Northern Soul: 40 years of the sound of Wigan Casino

Wigan Casino The popularity of the Northern Soul scene surged when the all-nighters began at Wigan Casino nightclub

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Britain's Northern Soul music scene exploded with the first "all-nighter" at the Wigan Casino nightclub in September 1973. The Culture Show's Paul Mason, once a regular on the dancefloor, recalls the sound that defined his youth:

Looking back on Northern Soul, 40 years on from the first all-nighter at Wigan Casino, one thing stands out.

It may have blazed a trail to the all-night dance club scene we have today, but it was also the first youth subculture focused on the past.

Though the scene was biggest in the mid to late 70s, it was driven by obscure tracks from the heyday of American soul between 1965 and 1971.

Compared to funk and disco it was already "old" even then.

I've been wondering what made me, as a kid, abandon pop, rock and disco and spend every penny I had on deleted seven-inch vinyl tracks - which few people in America had ever heard of.

Twisted origins

Doris Troy, Jimmy Helms and Madeline Bell

Northern Soul is a phrase coined by writer Dave Godin in 1970, when he noticed football fans from northern England asking for old-fashioned, fast-tempo soul records in his London shop.

Many would have attended the Twisted Wheel in Manchester - a super-cool club for Mods.

But as American black music began to develop in the direction of funk, the clientele clung to the more gritty sounds of the late 1960s.

When the Wheel closed, a series of clubs in the north of England and Midlands had all-nighters. Then Wigan Casino opened and the scene went massive.

Though there is a thriving Northern Soul scene today, with many of its adherents now aged in their fifties, what abides for me is the music.

There is no real American genre called Northern Soul. It is something created by the dancers and DJs on this side of the Atlantic.

Though many of the best records came from Detroit, from recording studios owned by Motown boss Berry Gordy, the sound is the opposite of the one he developed at his Hitsville USA studio.

Dance beat

There are fewer strings, fewer shimmering harmonies in Northern Soul. But the most important thing is it is dance music. It is fast and furious.

Gordy's aim in commercialising Motown - in hiking production standards and grooming its stars - was to make it more appealing to a white audience.

But the audience in northern England in the 1970s - an era of football violence, terrorism and industrial strife - wanted something different.

DJ Richard Searling called Northern Soul "deep soul with a dance beat". That translates as more heartfelt, rougher, more emotional.

Searling was among a small number of fans who travelled to the United States to comb through record warehouses in Detroit and Philadelphia.

They wanted to find tracks that had flopped or never been released but which, according to the aesthetic of Northern Soul, were masterpieces.

Searling famously found Gloria Jones' Tainted Love - later covered by Marc Almond - on the floor of a warehouse.

Ian Levine, one of Britain's iconic soul DJs, has been an obsessive collector since the age of 14. He would go on trips with his parents and buy up rare records in Florida.

"Northern Soul is about the artists that wanted to be the Motown sound but weren't," he says.

"People who wanted to be The Supremes, The Temptations, but didn't have any money to spend on production values or distribution."

Levine, and a generation of fans like him, realised what this music lacked in slickness it made up for in authenticity.

They discovered thousands of tracks in the remainder bins of US warehouses and a genre was born.

Those who were part of it knew we were outwitting not only the luminaries of the British pop industry - who were trying to cram commercial music down our throats - but also the masterminds of American soul.

Northern Soul dancing Clubs across the north of England held all-nighters

Like all the best subcultures, this combination of niche music, slick fashion, dance style and heavy use of drugs made it a kind of portable secret world to carry with you through the 1970s.

Though some Northern Soul records were made for the scene from new, during its heyday most "new" records were in fact old records rediscovered.

Most expensive

Today there are still DJs and collectors trying to find the next big Northern Soul hit among reels of tape and acetate pressings made 40 years ago.

It is this "curated" nature of Northern Soul that has come to fascinate me.

It's hard to explain to a generation raised on iTunes and Spotify, but this was a time when if you didn't physically own the record, you could not listen to it.

There was no digital radio, no online discographies to help identify what you were listening to.

You had to go to an all-nighter, or root through the little square record boxes of the collectors at places like Wigan.

I remember paying £7 for an original copy of Little Anthony and the Imperials Better Use Your Head on the Veep label in 1976. For comparison, when I got a factory summer job that year, the weekly wage was £17.

Recently, the most expensive Northern Soul record ever - Do I Love You by Frank Wilson - sold for a reported £20,000. There are only two copies in the world.

Working class rebels

Dancing

Some youth cultures rebelled by ripping up the rules of existing pop music - like with punk or hip-hop. Northern Soul rebelled by borrowing and transforming other people's music.

They did not transform it physically. But by putting its hyper-emotional lyrics and major-seventh chords into halls full of white working class youths, they were montaging one culture onto another.

Elaine Constantine's feature film 'Northern Soul' captures what it meant to be on the scene.

"The message was this is underground, it's all about a big secret that's ours," she says. "It was about being cool, wearing the latest clothes, looking for the records that no one in the real world knew about."

I left the soul scene in the late 1970s, but the music never left me. Now, thanks to the internet, I've been able to find out more about the artists whose voices entranced me.

YouTube has become a proxy online jukebox containing thousands of uploaded soul tracks.

A few of the artists were slightly famous, like Jackie Wilson for his crossover hit The Sweetest Feeling.

But some were completely obscure. The 1973 track You Really Hurt Me Girl by The Carstairs was big on the soul scene.

Ian Levine found that record - three copies in a batch of 100,000 from a warehouse.

Underground scene

In the late 1990s he tracked down the lead singer, Cleveland Horne, and discovered the record was never released because the distributor had gone bust.

"Twenty five years later we got the group back together," says Levine. "They performed it and he cried in front of 800 people.

"Tears ran down his face when he realised how popular this song had been."

For soul aficionados, that is the problem.

Music that to modern club-goers seems as old and corny as the stuff on Strictly Come Dancing, sounds to we ageing soul boys better than anything new.

"I can't bear to listen to Radio One," adds Levine. "I'm still hopelessly lost in time with this music that still makes the hair on the back of my neck tingle".

It would be easy to write Northern Soul off now as nostalgia. But as I found in making The Culture Show for BBC Two, it has given birth to a new underground dance scene in the north, composed of teenagers just as crazy about the music as we were 40 years ago.

That's the weird beauty of a subculture that was already, at its birth, based on nostalgia for a time that can't come back.

Like the young, hopeful voices of the singers on the tracks themselves, it can be forever new.

The Culture Show Northern Soul - Keep the Faith is on BBC Two at 22:00 BST on Wednesday 25th September. It is available afterwards on BBC iPlayer.

Paul Mason's Northern Soul playlist

Paul Mason

Twenty-one tracks I would play if they gave me control of the decks for an hour at a Northern Soul revival night. In order of performance not preference.

  1. Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes: Get Out (And Let Me Cry) 1965
  2. Rita DaCosta: Don't Bring Me Down 1969
  3. Yvonne Baker: You Didn't Say A Word 1967
  4. Little Anthony & The Imperials: Better Use Your Head 1966
  5. The Carstairs: It Really Hurts Me Girl 1973
  6. Doris Troy: I'll Do Anything (He Wants Me To) 1965
  7. Patrice Holloway: Stolen Hours 1966
  8. Troy Keyes: If I Had My Way 1971
  9. Mel Britt: She'll Come Running Back 1972
  10. Gene Chandler: There Was A Time 1968
  11. Jeanette Harper: Pick Me Up And Put Me In Your Pocket
  12. The Seven Souls: I Still Love You 1967
  13. Gerri Grainger: I Go To Pieces 1971
  14. Dobie Gray: Out On The Floor 1966
  15. The Invitations: What's Wrong With Me Baby? 1965
  16. Walter Jackson: An Uphill Climb To The Bottom 1966
  17. Frankie Karl and the Chevrons: You Should'O Held On 1965
  18. Richard Temple: That Beating Rhythm 1970
  19. The Precisions: If This Is Love 1967
  20. Chuck Wood: Seven Days Is Too Long
  21. Tobi Legend: Time Will Pass You By 1968

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