The Road To Wigan Casino By Vivien Goldman
Originally published in NME Date of publication: 11 October 1975
Up T'NORTH, they don't like London journalists snooping about. Still, this was a special occasion at the shrine of the " Northern Soul Scene." So it was that VIVIEN GOLDMAN took... THE YOUNG boy sitting cross-legged on the edge of the stage looked as if he was about to throw up. It was 4:30 a.m. at the Wigan Casino. He looked as if he should have been in bed hours ago, but here he was, gazing plaintively up at slick cabaret master Tommy Hunt, as if the suavely dressed black man held the answer to all of adolescence's traumas. You see, the jam-packed Edwardian-style venue that is the Wigan Casino has seen many, many events in its time, but nothing as strange as the weirdo phenomenon of Northern Soul.
Where in many youngsters, mostly of Anglo-Saxon origin, assemble at 12.30 on a Saturday night/Sunday morning, intent on forgetting the frostiness of an existence which in weekdays consists of a boring dead-end job, or no job and no money. They forget it all, submerge their sorrows in a whirlpool of high-energy activity, dancing the night away to singles long since forgotten by everyone except possibly the artists concerned. Singles which, good or bad, are the losers of the record world. They are resurrected from the moldering vaults of warehouses in Chicago or junk shops in Bury, Lancs, to live again as the focal point in the lives of thousands of Northern working-class kids. And the Wigan Casino is the temple of the hopes and desires of this race who seem (at least to this outsider) to find little or no satisfaction outside the steaming world of the dance floor.
It all begins in the fish and chip shop next door to the Casino, facing the Wigan ABC probably the only chippy in the country to open up for custom at 11.30 and shut again at 2.00 a.m. It's crammed full of youthful Wigan-ites, and the atmosphere is electric over the Hall's meat and potato pies. Also served is that peculiarly Northern delicacy, squashed processed peas in gravy. Even in the interests of journalistic science I didn't bring myself to have a bash at the peas. But the peas are good. There's a small fortune to be made for some enterprising bag manufacturer wanting to break into the Northern Soul market. Everyone, but everyone, lugs around hefty portmanteaus emblazoned with badges and stickers with mottoes like 'Major Lance' 'The Torch Lives' and other cryptic codes. You need them if you've hitched from Huddersfield or Reading, if not for a change of undies, then for the singles you hope to sell, swop, or merely hear blasting over the speakers in a glow of possession. All the fans are extremely smartly dressed, no matter how far the journey or how uncomfortable the pilgrimage. Fellas are invariably kitted out with a singlet to sweat through, a pully to put on to prevent double pneumonia when you leave the Casino dripping hot into the nippy Wigan morn, and, judging from the traditional aroma, at least three spray cans of Brut. Tonight, the excitement is particularly intense.
Two years ago to the day, the first ever Wigan allnighter was held, designed to fill the gap left by the closure of the allnighters at the legendary Torch in Stroke, and the equally legendary Twisted Wheel in Manchester. The fact that the Casino took off a bang is borne out tonight by the number of punters prepared to queue for hours in a remorseless drizzle on the off-chance of getting one of the 500 tickets left for door sales " the other 1,500 sold out a fortnight before. The representative from Spark Records (one of the only companies geared wholly to Northern Soul, and proud possessors of Wigan's Ovation), himself a Northern singles producer, said with awe: "They murder each other trying to get in." A comment like that is like a red flag to a bull for an ace cub reporter, isn't it? I immediately charged for the entrance, only to be pushed back by a solid horde of lads who once out of the rain were in no way going to be manoeuvred in the direction of the street. A surly bouncer gave me the once over " "An' wot do you think you're doing?" etcetera so playing safe I nabbed an unsuspecting youth. "So tell me, what's it like out there?" I ask conversationally. "Are they murdering each other to get in?" "Not at all, nothing like that", responds the fresh-faced lad. Then, suspiciously " "Are you a journalist?" I'm forced to concede. And he produces an N.U.J. card of his own. Would you believe, a journalist who's also a Northern Soul fan! Who actually lives the life! In the company of my new-found guide I check out the upstairs cloakroom, a secluded spot where a steady stream of bedraggled Young England is forcing its way in to the Casino free of charge via the roof, in a spirit of adventure worthy of Biggles himself. Got to admire the initiative of these young people. They all seemed to be suffering mild abrasions of one sort or another, but spirits rode high despite all. "Well, you don't want to pay do ya?" explains a well-turned-out youth. "I've been coming here ever since it first opened. Stopped coming here mind, when all those journalists from London came down and it all got commercialised. And look at them now (gesturing at a hapless youngster) ' he ought to be home in bed! Can't be more than fourteen!' The inference appears to be that he knows everyone has to be fourteen once, but this is ridiculous.
BACK AT the dance floor, a steadily shifting mosaic of dancers is already glowing and blossoming strangely in the ultra-violet light. Each dancer is moving in a private pattern of his/her own, staring fixedly at the stage where a top Wigan DJ like Russ Winstanley or Richard Searling is spreading the word. Basically, tonight is like every soul night at the Wigan Casino. As soon as the last rock fan from the evening rock session (featuring heavy English rock) has filed out, an army of cleaners descends and makes all pristine for the 12.30 invasion. And then the kids seethe in. And then they dance. That's the regular pattern of the evening, and that's what it's like tonight but more so. 'Cos there's gonna be surprise appearances. "Y' know, like the peas!" as some wag roguishly exclaimed. Who is it to be? Those in the know are confidently anticipating the Chi-Lites dropping in on their way home from a nearby gig. Well, I was waiting for the Chi-Lites more than eight hours, and they weren't there when I was, that's for sure. But there was a goodly number of people there that night who couldn't have cared less, either way. Among them were the "VIPs" safely ensconced in the VIP Room with lots of booze, lots of nosh, and generally lots of room for a fascinating display of the noisome infighting, bitchiness and backbiting that the individuals who consider themselves to be the controllers or guides of "the Northern Scene" love to indulge in. This particular night saw tensions in that cosy room which led to near fisticuffs. Producers, journalists, deejays, music biz types, all circled each other warily, occasionally lunging in for a quick snap and then retreating to eye one another and lick their wounds. This intriguing parade of human behaviour took place quite independently of the spirit of Northern Soul, which as we all know is to be found on a few feet of parquet flooring. IT'S REFRESHING to pop back and forth between the two environments.
The main dancing body of the enormous Casino building is divided into three main parts: The most important is the central dance section, with its stage and gilded balcony running right round. Walking into this central section has the same kind of impact as strolling into the tropical rain forest from an air-conditioned limo. H-O-T. And WET. The actual walls are sweating, great drops of condensation beading every surface, backstage as well. Every move is a struggle, and attempting to cross from one side of the Casino to the other means an exhausting and dangerous voyage, comparable to circumnavigating Piccadilly Circus tube station at the height of the rush hour in a sweltering heatwave. For six hours. Section the second is Mr. M's. That's where I spent the first part of the evening under exceptionally bizarre circumstances. My colleagues and I were ushered into this slightly smaller dance area, also with a balcony complete with tables. This was when the regular patrons of the Casino were indulging in their Saturday night knees-up. As we walked in, a burly Wigan-ite was laying into an ugly looking bouncer "...paid my money and now they won't even serve me at the bar!" With surprising patience the bouncer explained that there was only waitress service, and two peroxide beauties led the placated blunt Northerner to his plush chair. If you diverted your attention from this real-life drama, your attention was bound to be caught by a personage exchanging risque banter from the dais with the assembled Wigan punters. This was a performer in the great British tradition, a drag artiste. And a dirty drag artiste. Quite frankly, there was such a crush in the hall, that it took me five minutes to decipher from whence came those naughty wise cracks. By the time I adjusted my vision to peering through people's elbows and slightly to the left of their beehive hairdos, the Drag Queen was slowly beginning to go through the motions of a strip. Off comes the long glove, to delirious shouts of "Get 'em off!".... Cut to the same room, two hours later. Every figure in the room appears to be straining to dance in the face of opposition of sheer numbers. The room is now "Mr. M's", the oldies area of the discotheque, where by popular demand DJs like Davie Evison spin "oldies"; faves on labels like Okeh, Ric-Tic and Mirwood " now-defunct labels that specialised in a quasi-early-Motown sound.
Oldies DJ's have a tendency to regard themselves in a rather pompous light, as educators of the youth of the Casino, with a sacred trust to turn them on to the grand old "oldies" and open their eyes to the inadequacies of modern manufactured Northern Soul sounds such as Simon Soussan's Moog instrumentals (Soussan is a big name in the Northern Soul. A former major bootlegger, he now produces artists like the Sharonettes, released on the Black Magic label). One advantage of being an "oldies" DJ is financial. Most DJs simply couldn't afford to emulate Blackpool's Ian Levine " who comes from a wealthy family and may be said to have independent means " and make regular trips to the States and dig out their own fresh new Northern Soul sounds. Mr. M's keeps itself to itself, and the fact of the second anniversary doesn't seem to make much difference to the oldies freaks, except there is more of 'em. And now, on the third sector of the Casino, the area backstage. This isn't like a concert-hall backstage; it's another regular meeting-place for the DJs and the more long-standing fans. IT WAS there that I met the gentleman who proved to be the only live entertainment of the soiree. It must be a surprise to Northern Soul freaks of long standing that it was Tommy Hunt who appeared on that momentous anniversary, because Tommy has never yet had a Northern Soul biggie. Hunt is most commonly known for having sung the original version of Bacharach's I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself. He also sang in The Flamingos, who cut a classic version of I Only Have Eyes For You (currently riding high in the charts once more by A. Garfunkel). Since those hits, Hunts has, in this country at least, been a fine performer on the cabaret circuit, where he was singled out by Mike Walker, manager of the Wigan Casino and associate of Wigan's Ovation, and Barry Kingston, the producer of Spark Records. Hunt has a single released on Spark, a re-recording of a big Northern Sound by the late Roy Hamilton, Crackin' Up. It is definitely among the more mediocre Northern singles. Tommy Hunt is a superhiply skinny dude with a neat, if familiar line in argot, "You from the NME? Groovey! This sure is a groovy place" et al. As soon as he hits the stage, he does a couple of neat backdrops, a few flips and contortions here and there, just to show the kids he knows where he is. And that's when I noticed the fat little boy on the edge of the stage. He seemed to me to sum up so much of the mood of the Wigan Casino that night; a surfeit of energy, just waves and waves of untrammeled force aimed at the stage. For this lad in particular, the emotion seemed to be more than he could comfortably handle. So he looked as if all this energy was going to churn and churn inside, till it found the most convenient way of expelling itself from his body " through the mouth. Tommy's set wasn't designed to do this boy's digestion any favours. It was one of those wham-bam-thank-you-ladies-and-gennulmen acts that doesn't leave you room to think. The relentlessness of its flow was geared to match the metabolic rates (mostly artificially induced) of his audience. With lots of encouraging asides to his excellent band, e.g. "This is it brothers give me a hand and we're gonna tear this place up", Tommy galloped his way through everybody's favourite black music standards " Walk On By, Get Ready, My Girl, Hang On In There Baby, and so on. The musicians moved as if wired up to an invisible metronome. The crowd was utterly, uncritically receptive as The Man delivered what sounded as if it was his regular cabaret act speeded up.
The feeling of the show was very different from the last live spot I saw there, when Herb and Brenda Rooney " the Exciters " were on " the sense of mutual adoration on that occasion was almost insufferably intense. It was more like visiting Lourdes than going to a soul nite. Meanwhile, Tommy has discarded as many layers of clothing as complies with decency, ("Now I feel cool!") has flattered the audience, ("This is where it's all at!") and delivered Never Can Say Goodbye (Esther Phillips' current Northern hit) in fine voice. Then a shock. Hunt sang an exquisite Help Me Make It Through The Night. He actually apologised before starting " "I know you kids like the fast songs, but let me do one slow one, and then I'll get back to your favourites." All of a sudden, here was a SOUL singer. The difference was alarming. It made me feel sad that such a talented performer should be scoring financially through the more second-rate aspect of his talents Hunt's gift is more suited to bringing out the depth in a ballad-style, emotional number than to injecting expression into a fast Northern stomper. When the ecstatic audience finally let Hunt leave the stage, he staggered on his knees, towards his buddies. The Fantasticks waiting for him in the dressing room. Jesting (I trust), he gasped "I shoulda stayed in cabaret!!"...
THE NEXT, and final high point of the evening's entertainment (apart from the touching moment when various feuding soul bigwigs gathered on the stage, temporarily reunited, to cut the cake decorated with "Heart Of Soul") was the DANCE COMPETITION! This took me back to my youthful days watching Ready Steady Go, when the best and brightest of The Cromwellian would challenge their equivalents from some other hip niterie. In this instance, the winner was such a foregone conclusion it was ridiculous " a dryad-like slip of a lad with curly blond hair and a gamin expression. Rather like the Death In Venice youngster, this budding heart-throb instinctively upstaged everyone by hogging the front of the stage with his startling, gravity defying twirls and spins. Instead of just being very quick and accurate as they all were, he managed to combine that incredible speed with lots of expression and feeling. His stylised fluttering hand movements alone marked him out instantly. (Hey, any of you out there Come Dancing fanatics too?) THE WINNER! This prodigy, in case any of you wish to seek him out (and I wouldn't blame you in the slightest) is named Danny Daniels. He asked me not to reveal his age, and he works in an engineering firm, which he thinks is "Great". Did he expect to win? "No, not at all," replied the boy with heart-wringing modesty. This lad could go far. And that, with special mention to Dave Duncan for doing well, is that. By now, it was 8.00 a.m. On a regular night, the Casino would be packing up, but today, the festivities were to continue till 10.00. But for those of us with a journey to London ahead, enough was sufficient.
Quite a few fans had complained to me that they reckoned a lot of people there that night came just to say they'd been THERE. Well, so what really... it was a massive, hot, and steaming event. A celebration of two years of staying up late, grooving all night long, and keeping the soul flag, flying up there in the freezing North. All I can say is MAZEL-TOV, which translated from the Yiddish means, roughly, jolly good show.
SELECTED SECOND ANNIVERSARY PLAYLIST
Ton Of Dynamite " Frankie Crocker (Turbo)
You Sexy Sugarplum " Rodger Collins (Fantasy)
Ooh Baby " Nolan Porter (ABC)
I Thought You Were Mine " Fantastic Four (ABC)
This Love Of Mine " Carol Waller (USA)
Let Me Make You Happy " Billy Woods (Sussex)
Do The Pearl Girl " Matta Baby (Penny)
Just Having Your Love " The Moments (Stang)
© Vivien Goldman, 1975