Blues & Soul Magazine, No. 143 Sept. 10 – 23, 1974

Posted on September 11, 2010

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A new record shop opened in nearby Northallerton earlier on this year. It’s small, rammed with only (explicitly only) vinyl, and best of all, very cheap indeed. It’s the best record shop I’ve seen in a good while. But the other week, with only pennies in my pocket, I wasn’t going to be getting even the cheapest 45 – instead I found a pile of old Blues & Soul magazines, and half-way through the pile was one from September 1974. The cover features a picture of Stevie Wonder, various other big names (Jimmy Ruffin, Rufus Thomas, etc.) and at the bottom left-hand corner: ‘ONE YEAR OF WIGAN SOUL’.

Wigan Casino was the absolute bastion of the northern soul scene from 1973 until it faded, and was then – for  better or worse – closed to make way for the Wigan Civic Centre. A 1978 US Billboard magazine survey voted it the best club in the world for soul music, beating Studio 54, in comparison a vainglorious pit of superficial society kicks and New York cocaine-disco fever.

This fact goes some way to demonstrating the significance of this esoteric event in British popular culture, something that occurred almost completely without interest from my Dad, who prefers his rock’n’roll and grew up in Wigan at the time. His southward journeys back to university were normally shared with scores of Londoners returning home from a Casino all-nighter on the Sunday morning. His one flirtation with the northern scene took place at the Blackpool Mecca in the early Seventies, but recounts it without much comment. When I asked about it: “We just went to the Friday soul night.” He does remember having a chicken and chips supper there. And fair enough, he did go to the Casino once, to see Judas Priest.

Northern soul is a British subculture that emerged from the latterly Mod scene in the Sixties. Toward the end of the decade, and supposedly the North-South divide, soul tastes took a turn for the funkier and the northern Mods, “keeping the faith” in previously unreleased B-Sides, rarities and other obscure 45s (normally mid and up-tempo “dancers”) from American soul and R’n’B labels, formed the burgeoning northern soul scene. This movement truly began with the early northern clubs; the Twisted Wheel in Manchester, the Golden Torch in Stoke and the Mecca in Blackpool. But in September 1973, a young venue manager, Mike Walker, and DJ Russ Winstanley (alongside regulars Richard Searling and Kev Roberts) founded the Saturday all-nighters at Wigan Casino.

The 1974 Granada documentary on northern soul, focusing on the Casino, is a fairly good introduction to the club and the whole scene surrounding it. I’ve heard plenty of people lay into this programme – whether it’s because it was made by “outsiders” who didn’t truly get the scene or because of its peculiar cross-fading between dancers and Lancastrian factory-workers from around Orwell’s time in Wigan. To be honest though the differences this odd, and admittedly slightly clueless, blending elicits – of ideas of working-class leisure, work and community – are interesting. Hearing the tense organ/bass of The MVPS ‘Turnin’ My Heart Beat Up’ boiling over as a bus drives through a grey-looking Wigan town centre seems absurd, but something about it is stirring. (More likely the song, the bus just gets you to the place where you dance to it.)

Nevertheless the negative responses are understandable. I can only imagine what it feels like to have your Saturday night-out and in this case, very lifestyle, hijacked by some pesky journalist types only to be run, made an uncomfortable touchstone on the subject, and then re-run over and over again via YouTube by even peskier journalist types into all futurity. It must be shit.

All this sounds like a cult, religious fanatics coming together for revelations of the soul, their own peculiar rituals practised deep into the night – and essentially, that’s what it is.

The magazine’s a beautiful piece of memorabilia and history. Amongst the singles and album reviews, interviews with the latest big things (Ruffin, Castor – “The Everything Man” – and Syreeta) are advertisements for soul dos from across the country, mobile disco equipment, mail order record sales and so on. “OUTFRONT WITH MAGEE Postal Boutique” in Crewe, selling a variety of standard northern threads; baggies, cord baggies, cotton drill (3 button high-waisted) baggies, Hawaiian shirts, vests, the lot. Ann Peebles playing at Tiffany’s in Newcastle for the Northern Soul Road Show and The Flirtations making their first appearance in Goole. An advert for the upstairs suite of the Locarno in Birmingham: “Starting shortly, a Friday night soul-scene to make all others look trivial!” Then, ‘My Idea of Soul’, a heartfelt piece by Bob Dickinson, (63 Park Lane, Congleton, Cheshire, CW12 3DD), which includes the worthy sentiment:

Emotion was one of the first big things I liked about soul, something that is so strong above all other types of music.

All good stuff.

I’ve heard soul fans also lay into Blues & Soul magazine before, and whether or not they would feel the same about the commemorative No. 143, Sept. 10 – 23, 1974 issue is anyone’s guess. Contemporaneously speaking, I imagine some of it was to do with outsiders. The magazine’s offices were in London for one, and because this was back in those backward times when people still harboured prejudices based solely on whether you were born north or south of the Trent, this may well have had something to do with it. Throw in the music, the fact that southern audiences were traditionally listening to the big names Blues & Soul catered for (evidenced in this issue, Stevie Wonder’s on the cover), big names that didn’t belong to that green-grass and holistic sub-culture then centred in Wigan. The core of the magazine is noticeably funk-orientated, and it’s unclear whether the anniversary issue merely spotlights a scene that would normally occupy the events pages rather than news. Speaking of which, in the editorial on page two of the magazine, editor (John E. Abbey) claims:

Well don’t say we didn’t warn you, will you! For months and years, B&S has predicted that Funk would eventually capture the mass of the British soul fraternity. It’s taken time but this summer will go down in soul history as the period when Funk finally overturned the dominance of the oldies in Britain’s north country.

I know a few people who might have something to say about that.

As tempting as it is to devastate such schmucky writing (written by the well-educated soul-gooner who did warn us – didn’t he! – with too much of his, and the magazine’s, journalism clouded with heigh-ho joviality), I shan’t try and really tackle whether this sort of writing about Wigan and northern is really okay or right, because there’s enough professional (and even more amateur) scholarship all over the internet, as well as people who were there, and know plenty more than I ever could.

However, there are still parts to this magazine which are too good not to get on to. The comment page (“Take A Look Around”), for one. Along with the squarest endorsement of Notting Hill Carnival I’ve ever seen, there’s an article – titled ‘The name game’ – which is the squarest endorsement of tolerance I’ve ever seen. It reads:

The voice of the article is the exact real-life equivalent of the hippy who dug his acid politics a bit more than his Port Huron, (“Hey man, can’t we all just get along, man?”), the whitest possible equivalent to the start of Willy Hutch’s ‘Brother’s Gotta Work It Out’ [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9VRS2aTaKQ&p=9ED253811779E0A2&playnext=1&index=34], or just Neil from The Young Ones. Nonetheless, vaguely honourable sentiments.

May be it’s obvious why a scene with, on the whole, its head a little more balanced between the essential idealism of northern soul (“keep the faith”) and the harsh realities of a part of the world trundling toward dire regional misfortunes wouldn’t come out with something like that, and would probably be inclined to reject something that did.

As for the Casino, it speaks for itself throughout the magazine –

‘To express our overwhelming gratitude to you we are going to present to all our members/ BRITAIN’S BIGGEST AND BEST SOUL NIGHT EVER HELD’.

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Posted in: Music