In the early hours of Sunday 23 September 1973, Wigan’s Casino Club opened its doors for its first ever Northern Soul all-night event. The fortieth anniversary of the opening of the Casino Club as the country’s premier Northern Soul venue is worth a tribute to this very local and much forgotten northern subculture.
So what is Northern Soul? The term was coined by Dave Godin, music journalist and owner of the Soul City record shop in London. Godin started to notice that Northern football fans who were in London to follow their team were coming into the store to buy records, but that they weren’t at all interested in the latest developments in the black American chart.
‘I devised the name as a shorthand sales term, it was just to say if you’ve got customers from the north, don’t waste time playing them records currently in the US black music chart, just play them what they like – “Northern Soul.”’ The records fans sought were obscure black American soul, based on the heavy beat and fast tempo of the mid-1960s Tamla Motown sound.
Northern Soul records were released on smaller regional labels in the United States and the artists who recorded the songs were equally obscure, often unaware that the records had been released at all, let alone become hits on the Northern Soul scene. Occasionally these artists were hunted down from total obscurity and brought over to England to perform on the Northern Soul club circuit.
The records only became hits due to the record collectors and disc-jockeys that crossed the Atlantic to trawl through the warehouses of defunct and obscure record labels and the second-hand record shops of Detroit, Chicago and Los Angeles.
The expense of doing so was worth it for those who made the trip even if they discovered only a handful of records – their value could soon be ten, twenty or a hundred times the original cost if the record became popular in the clubs in the UK, and further copies could then be shipped over.
Paradoxically if only small numbers of the same record were found – as in the case of Frank Wilson’s ‘Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)’, of which only two copies were released for radio promotion before the single’s release was shelved – the value sky-rocketed. ‘Do I Love You’ is now worth in the region of £25,000.
The origins of the scene are traceable to Manchester’s Twisted Wheel Club in the mid-1960s, formerly located just around the corner from Piccadilly Train Station. Whilst most of the world was fanatical about a certain rock band from the Merseyside end of the M62, the Twisted Wheel’s devotees were equally obsessive over the records, the fashion, the dance-moves and notoriously the drugs. The Wheel was closed down in 1971 after frequent police raids looking for drugs. This left a vacuum on the Northern Soul scene which the Casino Club came to fill.
The Northern Soul scene was at its prime in the middle of the 1970s, as working-class youngsters travelled from all over England to attend all-night dances which typically lasted from 2am until 8am the following morning. No alcohol was served and many attendees chose to take amphetamines in order to dance all night.
The concept of a ‘night out’ on the Northern Soul scene was taken to sacramental dimensions, with the pilgrimage to the Casino the pinnacle of devotion. In 1981, when the Casino was forced to close, it had more than 100,000 members – not bad going for a club which only had a capacity of 2,500.
Forty years on from the scene’s halcyon days in Wigan, the Northern Soul scene is experiencing a modern day revival as a new generation are being attracted towards its unlikely tradition. The revival can be attributed to the interest the scene gained following the 2010 film Soulboy and the usage of many Casino classics on television advertisements in recent years, as well as the older generation of Northern Soul survivors, who are returning to the scene in which they spent their formative years.
For more information on the scene look out on iPlayer for the BBC’s Culture show recent feature on Northern Soul.
If you are interested in the records check out this hour long Spotify Playlist I have put together featuring some of my favourite Northern Soul records as well as some of the most popular tracks.