Northern Soul

Dex-Drugs and Northern Soul

Notes from the epicentre of Northern Soul’s Big Bang.

It’s not often I can pinpoint what I was doing on a given date, let alone one from forty odd years ago. But I have near-perfect recall for the 23rd of September 1973, which is the morning Wigan Casino opened its doors for the first of many Northern Soul all-nighters.

I’d arranged a ride in one of a fleet of cars heading on to Wigan from Blackpool Mecca’s Highland Room. But I ended up entwined with a pretty brunette from Burton on Trent, who asked if I wanted to share her (and her friend’s) guest house room on Blackpool’s South Shore?
‘Indeed I do!’
I forsook my lift to Wigan Casino’s opening night and spent whatever cash I had on her drinks. Come night’s end, she went to the loo with her friend and when I was the last person left in the Highland Room, it dawned on me that I’d been had-over for a half-dozen lager and blacks: the girls had done a side-shuffle through the alternate exit in the lobby.

At 4 am I was sitting on the steps of a deserted Blackpool Mecca, licking my wounds and no doubt pondering the good time my mates were having in Wigan. I was considering climbing the walls of the bus depot behind the Mecca and sneaking onto a comparatively warm yellow bus until morning (it wouldn’t have been the first time). But a local drunk wobbled past, on his way home from a lock-in at one of Blackpool’s Working Men’s clubs (remember those?).
‘What’s up, lad? Nowhere to stay?’
I told him about my pretty brunette.
‘Come on. You can have the couch,’ he beckoned.

Latterly, I would’ve been wary of such an offer. But back then I was a teen schoolie, and I made the spot decision that this bloke was OK. He lived with his Ma in one of the streets off Bloomfield Road, and I sat chewing my face off on the living room settee until his mother got up. Withstanding my protests, she insisted on cooking me a full English fry-up: for reasons I am about to explain, getting it down my throat caused great difficulty, and for years afterwards I couldn’t look an egg in the eye without nausea.

Northern Soulies now

The elephant in the Northern Soul ballroom has always been amphetamines, often skirted over with a nudge and a wink and dressed up in blurry euphemisms; one such, from Blues and Soul Magazine in the 70’s, stated that ‘there was enough energy at the Torch to light up the whole of Stoke’.

Mmm. The detail omitted was that the energy was provided by medical grade amphetamines, manufactured by pharmaceutical giants Riker in Loughborough, and Smith, Kline & French, which had been jemmied out of local chemists, or siphoned from your aunt’s bottle of slimming pills. Put plainly, ‘speed’ was as integral to the Northern Soul scene as the vinyl spinning on the decks, and without it there would have been no all-nighters.

Back in the day, my weekend started at the Blue Room at Sale Mecca on a Thursday, then on to Blackpool Mecca on Saturday night, Wigan Casino until Sunday morning, and ended in a twitching, exhausted heap after a Sunday all-dayer like The Ritz in Manchester, which still lives up the road from what was the Hacienda (and I pass it weekly).

After leaving school, I’d got a job at a textile mill and on my way to the 6 am early shift on a Monday, I was so delirious through lack of sleep I sometimes thought I was being followed…by my own shadow!

Even then I did not consider my pill-popping to be right and proper behaviour, and much of the youthful attraction was owed to the fact that it damn-well wasn’t.

‘Phet, Swat and Talc?

But wherever drugs are part of the story, there is usually hypocrisy and double standards, and what for cultural icons like a Rolling Stone, a Slit, a snooker player or Andre Agassi is a good marketing angle from which to launch a book, people in lesser paid (though usually more responsible) professions are not allowed a past-life with blemishes, and too often we reward liars for their success rate. I should add that enforcing the reality of ‘what was’ is not an endorsement of drug culture; rather, it’s a reaction to the all-conquering platitudes, lies, puff and interminable PR-speak, that poisons the heart of all good writing and journalism.

In the case of Northern Soul, it is also an inconvenient truth for the marketeers who want to sell you the next (old) new look without the stigma, and which talking heads like Russ Winstanley seem happy to edit out… (for a fee?)

‘You were part of a wonderful, friendly, atmospheric movement,’ platitudinizes Wigan Casino’s original DJ, for a ‘documercial’ masquerading as something else.
Geddaway!
That it was artificially induced is conveniently thrown out with the bath water so people can sell you the bubbles. I suppose the funniest example of selective editing has to be the healthy living breakfast cereal ad, which must’ve inspired many a titter over a nine o’clock Horlicks!

In those days, each sizeable town seemed to have a combo of drug squad detectives. In Bolton it was Creme and Turner and in Blackpool they went by the name of Abbott and Tasker (not difficult guessing their nicknames).

I’d met Detective Tasker before, and getting off the X60 bus one Friday evening, at the terminus that used to live just inland of The Manchester pub, he met me at the entrance.

Tonys Empress Ballroom

‘We don’t want your sort in my town,’ he stated whilst shunting me back inside the bus station, where I was ordered to get on the next bus home (‘Why certainly, Officer!’)

As soon as he turned his back, I pegged it across the concourse – by then, I knew those backstreets as well as a local – and couldn’t wait to tell Mouse and my Blackpool mates, to top up my street cred..

Anyhow, it was Abbott and Tasker who provided the first serious challenge to my blind acceptance of this indulgent lifestyle. One night out in Blackpool (in the lobby to the Highland Room, I think) a rum lad and supplier-of-plenty called Rob Brockh***t confronted Messrs Abbott and Tasker, about why they were intent on stopping us having a good time?

‘Don’t talk to me about a good time. Babies are born into this world every day without limbs and without food to survive. And here you lot are, just fucking yourselves up,’ snarled Abbott with genuine conviction.
Thud! Our smirks hit the floor. Each looked to another to muster a riposte but nobody stepped up, and Abbott’s words left an indelible mark on this Catholic conscience, at least.

The foundation stone of Northern Soul was one of the most powerful cocktail’s ever mixed by a generation, and this maelstrom of elements amounted to an almost unbreakable (and often fatal) spell.

Start with a punishing rhythm and add amphetamines to pump you to the beat. Throw in blood-vocals with the resonance of a hymn to inspire weekly worship, spiced with simple, mantra-like lyrics to stir both yearning and acute sentimentality. Then, declare rare vinyl as your Holy Relics and throw in some reactionary ‘nobody gets us’ ardour for good measure.

Like I say. One of the most potent cocktails known to teenage (wo)man. But if you take either of the two main ingredients out of this potion, the spell is broken and real life will gradually creep back in.

Even for a healthy teenager, such excess was hard to maintain, and my only kind memory of that shitty job was the lunchtime retreat to the wall of the motorway, which sped noisily alongside the mill (which still stands, and the traffic still does). Perched high above the busy tarmac, I dreamed of faraway places like Stoke, Leicester, Wolverhampton and Blackpool, where my fellow soulies were similarly trapped in mundane workdays and pining for the weekend that had passed, until we were sufficiently rejuvenated to look forward to the next one.

In fact this is an abridged definition of most people’s time of youthful glory and living dangerously: half a week recovering and reliving the past, and the other half living in expectation of another unhealthy fix of fast living.

Richard Searling at the helm.

Strangely, the thing I least remember about Wigan Casino is the dancing. I suppose this is because one dance blurs into the next, and each buzz was dependent on your condition when your favourite intro broke free of the speakers. But I often did more bla bla bla than dancing, and sometimes it took me four hours to get out of the cloakroom. Soon, we’d be plundering milk bottles from the blocks of flats near the Casino, and made to feel very unclean by the pungent whiff of chlorine at Wigan baths. Then it was back to Blackpool in sufferance, or off to an all-dayer for more of the same, until my bloody shadow was chasing me down the street again.

Northern Soul was a contradictory phenomenon, because it was a cutting edge dance movement that was inspired and sustained by music from the past, and although it (eventually) became famous around the world, it was played out on a relatively small provincial stage; hence the subsequent deluge of politicking, back-biting and parochial bickering about whose version of The Faith is kosher (it seems worse than ever now the drugs have worn off, though I neither know nor care who says what about whom…much less why).


In the days of the Torch in Stoke-on-Trent, and particularly the glory years of Blackpool Mecca, there was a rich seam of music waiting to be mined. But Northern Soul had sowed the seeds of its own ruin in the collector’s rule of rarity – just ’cause it’s rare doesn’t mean it ain’t shite – that developed out of the late 60s and Manchester’s Twisted Wheel.

As I later outgrew the restrictions of the Northern Soul badge, and a dress code that plummeted sharply from ‘mod-cool’ to daft Dex’s Bay City Rollers, it came to seem ridiculous that black American musicians had to remain undiscovered and condemned to a life of poor obscurity, so that us lot had something suitably rare to dance to, because ultimately this was the requirement, and DJ’s, club promoters and traders in rare vinyl have made more from those records than the majority of the musical performers who gave them life: hardly musical emancipation, wouldn’t you agree?

Musical boundaries are not redefined and expanded in dusty Stateside warehouses or King’s Lynn Soul Bowls, but by musicians and songwriters with living skills; preferably with the ever-rarer desire to communicate something more worthy than X-factor fame-lust (so many singers – so many agents – so little substantive art).

To my ears, the meaningful album attained a flawed perfection in Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’, in which Marvin soared (fleetingly) above the trappings of the musical production line, fame and a fucked-up personal life, and for me this album has never been bettered (there’s a telling snapshot of Marvin’s flip-side in Bobby Womack’s autobiography).

However, because Northern Soul’s Conservative clerisy held that rarity was of greater value than quality, and Penny Black-type rarity is NOT the mother of artistic invention, the standard of Northern Soul music was destined to fade into mediocrity, as it ran out of superlative commercial failures to inspire our amphetamised dance steps.

From day one I was uncomfortable with the quasi-religious status bestowed upon The Faith, and the over-simplified exaltation of rare soul’s unknown soldiers, who had supposedly been martyred on the commercial altar of souled-out junk.
Why?
Primarily because the good folk on whose efforts Northern Soul was built did not sing and make music so they could be somebody’s poor America cousin. They wanted to be heard and to make a living from their skills, not traded on obscurity out of record boxes at Wigan Casino and Cleethorpes Pier. In the main, the lyrics were cobbled together from strands of common sentiment and then ‘cut on a shoestring’ by some wannabe Berry Gordy: ironically, had they fulfilled their true ambition we would never have shuffled a brogue to their thumping beat (they would’ve been just too darn commercial).
As I grew older, there was also the problem identified by Kant, in that whilst music might inspire feelings, it rarely gives more than fleeting shape to ideas – challenging people with ideas is the realm of the written word, which trumps every other medium of expression (and which is subject matter for work with greater ambition than the one you now read).

Artistic interpretation of anything with cult status is notoriously difficult, and the cutting room floor of many a screen venture is littered with good intentions.
Tony Palmer’s 1977 Northern Soul documentary fell short because the edgy kids really didn’t want in, the drugs were omitted (they had to be, otherwise he would’ve shut the place down for us) and he insisted on making it about the Wigan working classes, when it was nothing of the sort.
Using Dave Withers as a main point of focus was certainly an inspired choice, for few have been more sincere (and obsessive) about the music than Dave. But the out-takes that someone from Bolton put on youtube a while ago told a fuller story – a long line of wide-eyed folk queuing to get in who were clearly all off their heads.

More recently the film ‘Soul Boy’ paid attention to period detail and it is difficult to criticise Elaine Constantine’s Northern Soul film, because many of the scenes look authentic, she rightly put the drugs at the centre of the film and she shows a skilled photographers attention to darkness and light. But the hazards of placating both the history boys and many invested parties, whilst appealing to (and educating) a mass audience, is nigh on impossible, and without the fiery spark of inspiration most scripts descend into mediocrity along a cheap necklace of cliché-encrusted platitudes.

I believe there’s still a good television story to be got from Northern Soul, but it needs freeing from the shackles of the past and those inflexible custodians, who’d have us looking forever backwards through rose-tinted specs.


Films like Northern Soul and Soul Boy make me realise how famously good Cameron Crowe’s script / movie ‘Almost Famous’ actually is, reaffirming the case for a writer’s full ownership of the story, and putting a great script above (and before) all other film-making considerations… which is why so few truly great movies ever get made.

As aficionados will know, Richard Searling (separate piece) is one of the original Wigan Casino DJs, a soul venue promoter and arguably Northern Soul’s main player, and the two of us go back a long way. I have fond memories of my time on the road with Richard, and I danced the Six Million Steps from the Va Va to jazz funk nights at Angels in Burnley, which he hosted with dance club veteran Paul Taylor.

I had much less in common with Ian Levine, but I liked the cranky clever-clogs nevertheless, and his awkward, say-what-you-see social skills were like a publicly schooled version of Tourettes. A curious amalgam of obsessive collector and impatient seeker of the next big thing, Ian Levine was (nay, still is!) a walking-talking archive of soul music knowledge, and for those who put dates-and-detail before dance steps, Ian is the king (though if it came to a challenge, I’m sure Richard would make it a contest).

With a look of Billy Bunter on dress-down Friday, and the microphone manner of a school Librarian who’d been asked to step in and run the disco, Ian ‘and this one goes something like this’ Levine was possibly the most monotone and unnatural DJ I’ve ever encountered (apparently they can’t shut him up between discs these days: is he back on the Billy?).
But BOY does he know his stats.

Blackpool Mecca’s Highland Room

Ian Levine played Blackpool Mecca with Colin Curtis, and the difference between the Mecca’s Highland Room and Wigan Casino is tricky to synopsise (as many of us went to – and appreciated – both), but I’ll have a go.

As well as hardcore Northern soulies, the Highland Room attracted a relatively small band of trendy Blackpool locals, plus regulars from further afield, who rarely went to Wigan, didn’t really do much speed and who basically came along because the scene was different from the usual Saturday night vomit.

These lot were a refreshing bunch, as they were all cool dressers, and from ’73 to 1977 Blackpool Mecca pretty much trounced everywhere else for imaginative, groundbreaking dancers, because – unlike Wigan towards the end – these people both dared and wanted to be different, as opposed to being fearful of not fitting in with the daft dance code forming in the wings (those fcuking Conservatives again!). A uniform of bags, ninety four pockets, back-drops and sweaty vest was simply not for them, and you knew that neither Blackpool nor an insular music scene could contain them for long (at least two ended up as hairdressing Art Directors, in the glory years of Vidal Sassoon).

These and other (often passing) progressives were attracted to Levine and Curtis, because they were always pushing the boundaries and breaking new records, and to the Highland Room in particular because you could dress up (and also get a night’s sleep…if you wanted one).

By contrast, you simply had to be off your nut at Wigan, and the Casino became nostalgic for its past almost as soon as it got started: one heading forever forward, the other destined to look forever backwards, to ‘Listen to those Memories’, as a Casino badge from the oldies all-nighters plainly stated.

As Levine and Curtis moved towards jazz-funk and disco, and the staunch Wiganites became evermore entrenched in the past, the opposing poles of progressives and retros used to collide at the Ritz all-dayers in Manchester every few weeks, which for a time was an uneasy mix of the two musical genres. But when Chris Hill turned up to do a set, with a crew of southern soulies from Canvey Island, most of the old school went the way of Elvis and followed Shelvo out of the building.

It is a view held by many soul folk that House music was ‘manufactured’, but generally speaking this is a falsehood. Northern Soul’s rule of rarity meant that those with the rarefied labels pretty much ran the show (and still do), and you didn’t get those records without money. Contrastingly, the House and Garage revolution was truly democratic because kids were finally free to turn out dance music for themselves, without the strings associated with a Motown-like production line (whether failed or successful).

Admittedly, there was nobody to oversee the musical output, so a large percentage of it was destined to be repetitive, drug-inspired gar(b)age. But I suppose that’s one price of the freedom to express.

Historically, it is the rule breakers who kick-start underground cultural movements. But bad boys, cutting edgers and lime-lighters rarely flourish in the same environment (unless lime-lighting is the sole point of the exercise), and when television lighting brought a mainstream media glare to Wigan, the edgy types, who were an essential ingredient in Northern Soul and Wigan Casino’s air of cool, took cover in the shadows, and backdrops for the cameras were sprung by latecomers clambering onto a well-lit bandwagon.

My primary regret about the days of Northern Soul is that I was stupid enough to lose all my photographic prints and negatives: like a tit, I just stuck boxes of them in the bin when having a tidy-up tizzy fit.

In those days, my enthusiasm as a photographer lacked vision, but I took my Praktica to many venues and I had quite a collection of photos, including Richard at the Casino, Colin Curtis, Janet and Ged on the Stanley Park tennis courts, Larry Lightening, Smokey and a regular rogues gallery lining the walls of the Highland Room (as well as Les Cockell, Bernie Golding and a host of others), and dance floor photos from the Mecca’s Highland Room, Wigan Casino, the Blue Rooms and Carolines in Manchester. I suppose the person who should be happiest at my loss is Ian Levine, as the pictures of him snogging the pocket rocket Christine Goyka in the Highland Room didn’t show his truer side (not a match made in Heaven that one, eh Ian?).

Contrived talk of a Northern Soul revival – or that the scene needs new blood to survive – seems to run on a loop, though the indomitable engine that rumbled towards Elaine Constantine’s eventual film did nourish enthusiasm and some good dancers, but many (both arrived for and) left the scene with the film crew.

But then why hang around on someone else’s patch?

The same music has already transported many (backwards) from youth to a pensionable age, and there’s no new batch in sight.

Contrastingly, look at rock music and how it clearly flourishes because the genre is continually being expanded and reinvented by innovative bands and artists.
Similarly black music, house, dance music and all the related sub-genres, where the young are always doing new things and pushing their own boundaries: here, at least, the old stuff can be reinterpreted in the mix.

But Northern Soul has to be the only music culture on the planet, where innovation is forbidden and the people who listen and dance to the music – unlike clubbing DJ’s – will never be allowed to reinterpret as they see fit, nor rewrite the rules to ring in the new.

So Northern Soul arrives back at the same old paradox: how does it survive?
Well it does survive, after a fashion.

I’m not immune to the powerful pull of nostalgia and at one of Richard’s recent Blackpool Tower extravaganzas, which are a triumphal Northern Soul version of Last Night of the Proms, I got to pondering a question others have asked: who are all these people, and why – if they went to Wigan – do I not know any of them?

The answer is they most likely didn’t and therefore I don’t, but then if your Casino membership card was a qualification for entry it would’ve died out ages ago.

The fact is that Northern Soul has morphed into the opposite of what it originally was: rather than a daring youth culture, it is now a ready-made scene for people of a certain age, and the one dance culture in which it is permissible for you to join up late, learn to dance later, and for your dad to get up and show you how it’s bloody-well done.

I suppose this is no bad thing, particularly when seeking out old friends – as I have done over the years – and if youngsters are happy in the knowledge that all their best lines (and moves) will have been spoken (and danced) before.
However, like the first time around, free-thinkers and musical innovators will soon be on the move, to fertile pastures where individual skills and vision can flourish.
Or, more likely, they’ll be nowhere to be found.

I loved the music then and I still do, and I feel privileged to have been there, for that spectacular, spontaneous combustion – which can never be re-created, only re-enacted – and I’m even happier I survived with body and soul intact, for there were many who did not.

We danced, we lived dangerously and it was unique. But if I could go back in time, would I give the floor a final dusting for one more bob and shuffle?

Maybe, as I did love a shuffle-and-slide. But my time might be better spent finding the youths I knew then but didn’t, if you get my meaning, though this time when they were ON their heads and OFF the dance floor, because the real Northern Soul life was dependent on an unnatural weekly high, and the subtleties of friendship just got bulldozed by the Saturday night rush and shat on by the inevitable come-down.

But unless Mr Levine can arrange it with the good Doctor and his tardis, it cannot be. So I settle into warm remembrance of how beautiful you all were in the glory days of your youth. Our youth. When we were the epicentre of every dance floor and the known universe, for we were soulies once and young.

In memory of one lad I did get to know ON my head, the lovely Paul Crane from Blackpool, who died last year.

x

Northern Soul Drugs

Tales of illicit derring-do, from the DDA of Northern Soul’s pharmacy.

Some names have been asterisked, to facilitate (im)plausible deniability.

When you’re the runt of your peer group, there’s a tendency to try and impress (and ape the behaviour of) the big lads and for my first few visits to Blackpool Mecca, I chewed lots of gum to look the part of a pill-head, but – to keep a clear conscience (particularly out of regard for my parents) – I resisted taking pills.

Having studied the older kids for extreme side effects, and found that they hadn’t grown a tail or an extra head, I dipped a metaphorical toe into amphetamines at the Highland Room, in the Summer that the Va Va opened.

We were in Blackpool by early Saturday afternoon and eating what became a regular pre-Blackpool Mecca diet of crisp barms, because I never had much money and wasn’t gonna waste what I had on food.

I’d gone with a Farnworth lad called Carl B*xter. He’d ‘scored’ some Drynamyl blueys, only instead of the usual 5mg these were a paler blue and apparently had 2.5mg of Dexamphetamine, which lessened my guilt because – to my young mind – it only made me half a druggie (no doubt my mum would’ve viewed things differently).
I recently rang that Gentlemanly Giant Bob Hinsley for a chat, and he told me he still had an acetate of Rufus Lumley’s ‘I’m Standing’, on which Carl B*xter and I had scrawled our schoolboy Northern Soul artwork, and pictures of Riker’s Red & Brown’s!

Bless…look at me with my soulie bag! In the room of my first girlfriend, Wendie, and loaded up with her paraphernalia. Mmm. Never noticed the broom at the time.

As irony would have it, when the Va Va all-nighter kicked-off in Bolton, I had an after-school job as a cleaner in the Social Security offices directly above the club. Doctors and medical assessment staff operated within the corridors I mopped nightly (and badly) and when I’d hurdled my first speed bump, I pilfered the latest copies of the medical catalogue MIMS from their desks, to familiarize myself with the Riker and SK&F product lines, so if you were from Farny or Bolton and you got a copy of MIMS, it was probably ‘acquired’ by me.

For years afterwards I could recite the ingredients of every amphetamine in production, though I’ve always resisted the urge to showcase this skill on Mastermind:
‘Next up is Evvy, whose specialist subject is 1970’s prescription amphetamines?
Think I’ll pass on that one.

Its quite shocking to realise how quickly and completely your idea of ‘normal’ can change, and after those first pills, myself and St* Kl*ck were soon dodging Drug Squaddies Creme and Turner, to get our Friday night supply, in the Wheatsheaf pub around the corner from the Va Va (D*dger was a good lad to know), and within months (maybe weeks) I’d graduated from nervous novice to full blown pill head.

As mentioned elsewhere, my weekly cycle of pill-popping usually started at The Blue Rooms in Sale (round the back of Sale Mecca, on Washway Road) on a Thursday night. The plan was to score my speed for the coming weekend. But invariably I couldn’t resist popping a few (then another few), particularly if I was staying at my Nan’s (she never looked into my eyes like a copper, unlike me shrewd Ma), and the chances are I would not sleep again properly until Monday, though my uneasy, queasy Sunday night pillow tried – usually failed – to still my beating heart and frazzled head.

In the apt words of Paddy Doherty, from the gypsy TV programmes, speed is a ‘du-rty drug’ and you always paid a long and heavy price, for the comparatively short, unnatural high that fueled endless hand-shaking, jaw-grinding, breeze-chatting, obsessive vinyl flicking, address scribbling, foot-shuffling and (on the subsequent downer) squint-eye’d thwacking.

That’s me second left (age 16 ish ?… ghoin on 40 !) across from Wigan Casino. With Wendie, Rick Clancey, Norman and Rita from Chorley with sister (I think). .. oh, and what’s Del Boy doing on the car park?

But the Northern Soul scene demanded a price that youthful invincibility was willing to pay – certainly whilst still healthy and mentally hinged – and one high would be chased with another handful of caps or pills, until sleep deprivation shut your body down…or you head ‘cracked up’ into paranoid splinters.

Over the years I witnessed a lot of people going over the edge. Usually, the mental descent into the cast-iron vice of unreason is slow, twitchy, and a gruelling spectacle – a train crash in stop-motion – though there were also some spectacular implosions.

As I left Wigan Casino one morning, there was an empty police panda car parked directly across the road and some kid was jumping up and down on the roof. Within a couple of minutes, he’d caved-in the car roof and bonnet, and when the absent coppers finally returned, it was not going to end well for this lad. I’d been strip searched in Wigan police station more than once (most memorably with F*tzy from Preston), and judging from my own shifty exit from this impending crime scene, I reckon I was carrying something on my person that I shouldn’t have been.

One of the more bizarre examples of my pill-popping extravagance occurred on those Saturdays that I got dragged shopping around Blackpool with my girlfriend. I hated the whole process-cum-ritual, particularly as Wendie looked at every item on every rail of Lewis’ clothing section…and expected my doe-eyed feedback.

To numb my boredom, I’d sneakily neck a handful of bombers, or the Duraphete powder out of the caps, which one of the Blackpool lads (Minn*w) used to siphon out of his mother’s capsules. Not the best use of illicit resources, and not something to be proud of, either.

But I tell ya, Bro’ – half a dozen black bombers could turn even Primark on a Saturday afternoon into a fekin’ blast!
(‘Of COURSE you look gorgeous, love.. but let me tell you this!‘).
‘Can I help you, Sir?’
‘Yes. Let me tell you this… I had one of those in blue but the buttons were a different colour which made it look a bit daft though I knew when I was buying it that the red one would’ve gone better with my Prince of Wales check pants with the thin red stripe and my cherry red Docs have you got a red one in stock? but doesn’t matter today ’cause I’ve no money on me and I don’t get paid til next…’
(extract from the Pill Head Monologues, which continues in Chapter 97 on page 1,940).

‘Phet Sweat and Talc?

Late one night at the Highland Room, long after my mates had left, I decided to follow them to the Casino. I’d probably got a late score or something, but when asking around for a ride, I could only get a lift as far as the start of the motorway out of Blackpool. So, wrapped in the faux invincibility of Duraphet M, I set off walking – alone – along said motorway.

In those days, the motorway out of Blackpool didn’t have any lighting (think it may still still be the same) and of course cats eyes are invisible without car headlights. Some miles along this dark, empty road, I started striking matches to light up my thumb at the approach of (a paltry number of) cars.

With my scraggy beard, it isn’t hard to imagine what passing drivers thought about some jay-walking Catweazle with eyes like headlamps (or Charles Manson!), who was making a pumpkin of his hands to light up his thumb: little wonder nobody stopped.
What was I thinking?
As the matches were about to run out, and the invincibility of my plan started to unravel in this tarmacadam wilderness, a car screeched to a halt.
I ran towards it, the passenger door was flung open and a voice hailed from within:
‘Get in, you mad bastard,’ shouted Colin Curtis

Colin Curtis

Lucky me! Quadrupley so, actually – because Colin hadn’t forgiven me for beating him at tennis on Stanley Park tennis courts (still hasn’t!), he rarely went to Wigan (must’ve been in search of vinyl) and – as he’s never been a drug user – his car used to operate under a strict ‘no drugs’ policy.

On the return leg of a visit to Glasgow last year, I had time to kill at Wigan North Western station in wait of a connection. Rather than hang around the platform, I decided to wander up the main street of my old stomping ground. It was a Tuesday night, shops were shut, pubs were empty and the eery quiet gave ghost to all sorts or memories – good, bad and ugly – though when I got to the top of the hill (facing that gorgeous old church that I never even noticed as a kid), a particularly dark avenue down Memory Lane was agitated.

Back in the day, if there was a shortage of cars – or we were setting out from Bolton rather than Blackpool – we’d get the train to Wigan and catch last orders in the Victoria pub, beside Wigan’s other station, Wallgate.

On one of these occasions, along with girlfriend Wendie, I necked a handful of ‘blueys’ in the Victoria’s pool room. But these weren’t the regular SK&F Drynamyl blueys – these were ‘backstreet blueys’, manufactured by some dumb-down Walter White to cash in on a demand for speed that always outstripped the supply.

Only later did I find out that the stimulant in these ‘blueys’ wasn’t amphetamine, but strychnine. Some twat had learned that in small doses, this poison was a potent stimulant. But what they’d overlooked in their calculations (or more likely didn’t give a shit) was that gluttons like me downed a dozen or more pills at a time, and on that night I ended up in a dangerous state of delirium, locked with Wendie in a cubicle of the ladies public toilets in the centre of Wigan, as mind and body fought the literal poison I’d heaped on them.

We spent the rest of the night rattling around someone’s car beside the Casino, and not surprisingly I was traumatized for days. Over following weeks I was overcome by random, debilitating anxiety attacks, and it was months before I got that shit (along with the psychological residue) fully out of my system.

Another dance with the devil occurred after the all-nighter on Cleethorpes Pier. I was on a bus back the next day, sat beside a lad I didn’t know (or if I did, I don’t remember), and some way in to the journey, he flipped down the table top hinged into the back of the chair in front, chopped out a few ‘lines’ and started snorting.

It looked a bit off colour, but I nevertheless assumed he was sniffing amphetamine sulphate, so when he offered me some I indulged without question. But then something happened, which I’d never experienced before (nor, fortunately, since): it was like liquid gold running through my veins and I sat there, making gentle fists with my fingers as if squeezing two invisible squash balls.
When I went back for more, the lad checked my advance.
‘Easy, mate.’
‘Why?’
‘It’s heroin,’ he shared belatedly.
I was too far gone to register a red alert (and if I hadn’t been, I’d have butted him, for the sly generosity that wants to reduce everyone else to the same altered state): even then, heroin was the one big no-no, unless you were a psychological fcuk-up, had a death wish, couldn’t withstand peer-group pressure or – like me – someone sold you a dummy.

The kid wrapped some in cig packet foil for me to take with me.

As we needed to change buses at Halifax bus station, myself, Douglas Ling, Pam, Colin Hargreaves and a few others called in the pub for a swifty. I ordered half a lager and lime (I even remember my drink – such is the memory of vile delight) and having glugged half of it down, I projectile vomited it all over our table.

I parted company with the others and back in Bolton, I walked from the station to the house of a girl called Rita, who lived in a terrace beside India Mill on Carter Street, just off Rishton Lane. The others in the house had been to Wigan Casino, one of whom was an older lad from St Helens called Sm*key. Handsome, cool as ckuf, big sideburns, quality full length leather coat and a pretty wife (who also had the familiar emaciated look), Sm*key was in the dangerous league of pill heads and wasn’t fussed about what he pushed down his throat, up his nose or even…

I don’t recall what was said between us, but I’d clearly told Sm*key about the heroin tucked inside my sock, because when my alarm bells finally reached full pitch, and I was overcome with the impulse to go to the downstairs toilet and flush it away, Sm*key came clattering in behind me as the heroin disappeared into the vortex.
‘What the fuck have you done?’ he hissed, with the demented frenzy of one who knew the dragon intimately and he actually groped after it in the U bend.
‘That stuff’s bigger than me,’ I answered, which is true for all of us – without exception – and that was arguably the wisest decision I’ve ever made.

I pass that house occasionally, when I’m out cycling, and the thought of what might’ve been, if the persuasive Sm*key had foreseen my impulse and bust his way into that loo ten seconds earlier, gives me the shivers (a shorter life of nicking bikes, rather than riding them?).
It also gives ghost in my heart to those friends and acquaintances who weren’t so lucky, as they innocently – blindly – defiantly – mistakenly – stupidly – arrogantly – self loathingly – sought a counterfeit heaven on the never-never, and instead became slaves to living death.

If I remember rightly, Richard took this outside our house with my Praktika camera. The Ginga colouring is merely a faded print! I was 16 or 17 when this was taken – just look at that complexion! And that spot above my nose turned into a cyst, owing to all the crap I was taking – I have the scar to this day. No time to shave, either, when you don’t sleep and the next dance floor awaits. The badges were Loma and Okeh labels… Eddie Parker, perhaps?
Photo © Richard Searling (I refuse to own it!)

Sm*key and other soul bandits – like my old mate Sutty and Ged Rudd – have always fascinated me, both individually and as a type. Charismatic, daring, usually damaged, hard as nails, seemingly indomitable in their mission to self-destruct, they represent the Lost Boys of every generation. And yet… and yet… along a different path, or after a U-turn out of a dead-end, these are the people who fight causes, start revolutions, win wars, and – if they escape the death-whale’s belly – make the best drug counsellor’s. The trick, of course, is to survive long enough for a chance epiphany to find them, which, in the case of Sutty and Ged Rudd, they did not.

As kids we all look up to someone older and when I was little (from the age of perhaps 8 upwards) it was a lad called Frank Powrey. From a large family of partial Scottish heritage, who lived back-to-back across cobbles with my Nan, Frank went on to Captain the school football team, was Cock of a tough school (who never let his friends get bullied) and I idolised this gifted and generous edger. But at some point – perhaps falling prey to a Sm*key with better timing – he too became a Lost Boy, and descended down a path of barbiturates (with Sutty), bongs, pipes, needles and London squats, to a premature end from (I believe) throat cancer, thus the world was deprived of another heart brimming with potential, for want of a compelling direction.

Towards the latter end of my stint as a full-time soulie, I too had started DJ’ing – I opened a couple of Ritz all-dayers for Richard, I was doing a Thursday jazz funk night at De Villes in Manchester and I had a residency at a club called Jimmiz (later Berlin) just South of Deansgate in MCR. But to be honest I didn’t like the vogue for jazz-funk (much less ‘disco’), I got bored behind the decks and usually had to be pissed before I could spin the first tune.

I’m guessing it was early in 1980 that I also organised an all-dayer with Colin Curtis, at a club called Manhattan, situated at the top end of Manchester’s King Street (which on Saturday nights hosted the ‘poppers’ crowd).
I’d got into a habit of drinking heavily when DJ’ing, and my recollection of that all-dayer is virtually nil (except I still have Colin’s 12” copy of ‘Atmosphere Strut’).
Next morning, I woke up at home with a banging headache, and next to my bed was a wad of notes and a big bag of pills – Dex, Daps, Filon, Red and Browns, Green and Clears, various Bombers and – Ta Da! – the rare-as-rocking-horse-shit and discontinued PRELUDINE Prellies! (the Beatles first ever drug ingest in Hamburg) that I vaguely recall buying off Cl*ck Cl**k from Leicester.

Seven years earlier I would’ve walked from Bolton to Blackpool for that bag of pills. But by then they just made me feel sick and I spent the rest of the day finding someone to shift them on to, because me and the ‘dur-ty drug’ were finished – adieu, farewell and good fcuking riddance!

Throughout my tenure riding shotgun, Richard and I always had a football in the back of the van/car and we also played tennis, on the public courts behind his house in Hilton Street. I’d previously seen Jimmy Connors play, on a school trip to the Northern Lawn Tennis tournament, where he obliterated my preconceptions that tennis was a game for pampered girlies.

So, when I left school, I signed up for night school classes on how to play, as I got to go free with my dole card. Unfortunately for me (and them!) it was on a Monday night, when I was usually a fractured mess, and I’d ping balls as hard as I could… just like Jimmy, only whereas his landed in the court, mine had everyone ducking for cover (but hey, at least I came ready-trained for good footwork).

So drugs and tennis existed in parallel, and for years these two obsessions engaged in an inner tug of war – one healthy, with the potential to get me mentally and physically able, the other a sickness, which, one way or another, would enslave me to pharmaceuticals, and mess up my body, mind and real soul (the one that can’t be contained on vinyl).

Jimmy Connors saved my life?

In the end I made the right choice, but not before walking a dangerous tightrope, and whilst Jimmy Connors didn’t exactly save my life, he was certainly the catalyst for me taking another direction. And I must say I’m disappointed not to get even a cursory ‘mention’ in his book, either!

If the history of war is written by The Victors, and business and money by The Owners, the story of drug abuse is generally written by The Survivors, and I count myself fortunate to number only among this latter group. But getting the right pitch of any related outpouring (essay, novel or script) is tricky, because reality needs to be served up as entertainment, whilst avoiding affected nonchalance, cliché and finger-wagging sanctimony.

Anyway, I’ve arrived at the point where I pull the wheels off my own roller-coaster ride, by making an unequivocal statement:

All those years of mixing with diverse and interesting people, from every region of Britain and walk of life, were ruined, utterly, by one of the two primary elements that brought us all together – ‘speed’ – because it turns users (and always will) into blabbers of pointless fluff, who are incapable of either listening or a two-way conversation, and the chances are it will make of you a paranoid human husk, sucked dry of humanity and calcium, and good for little but being written up as a Dickens-like caricature.

Amphetamines also render you deaf-and-blind to the worthwhile things in life – like intellectual inquiry, reasoned thought, sincerity and real love – and I can truly say that the number of things I heard (or spoke) that amounted to something worth knowing (or sharing), can be counted on my fingers. And – Oh irony or ironies! – the most memorable was uttered in a rant, by the so-called enemy – Blackpool Drug Squad Detective Abbott: Now that’s what I call the mother of all wasted opportunities!

Putting aside the people I should’ve got to know better, the one element deserving of being freed from the flames of a drug life and worthy of a life of its own – in the here and now – for and by today’s youth – is Northern Soul Dancing.

Northern Soul Dancing

Notes from the dance floor of Northern Soul’s Big Bang.

The most groundbreaking element of the Northern Soul phenomenon was/is not the music: no, the music existed before we found it, and cannot be replenished unless current Black American artists take a(nother) vow of poverty, and aspire only to be obscure commercial failures in order to keep a rare vinyl industry afloat (aouch).

So, unless Indiana Jones or Lara Croft discover a warehouse full of obscurities – Raiders of the Lost Demo’s or Tune Raider ? – the top-notch rare soul music is long gone. But all is not lost to innovative future generations, because the aspect of Northern Soul that’s ever-ripe for youth to take it up, break it up, (re)make it up and bloody-well own it – without interference or strings from the past – is the dancing.

Lauren Fitzpatrick

Forgive me for again indulging in over-simplification, but there were three primary categories of youth who signed up for Northern Soul duty: – pill-heads, dancers and collectors.

Obviously, there was some of each in all of us (we were all pill-heads…except for the fibbers: ‘Did you take drugs at Wigan Casino, Gran?’), but – for the first few years – I just wanted to be off my nut and on the dance floor, simple as, and I was happy to let others obsess about dates, labels and producers (often those who couldn’t dance!).

Elaine Constantine’s Northern Soul movie contains a simple scene that captures the essence of the fearless, youthful Northern Soul dancer.
Antonia Thomas’ character Angela arrives at the club as her favourite tune is playing. Bristling with swagger and self-belief, she throws her coat (a gorgeous light tan leather) over the back of a chair and steps onto the dance floor with the look that assumes all eyes have waited for her to join the dance: ‘here I am – the center of all things soulful’.

It’s a youthful, ‘stimulated’ variant of the Peter Kay dad walk (towards the wedding dance floor), but whereas ‘dad’ has lost any magic he might once have owned – (and that which remains is usually illusion) – the tainted flower of amphetamised youth is willing and capable of earning that limelight and ruling the dance floor.

I’m now going to pigeon-hole two ‘schools’ of Northern Soul dancing and enforce a line between two time slots: – differentiating two dance philosophies with a timeline just makes it easier to explain what were nevertheless real developments.

1: Class of ’73 (from 1973 through to roughly 1977)

This era/batch of Northern Soul dancers was influenced by mod-cool and the best of those coming from the Torch and the Catacombs. Slippy-slidey footwork was set at the cornerstone (or pinnacle), and Blackpool Mecca’s Highland Room hosted some of the best Northern Soul dancers I’ve ever seen (one lad in particular, whose name I don’t know, but I’ll try to find out).
Originality was key: you were surrounded by good dancers, who positively strove (and were not scared) to be different, rise above the crowd and from whom you could find inspiration, borrow dance steps and embellish them with your own artistic twists.
Backdrops and spins were plentiful, but you didn’t sacrifice footwork and lose the subtle shades of rhythm that only footwork (hands and hips) could decipher: and interpret – gymnastics were just icing on a cake of many ingredients.
Few – if any – of the current crop of dancers will have knowledge of the Class of ’73, nor reference points from which to once more push the boundaries, because footage of this lot dancing in their prime – the true Pioneers – simply does not exist.

Stephen Cootes: Near-flawless homage to the best of the Class of ’79

2: Class of ’79 (from late ’78 until 1981 and beyond)

In this period, many of the quirky innovators had succumbed to their appetites (!) and retired hurt, or fled for cleaner air, whilst others defected to jazz-funk and disco, where you weren’t expected to conform to an increasingly (and unintentionally) burlesque
dress code.
At Wigan Casino in particular, footwork was gradually reduced to a few cliched dance steps. The primary purpose of what I call ‘bridge’ steps were to act as filler; they kept you moving to the beat in-between backdrops and spins, but which had little intrinsic merit (these bridge steps dominate most Northern dance floors today).

‘A sea of Bridge Steps’ ?- this was ’77 and originality was already going the way of Elvis, and the rest were hiding from the cameras.


This was the period in which Northern Soul dancing was shifting towards a rulebook or an acquired Badge of Honour, as opposed to a set of boundaries that – like muscles – must be ripped to be expanded.
Back drops, spins and gymnastics replaced footwork as the cornerstone (its all your fault, Sandy!).
And how many ways are there to do a backdrop or a spin?
Infinitely fewer than there are ways to shuffle (or tap) out original musical shapes.

After Tony Palmer’s documentary wedged Northern Soul into the mainstream consciousness, edgy Innovators were replaced (or outnumbered) by Followers, leading inexorably to the dancers of today, who have perfected hand-me-down dances (often from parents or older family members) whilst adding little in the way or original interpretations.

Aaron (don’t know his second name – and this video does his power little justice) and Laura West. What would they be capable of if the rulebook shackles came off?

This isn’t meant to be a criticism – to my eye it is just a fact – because some of these dancers are amazingly talented (see Stephen Cootes and Aaron, later). But the depth of their skill is largely untested – and to my eyes, even wasted – because when they take to the dance floor, it isn’t to outdo hundreds of other youthful dancers in reaching the next level of physical artistry and innovation: rather, it’s to pay homage to the past.
Anyway, if they became too innovative with their moves, they’d be anathema to the Guardians of the Galactic Past, who won’t relinquish the Northern dance rulebook without a tussle, so there’s no real incentive to step up in originality.

A good example of this controlling mentality was in evidence when I was shooting pictures at the Tower Ballroom in 2013. As Lauren Fitzpatrick was throwing backdrops into her dance routine, two ladies from Yorkshire (who at the time were eating a big cake!) could be heard complaining up on the stage area:
‘Why is she doing back drops? Girls never used to do backdrops!’
It seems contemporary Northern dancers are expected to defer to someone else’s memories and like it… or face the wrath of ageing ladies (we never used to eat cake, either, but that malpractice somehow slipped past the censors)… when in truth the original Class of ’73 saw themselves as the main event and were going to be nobody’s fuckin’ tribute act.

There was a randomness and audacity about the Class of 73 that defied simple labels – they were dancing on the crest of Northern Soul’s biggest and best wave, which attracted the kind of people who took risks.
But one of the current crop of dancers who rises way above set routines, and captures much of the Spirit of 73, is James Whitehead. His freestyle interpretations of music is fueled by well-practiced technique and a heap of born ability, and he is always a joy to watch because he makes it his own.

James Whitehead, with a young Stephen Cootes in the background.

Elaine Constantine organised and turned out a fine crop of dancers for her Northern Soul film, and there’s ‘film extra’ and ad work aplenty if you get the right agent (Gucci, Juliet Naked, Inspector Gently, Emmerdale and many others have plundered the genre, and added sweet F.A. in terms of artistic stimulus). But, like the scripts and tawdry ads they are expected to act as filler for, these dancers were also backward-looking: obviously, their job was to represent a place and time – Wigan Casino, and the cliched Class of ’79.

Closest thing to the Spirit of ’73 – James Whitehead

Why did Northern Soul dancing hit the wall?

Primarily, because Northern Soul ceased to be a groundbreaking music scene – a music scene led and inspired by the young – and the waves gradually became ripples without the rejuvenating power of youth and superior new music to inspire them in droves.

You can of course see Northern Soul influences in body popping/breakdance, and the similarities between Northern Soul and the illegal rave scene of the late 80’s and early 90’s has oft been highlighted – certainly, the first throes of House Music begged to take great footwork and gymnastics to the next level of artistry.

But the dancing did not – could not – travel from the Northern dance floor to the Rave because of one fundamental difference: the drugs.

Dancing on Drugs: Amphetamines v. Ecstasy

Amphetamines (speed) afforded the user an inflated degree of awareness: you were hyper alert, hyper sensitive to detail, hyper self-aware – particularly of your own limbs – just hyper hyper, and you would (and could) work that dance floor all night to achieve obsessive perfection of your chosen moves.

Again, you were both willing and able to work for the limelight.

MDMA (Ecstasy), however, furnished the fantasy that you were the center of the Universe and capable of greatness… when the truth was more pedestrian. And under the weight of such a trance-like illusion, why bother making dance floor efforts you could neither perfect nor sustain?

So, the manageable dance routine for incapacitated, mangled heads became the ‘big box – little box’ (I’ll find pictures….wouldn’t you just know it, I have plenty!) and to go with the tranced ebb-and-flow of the crowd.

‘Look Mum, No Feet !’ – Hacketts Blackpool, circa 1991

In short, Northern Soul drugs empowered individual efforts, physicality, coordination and put you at the centre of your (perceived) dance floor universe:

House Music drugs were trance-inducing (hence the trance music spin off – which nevertheless produced some of my favourite dance tunes) and did not empower the individual; certainly not to anything more coordinated than a state of chemical ecstasy and flailing hands.

Dancing into the here-and-now

Core Northern Soul dancing is one of the most mentally demanding, original (when fully let off the leash), physically taxing, limitless in its potential for reinvention and – when you get it right – exhilarating of dance genres.

Stephen Cootes, Aaron (??), Lauren Fitzpatrick, Laura West and James Whitehead and quite a few others (as far as I know) prove you don’t need to be off your tits on speed to achieve the highest standards, and that you probably perform better without it.

The impressive Stephen Cootes

How ironic would it be, if a new generation of Soul dancers could flip everything the right way up by dedicating themselves solely to the dance, switch up the music, throw down a gauntlet and raise the bar so high you couldn’t possibly compete unless you were fully ON your head, and reclaim some of the world’s dance floors from the latest generation of coke and chemical heads (currently at epidemic proportions).
Better still if they worked together and move in a new direction (which would be the ultimate test of their true potential).
But for this to happen, Northern Soul Dancing would need freeing from a dead-weight past, and it would also need a group of young practitioners bold enough to forge new directions, which might require the nudge of an original, youthful script for the future, not (one more) homage to an ever-receding past 😉

Breakdancing in the Olympics

The Olympic committee have taken some flak over the years for their dodgy practices. But bringing breakdancing into the Olympic fold is a stoke of genius, because it gives youngsters from any walk of life a direction in which to push and excel, and a platform on which all their hard work can eventually shine.

If it hadn’t got stuck in the mud of its own entrails, it cudda-wudda-shudda been Northern Soulies dancing up their dancing beneath the Olympic rings, rather than Morning of Owl (see below – they’re on the left).

Oh, and if they got arsey about our talc we could move to the nearest ice rink!

Cudda wudda shudda!

Morning of Owl (left). Now THIS is how you raise the bar on the dance floor – boundaries are there to be broken, and the ‘team’ nature of breakdance crews, which fosters innovation within a small youth group, and competition between each group, means this happens all the time – but it cudda-wudda-shudda been Soulies!

Pure Genius…

Richard Searling

Notes from the front seat of Northern Soul’s van-guard.

Over seven years on the road with a White Van Man ‘legend’

I first met Richard Searling as he struggled under the weight of his record boxes, at the entrance to the Va Va Northern Soul all-nighter in Bolton, when I was still at school.

Soon, he was trying to groom me, with occasional visits to a noisy North London establishment, to see some foreign geezers called Villa and Ardiles: But I wasn’t destined to be a Spurs fan.
In fact, I’ve since become a double Heretic:
A fekin’ Gooner ?…
…(Who believes the whole Northern Soul record box should be bloody-well-remixed, re-modeled, re-recorded and reworked) !

To impress him with my knowledge of Northern tunes, I asked if he had a record I believed only Ian Levine owned (Rat Race by the Righteous Brothers Band, I think).

At subsequent all-nighters I wedged myself up against the perspex sheets surrounding the DJ box and we became friends, thus beginning my seven/eight year stint as Richard’s original co-pilot, in the first of many steeds; a white Escort van.

Like many a well-parented teen, I at first pretended to be a pill-head, to fit in with what I thought was expected of me by my peers. But dancing all night wasn’t intended for clean-livers/liver’s and – bizarrely – I once snook out of the Va Va, to the top of Bolton’s Town Hall steps, for a 5 am kip next to the Town Hall’s lions…with a pretty girl from Macclesfield.

After my first ‘bluey’s’ (Drynamyl – normally 5mg Dexamphetamine, 32mg Amylobarbitone – in the days before I read Tolstoy, Kierkegaard, Muggeridge, Taibbi and Wolfe, I studied MIMS!), there was no keeping me off the dance floor – all-night, all-day, all damn week.

The modernistic Va Va’s hard-core pill-head all-nighter was short-lived, running as it did from April 1973 ’til August of the same year.

At the time, Richard’s day-job was at Global Records and whilst my memories of that first summer are sketchy, by the time Wigan opened in September, I too was a hardcore ‘soulie’, a regular at Blackpool Mecca’s Highland Room, had become acquainted with a clutch of jemmy-owning dodgy bastard’s – who over the coming years would fuel my weekend exploits – and had a girlfriend (and a handy box-room at her parents’) in Blackpool.

Richard Searling with a handful of Decks…

Come Wigan’s opening night, my name was on the Wigan Casino guest list (…though I never made it) and my stint in arguably the most privileged passenger seat in the history of Northern Soul was properly underway – only Ian Levine (who would’ve expected me to carry both record boxes: – poor Bernie!) and Colin Curtis’ passenger seats could compete, and I would not have exchanged mine for either.

We all tend to believe our Time of Living Dangerously was unique. And whilst I consider myself to be less prone to sentimentality than most (the waves grow in direct relation to the years), I honestly believe the collision of elements that ignited the spectacular carnage of the real Northern Soul, was something way beyond the average coming of age saga.

I should state now that whilst I turned into a bit of a rum ‘un, Richard (unless his book ‘Putting the Record Straight’ tells you otherwise) was a picture of Professionalism, and more often that not he’d finish his set at the Casino and drive home for some sleep, and although his mission was still to be fully defined, pharmaceuticals were not going to get in his way.

We’d be Back Together Again (a pun yet to be revealed) on the Sunday, at Blackpool Mecca, Manchester Ritz or some other all-dayer, before I’d be back in the passenger seat on our way home.

By Tuesday, I’d be a twitching mess with a rotting tongue (and feet, too, if I’d danced throughout in the same socks!). But I was never one to let that seat go wanting, and whilst Mr Professionalism was back on the decks at Carolines on Deansgate, Manchester, I’d be back on the dance floor, shuffling and sweating it out for Legend and Country.

Where we got to on the other weekdays depended on Richard’s DJ bookings, and it could be anywhere from Wolverhampton to Barrow in Furness, and I even recall a midweek run of nights at the Casino, which was a depressing sight without ‘phet and we bobbing, sweaty mongrels to give it relevance. Then came the soul radio shows, on Radio Halom in Sheffield or Piccadilly radio in Manchester, where I’d sit twiddling my thumbs or catch up on lost sleep in a corner of the studio.

The lovely (Lady?) Judith Searling, who probably;y saw less of Richard than I did from ’73 thru ’79. And viewing my name as ‘evy (the Wizard’… please don’t ask) on a Ritz All-Dayer flier back in the day, she firmly informed me it should have two V’s… so she even taught me how to spell my own name.

When Richard got a job for RCA Records, at their Piccadilly offices (ran by the lovely Derek Brandwood), a new world opened up to me by proxy – we were soon off to gigs and after show parties, of RCA acts like Hall and Oats (previous pun now revealed), Sad Cafe and others, plus regular promotional stints at clubs like Pips and Placemate 7 with Andy Peebles (how on earth did he get to interview John Lennon?) and the like.

One of my occasional roles was ‘buying’ RCA’s singles into the charts. I can’t recall the technicalities of this dodgy practice, but, say, if a record shop ordered ten copies of a single, and they sold two, they couldn’t return the rest and had to enter the full ten copies ‘as sold’ (thus bumping up the numbers for a higher singles chart listing).

I’d get dropped off at record stores, whose sales were linked to the chart index, to buy copies of a given single. The only reason this sticks in my memory is because of my acute embarrassment: not at scamming the chart system, but rather at the worry someone might spot me – a true Northern Soul disciple – buying mainstream chart shite, which I’d never have lived down.

I also saw Joy Division with Richard on one of his scouting missions, when they performed at the Free Trade Hall as support for John Cooper Clark. And I was the only ecstatic person in that underground Preston club, when the Sex Pistols failed to show for a gig on a similar reconnoiter – punk had zero appeal for someone who loved a pulsing melody and musicians who could actually play!

Ila Vann: The Show Must Go On

Initially, I was intimidated mingling with music industry types and players – so much ambition, so little passion and talent – particularly at RCA events and after-show parties: I mean, I was just a child-labourer from a shitty factory floor, with no head (nor inclination) for dizzying social heights.

But to his credit, Richard was never embarrassed in the company of someone so uncomfortably out-of-synch with the pretentious movers and shakers of The Industry. If anything, it was the bullshitters to whom he was indifferent, and whilst open hostility was never in his Arsenal 🙂 he was never impressed by frills and fakes.
It was at one of these after-show ‘do’s’ that I asked Tricky how he dealt with big stars like Bowie: was he ever overawed?
His answer was roughly this: there’s always a door between you and them, and if you turn back, you’ll be turning back all your life – just walk through it and deal with whatever awaits.

I’ve since learned that this Confucian truism comes in a variety of translations, but it nevertheless had a profound effect and it is great advice for anyone, to get you to the point where no door fears you (except perhaps the final curtain).

I used to think it was in these RCA days that Richard developed that sideways glance, coupled with the disarming smile, as a ruse to lull competitors and egos into a cosy fetal ball (he doesn’t need it as much atop of his own substantial pile). But in truth, Richard Searling was – and thought like – a businessman from day one, and one of Dave Molloy’s mates used to tease him that he always wanted to be Alan Sugar.
The instinct for business, the relentless work ethic, and the drive for…for…what, exactly?
A cheap answer occasionally suggested is money, but this isn’t true. Not strictly. Rather, with Richard, the perpetual motion of business is the yellow brick road, to the real businessman’s nirvana of control.
Also, to be lost in motion is the ultimate defense against the silence and contemplation that leads to deep thought, which can reduce even Titans to a shivering wreck (and which catches up to re-calibrate you in times of need, though only if you’re willing).

Another old friend, who has lost (and made) and lost (and made?) tens of millions, once remarked in a moment of vulnerability that he thought he was happiest when skint and living in a bedsit in Heaton Mersey. But I doubt such thoughts have ever caught Richard off guard, because he would never stay still long enough for them to hatch (and if they did, he’d never discuss them…. and I wouldn’t tell you even if he had done…probably).

We former Apprentices (geddit?) cum-co-pilots are a small and devoted bunch: well, later ones more than me, I suppose, because when Richard and I became friends, the big adventure hadn’t properly started and neither of us had a pot to piss in (though the pot he didn’t have was bigger than mine!), and friendships founded on equal poverty tend to foster a healthier equilibrium… plus a willingness to say what you mean (as opposed to what might be expected) in all fairness.

Last December I ran into one of my old school friends, Colin M., at Farnworth Cricket Club’s monthly Northern Soul Night, who I last saw at Blackpool Mecca’s Highland Room back in the day (when I was in a hallucinogenic state…apparently), and he asked rather perplexedly why some Northern Soul folk don’t like Richard?

Billy Paul at the Hilton Blackpool

Envy is another cheap answer, though again only partially true. The Northern Soul people I know (and have known) are pretty accepting of others, though in latter years – when the faux ‘love’ of ‘phet wore off – it has turned into one of the most cult-like music movements on the planet, with a full pecking order of clergy (and vinyl as Holy Relics!).

As in many a cult – which magnify articles of faith without offering spiritual benefits – there are zealots aplenty, and as they’ve got older and crankier, the Zealots have taken pot shots at Richard from the touchlines; for his dominance of the musical genre, and the construction of a Fiefdom from Northern Soul building blocks.

But the fact is that few have navigated the tricky tightrope, between a love of black American music and personal business interests, as successfully as Richard, and an even harder fact is that without his relentless work ethic, his innate determination to make ventures (and venues) work – particularly through the late 80’s and barren 90’s – and the contacts and money he’s made over the years (nobody handed any of it to him), Northern Soul would simply not exist in anything like its current death-defying exuberance.

This said, some parochial types might’ve preferred him to be a commercial failure (like the recording artists they idolise), so they can gather around their parish’s empty dance floor, to draw dividing lines and bemoan The Faith’s lack of Limpieza de Sangre like the petty inquisitors they can’t quite help becoming, and discuss the obscure merits of dull, rarest-of-rare Z-Side offerings like a bunch of Ronnie Scott pseuds… with two left feet in retiring slippers (Oops! Talons came out for a moment – scratched my bloody keyboard, they did!).

I thought Robert Maxwell was a tw*t (I don’t take much Sugar, either), but he once made a remark that had me take note, to the effect that when you get lots of hands on the steering wheel, you end up going nowhere.

There was only one Captain of Richard’s ship, and he only ever intended to sink or swim by his own efforts. And when you see 3000 plus people packed into the Blackpool Tower Ballroom or the Winter Gardens, and not a space on the dance floor for the whole night, it might well be a victory of nostalgia and pantomime (‘He’s Behind You, Zealots,!’) over musical metamorphosis, but it never fails to raise a pulse and a nod of appreciation, for the White Van Man ‘legend’ who mastered the business of putting on a bloody good show.

Although barely noticeable in those heady days of youth, there was always one degree of separation in our characters, which made it inevitable we’d be forever moving in different directions, for I was drawn by a star which shone in places that for Richard were blind spots: – one man’s treasure is another man’s dead-weight.

Tower Ball room Northern Soul

Still, we made a good team back then, because neither of us were clingy, and I always understood – and was happy with – our unspoken roles: I was there to provide company, whilst Richard went about what otherwise would’ve been a lonelier ascent of Mount Northern, in exchange for my Golden Ticket to the speed ball.

Anyhow, what started with a piece of music pretty much ended likewise: we were driving somewhere (Sheffield, I think) and Donna Washington’s Coming in for a Landing was playing on the car stereo, so the year was 1980.
Not one of Lamont Dozier’s more timeless efforts, and on that night the music seemed doubly hollow.
I think it was Simone Weil who warned that music could become ‘a background for daydreams’, which, like Caliban’s sweet airs, ‘give delight and hurt not’ while deeper realities slide by unnoticed

By now the drugs were a dirty memory and I yearned for more than daily dopamine from a gushing soundtrack, and a hitched ride on the back of someone else’s rising star.
In June of that year, I blagged a job teaching tennis in Bournemouth, and that was the end of my Soulie adventure. Well, apart from expecting to swan-in on the guest list every five or ten years, though last time few times the tight bastard has made me pay.!

However, I’m grateful to RCA records’ ‘tab’ for the opportunity of learning how to dine out and eat without using my fingers, and a controlled environment of egotists in which to sharpen fledgling faculties.

But I’ll be forever grateful to my first bezzie outside of school, for the memorable years we shared and a passenger seat at the eye of what was indeed a unique musical storm. And whilst that one degree of ever-travelling separation made (and makes) us forever different, in the stuff that truly matters, we’re all forever the same.

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