Welcome to The Cuckoo Jar, a blog by Nanna Koekoek - illustrator, music- and flea market junkie.
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17 December 2011

The Northern Soul phenomena

All these findings of particles traveling faster than the speed of light excite me a lot. Because it means that time traveling is possible! In theory... I hope they invent a device soon because I need to be teletransported to the Wigan Casino on the outskirts of Manchester somewhere between the years 1973 and 1981.

While the rest of the UK listened to funk, disco, punk, and later new wave, glam rock and metal youngsters in the North let their hair down to obscure mid-sixties American soul. The first club that started playing this music was the Twisted Wheel in Manchester in the late sixties. Soon other venues started having 'Northern Soul' all-nighters (they really went on all night, till 8 am or so). In September 1973 the Wigan Casino opened its doors in a former ballroom. It was massive, it could hold up to 1200 people. Lighting was provided by a couple of fluorescent tubes and there was no bar (!!). Plenty of other stimulants were available though, that were best consumed with water anyway (and chewing gum). The acoustics were excellent and the wooden floor was perfect for smooth moves, spins, drops and twirls. Look!

Next time I'm on the dancefloor I want to do what that guy is doing at 1:00!!!

Apparently The Casino wasn't the most interesting place when it came to the music, but it became THE place for dancing.

I find the whole Northern Soul phenomena fascinating for many reasons. For one that it was kids growing up in bleak industrial north of England that were absolutely gripped by this black footstomping music from the other side of the Atlantic, a decade after its heydays. These were ordinary lads and lasses who worked in the factory all day. Just as in the US (especially Detroit) this music was their salvation; when you listen to people speak about their experiences then it sounds like it was almost like a religion to them. For many 'soullies' Northern Soul is still a way of life. Manchester based Granada TV made a nice short documentary on it in 1977. It gives you a good idea of the context (and more impressive dance moves at 6:00).

I also love the fact people took a bag to the club. In here they kept their dancing shoes, talcum powder, a towel and a spare shirt (things got sweaty - many people went straight from the club to a public bath for a swim!). Venues, record labels and events all had their own badge, which would be sewn on the bag (jeez, that must have been hard work). 

You could also bring a little case for your 45s, as there was a lively record trade going on during the night. There would be vendors or you could swap with other Northern Soul fanatics. Because Northern Soul DJs and fans were obsessive record collectors. As the competition grew DJs tried to distinguish themselves by playing the rarest records. In their quest people traveled to the US to look for obscure records at thrift stores, garage sales and warehouses. Even the vaults of small record companies were searched for unreleased material. As Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton put it in their book Last Night A DJ Saved My Life Northern Soul really was “a genre built from failures:
“…Northern Soul was the music made by hundreds of singers and bands who were copying the Detroit sound of Motown pop. Most of the records were complete failures in their own time and place… but in northern England from the end of the 1960s through to its heyday in the middle 1970s, were exhumed and exalted.”
Artists like Gloria Jones, Junior Walker, Edwin Starr, Jackie Wilson and Martha Reeves (who danced at the Wigan herself for hours on end!) all to came to England to play and were given a second carrier thanks to The Norther Soul scene. Unknown singers were hailed as superstars, often much to their own surprise. 

I've been to a couple of Northern Soul nights, and every time I would be amazed about all these tracks I had never heard before. You think you know a little bit about soul music, but forget it, I was happy to be singing along to one tune during an entire evening!

Even while watching Northern Soul videos on YouTube I heard a song that was new to me, and it was another case of 'song, where have you been all my life?!' You can download it here, as well as a track by Dobie Gray, a Northern Soul hero who passed away last week.

Lou Pride - I'm Comun Home in The Morning. Download it here.

Dobie Gray - The In Crowd. Download it here.

On December 6th it was 30 years ago the Wigam Casino closed. The council, who owned the building, wanted to build a new civic centre there. It never happened and about a year later it burned down. So there is no chance of ever going back there. I really need that time traveling machine!!

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