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!