To celebrate the dance culture of Wigan and Blackpool, we’re looking at five places that formed the roots of the global music and dance phenomenon known as Northern Soul.
Maybe after reading this, you’ll want to ‘Keep the Faith’ too.
What is Northern Soul?
‘Northern Soul’ is shorthand for a once ‘underground’ subculture that originally developed among young, mostly working-class people in the north of England in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Followers collected and danced to rare soul records from America. The name was coined by music journalist Dave Godin in ‘Blues and Soul’ magazine.
The birth of Northern Soul
In the early and mid-1960s, London had been England’s R&B and soul capital, fuelled by the Mods who craved authentic Black music sounds to dance the night away to.
But by the late ’60s, ‘down south’ times had changed. Mod had gone too mainstream and then fragmented. For many, soul gave way to psychedelia, progressive rock and a tendency to sit cross-legged looking inward for enlightenment (not to glide immaculately dressed across a polished dance floor).
This wasn’t to everyone’s taste. Maybe meditating at The Middle Earth wasn’t working-class Manchester’s, Wigan’s, Blackpool’s, or Stoke’s cup of tea. Maybe ‘cool in a kaftan, love and peace man’ just about worked on the King’s Road, SW3, but not so well on Whitworth Street, M1?
Here, many kids, perhaps coming later to the soul party, still wanted to get dressed up to the nines and go out and dance all night to the gritty, heartfelt soul that spoke to them so well of love, loss and joy and frustration.
The Twisted Wheel, Manchester
Sited on Whitworth Street, near Manchester Piccadilly Station, having moved from Brazennose Street in 1965, this former club had a good claim to be the birthplace of Northern Soul.
The building fabric of the Twisted Wheel was very basic and run down. It consisted of a number of rooms, the floor was concrete, and the black painted walls ran with condensation. In keeping with the name of the club, Roger Eagle deejayed from a cage constructed of twisted bicycle wheels. In addition to records, there were sometimes live performances by soul artists. The artists who played at the Whitworth Street club included names such as Billy Stewart, Lou Johnson and Ben E King.
Eagle left ‘The Wheel’ after becoming disenchanted with many fans craving only faster up-tempo dance records or ‘stompers’. Other key DJs in the 1965 to 1971 era were Brian ’45’ Phillips, Paul Davis and Les Cokell.
To begin with, photographs show that the clubbers dressed in a smart style that was recognisably descended from the Mods, including ‘tonic’ or Trevira suits for the girls and lots of roll-collar button-down Ben Sherman and (cheaper) Brutus shirts all-round.
A sign that the dancing was becoming looser; however, also that many dancers wore a driving glove, on one hand, to stop them from slipping when performing gymnastic ‘tricks’.
This classic version of the club closed in early 1971. The building has gone but is commemorated by plaques including one set into the pavement. Since 2000, the spirit of the club has continued with twice-monthy revival sessions at it’s new location on Princess Street in the city.
The Golden Torch, Stoke on Trent
This club was based at the former Regent Cinema. It was taken over by Chris Burton in about 1964/65 and converted for use as a club, initially hosting mainly pop music performances until starting to host soul music in about 1967. Many say that the club’s high point was between 1972 and 1973.
The club consisted of one main dance area and a stage, overlooked by a balcony equipped with a bar. The main DJs were the ‘King-Spinners’, Keith Minshull and Colin Curtis, ably supported by Martyn Ellis, Alan Day and Tony Jebb. Identification with the club was so strong that some Torch regulars sported tailor-made Torch logos on their blazers when attending other clubs.
It closed in 1973 after complaints from local residents, despite an appeal by singer Edwin Starr. The building was later demolished.
Cleethorpes Winter Gardens
The Winter Gardens at Cleethorpes were constructed in the mid-20th century. This had been used as a popular entertainment venue over the years, with music ranging from the Cleethorpe Festivals of Music to a discotheque for Northern Soul events in the 1970s.
It continued to be a venue for musical entertainment and other events, such as boxing, until 2007, when it closed and was subsequently demolished.
The Blackpool Mecca
Blackpool Mecca opened in 1965 as a dancehall, with a capacity of roughly 3,500 people. It incorporated a large ballroom and also a smaller dance floor above called ‘The Highland Room’. In the 1970s, this smaller dance area became famous as a daytime venue for the Northern Soul scene. Free coaches took fans to Blackpool from towns all across the North of England.
The Northern Soul sessions were initially established in 1970 by local DJ, Tony Jebb along with Les Cokell, followed by Ian Levine and Colin Curtis.
The Mecca became a rival to the more famous Wigan Casino. However, the music policy also encompassed then ‘modern’ funk records, as opposed to the 1960s soul preferred by the early Wigan casino audience. Also, the Mecca did not have an all-night licence and so concentrated on running ‘all-dayers’ as opposed to Wigan’s all-nighters. The venue closed in 1981 after falling into disrepair.
Blackpool retains a strong connection to Northern Soul Today: major Northern Soul weekender events still take place in the town at both the Blackpool Tower and the Winter Gardens.
The Wigan Casino
The Casino is perhaps the most famous Northern Soul venue. The building had a huge ballroom, with balconies at the sides.
It had been a club since the mid-1960s, but it was not until 1973 that the venue’s first ‘all-nighter’ dance event was held, and it quickly became legendary.
The Casino was famous for its ‘record bar’, where rare records were traded. The organiser of the All-Nighter was manager Mike Walker, working closely with owner, Gerry Marshall. Russ Winstanley was the resident DJ and selected the wider team of DJs, including Richard Searling, who worked there from November 1973 to early September 1981. Live artists that appeared there included Jackie Wilson and Betty Wright.
There were attempts to popularise this once elitist music direction, with features about the club appearing on national television, and Northern Soul-style records entering the pop charts.
Many later sources feature a claim which adds to the legends surrounding the Casino- that in 1978 Billboard Magazine Casino voted it the best discotheque in the world; however, Casino DJ Richard Searling, a contemporary of those times strongly refutes that this actually happened.
By the ‘Wigan era’, dancers wore more relaxed clothing like looser ‘oxford bags’ trousers and often sleeveless tops that were comfortable to dance in. The dancing had also become freer, featuring improvised sequences of spins, high kicks and backdrops.
The Casino closed in 1981 and was demolished in 1984. The nostalgia that the club evoked was strong enough to have a stage play ‘Once Upon a Time in Wigan’ about it, and the scene has been the inspiration for Elaine Constantine’s ‘Northern Soul’ film released in 2014.
Northern goes global
Today, Northern Soul has followers from Toronto to Tokyo and all points in between. But why is it so popular? Perhaps it’s simply that the northern down-to-earth spirit of welcoming camaraderie translates so well.
Despite now being a global movement, Northern Soul is still a part of the identity of northern England and continues to be referenced when special local character is under the spotlight. In 2021 artist Louise Fazackerley created ‘Street Dreams’, a film inspired by the communities of Wigan and Blackpool, as part of our High Streets Cultural programme to celebrate heritage-led regeneration.
Get a feel for the music
- ‘Investigate’ by Major Lance. This is a smooth mid-paced number, the sort of thing that would have been popular early in the scene.
- ‘Out on the Floor’ by Dobie Gray. The lyrics sum up the scene: ‘I get my kicks out on the floor’.
- ‘Gone With the Wind is My Love’ Rita and the Tiaras. This haunting track is just my personal favourite.
- ‘Turning My Heartbeat Up’ By The MVPs. A more 70s feel that would have been played at the Wigan Casino or the Blackpool Mecca.
- ‘Didn’t Say a Word’ by Patti Austin. Another funkier, later track, played at the Blackpool Mecca.
- ‘I’m on My Way’ by Dean Parrish. Used as a closing number to tell the ‘soulies’ that they too should be on their way home. Sadly the singer died recently on 08 June 2021, RIP Dean.
- ‘Long After Tonight is All Over’ by Jimmy Radcliffe. Another track often used as a closing number, this one goes to show that northern Soul isn’t always just about 100mph ‘stompers’.
- ‘Do I love You (Yes I Do’) by Frank Wilson. A ‘feel-good’ and oft-played track associated with Northern Soul, but which is actually a very rare Motown record. Originals of this are said to be the worlds most expensive 45rpm record.
Thanks to original Wigan Casino DJ Richard Searling for sharing his knowledge of the Northern Soul Scene and enabling some corrections and fascinating extra details to be added. If you enjoyed my taster tracks, try Richard’s Northern Soul Oldies radio shows on mixcloud
In the comments below, please share your favourite Northern Soul tracks—or tell us why you associate them with a particular venue. KTF!