“[…] we didn’t have anything to do with the pop world; we thought pop music was for morons!” John Cooper Clarke.
So there I was. I’d booted up my computer – it never complains. I’d done a bit of surfing – again without getting wet! I’d read the hype on facebook, on here and on there: The Culture Show, 40th anniversary of Wigan Casino’s opening night!
I’d also received a number of texts throughout the day –“I’ll be thinkin’ about you, Chris, when I watch it!”
“I won’t,” I huffed, quietly, but ever cynically – and maybe somewhere, at the back of my mind, I think I heard: “Usual crap!”
And yet, when the time came, I decided to go for it; compelled, I was, suddenly, like I’d got to be there, with or without tomorrow’s alternative option of iplayer; like they’d be opening those doors for one last time, as a special treat – as they often do in my monthly dreams…
I’d never miss that.
But then, just as abruptly, as soon as the programme began, I reverted back to cynical slump position, grump, grump, grump…
I waited for Paul Weller. I waited for Mick Hucknell; for Kevin Rowland; I waited for some baseball capped boy band to come along and tell us, oh-so earnestly, that: ‘There’s nothing like a Motown track to pack a dance-floor, and we know that – You godda give it to those dancers, yeah? They know their stuff! And this… well, this Four Tops cover is our tribute – Right on, boys, right on, respect, yeah!’
In other words: ‘We, at the BBC’ – snooty voice – ‘should cover every angle, by inviting certain sorts with musical credibility, those having tended to lean that way, both young and old(er), whether they’ve ever visited the town of Wigan or not… And what’s the place called again, the Casino Club? Kudos is the order of the day…’
“Ohhh, for GOD’S sake…!” I may have already griped!
“Are you sure you want to watch this?” asks my ever empathetic, ever patient other half – or perhaps she doesn’t, it’s a complete blur by this point.
I just want to break the telly…
… until Paul Mason, the presenter, utters something to end all slumps: “Northern Soul was the birth of late-night dance culture in Britain… AND I WAS THERE.”
… ? ? Could this, then, be…?
Here, was my calling.
We see photos of Paul, his old membership card for the legendary all-nighter – once voted ‘The World’s Greatest Disco’ by Time Magazine, don’t-ya know!
By now, I’m sitting up…
… while he, Paul Mason, is sitting on some back-alley metal stairway – authentic, somehow, it works for me; boy, has he captured my interest!
And the best is still to come: he mentions the 40th anniversary; and “… this music still haunts me,” he utters.
“’Does me, Paul, does me!” I think. “After all these years…”
He rejected what was going on in politics at the time, he states.
“Even you, Paul, even you – I knew I’d got it right, no regrets!”
He’s now perambulating those Wigan backstreets: “[…] by midnight, all the ordinary people had melted away…”
He ultimately bestows upon us the impression we are making that one last entrance into Paradise. And like all that weren’t enough – Paul Mason’s out to get me, I’m telling myself – he goes and breaks my heart, just when I’d believed myself hardened to it: “On the dance-floor, it felt like… well, freedom; it felt like finding a new family. And a small part of me is still, always there.”
He meant it, too; he was one of the lucky chosen few.
And yes, he’d provoked that one, unexpected bottom-lipped couple of seconds on my part; from that little bit of me. For truly, despite the venues I may have attended since throughout the years, Paul Mason brought back the memories.
Well done, Paul!
Though maybe I could’ve done without them; that’s always been my policy, as far back as 1981.
In effect, I deemed I’d succeeded in driving the memories – the nostalgic kind, you know – out of my life for good, having completed my catharsis, my novel, Wood, Talc and Mr. J. I believed I’d found a healthy equilibrium – there was a very dark side to the Northern Soul scene back then, lest we forget.
But, oh-dear, how Paul Mason invoked what my Casino days had taught me back then, too! That life’s about seizing the moment; about the knowledge, the realisation – ignorance isn’t always bliss – that here is something great, never to be repeated in this, unique form. Now take it, and make it yours forever.
I knew then. I knew what Wigan Casino meant to me; and I knew it would never come back… but maybe I still didn’t know that, for the rest of my life, I’d never be able to hide from that fact.
And now, I’m finally happy with the arrangement.
I, too, in Wood, Talc and Mr. J, have endeavoured to recapture that feeling, of entering Wigan on a Friday or Saturday night:
* * * * *
‘Casino Club,’ the sky at last read, red on white, with a lump to the throat. Seating space was full to capacity on the low lying wall opposite; eyes reflected neon night like searchlights through chatty cloudbursts of early winter. Girls screamed at the appearance of a Leicester face – he’d not been over for a while. Hugs were delivered, anecdotes exchanged; spirits rebounded group to group as in friendly fire returned, an extension of the original jest, source unknown to most, like anybody cared. The Temple of Soul would open its doors in a minute’s time, and we were standing right outside.
* * * * *
Actually, I told myself after writing my novel that I’d never write about the Northern Soul scene again, at least not about the Wigan times… Alas, the first thing I do on creating my website is hark back, directly or indirectly…
I attempt to define the term ‘soulful’, one I deem un-definable, we feel it; I explain how the word, for me, acts as a kind of barometer, dictating how I may judge a person or concept. I go on about Manchester rain; I bring Northern Soul’s Richard Searling into the frame, and his record-hunts across the pond, in a blog post on British edge – any excuse!
Because Wigan Casino had, still has, and forever will have, a profound effect on my life…
And the wonderful thing is that, where many years ago I considered myself alone, I came to realise I’m part of an even bigger, seemingly forever growing family. And if, these days, I go through stages where I’ll attend venues – London’s 100 Club et al; Northern Soul being as big as ever – before the odd break of a year or two, it felt good to be reminded of that dedicated family, the all-knowing, the Underground Souls doing it week-in-week out, come rain or shine. For where I once ran away, to bury my head in the sand – for a decade or two of pretence; a black box of vinyl lying dormant, unopened for as long – they were relentless; they fought the good fight. They kept the faith. The people like Pete and Susan Davis from Nottingham. Eternal sweet sixteens – how’s that for finding the secret to true contentment!
Buddha? Record label, wasn’t it?
Anyhow… yes, having since wiped my eye, the leaky one, I was also reminded of the above by the likes of Elaine Constantine – who’s due to release a film about the scene. It’s called Northern Soul.
Elaine says it like it is:
“The idea that it didn’t sound cheesy and commercial was a big appeal. Cos… no-one wants to be spoon-fed shite from the charts, do they?”
It’s a rhetorical question. And some call(ed) it ‘opinionated’. Arrogant. We call(ed) them ‘Divs’.
‘Div’. A few of us believe the term was coined at Wigan Casino. Phillip, of Wood, Talc and Mr. J certainly thinks so:
* * * * *
The Div, on the other hand, was a different kettle of fish – unless she happened to look like Jane Fonda in Barbarella, or Sally Geeson in Bless This House… Coined at Wigan Casino, an umbrella term for multifarious subspecies, the Div made up 99.9 percent of the population. Here, they were split into two strains: either working-class and dense, or middle-class and very dense.
For the former, life offered little more than dodgy junctions on the common and Ford Escorts on the never-never, anal sex – didn’t need Johnny for that one – and kicking travelling Spurs enthusiasts until eyes hung from sockets. It was all downhill from there…
The latter were Punk rockers, or ex-, homemade orifices outnumbering freckles, jackets on the back of which apple-white paint endorsed a wacky diet of global destruction and intimate relations with Royalty. It was a wonder they had time for a drink at all…
* * * * *
And I loved how Elaine painted the in-unison-Soul-claps, with her “Scshhh!”
Personally, in the Wigan days, I rarely clapped – in true Mod style, I’d want to be the odd one out; instead, I’d make some kung-fu-esque movement, just at the precise moment, convinced I was conducting their hands… I miss that.
“It’s almost like you’re all running the same race,” she went on, enthused.
But it was Fran Franklin who’d tease that unruly tear of mine once more. When asked what Wigan meant to her back then, she acted as most do; she blew the collective – soulful – sigh. Were there a word, she’d have employed it. She settled for: “It meant… everything.” And when probed on how she’d felt being black on a predominantly white, working class scene, she immediately put to bed the ludicrous southern – English – myth that it, the scene, was somehow racist…
Thanks, Fran. And, boy, you’ve kept the faith, Soul sister!
The ironic part of the programme for me, as always, was the footage it used of Wigan Casino, taken from Granada TV’s serial documentary This England, in ’77. It is, I believe, the only existing footage, and something purists condemned at the time, for killing what was “once an underground scene”.
We’ve heard it all, from The Twisted Wheel to The Torch… even to the present day.
They were wrong.
Such sentiment derives from a sense of elitism – of which I’m one of the guilty ones; it’s what we’re all about.
But everything has its day.
If I were to disagree a tad with anything on the show, it might be with Ian Dewhirst’s suggestion that the Northern Soul scene of the ’70s was exactly akin to that of the ’90s Rave scene, save for amphetamines being replaced by ecstasy. I completely understand his making the comparison, but am not too sure the motives of the Rave scene, the brotherhood, were the same…
And possibly more thought ought to have been reserved for that “darker side”, for the many who never made it to ’81, and to the Casino’s closure…
But oh, how lovely to know Dave Withers did make it! The star of the above This England; the typical Wigan regular. He once told the country he’d never survive without it – and I for one have worried about him ever since. Bravo, better late than never, catching up with him in the States like that!
Something else I’m encouraged by is the ‘Wigan Young Souls’ movement, kids rejecting modern culture, if only looking back so as to bring and take something forward. For all the right reasons.
It has me thinking. That even we, back in the 70s, were rejecting modern culture, already looking back to bring and take something forward.
And the two reasons for that, as I see it, were, and are still, these: firstly, Northern Soul has a positive, almost naïve vibe, comprising the honesty to which Paul Mason refers.
And secondly, we may add that idea to something else he muses upon:
“There’s something weirdly romantic, about unknown black kids, from no-hope towns in America, making these records that then communicate across time and space with white kids from equally no-hope towns in Britain…”
Perhaps there lies the answer, then, to that, our, eternal flame. The Torch is thus carried on. And the BBC, this time, got it right.
Thank you again, all who were involved. And keep the faith… he says, like you need telling…
Your literary, soulful friend