An interview with Pete McKenna author of real world books "Nightshift and "Who the hell's Frank Wilson", including news of a new forthcoming edition of Nightshift (several hundred new words added) and the screenplay for a possible stage/radio adaptation of "Who the hell's Frank Wilson"
Pete Mckenna interview by Snowy
Pete McKenna was 17 years old in the last few months of 1973 when one Saturday night he travelled by coach to Wigan with four friends. They were ready to check out this new club, an allnighter at the Wigan casino. It had only been open a few months but news of the club had reached them back in their own town of Blackpool. The coach parked up outside the casino. The four lads were full of anticipation and excitement. Pete recalls looking out of the coach window and caught the eye of two skinheads who gave Pete ' the look'. This was not a look aggression or anger but more of 'who are you'? 'are you here to fuck up our club?'. Pete tells me that several years later when the 'vulture cultures' started arriving at the club around 1978 that he found himself giving them 'the look'. It was a look that would communicate the questions why are you here, are you here for the right reasons, this club is special, its protected, if all is well come on in.
Pete has documented in detail his experiences of his first night at the casino in his book Nightshift so this interview does not need to travel that route. The four lads were not new to the soul scene, they had been attending the northern soul events at the Highland rooms at the Mecca in Blackpool for the past two years. But the casino was different. I spent a weekend with Pete in July where we attended one of the Kent soul club nights, had a few beers and over the weekend I conducted interviews with Pete in an attempt to find out more about his books Nightshift and Who the hells frank Wilson and learn something about one mans personal experiences of his time on the northern soul scene that begun in the early 1970's and took him to many clubs, introduced him to many people and many soul records.
So I kicked off the interview by asking Pete about some of the dress codes and fashions at the casino over the years. He began by telling me about the Fiberg trousers, these were big waisted and varied in flared bottom, upto 24" sometimes. They would also have a 1" turn up, 'always a 1" turn up for some reason' says Pete. Fred Perry was a main stay throughout the Casino years along with Slazenger jumpers. Pete recalls with fondness the faded wrangler denim shirts and bagatell shirts too. Sheepskin coats, great in the winter months and great for the scooter or 'chair' riders. And for the girls long leather coats and floaty skirts that would flare up when they danced looking fantastic. There was also a time when berets (with patches sawn on to them) were worn by both genders (although Pete says he steered away from that look!). The footwear was always brogues. There was a period in the last years when bowling shoes were worn too. Pete was a regular wearer of the Timpson royals and Adidas Samba's. There was also a period when the Dunlop green flash were in vogue too. Pete also recalls the como shoes from Italy, a leather shoe that looked cool.All shoes that allowed the soulie to dance too. Interestingly Pete told me that he never saw talcum powder be sprayed on the floor to help them dance. I guess this was something that was done at other clubs, or Pete just did not notice! Brutus and Ben Sherman shirts were there for the duration of the club too. The stereo typical look that the world media portrayed around the 1978/79 period of vests, patches, spencer bags and brogues was also there, but was by no means the uniform of the average soulie at the casino.
I asked Pete if the 79 mod look had any influence on the club. He said no. The club was not invaded by the smart set, suit wearing mods. That mod look was separate. Ive always been curious over the fashion questions. Being from down south I never saw any one with that vest and baggies look. I then ask if the 76 punk explosion had any impact on the soul scene. Pete's response was yes, but only because the casino held punk nights. And often the soul boys would have to armour themselves with big brooms and sweep and tidy up after the punks had gone.
I ask Pete about the atmosphere inside the casino. Again much has been written about this and it helps those of us that did not attend the club to catch a glimpse and get a sense of the club and that era of northern soul. But Pete does confirm the chaos getting into the club, the que's, the car park dealings, the aweful toilets, the sweat dripping from the balcony onto the couple of thousand soulies dancing. He goes onto to tell me about the provinces. He means the blackpool corner, the Burnley area and other groups(sometimes the wheel heads, these were from the old Twisted wheel club, shut down many years before the casino opened its doors) that would travel from around the country. Pete says he made good friends from all over because of the Saturday nights at Wigan. In fact in the fictional book Who the hells Frank Wilson he based some of the characters in the story on people he met on the soul scene. For example two characters Nicky and Gman who travel up each week from London, just like people Pete knew did so.
Pete tells me of the drug culture in the club, the use of speed (black bombers, dexy's etc). An area of contention it seems that has been denied by some involved in the club and openly admitted by others. Again, Pete just tells me of his experience of the casino. Pete goes on to tell me that people would sneek in cider. Not massive amounts, just enough to takes swigs of to help the pills go down. He does acknowledge that due to the no alcohol being sold on the premises this contributed to the fact that the club never seemed to have any violence. In Petes opinion 80% of the males at the club were footy goers, hooligans of the 70's even and Pete says 'but at one minute past midnight soul became the family.'
Of the Blackpool corner. Pete has a friend who has several tape cassette recordings from the casino. Theres loads of general chatter and in the background the songs being played can be heard. I ask Pete about the reason for the tape recorder. He told me they would record bits of songs they liked that were being played then take the tapes to record shops and record dealers, play them the tape and ask the if they knew or had the song. Pete says 'there were so many songs coming through'. He also mentions Mr m's at this point saying that ' many tunes were broke in that room'. Pete also describes Mr M's a little saying it was like a mini version of the main room. Ive never seen a photograph of Mr M's and ive not seen a great deal written but Pete states it was the room for the northern soul purist really '100 mile fast stompers' he informs. Pete also talks endearingly about all the casino djs Searling, Ellis and Russ Winstanleys contribution to the Wigan casino soul scene.
Over the weekend we discuss many aspects of the casino, far too much to be written in this interview. I want to find out more about Petes book so we talk about Nightshift first. This was Pete's first book and was released in 1996. It got good reviews at the time and mr Weller even quoted parts of the book giving the book his support (naturally, being keen soul fan himself).Pete also comments warmly about Paolo Hewitt who encouraged Pete a lot when he was writing the book and trying to promote it. Pete informs me that a new edition of Nightshift is due to be published.
Pete informs me that the new edition will contain several hundred more words and dip into some new topics like sex, footy and scooters. I ask him if the cover will remain and thankfully he says yes. Great I think because it says so much about the content of the book. Basically it's a picture of Pete's original wigan casino all-nighter patch with the red heart and the words heart of soul written inside it. The patch sits on a piece of denim (trousers) and has a few red and white pills scattered on top. I ask pete if he has any memorabilia from those days,' yes he says the patch was one but I gave it away to a friend who was a big supporter of the book at the time, and this was soon after someone else had offered me £800 for the original patch'.
We also chat about Pete's other book 'Who the hells Frank wilson'. It was after I first read this book several years ago that I emailed Pete letting him know that I thought the book was THE NUTS, brilliant, entertaining and simply original. And 'Frank' really was the first of its kind, released in 1994 it is a fictional tale of a bunch of people connected to the finding and losing of the ultra rare 7" 'do I love you (indeed I do) by Frank Wilson. It has everything in the story, gangsters (rare soul Ronnie hardman), skinheads (Jamie boy), a top female dancer Nicky and the key figure really Epic an over confident, insecure, likeable chap trying to manage his affair with the Wigan casino, speed and cut it as the new king of the casino dj.
I had heard from Pete that plans are in the making for radio and theatre play, I think the story deserves it and would appeal to many people, and not just people in the soul scene. We discuss the movie aspect and wonder what impact the two films due for release (soul boy and northern soul) will have. I say to Pete that I would love to see 'Frank' on the stage. It has been a few years since the well received production of 'once upon a time in Wigan' did the theatres.
Pete allowed me to read the screen play a few months ago and I told him it was awesome. And like the book it has got a great soundtrack too including the Dells 'run for cover', Keep on keeping on' NF Porter and the Vel-vets 'im gonna find me somebody'. So good luck with that one Pete and I want a freebie for the premier.
This interview is really an attempt to provide some flavour of Pete Mckenna as an author of matters concerning the northern soul scene, the Wigan casino and how his experiences give substance to the above mentioned books but for more info contact Petemckenna@hotmail.co.uk and he will respond...he is like that!