abridged definition of most people’s time of youthful glory and living dangerously: half a week recovering and reliving the past, and the other half living in expectation of another unhealthy fix of fast living.
Strangely, the thing I least remember about Wigan Casino is the dancing. I suppose this is because one dance blurs into the next, and each buzz was dependent on your condition when your favourite intro broke free of the speakers. But I did more talking than dancing, and sometimes it took me four hours to get out of the cloakroom. Soon, we’d be plundering milk bottles from the blocks of flats near the Casino, and made to feel very unclean by the pungent whiff of chlorine at Wigan baths. Then it was back to Blackpool in sufferance, or off to an all-dayer for more of the same, until my bloody shadow was chasing me down the street again.
Northern Soul was a contradictory phenomenon, because it was a cutting edge dance movement that was inspired and sustained by music from the past, and although it (eventually) became famous around the world, it was played out on a relatively small provincial stage (hence the decades of parochial bickering about who played what record first, and whose version of history is kosher).
In the days of the Torch in Stoke-on-Trent, and particularly the glory years of Blackpool Mecca, there was a rich seam of music waiting to be mined. But Northern Soul had sowed the seeds of its own ruin in the collector’s rule of rarity, that developed out of the late 60s and Manchester’s Twisted Wheel.
As I later outgrew the restrictions of the Northern Soul badge, and a dress code that plummeted sharply from ‘mod-cool’ to Dex’s Bay City Rollers, it came to seem ridiculous that black American musicians had to remain undiscovered and condemned to a life of poor obscurity, so that us lot had something suitably rare to dance to, because ultimately this was the requirement, and DJ’s, club promoters and traders in rare Northern vinyl have made more from those records than the majority of the musical performers who gave them life.
Musical boundaries are not redefined and expanded in dusty Stateside warehouses or King’s Lynn Soul Bowls, but by musicians and songwriters with living skills; preferably with the ever-rarer desire to communicate something more worthy than X-factor fame-lust (so many singers and so few substantive songs). The meaningful album attained a flawed perfection in Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’, in which Marvin soared above the squalid trappings of fame and fuck-up and for me this album has never been bettered.
However, because Northern Soul’s conservatives held that rarity was of greater value than quality, and Penny Black-type rarity is NOT the mother of musical invention, the standard of Northern Soul music was destined to fade into mediocrity, as it gradually ran out of superlative commercial failures to inspire our amphetamised dance steps.
Even early on I was uncomfortable with the quasi-religious status bestowed upon The Faith, and the over-simplified exaltation of rare soul’s unknown soldiers, who had supposedly been martyred on the commercial altar of souled-out junk.
Primarily because the good folk on whose efforts Northern Soul was built did not sing and make music so they could be somebody’s poor America cousin, no matter how inspirational the sounds. They wanted to be heard and to make a living from their skills, not traded on their obscurity out of record boxes at Wigan Casino and Cleethorpes Pier. In the main, the lyrics were cobbled together from strands of common sentiment and then ‘cut on a shoestring’ by wannabe mainstream producers: ironically, had they fulfilled their ambition we would never have shuffled a brogue to their thumping beat (they would’ve been just too darn commercial).
And as I grew older, there was also the problem identified by Kant, in that whilst music might inspire feelings, it rarely gives more than fleeting shape to ideas: challenging people with ideas is the realm of the written word, which trumps every other medium of expression (and which is subject matter for essays with greater ambition than this one).
Artistic interpretation of anything with a cult following is notoriously difficult, and the cutting room floor of many a venture is littered with good intentions.
Tony Palmer’s 1977 Northern Soul documentary failed because the cool kids really didn’t want in, the drugs were omitted (they had to be, otherwise he would’ve shut the place down for us) and he insisted on making it about the Wigan working classes, when it was nothing of the sort.
Using Dave Withers as a main point of focus was certainly an inspired choice, for few have been more sincere about the music than Dave. But the out-takes that someone from Bolton put on youtube a while ago told a fuller story – a long line of wide-eyed folk queuing to get in who were clearly all off their heads.
More recently the film ‘Soul Boy’ had pretty impressive attention to period detail and it is difficult to criticise Elaine Constantine’s Northern Soul film, because many of the scenes look authentic, she rightly put the drugs at the center of the film and she shows a skilled photographers attention to darkness and light. But the hazards of placating both the history boys and various invested parties, whilst appealing to (and educating) a mass audience, is nigh on impossible, and without the fiery spark of inspiration most scripts descend into mediocrity along a cheap necklace of cliché encrusted platitudes.
I believe there’s still a good television story to be got from Northern Soul, but it needs freeing from the shackles of the past and the inflexible custodians, who would have us looking forever backwards through rose-tinted specs.
Films like Northern Soul and Soul Boy make me realise how famously good the movie ‘Almost Famous‘ actually is, reaffirming the case for a writer’s full ownership of the story, and putting a great script above (and before) all other film-making considerations.
As aficionados will know, Richard Searling is one of the original Wigan Casino DJs, a soul venue promoter and one of Northern Soul’s main players, and the two of us go back a long way. I first met Richard straining under the weight of his record boxes, on the steps of the Va Va all-nighter in Bolton in the early 70s (when I was still at school) and, although I can’t recall the track, I purposely asked if he had a record I thought only Ian Levine owned; either to wind him up (these days I merely need to praise Arsenal!) or impress him with my knowledge, I forget which.
Over subsequent Friday nights at the Va Va, we became friends and for the next seven or eight years we were pretty much inseparable, as I went with him to gigs across the country in the passenger seat of his original steed, a trusty white Escort van.
I have fond memories of my time on the road with White Van Man Richard, and I danced the Six Million Steps from the Va Va to jazz funk nights at Angels in Burnley, which he hosted with dance club veteran Paul Taylor.
I had much less in common with Ian Levine, but I liked the cranky clever-clogs nevertheless, and his awkward, say-what-you-see social skills were like a publicly schooled version of Tourettes. A curious amalgam of obsessive collector and impatient seeker of the next big thing, Ian Levine was (nay, still is!) a walking-talking archive of soul music knowledge, and for those who put dates-and-detail before dance steps, Ian is the undisputed king.
With a look of Billy Bunter on dress-down Friday, and the microphone manner of a school Librarian who’d been asked to step in and run the disco, Ian ‘and this one goes something like this’ Levine was possibly the most monotone and unnatural DJ I’ve ever encountered (except for perhaps Les Cockell amd myself!). But BOY does he know his stats.
Ian Levine played Blackpool Mecca with Colin Curtis, and the difference between the Mecca’s Highland Room and the Casino is tricky to synopsise (as many of us went to both), but for the sake of brevity I’ll have a go.
As well as hardcore Northern soulies, the Highland Room attracted a small band of trendy Blackpool locals and regulars from further afield, who rarely went to Wigan, didn’t really do much speed and who basically came along because the scene was different from the usual Saturday night fare.
For hardcore pill-heads, these lot were poseurs. But for me they were refreshing, as they were cool dressers and some (like Daphne Heap) were very good dancers, who were not afraid to add a stomp or a twist of their own. A uniform of bags and sweaty vest was simply not for them and you knew that neither Blackpool nor the music could contain their ambition for long.
These and other (often passing) progressives were attracted to Levine and Curtis, because they were always pushing the boundaries and breaking new records, and to the Highland Room in particular because you could dress up (and also get a nights sleep if you wanted to).
By contrast, you simply had to be off your nut at Wigan, and the Casino became nostalgic for its past almost as soon as it got started: one heading forever forward, the other destined to look forever backwards: and ‘dance to the memories‘ (as a Casino badge from the oldies all-nighters plainly stated)
As Levine and Curtis moved towards jazz-funk and disco, and the staunch Wiganites became evermore entrenched in the past, the two opposing poles of progressives and retros used to collide at the Ritz all-dayers in Manchester every few weeks, which for a time was an uneasy mix of the two musical genres. But when Chris Hill turned up to do a set, with a crew of southern soulies from Canvey Island, most of the old school went the way of Elvis and followed Shelvo out of the building.
It is a view held by many soul folk that House music was ‘manufactured’, but generally speaking this is a falsehood. Northern Soul’s rule of rarity meant that those with the rarefied labels pretty much ran the show, and you didn’t get those records without money. Contrastingly, the House and Garage revolution was truly democratic because kids were finally free to turn out dance music for themselves, without the strings associated with a Motown-like production line (whether failed or successful). Admittedly, there was nobody to oversee the musical output, so a large percentage of it was destined to be repetitive, drug-inspired gar(b)age. But I suppose that’s one price of the freedom to express.
Historically, it is the rule breakers who kick-start underground cultural movements. But bad boys and limelighters can’t flourish in the same environment, and when television lighting brought a mainstream media glare to Wigan, the edgy types, who were an essential ingredient in Northern Soul and Wigan Casino’s air of cool, ran back to the shadows, and backdrops for the cameras were sprung by latecomers clambering onto a well-lit bandwagon.
My primary regret about the days of Northern Soul is that I was stupid enough to lose all my photographic prints and negatives (I didn’t so much loose them – I threw the whole box full away in a bad tempered clean-up!). In those days, my enthusiasm as a photographer outweighed my technical ability, but I took my Praktica to many venues and I had quite a collection of photos, including Richard at the Casino, Colin Curtis, Janet and Ged on the Stanley Park tennis courts, Larry Lightening, Smokey and a regular rogues gallery lining the walls of the Highland Room (as well as Les Cockell, Bernie Golding and a host of non-rogues), and dance floor photos from the Mecca’s Highland Room, Wigan Casino, the Blue Rooms and Carolines in Manchester. I suppose the person who should be happiest at my loss is Ian Levine, as the pictures of him snogging the pocket rocket Christine Goyka in the Highland Room didn’t show his best side (not a match made in Heaven that one, Ian).
There is always media talk of a contemporary Northern Soul revival, or that the scene needs new blood to survive, and the indomitable engine behind Elaine Constantine’s film has nourished some good dancers. But the same batch of music has already transported many (backwards) from youth to a pensionable age: are young souls also supposed to dance to dad’s music and wear mum’s clothes for the next 40 years?
If you look at rock music, it clearly flourishes because the genre is continually being expanded and reinvented by innovative bands and artists.
Similarly black music, house, dance music and all the related sub-genres, where the young are always doing new things and pushing their own boundaries: here, at least the old stuff can be reinterpreted in the mix.
But Northern Soul has to be the only music culture on the planet, where innovation is forbidden and the people who play and dance to the music – unlike house music DJ’s – will never be allowed to reinterpret it as they see fit, nor make the music for themselves.
So Northern Soul arrives back at the same old paradox: how does it survive? Unless it escapes from itself (and the forbidding status quo), the only future is the past, and if youngsters are happy to dance in the knowledge that all their best lines (and moves) will have been spoken (and danced) before. This amounts to putting new wine into old skins, and just like the first time around, free-thinkers and musical innovators will soon be on the move.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved the music then and I still do, and I’m glad I was there for that spectacular, spontaneous combustion – which can never be re-created, only re-enacted – and I’m even happier I survived with body and soul intact, for there were many who did not. We danced. It was totally unique. And having known what you knew, at the moment you took them, I really enjoyed flicking through the faded images on various soul sites (Hinckley Soul Club and Robbo from Stoke have some very evocative snaps).
But if I could go back in time, would I give the floor a final dusting?
Maybe (I did love a slip-n-slide about!). But I’d much prefer spending time with the youths I knew but didn’t, if you get my meaning, only this time when they were ON their heads and OFF the dancefloor, because the Northern Soul life was dependent on an unnatural weekly rush, and many subtleties of friendship just got bulldozed in the Saturday night rush.
But it cannot be. So I settle instead for warm remembrance of how beautiful you all were in the glory days of your youth. Our youth. When we were the centre of the known universe, for we were soulies once and young.
In memory of Bootlace, Sutty and others who left us too soon. And the lovely, kindly Paul Crane from Blackpool, who died earlier this year