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!
My favourite Northern Soul track is “Tainted Love’ which was a huge hit in the late 1980’s for Marc Almond and Soft Cell in the mainstream pop charts but had been a minor hit in the US in the 1960’s…..Brill record IMHO!!!
I ran an independent PR/Promo company ( MAP) in the late 70’s . We did a lot of work for a label that re-released Northern Soul tracks although I can’t remember the name of it ( it’s an old age thing!). We worked hard on getting airplay for “Tainted Love” by Gloria Jones , but when Soft Cell covered it we lost the battle.
Would that have been Inferno Records?
I have heard both versions but in my opinion Marc Almond’s vocals, that whiney almost pleading quality does it for me every time…,BTW to any Brummie Northern Soul fans was The Tower Ballroom at Edgbaston Reservoir ever a Northern Soul venue?
Growing up near London I didn’t really know about Northern Soul but I did listen to and enjoy the music. For me it has to be The Hamilton Movement -She’s Gone.
What about Sheffield? Pete Stringfellow’s “Mojo Club” & the fantastic “Esquire Club”. Saw some truly great R&B artists there in the late 1960’s.
Actually it was mid-’60’s!
Thanks Christine, fascinating to hear you went to the Mojo! Yes you are right: ‘The King Mojo’, based at Burngreave Road Sheffield, ran from about 1965-67 before the main Northern Soul phenomenon took off and was a great R&B venue which we sadly didn’t have room to feature in this post.
OMG longer ago that I thought. LOL! Robin Page is quite correct. Mid ’60’s. We used to catch a bus from Hathersage to Sheffield then the last bus back. Sometimes had to run to make it on time!
Saw Tina at the Mojo, best ever,you were so close you could hold hands. What a blast.
Was Samantha’s in Sheffield. I think monthly all nighters. We used to go to the Central Soul Club in Leeds then a quick drive down the M1. Was a bit less hectic than Wigan.
Samantha’s were weekly all nighters on a Friday night…then we had coaches going to the Mecca and Wigan as well as Cleethorpes. Quite a few of us went to the Central as well.
Yeah Samantha’s was in sheffield, it was renowned for being full of the drug squad, hence we didn’t frequent it very often in the mid 70s
I always liked Crackin’ up over you Roy Hamilton. Baby a go go by Barbara McNair and Ordinary Joe by Terry Callier – there are so many greats
Before the Winter Gardens at Cleethorpes there was the famous Cleethorpes Pier .
When the pier closed that’s when it was moved to the Winter Gardens.
For that short time IMVHO it was the best niter in the country. We had a great scene, Our own dance style,clothes,music and the crowd were all chilled and cool.
Much preferred the Yvonne Baker version of You Didn’t say a word. A real stomping Northern track.
There were quite a few other “nighters”, one being Up the Junction in my home town of Crewe, had some cracking nights there and some quality live artists
Thanks Martin, before Elaine Constantine’s Northern Soul Film there was a short film called ‘Function at the Junction’, with John Henshaw as the doorman.
which may have loosely been based on the club?
Martin I went to the Junction many time. Last train from Manchester to Crewe danced all night, went for a brekky round the corner on the train home for 8 30. IMO the Junction was better than the Torch. And yes we saw some great bands there.
Great place spent many nights there
Hopefully other cities and towns will follow suit. Music and in particular iconic venues associated with it, is so often intrinsic to the fashion, soul and cultural make up of areas.
My favourite was Darrow Fletcher “The pain gets a little deeper” but also Soulful Dress by Sugar Pie Desanto and Helpless by Kim Weston
I think “The Catacombs”, Wolverhampton is worth a mention. I associate ” Blowing my mind my mind to pieces” by Bob Relf with this venue.
Thanks Robin- That’s right, the scene extended into the Midlands too- also The Lantern club at Market Harborough.
The Grand ballroom Coalville early 70s went on to be Tiffs and it’s all dayers
Robin to your knowledge was The Tower Ballroom at Edgbaston Reservoir near 5 Ways in Birmingham ever a Northern Soul venue?
Hi Keith I haven’t personally found anything to confirm that, perhaps one for readers to help with. There is also a website dedicated to memories of that venue https://www.bertzassociates.net/towerballroom/memories It certainly served a lot of musical genres – the Who and John Holt apparently played there for example.
Hi Robin, I am working with Iris Bertz on The Tower Ballroom Project to keep it as a Multicultural HUB for the whole of diverse Birmingham…. sadly Birmingham City Council who I worked for in their Inward Investment Agency and investment promotion company for international business and foreign Municipal and Political Delegations from countries as diverse as China, India, The be USA and Israel for 16 years want to demolish the Tower Ballroom and build sustainable and low cost housing for the local community. So short sighted in my opinion…. look what my Alma Mater The University of Birmingham are doing with the former Birmingham Municipal Bank (TSB BANK) building at 301 Broad Street….,which they are turning into ” ,The Exchange”: a meeting place and space to showcase the work and wonderful world beating research going on at The University of Birmingham in Edgbaston….why can’t the same type of meeting space be created at The Tower Ballroom in Edgbaston? Short sighted to just demolish a fine old dance hall with so many memories!!
and ‘cry your eyes out’by dottie cambridge
Two of the pictures are mine
Thanks Norman, image captions updated as agreed. Interested readers can find more of Norman’s images like those of the early scene in in the book ‘Bletsoe to the Wheel and Back’
Not to mention
St Ives rec probably the best dance floor ever
Central hall kettering and the list goes on and on
no mention of the catacombs it wasnt all up north
Yes I did the wheel the top twenty the torch and catacombs in Wolverhampton
Got to be Frankie Beverly if that’s what you wanted. Always gets me on the floor.
Oh what a time, really a toss up for me when it comes to favorite songs even choosing these three for a simple comment, took me hours of listening lol That said 1. Tommy Good “Ive gotta get away” 2. Christine Cooper’s “SOS Heart in Distress/Heartaches Away” [which is still on repeat for me] and lastly Sugar Pie DeSanto “I want to know” [although I may be biased because her brother is my dad’s Golfing partner]
South Yorkshire was a hotbed for Rare Soul with Stingfellows Sheffield King Mojo leading the charge for what later became known as Northern Soul. Many top acts inc Little Stevie Wonder graced the Mojo and infact Colin Duffield poster writer who did The King Mojo posters carried on doing my Mainstream Club posters late into the 90s! That’s how I ended up with original posters inc Little Stevie Wonder and the Beatles (who?) Infamous Azena Ballroom Sheffield gig that Stringy put on the week before they broke big with Please Please me. My contributions inc Clifton Hall Rotherham gave the scene a needed new direction and contributed to the demise of the fading Casino.
I don’t think the black glove theory is correct, I think it’s in recognition of Tommy smith and John carlos’s podium protest at the olympics.
The photo taken outside the Blackpool Mecca was taken by Tim Dodson from stoke on trent.i am the guy in the white blazer.happy days
Thanks for getting in touch Dave, I have credited Tim Dodson on the image now. And what a smart crew the photograph shows!
How on earth has The Catacombs been omitted ? Beggars belief !
I’m from Southampton, we had a club, called the Birds Nest. Great soul music. I love the track, titled, Can’t stop looking for my baby, by the Fantastic 4. Lead singer James Epps, had an amazing voice.
We have a fantastic Northern Soul show on Sundays 4 to 6pm with Ron Brown:)
I was a 15 year old lad when i first went to an allnighter at Wigan Casino, it remains the most exciting and atmospheric place i’ve ever visited.
I spent every Saturday night there for the next 3 years, but also visited the Friday allnighters at Samanthas in Sheffield, Blackpool Mecca, The Ritz all dayers in Manchester and the very under rated ‘Black Beat’ all dayers in Bolton where Richard Searling and Russ Winstanley were the DJ’s.
Wigan was my favourite by far.
They were truly the best days of my life.
My favourite 3 (although i could choose 300 !)
Stick by me baby – The Salvadores
If you ever walked out if my life – Dena Barnes
What should i do? – Frankie and the Classicals.
So many favourites MVPs Jerry Butler and of course Jimmy Ratcliffe
Anyone remember The Sink Club in Liverpool? It was briefly revived in the early 2000s. There’s a short documentary on YouTube https://youtu.be/9vciXa_Bwdw
Anyone remember Soul Clubs – Bin Lid – Dewsbury, Hole in the Wall – Bradford, Charade – Rotherham, all 60’s/70’s soul venues before ‘Northern Soul,’ became a thing!
We had great nights at our local youth club with top dj,s bill baker & neil rushton at little bloxwich fave record breakout by mitch ryder
70,s great time for soulies St Helen’s Soulies leave plaza get last train to Wigan casino into Mr M’s then into casino brilliant days also Blackpool mecca Twisted wheel Torch etc always soul nights about. Spoilt for choice lol awesome times. KTF
Tainted Love by Gloria Jones will always be a favourite in my mid ‘70s Wigan visits , but other awesome notable tracks which spring to mind were :
Tommy Hunt – Loving on the losing side
Just like Romeo & Juliet – Reflections
There’s a pain in my heart – Poppies
Purple Haze – Johnny Jones
Could name another 5 dead easy, going to the Casino club ( and others ) was the highlight of my life
In the Black Country soul venue 1965 – 68 imported soul disco in crypt of unused church bit like the famous cavern
All the classic soul records including Mr Soul Bud Harper
Called the Crypt Disco in Dudley I started club ,was the DJ ,with a mate I travelled all round brum etc search old record shops for rare stuff on the shelves and imports and of course cos it was brum / Dudley etc lots of blue beat Prince Buster etc from Jamaica and Discory store imports in brum
Our Soul venue was called Paynes Cafe Royale,Llandudno,North Wales,loved the place and the sounds.
Wakefield Unity Hall and KGB Abbeydale Sheffield were my favourite All nighters back in the 70s great days
Whereabouts was KGB at Abbeydale? I went to school at Abbeydale.
The Esquire Club near the bus station in Sheffield was the best place in the mid-60’s. And the Stringfellow’s Mojo Club was very popular too.