Category Archives: 50 Years of Wigan Casino

50 Years of Wigan Casino

Keb Darge dug for gold

Keb Darge dug for gold

It’s a sweltering late morning in South Beach, the temperature already north of 90. I am, if memory serves me correctly, watching the vibrations from a nearby subwoofer cause my water glass to slowly slide across the table, when I hear a distinctive voice: “Dennis lad are we going to the beach? I still haven’t seen it you know, shite they never stop with that bumpity, bumpity here, my fookin’ ears!” The voice cloaked in a Scottish brogue belongs to the one and only Keb Darge and he’s at this Winter Music Conference in the mid-2000s to play a party with Kenny ‘Dope’ for their newly formed Kay-Dee label.

We indeed hit the beach, and later in the day I take him to my pal Rich Medina’s Jump-n-Funk party, a jam driven by Afrobeat, and also drawing a crowd that is refreshingly dark and lovely. Upon arrival we catch the event approaching its first peak, I turn to say something to Keb, but he’s gone. I go to greet friends and from the perch of the booth I see Keb fully engaged on the dancefloor, moving in that unique northern soul style, properly on time and gracefully flowing with the Egypt 80 rhythms. He stays on the floor for the next few hours, breaking for some water and an occasional drink, but leaving the party thoroughly soaked having made a legion of new friends. This story stays with me because one of the aspects that makes Keb’s’ playing so vital is that he has the perspective of the dancefloor embedded in his sensibility, he is a great dancer, and it has informed his playing as he has developed and progressed through multiple genres of music from northern soul, funk, rockabilly, surf and now garage. Like every great DJ, Keb forges an intimate connection with the audience, and takes them on a trip, in his case while playing some of the rarest 45s on the planet. I caught up with Keb over a period of a few days this spring, and we talked about his storied history, life during and post-Covid, and where he wants to go musically.

Interviewed and written by Dennis Kan
e, winter 2022 and spring 2023.

So where did you grow up?
The highlands of Scotland, a town called Elgin, about 200 miles north of Edinburgh.

What was your first memorable experience with music, the radio?
Initially I wasn’t really responsive to music, then I got a proper kickin’ at school and got put into hospital. I picked a fight with 40 people, which is a tactical mistake. I got a concrete bin cracked over my head, when I came out of the hospital I thought: Right I’m gonna pick a fight with the one English lad in the mob and prove that I’m not a softy, I start to fight him and he spins and cracks me in the ribs with a side kick, then as I am going down, he smashes my collar bone with an axe kick,
I was like, ‘Fuckin’ hell, what was that?’ It was Taekwondo.
I asked him, ‘How the fuck did you do that?’
He told me, ‘It’s a Korean martial art that I practice at the Royal Air Force base.’ 
I thought that was great, ‘Can I join?’

So I started studying with him at the RAF base several times a week. Cut to the base’s Christmas party, I think it is 1973 or ’74, they were playing Abba and Gary Glitter and all the shite of the day and I watched these three RAF boys go up to the DJ and hand him a wee handful of records and talk to him. The music suddenly changed, and it was amazing, it was like a harder more intense version of Motown, and these three guys started dancing, spinning and doing splits. Penomenal! I thought if I can learn to dance like that I’ll for sure get properly shagged. I asked them what the music was, and they said, ‘Northern soul’. They invited me to a club in Dundee the following weekend. Initially, I was into the dancing before the music, it was exciting, the motion and form of it. I became a regular and also started to go to Wigan Casino. It took me a year for it to disseminate in my brain just how extraordinary some of these tunes were. Then I started to focus on the records and begin deciding which ones really appealed to me, but that first year it was the dancing.

You were really putting effort into working on physically mastering moves?
Yeah, I was already a Taekwondo boy, so I was very well stretched, I could do the box splits, and when I went to Wigan, I watched the best dancers and copied them. Subsequently my dancing started to really respond to the specifics of the records. I would do my Taekwondo training, and then work out dance moves. This was 1975. The moves from martial art practice, and what it allowed my body to do, were translating into gestures I was building into my routine, in some ways not dissimilar to B-Boy culture. 

OK so you’re going to these nights and going to Wigan Casino, how is the music getting into your life day to day? Were there underground radio programmes at the time?
No, my craving for northern led me to start buying records at Wigan and I thought well if I go back to Scotland, I can give these to the local DJ to play for me. I initially started buying so I would have something to dance to.

At this point are specific northern tunes starting to percolate your heart? Like say The Natural Fours’ ‘I Thought You Were Mine’? I remember you talking about that.
I was probably trying to unload a spare copy on you [laughter]. One of the first tunes that really haunted me was The Human Beings’ ‘Nobody But Me’, that’s really a garage tune, the way the song comes in, very raw, but it had me going up to the DJ to ask what it was. Prior to that when I went to Wigan there was a large room full of dealers back from the States selling records, I would just ask the dealer to pick out some tunes and tell him my budget. I used to break into chemists and steal gear (drugs) and sell that so that I always had money in my pocket for records.

So first dancing and now buying records; when did you actually start to play them out?
It didn’t take long, I think in ’76 there was a club night in Aberdeen I would go to, it was more Boney M. and Barry White, but the DJ was starting a soul night on a  Sunday, and invited me down to play. I agreed, as long as he would also play some, so I could dance. Sunday night: Keb Darge at The Royal Hotel in Aberdeen!

Now you transition to playing and you are immersed in it as a life.
Indeed, I’m seeing a life happening. I remember hearing Ron Holden’s ‘I’ll Forgive And Forget’, I needed it. I met a guy at Blackpool with a box of tunes and he wanted £7 for it (it goes for about $150 now) and that was a week’s wages. I thought what would my mum say about spending that amount for a record? Then some cunt was going to try and buy it, and I said fuck it and took the plunge. I played it at my Sunday and some people danced. The following Sunday people showed up from Edinburgh and Dundee to hear Keb Darge play Ron Holden. It’s only the second copy in the country. Ohhhh and then I realised: look for the special tunes, build your sets around that. I started chasing the rare and unique records. I started meeting the real hardcore dealers, the one’s going to the States monthly and getting proper discoveries, songs I could break. There was a definite rush and ego boost, but the tunes themselves were just electric to me.

As a DJ to share something you have found and that means a lot to you and to see it move people is an incredible feeling.
What was unique about Wigan, was that of 2,000 there, a majority of them would know the song, the label and the artist. It was an informed and passionate audience and they were hungry for new discoveries. Things are different now, people are more coming out for the club and the scene, you have to play records much longer before people become aware of them.

Keb with Paul Weller

That’s true across the board, but I feel like the joy and passion, along with confidence in what you are playing still translates to people. When I first heard you play, I knew a very slim margin of your selections, but your excitement and programming made it all appealing and there is an infectious energy that builds.
It’s a fuckin’ party not a museum, let’s go! Things have to be fresh. Towards the end of my deep funk phase I was getting bored shitless, I had lost enthusiasm. My work here is done. I needed to move forward to maintain that joy.

To back track for a second, how did you go from your love of northern soul to playing deep funk?
D.I.V.O.R.C.E. I got divorced in 1987 and the house was in my then wife’s name, so I thought I’ll sell my records. I got about £80,000 for them. Butch and Rob Marriot – both exemplary northern soul DJs  bought the big tunes – UK dealer John Manship snatched most of the rest. I was able to give her a pile of money, get her to sign the divorce papers and house over to me and move on with our lives.

I had a neighbour, who I knew since he was 14, this guy Raw Deal (Jim Robins), he recorded on Talkin’ Loud Records and he brought me a cassette of rare funk tunes. I thought, ‘Oh these are really good’. So I asked: ‘Where did you get them?’
He told me, ‘You gave them to me a few years ago, they’re from your loft.’ 
‘What?! Give ’em back.’  

I went up to my loft and I had boxes and boxes of records that weren’t northern, so I kind of ignored them, then I went through what I had, and realised I had a great set of funk. I used to sell records to the rare groove boys, Sir Norman Jay and Roy the Roach, but they wouldn’t splurge on the expensive, actual rare records, so I kept them. I then started going to all my northern pals and getting the funk records they didn’t want, and soon I had a proper collection of funk. Then I got a booking in Japan in 1989, and it was there that I did my first deep funk set. It went over big, lots of lovely Japanese girls. Hell yes, I’m going to make a scene out of this.

Is this when you started the residency at Madame JoJo’s?
I was doing a Thursday at the Wag called Leave My Wife Alone. I did that for a year, but it wasn’t my party, and the financials weren’t really right. I then moved to a few other spots with DJ Snowboy (Mark Cotgrove), but they were up and down, and he moved on. Finally, I went to look at Madame JoJo’s, and the night that I went in there were a few strippers on stage and a few old guys wanking away. I loved the vibe, we came to terms and I did my first night. We had about 120 people. I went back the following week and the doorman wouldn’t let me in, I said, ‘Hell squire I’ve hired the club.’ He had me wait and a female mate I recognised came up the stairs: ‘Keb what are you doing here?’ 
‘I’m here to DJ.’ 
‘Oh,’ she replied, ‘I’ll tell Stanley and the lot to stay around.’ 
‘Who the fuck is that? It was Stanley Kubrick, and he was filming something for Eyes Wide Shut in the club. The same night Time Out sent a reporter to check on the party, the reporter comes in and sees Stanley and the wee fellow, what’s his name?

Tom Cruise.
Yeah, him his wife and the lot of them, and the reporter writes it up: ‘Amazing underground spot, frequented by Stanley Kubrick and Tom Cruise. Keb Darge, deep funk, London’s best kept secret…’ We went on for 18 years, packed solid every fucking week.

It was a great space, sleazy in just the right way. Same with the block it was on.
It’s all been gentrified now.

It was fun playing a night there with you, you stayed for a bit to see if I was ok, and mysteriously you disappeared until near the end.
Yeah, I had a Japanese rope bondage master tying up my then wife at home, so I ducked out to enjoy that, you had things under control lad.

So out of this period comes your compilations for BBE?
I think that started in ’94. I used to stand outside certain clubs giving out flyers for Deep Funk and there was always this other chap doing the same for his night. His name was Pete Adarkwah and we became mates. He came to the night and stood in the DJ booth with me, he was like: ‘Holy Fuck, I’ve never heard these tunes, you have to do a compilation for my label.’ 

I said, ‘Nah I don’t want cunts like Gilles Peterson stealing the tunes and pretending, they discovered them.’ [laughter] Pete was very cool about it, he assured me they would put my name on the cover and credit me with the compilation so people will know and, boom, off we went. Next, I was in NYC, and Kenny Dope and Jazzy Jeff were reaching out to me, I did a night with some cunt named Dennis Can or something [laughter] It was really the success of those compilations with BBE that had me flying around the world and spending a lot of time in Japan.

How did you become friends with Sharon Jones?
Sharon and them [her band the Dap-Kings] when they first played at the Jazz Café in London, the venue never booked them hotel rooms, so I let the whole lot stay at my place. So Sharon said, ‘Fuck the Jazz Café I’ll sing at your night for free.’ She knew the crowd at JoJo’s would be into it, we became fast friends after that. She was amazing, the perfect artist. What a terrible heartbreaking loss. 

How did you start Kay-Dee records with Kenny Dope?
Well Kenny and I had a chat about it, he had the idea to do a label, and the next thing I know there were T-shirts, and the label was starting, he moved very quickly. Initially I was feeding him the tunes to go after and license, but then I was losing interest in funk, and left it to Kenny. He wasn’t interested in rockabilly. It wouldn’t have fit the MAW image. I love Kenny and he is still buying and digging. When he comes to London, we go have dinner.

This deep funk movement was blossoming, and a lot of hip hop influenced DJs started collecting pricey 45s and doing nights. It felt staid and nerdish, and I remember you telling me then that you were getting restless and needed to move on.
Great unknowns were getting harder and harder to discover, things were stagnating. I wouldn’t play records I thought were substandard just because they fit the genre, so I felt stuck on a number of levels. I wanted something fresh, but also wanted to maintain a high level of quality. Funk never possessed me as much as northern soul, or even rockabilly. I knew the funk was good, but rockabilly resonated with me, and I was using my funds from being a funk DJ to buy loads of rockabilly 45s. There was a lot of uncharted territory to explore. So I decided to do a second night at JoJo’s where I played some northern and rockabilly. I began doing a night, Lost & Found, with Andy Smith, and it really took off. The funk night stayed steady, perhaps some fall off, but this new night began getting lines down the block.

Keb with Kenny Dope and DJ Shadow

Around this time, you are also starting to add in some surf sounds…
Aye, surf and ’50s rhythm & blues, some big northern tunes as well. I knew this crowd had never heard most of these records, so I was excited to share the discoveries. Lo and behold lots of people started copying the format. Suddenly there were numerous new vintage DJs in London! (There had been proper underground rockabilly DJs there since the seventies but they had kept it to themselves.)

So how do you end up leaving London and going to the Philippines? 
Oh well this spectacular bitch  – gestures to his wife, the lovely Edith – met this absolutely wonderful woman and we went to the Philippines in 2008 to get married, and also see where she grew up, a province called Eastern Samar. We flew out there, and I’m in this small village and Edith is asking me, ‘Are you all right honey? You aren’t speaking much.’ I was silent for days.

I regret missing that period of your life [laughter]
I was overwhelmed, I loved it there, I felt so at home and relaxed. I asked her if we could live there, and then I spoke with her father about land and it was very affordable. We purchased a lot and set about building a place. My idea was once the house was constructed, I would leave London, make Samar our home base, and I would DJ in Japan and south-east Asia. So away we went, and I had just set up monthlies in Japan and this great club in Shanghai when unfortunately, the typhoon hit.

It sounds like it was utterly devastating.
Aye it trashed the house and the land. The damage was epic, there were over 10,000 dead, I was pulling out dead bodies from the debris and sea for three weeks. My adrenalin was on overdrive.

I remember you telling me that while out looking for bodies you started finding records on the beach.
Yes, an old radio station DJ from Manila had been wiped away with his house, and there were his records scattered along the beach, mixed with bodies everywhere, some were bodies that had already been buried and they had resurfaced from their graves as a result of the tsunami. It was otherworldly, the smell of the decomposing bodies, the sadness.

I remember there were lots of issues with the recovery as well, issues with supplies and funding, we were emailing, and you had me write to a few people to get the word out.
Yes, I was warring with the mayor and the government over the corruption. A month or so after the tsunami we moved to Manila and we were staying with a schoolteacher who was into northern soul in his younger days, he was very direct with me, he said: ‘Look Keb they aren’t going to come and arrest you, they will just come and shoot the lot of us, and that will be the end of your complaints. You had better go, I don’t want my daughter shot, and I’d rather stay alive as well.’ So we fucked off back to London, to the grey misery!

I am happy you both survived and am also impressed that you and Edith began collaborating as DJs as well.
We were doing that before we left London, Edith was playing with me at JoJo’s and we had done several compilations together. When Edith first arrived in London, I got a phone call from John Manship; ‘Keb I just bought a warehouse from the States, there are 70,000 ’50s records in there and I haven’t a clue what they are, do you want to come and assess and perhaps do some northern trades?’ I thought, hell her first week in the country and I am dragging her to go look at 45s. I pitched it as a trip to the country. She was enthusiastic and started selecting records from the collection, she put together about 200 45s that she liked, and eventually she wanted to play them, so she began playing at JoJo’s. It was very innocent, me being the collector I would only play rarities, but Edith had never really heard Elvis or Chuck Berry, and she would play those along some £400 record she selected. It was a fresh combination, and her playing got a real response from the floor.

Playing and collecting as long as I have, it doesn’t matter to me if something is super rare, or well known, or inexpensive. It’s how the particular record moves me and how it fits together and creates a mood or arc.
Aye, I remember James Trouble, who used to run the Deep Funk nights, putting a post up on the Deep Funk website saying, “‘ went to Madame JoJo’s and it was just full of young girls dancing who didn’t know the labels or the songs’. and I thought hmmm that’s a bad thing?

Keb, with DJ Harvey in Japan.

Tell me about your relationship with Wacko Maria [Japanese high-end streetwear label, created in 2005 by Atsuhiko Mori]. I’ve seen you doing some parties for them with some lowlife DJ from California [laughter]
Yeah, before the Covid shite they would have DJ Harvey and I over to do their Christmas parties for them, the Wacko Maria boys are great fellas. Mori really saved me during Covid, he gave me loads of ridiculous jobs to do, so that he could give me money when I had nothing coming in. I would programme music for his shops. He was very gracious, a magnificent lad, and I am indebted to him for the support. Harvey and I are his two favourite DJs, so he has us out every Christmas to play their party. Mori has become a fiend for the garage sound and is spending a king’s ransom building a collection.

How did you get into garage?
Since ’89 I had been playing in Japan and I would always get a booking in Kobe. But when I was living in the Philippines, I couldn’t get a date there, and I asked the promoters why? ‘Well, Keb, Kobe has gone completely northern soul. It’s the northern soul capital of the world’. And I thought: oh really?, and I decided I’m going to get some northern soul tunes, but not the style already canonised, I’m going to get this more vicious sound, like The Burning Bush’s ‘Keeps On Burning’, which is too white and rock’n’roll for today’s northern scene, which is primarily soulful. I got on to this big dealer Barry Wickham from San Francisco. I said: ‘Barry I want records like The Seven Dwarves’ ‘Stop Girl’
‘Well, Keb’, he informed me, ‘that style is called garage.’ I was like what?! He played me the Savoys and the Omens, and I was blown away. Jesus fuck this is so good.  I sold my rockabilly records, and went full on mental for this garage sound. Like deep funk it will take some time to get this fully off the ground, but it is already happening, people are gravitating toward it. The energy, the intensity, and it’s my mission to make it go huge. It’s a lot like techno, except it’s music.

Check Keb’s vivid on the ground account of the typhoon for Huffington Post –>

© Dennis Kane

This interview was conducted and written by Dennis Kane.

‘Farmer’ Carl Dene had all the tunes

‘Farmer’ Carl Dene had all the tunes

Before there was northern soul, before there were import record stores, before there was a rare 45s collector’s scene, there was ‘Farmer’ Carl Dene (aka Carl Woodroffe). An original mod who couldn’t contemplate going to a club in anything other than a fresh mohair suit,  shirt and tie, Carl Dene was collecting soul and R&B 45s before almost anyone else. His coveted collection led to regular DJ work in his native Midlands, at Chateau Impney in Droitwich and, later, the vaunted Catacombs in Wolverhampton, one of the foundation stones of what later became the northern soul circuit. We talked to him about his collecting, the hunt for hard-to-find records and hanging out in the Twisted Wheel in Manchester. 

How did you get into collecting records, especially African-American ones?
When I first went to the Twisted Wheel, at the end of 1964. The sort of music being played at the Wheel you really couldn’t hear on the radio and in the ordinary clubs. 

How did you find out about the Wheel?
If I remember correctly, it was just word of mouth. And the fact that there was a similar club going on at the same time in Birmingham called the Whiskey A Go Go. People used to know it in Birmingham as Laura Dixon’s Dance School, because that’s where it was held. 

Was that an all-nighter. 

Did they play similar music there?

Do you remember which DJs played?
There were a number of disc jockeys there. They were mainly collectors, but there was no main disc jockey. 

And there was no alcohol on sale?
That’s right.

What was your impression of the Wheel the first time you went?
It was different to anything else I’d been to before. And, obviously, the atmosphere, because it was an all-nighter. There weren’t many all-nighters going on then, maybe a couple down in London, the one in Birmingham. 

Wasn’t there also the Mojo in Sheffield where Peter Stringfellow played?
I met Peter Stringfellow when we went there.

Tell me about the Mojo, because people say it was important.
Well, it was. The Mojo was a counterpart to the Wheel. I only went once to the Mojo, during a holiday weekend. Somebody introduced me to Peter Stringfellow, and I think he’d heard of me. He probably wouldn’t remember me. I was playing at the time. The Mojo wasn’t so much a club-type atmosphere. It was more like a dancehall. Where you had lots of rooms at the Twisted Wheel, both upstairs and downstairs, and the room where the groups would play. The Wheel was quite unique because it had that quite compartmentalised feel to it, with all of these rooms. The Mojo wasn’t like that. It was bigger. It therefore hadn’t got quite the atmosphere, but that wasn’t the fault of the records. I tend to think that the Mojo grew out of the Wheel to be quite honest with you. But it was certainly a very very good place. 

Peter Stringfellow was the DJ then?

He had good taste then, even if he hasn’t now.
He certainly was the DJ, and I met him when he was standing behind the record decks.

Do you know when they moved the Wheel from Brazennose Street to Whitworth Street?
About 1967 I think. I went every week from about 1965 to 1966. They’d have a major name one week on then a local band on the next. But the atmosphere was still there no matter, and what you got was an opportunity to listen to different kinds of records. Certainly in Brazennose Street, the band would be on in one part and the records would continue to be played in another. I remember seeing Georgie Fame there. You would get quite regular visitors from the States

What kind of music of was being played? Roger Eagle said he was dictated to by the pills that were being taken, the tempo became faster.
The records that were popular around the time I was there, in 1965 era, through 1966 would’ve been ‘Call On Me’ by Bobby Bland, ‘Sweet Thing’ by The Spinners, ‘All For You’ by Earl Van Dyke, ‘It Keeps Raining’ by Fats Domino, The Larks ‘The Jerk’, ‘Girl (Why You Wanna Make Me Blue)’ and ‘The Way You Do The Things You Do’ both by The Temptations. And three that always followed each other: ‘Fannie Mae’ Buster Brown on Melodisc (it also came out here on Sue), another interesting one, because it came out on a UK label: Wayne Fontana’s ‘Something Keeps Calling Me Back’, it was the B-side to ‘Pamela Pamela’, ‘Need Someone To Love Me’ by Errol Dixon. These ones always used to be played one after the other. Then of course, there are the more well known ones now like ‘What’s Wrong With Me Baby’ by The Invitations. 

Did that kick off that instrumental thing, because I thought ‘Six By Six’ [by Earl Van Dyke] was an early one?
No that was later, that was more 1969. It was the follow up to ‘All For You’. What other ones were there: ‘Picture Me Gone’ by Evie Sands. That was one that Roger Eagle used to play regularly and I actually bought it off him. ‘I’m Not Going To Work Today’ which was originally by Clyde McPhatter, but done by Boot Hog Pefferley and the Loafers. Clyde McPhatter did it on Stateside. The was a good mid-tempo one, sort of like the Drifters. A real one off. It really hit me that one, so I bought it off him for £1-10s, which was a lot of money then! You’ve gotta find room for that one, because it’s one that people from that time will remember. It was unusual to buy records like that in those days, you wouldn’t see people walking around with a box of records then. The DJ would have records, and there would be the odd collector like Brian Phillips. I used to write to him about records. He was more of a collector than a DJ, though I think he did DJ. 

So, the old Wheel used to be on until about seven in the morning. And eventually they threw people out a little earlier, and it changed to six o’clock and people would be wondering what the hell to do with themselves. But that club was rife with pills. People would bring them in with them. And the comment we always used to hear from the police was, ’Well, what’s the point of raiding the place when we know where all the villains are?’ They didn’t want to spread the problem around the city! The atmosphere there was quite incredible though. There were other places to go on a Sunday morning after the Wheel closed. There was a club in Bolton, I can’t quite remember the name, it used to open at 12 o’clock. I used to come back from the Wheel, sleep for about three or four hours and then go down to the Chateau Impney in Droitwich which was a Sunday afternoon club on from four till seven. People used to travel from all over the Midlands to go there. Same sort of music. I worked there for a good year or two. This was after the new Wheel, probably in about 1968. That was a well-known venue. It was there that I was headhunted for the Catacombs.

Had the Catacombs started by then?
I think it was in about 1969. The owner came round and asked me if I would do a couple of bookings at the Catacombs. The DJ at the time was new on the scene and he didn’t have the records that I’d got. The DJ at the time it first opened was Alan S. They were looking for the more specialist tunes that I had. And Wolverhampton had a very big northern – or rhythm & soul as we used to call it – following at that time. the Impressions’ records were very popular then: ‘It’s All Right’, ‘Woman’s Got Soul’. These were really counterparts to the early Motown sound that was around then. The Chicago sound, I suppose. 

And these were all Curtis Mayfield productions. He produced a lot of the Major Lance stuff, too, didn’t he? Was he being played earlier on?
Yes, you’re right to spot that. He was. ‘Everybody Loves A Good Time’ was one of his that we played.

How did you get your nickname?
Everybody was choosing names that were different. At the time there was a guy called Roger Twiggy Day, who was on Radio Caroline then. I used wear a hat and somebody said, ’Have you got your farmer’s’ hat on today?’ So then it became Farmer Carl. The Dene comes from people like Carl Wayne, who was in the Move, although back then he was still in Carl Wayne & the Vikings. 

Whereabouts were you getting your records from?
In 1964 and 65, there was no-one importing records. The other records that were being played at the Wheel were not imports. They were UK issues. In 1964 and ’65, there were very few imports. They started coming in 1966 when shops were starting to get hold of them. I think Dave Godin started to import them. There was a shop in Manchester, there was a shop in London. I used to go to a record shop called the Diskery [in Birmingham]. Most of the DJs used to go there, because they would have a lot of stuff. If you went into another shop and asked for the Impressions, they would say, ’What are you talking about?’ But Diskery would have all the stuff on Stateside, on Motown. It was a real goldmine for records. 

Where did you find out about new releases?
Well, in 1964 and ’65, the only place we found out was from the Diskery. There weren’t any magazines to speak of. 

Were was the first place you DJed?
Le Metro club in Birmingham, which was a converted railway arch. It was actually where they filmed one episode of the sixties soap opera United. They came and filmed the club, but it was a very very good club, and well designed too. I worked there for three years, twice a week. 

When you started at the Catacombs you had records that they didn’t have at the Wheel. Did you bring up stuff to them?
Yes I did. Well, because I’d been buying records since the early sixties, when the new Wheel came about, because I’d accrued these records, a lot of which had never been played in a club, I’d introduce them, as my own inventions, if you like. We used to play them covered up so people wouldn’t know what they were. Do you know about this?

Yeah, there’s a guy called Count Suckle in 1963 at Roaring Twenties in London who did this. When did you say you were doing it?
He was doing it before me. I was doing it from about 1965. 

Were you inventing names for them as well?
What we used to was we’d get a record we didn’t want and cut out the centre and stick it on top of the record. And because it already had a name on the label that would throw people. So you put it on top of whatever record you were playing at the time and it would cover up the record. 

Do you remember some of the records that you did cover up?
Yes. ‘Darkest Days’ Jackie Lee, and more recently Carl Douglas’ ‘Serving A Sentence Of Life’. My main claim to fame, which I forgot, is ‘Hey Girl Don’t Bother Me’. We used to play that in the George Hotel in Walsall. Although it came out in 1964, we were playing it around 1968. We also used to play it at the Chateau. We didn’t cover it up. And everybody, particularly the girls, went absolutely wild about it. And they would all go to their local record shops and ask for this record. The shops would ask the reps, who would tell me that it was deleted. The number of requests of they were getting for that record must have far outweighed anything they’d had before. The company reissued it and I remember at that time Peter Powell, who was from Stourbridge, near to the Chateau in Droitwich, and I think he’d heard it and brought it on to the radio. He’d heard about the clamour for the record. 

What station was he on?
Radio 1. 

Who did you show it to at the Wheel?
I don’t know that I ever took it up there. I was only going to the Wheel very occasionally by then. Oh yes, another thing we used to cover up was Donald Height with ‘She Blew A Good Thing’, a cover version of the American Poets tune which was a big one at the Wheel. 

How long did the Catacombs last for?
It went from 1968, but it ran through to 1974 or ’75, but its heyday was 1969 to 1970. 

It was on Temple Street wasn’t it. What did it look like?
It was an industrial premises that had been converted. Not a big club. 500 or 600 people maximum. 

And what hours?
8 till 12. Not all-nighters, they brought them in in the early seventies. 

Do you remember any records that you introduced to the new Wheel?
I don’t know whether I introduced it, but it wasn’t played very often and it became very popular. ‘Tired Of Being Lonely’ by the Sharpees on Stateside. A big sound up there that was probably started at the Catacombs was Gene Chandler and Barbara Acklin’s ‘From The Teacher To The Preacher’ on Brunswick. Another record that was very popular at the Chateau that I think I introduced to the new Wheel, ‘I’ll Do Anything’ by Doris Troy. 

Didn’t Tony Blackburn do a cover version of that?
He did! 

There was another Barbara Acklin tune that was big, ‘Love Makes A Woman’, wasn’t there?
Yes, you’re right. That was very popular at the new Wheel. I still play that now. 

Which ones do you regard as the big Catacombs records?
‘Break Out’ by Mitch Ryder, ‘The Fife Piper’ by the Dynatones (big at the new Wheel also), ‘At The Top Of The Stairs’ by the Formations, ‘Let The Good Times Roll’ by Bunny Sigler, ‘Right Track’ Billy Butler, ‘Wade In The Water’ by Marlena Shaw, ‘Candy’ by The Astors and Willie Tee’s ‘Walking Up A One Way Street’ (big at new Wheel too).

Do you remember any other records like the Tams that crossed over?
‘Just A Little Misunderstanding’  by the Contours, one of the best dancing records of all time, which was the popular at the new Wheel and everywhere else. You really can’t go without mentioning it. Classic sound. That came out originally in 1966. The A-side was called ‘Determination’, so this was the B-side. ‘These Things Will Keep Me Loving You’ by the Velvelettes. Issued in 1966. I’m sure it’s been in the charts.

July 1971?
Oh right. 

Were these ones that broke out generally from a number of clubs?
I think they were. It would be wrong for me to claim any kind of responsibility for those. I did my fair share, there’s no doubt about it though. Oh yeah [he’s flicking through his boxes while he’s talking with me!] this one was the biggest after ‘Hey Girl Don’t Bother Me’ probably. Mary Wells’ ‘What’s Easy For Two Is So Hard For One’.

Don’t know that one.
Big at Catacombs. 

Wasn’t a hit though.
Wasn’t it? It was 1963 record that all the girls used to like. A good dancing one as well. 

It was a top thirty hit in the US in January 1964.
Oh, so you’ve got all your facts there! 

Ha ha yeah! Did you play any of those records that subsequently became known as funk, such as James Brown?
Oh yes! For James Brown you’ve got to go back to the old Wheel. There was stuff – again very popular at the old Wheel, at the top of any list – ‘Night Train’ was one of his big ones, another one was ‘Tell Me What You Gonna Do’. Then of course, there were later James Brown records, like ‘It’s A Man’s Man’s World’, which were more pop-soul rather than R&B-soul. Yes, I did play him certainly. In the late sixties Red Atlantic was very popular and most DJs then were playing it, things like Arthur Conley. I played my fair share of it, but it was the rare soul, the more sophisticated stuff, was what I liked playing personally. 

Why do you think that rare soul thing grew? Where did it come from?
I think it was because you couldn’t hear it anywhere else. It was so unique. You wouldn’t hear it on the radio. You wouldn’t hear it in a regular nightclub. You’d have to go to a chosen place; and there were only a handful of those around. Part of the enjoyment was actually travelling there. Looking forward to going. And the motorways didn’t really exist then as they do now. The M6 for example, didn’t start until you went north of Cannock to go to Manchester. Likewise, the M1 to London, you would have to go down to the A45 to Coventry and join the M1 from there. It was a holiday going to Manchester, Birmingham or London. 

Did you go to any of the clubs in London?
No, I didn’t. Some of the people from the Whiskey A Go Go went. I always preferred Manchester to be quite honest. Having been there, you don’t tend to change your habits, like watching a football team. Certainly the travelling; and the uniqueness was key. It was a day out. You’d go out with a change of clothes. Certainly, at the Twisted Wheel, one of the things that we did do in Birmingham, was take up mohair suits to the Twisted Wheel. People used to go in casual clothes, because people would wear mohair suits and ties with shirts. And you’d try to get up there with your suit in pristine condition. The looks we used to get, from people who were dressed casually, were amazing! You’d go up with your jeans on and change into your suit for the all-nighter. And then change back into your casual clothes to come home. 

What other clothes were people wearing at the old Wheel?
Mohair suits, smart. Just smart clothes of the day. You’d be wearing your mohair suit, shirt and tie in a stifling atmosphere with the heat. You’d be wringing wet with sweat but still wearing your suit when you came out of the club! It was always a good way of endearing yourself to the women. It went down well, that.

What did the girls wear?
I don’t remember to be quite honest! Then of course, there were records that were very popular at the Wheel, like ‘Are You Ready Now’ by Frankie Valli. That was reissued and got into the charts, I think.

Yeah. The original version came out in 1966 [he names the catalogue number!]

That was big at the Wheel?
Yes, and other soul clubs, too. 

How far and wide were people travelling from?
Well, the Wheel you’d have people travelling from the east, places like Yorkshire, Sheffield, Huddersfield, coming from places like, there was a guy that used to come from Scunthorpe, Grimsby…

That’s where I’m from.
Oh that’s interesting. There’s a collector from either Grimsby or Scunthorpe I’ve got piles of letters from him somewhere. 

Do you remember his name?
No, but I could get it for you. He was an avid collector. He travelled regularly to the Wheel. Obviously people from Birmingham, Walsall, Wolverhampton. A lot of from Liverpool. Even as far afield as Newcastle. 

Why do you think it was that in London they got caught up in psychedelia, while in the north they remained unaffected by it?
I can’t explain that at all. I think it’s probably largely due to tastes developing separately, because they never intermingled. Most people in the north of the England didn’t bother to go down to London. Most people in London didn’t bother going north of Watford. 

Colin Curtis led the way

Colin Curtis led the way

Colin Curtis has been through more scenes than Richard Burton. He made his name as one of the most forward-thinking DJs on the nascent northern soul scene in the early 1970s, before leading northern towards new releases alongside fellow Blackpool Mecca renegade, Ian Levine. Subsequently, he’s promoted and played modern soul, jazz-funk, jazz, electro and early house and techno, building a number of amazing residencies along the way (Berlin, in Manchester, is still talked about in hushed tones in the north-west). We chatted to Colin about his career, the numerous clubs he’s played at and how house music rapidly transformed from a largely Black phenomenon to white. 

Interviewed by Bill in Tunstall on 06.09.2003

Where were you born and when?
I was born in 1952 in Madeley in Cheshire, near Crewe. I was brought up in a working class family, council estate, but eventually went to grammar school. I found myself at school being affected by pirate radio… Radio Caroline etc. I used to have an old Bush radio with Copenhagen etc written on it and I used to stick the pirate frequencies over them so I knew where to tune to. Remember the old football league ladders you used to get? I used to reverse them and put tunes on the back and run charts. So I became very interested in collecting and chasing these records down in the ’60s. 

Which kinds of records would these have been?
Records I can remember on the radio would have been Dave Baby Cortez he did a radio show on Caroline, Mike Raven did a show, Soul Serenade. Cortez would open up with ‘Rinky Dink’, during the show and he’d play artists like Robert Parker or James Carr and I was like… where did these sounds come from?! 

Was it possible to find a record like James Carr then?
Well, you’d have to order it. At that time you were just chasing UK labels. Then you discovered there were places like FR Moore mail order. They would advertise in Blues & Soul. They used to list Billboard releases, which is where this northern soul mania came from, chasing them down etc. Then the impact of these American records with the big hole in the middle, which opened up a fantastic array of choice, which came between 1969 and the early ’70s when I started discovering clubs.

What was the first club you went to?
Probably the first with any influence on me was the Golden Torch. That had been run previously bringing over live acts, similar to the [Twisted] Wheel, they’d bring over Oscar Tony Jr., Junior Walker, people  who weren’t really getting any coverage at all except through specialist magazines and a bit on the radio. We lived in a pub at the time and I think I’d been grounded, but someone offered me the chance to go along to the Torch, a midweek night. I’d been collecting records and I’d already started a mobile disco. I’d be 13 or 14. The ego side of my personality enjoyed entertaining people. I was very aware of ’60s chart music very aware of black music and I was playing youth clubs and trying to drop as many soul records as I could. I was grounded and I escaped over the back wall, walked down the railway line all the way to Tunstall, which was about three miles from where we lived in Kidsgrove, and I just couldn’t believe this place. I walked in and they were playing records I didn’t know; records that were hitting me straight away, Bobby Wells’ ‘Let’s Cop A Groove’, Chubby Checker ‘At The Discotheque’… You know, just like a huge vortex had opened in a few hours. I’d gone away from there with my head so full that I’d walked down exactly the same route the following night only to find the club was closed. It hadn’t occurred to me that it wouldn’t be open every night.

What was the club itself like?
It was magical. You turned into the street and you heard the bumping beat coming through the wall. How the neighbours coped with that I really don’t know. And it’d got the fairly classic façade with the name over the top, four sets of double doors, so you went in and you got inside and everything was black and dark. There was a stage, there were some pictures of soul stars that had been drawn on the walls, and a balcony. It was probably 4 or 500 capacity. 

Had it been converted from a cinema?
Yes, but there was no sign of that apart from the fact the toilets were either side… Eventually the club became the cult that it did with the all-nighters.

So when did the Golden Torch open?
Originally it was open for groups in the early ’60s. The Wheel was probably the first club that was paying more attention to the black side of music, but the Torch didn’t follow too far behind. You’d get Chicken Shack, you’d get the Small Faces, but then you would get Oscar Tony Jr. But then the local kids in Stoke-on-Trent would go to these events and not know who they were gonna get, so it was just fantastic to see their faces. I was working at the local Mecca at the time, the local Crystal Ballroom. I’d been taken on there so I had to change my name to Colin Curtis, my real name’s Colin Dimond. People say it’s a great DJ name, and it probably was, but it stunk of pop and I didn’t want that image. But I needed some sort of anonymity, because I would’ve been expelled from school, it’s as simple as that. It was a way of getting out the mobile culture of weddings and eventually I took over the soul nights which were on Sundays and Thursdays. On a Sunday night we’d have nearly 1,000 people in there just playing soul. It was phenomenal. This was in Newcastle-under-Lyme. We’d get two quid a week.

What year would this have been?
1969 to ’71. The Torch all-nighters had started and they’d finished with the interest in drugs with the police and local papers. The problem, retrospectively, was only 20% compared with the actual drug problem that happened in dance clubs in the ’90s, but it was big news for the papers at the time. It was closed down fairly rapidly in 1973 and I’d gone back to the local Mecca. 

When you’d played at the Mecca did you go and play at the Torch after that?
No, no. Towards the end of the Torch, Tony Jebb, Ian Levine and people like that started the night at Blackpool Mecca. That was a regular Saturday night finishing at two o’clock. So at two o’clock they would come down to the Torch all-nighter. They’d start arriving at three or four, and the one thing that made the all-nighter so buzzy and so effective, almost every hour there was a different set of people arriving from somewhere else. All of a sudden, these people who had previously been dotted about in small clubs, were all coming together on one occasion. It made an atmosphere that, at the time, was unparalleled. People with this amount of knowledge all congregating; the chemistry just happened. 

Was it then that you thought: this is a scene?
Oh, it was a total scene. The Friday nights at the Torch had started to attract people from Wolverhampton, Manchester, around Cheshire, based around what was happening musically there, but the all-nighters cemented it. People did not travel to clubs elsewhere, DJs were not booked for other clubs. A scene was now developing which had its epicentre in the all-nighters, but then clubs in Wolverhampton, like the Catacombs, had come to the fore. The Wheel had obviously finished but its impact was felt and then the Blackpool Mecca thing was happening. Blackpool Mecca had been closed for whatever reasons at the time.

This is when Levine and Jebb moved to the Torch, right?
Yeah, but the irony there was that Keith Minshull, who was one of the most influential DJs in Stoke-on-Trent at that time. Not a classic DJ. Very rarely said anything at all, just bang the old dance tunes on and away he went. He and myself left the Torch because of the politics and the police and everything and we started playing at the Top Rank in Hanley, as well as the local Mecca, which was called Tiffanys. It was a wet Thursday night, I think, when this guy Tom West came to talk to us, who died in the last few years and we got to know him over the next few weeks and one day he said he was going back to Blackpool and he said, ‘How do you guys fancy opening up the soul night again?’ And that’s what happened. We went up there, had a few words with Bill Pye, the area manager, and he was keen to get it going again. After six months, it ended up being me and Levine.

So when did it start again, and did you play right from it reopening?
Yeah. It started back up in ’74 and Levine came in late ’74 or the year after. 

What was your impression of Tony Jebb and Ian Levine when you were going to the all-nighters at the Torch?
I’d been to Blackpool Mecca as a punter on the old bus from Stoke every month. I’d seen Tony Jebb and experienced the Mecca from the first period, the 1971 and’ 72 era and really enjoyed it. The personality who shone through on the decks was Tony Jebb. He was a good looking lad, his presentation was excellent, he looked the part and he played the right records. The one thing that made him different was that he did focus on the dancefloor and he did talk on the microphone, which wasn’t a huge thing on the soul scene, it’s what DJs did on mobiles. I clicked with this guy, his presentation. Ian Levine was a lot more excitable, excitable on the microphone and trying to play as many tunes as he could. Also very good at breaking at records, though at the time it wasn’t appreciated when the dancefloor was full, then empty, then full. And they had a good back-up because there was a resident downstairs called Billy The Kid. Very much part of the balance that made it what it was.

Did you go to places like the Wheel?
I went to the Wheel a total of four times. I went to the first Wheel. 

What was it like?
Fear is the best word I can use to describe it. All these guys who were dark, huge, leather coats… You could see it was an insular culture. Something was happening, something was definitely happening. They were playing your Roscoe Robinsons and all that early ’60s stuff, like ‘The Fife Piper’ by the Dynatones. These records in this setting, the Wheel was one of these catacomb-y clubs; again, it just touched me. I only went once as a punter, but I went back a few times as DJ when it had changed hands a few times. I’d seen enough of these places… I’d been to the Catacombs in Wolverhampton…

Oh, really. What was that like?
Very dark. Small, compact, packed, lots of little alcoves, same sort of thing. 

Where was it located, wasn’t it upstairs?
Exactly. We always used to say you could tell whether people had been or hadn’t been… [mock voice] ‘Well, we went down the stairs…’ Well, you’d been in the fucking Co-op then, because the club was upstairs! You went upstairs and there were lots of people shuffling around, very tight atmosphere, low roof, the DJ you couldn’t find… Graham Ward, Alan S, Blue Max. Wolverhampton, Stoke, Manchester, but every club with its own identity. All the DJs had their own identity. Years later this helped me because I took a piece of everything and used that, so I became able to play in all these different areas and be accepted. Whereas a lot of the DJs didn’t, they’d go and play their set no matter where they were. People didn’t take that on board. 

So what kind of records were you playing at the Mecca? Because that must have been at the start of the ‘modern’ period.
That’s right, but when it opened it was still on the back end of the Torch. Records that were getting played were still things like Sequins’ ‘A Case Of Love’, Dramatics’ ‘Inky Dinky Wang Dang Doo’, Frankie Beverley & The Butlers’ ‘If That’s What You Wanted’, it was still very much a northern soul thing, and the ’60s records that dominated. Ian Levine, who was now at Blackpool, he had the most phenomenal record collection. There wasn’t anything like it in the UK. His father owned property and a casino in Blackpool, a Jewish family, relationship with his father was poor and this guy had built up his record collection on the basis of holidays to Miami. Where a normal person would go and do a few record shops, this guy was going into warehouses. In the foyer of his parents’ home, there would be 20 to 30 piles of records – 7-inch singles – this high [motions to chest height] each time he came back. A couple of piles of albums this high, but back then albums were just not touched. Back in the day nobody even considered them. 

So Levine was going over regularly then?
Three or four times a year. He’d come back and we’d spend up to a week going through these records. Playing them religiously. Making piles of records for different scenarios. And then when he started going over there, he started sending me tapes from radio shows. It was at this time probably around 1975, that he’s sending me tapes back with the Carstairs and Universal Mind, The Tymes’ ‘Trustmaker’, and the whole thing was starting to change. America and the Billboard chart had been dominated by ballads, soul ballads, for so long, Millie Jackson was huge. All of a sudden late 1974 through to ’76, uptempo records became popular again, using these great sounds and vocals. We’d gone through so many records and Levine’s collection was unprecedented, so we had the best choice, and it was getting more and more difficult. More people were going over to America to find records. The quality of records we’d been playing was coming to an end. People will probably dispute that now, because people have gone back to re-address records missed at that time as 2nd, 3rd or 4th division. To me, they’ll always be 2nd, 3rd or 4th division. So to us, the new records that were coming out of the States at that time, it would have been criminal to ignore them. As time went on, 12-inches started appearing, and so we’d got crossover-y records like Pat Lundy’s ‘Party Music’, we’d got the start of Crown Heights Affair when they signed to De-Lite. This was causing a furore on the scene. And this developed in Blackpool but we retained the crowd.
Colin’s performance on Boiler Room in 2022.

The furore must’ve been coming from elsewhere, surely?
Without a doubt. As time had gone on at Blackpool, the Wigan Casino had appeared and that was also an all-nighter. We were back to the situation between Blackpool and the Torch. And the all-nighter offered the drug scene another option. This inevitable success story – and it was a success story – but the music was jukebox lowest common denominator bom-bom-bom records. There was no feel, there was no contrast, there was no black and white. Again, that statement will be disputed, but from where I was sitting the way Wigan Casino developed, I wasn’t interested in going. I played there once, I think, but I didn’t pursue it further. For me it was going backwards. When they introduced the oldie room Mr M’s, I actually said that on the night: it was the beginning of the end. Nobody’s right, nobody’s wrong, it’s just the way things were. 

So you were playing other clubs as well the Mecca? Were you playing these new records and, if so, what was the reaction?
The major venue that became a catalyst for this was the Manchester Ritz for the all-dayers, where you literally would have almost a shift change on the dancefloor as each DJ played. One DJ would play northern and you’d have a full floor for northern. Then either myself or Levine would come on and introduce these other records. We’d be playing a little bit of the back end of northern, but mainly driving forward with new stuff. Current new 7-inches and whatever 12s were around, like Crown Heights Affair or Tavares…

Was it true that people chanting ‘get off’ and walking round with Levine Must go banners?
There were pockets of people who started a Levine Must Go campaign, T-shirts etc. It was just part of it, it wasn’t venomous, it really wasn’t. Maybe they thought it was, but for us the publicity was fantastic. Levine was the type of personality they could attack. I wasn’t the type of person they could attack. Levine was the perfect target, a big balloon who you can fire arrows at. I love this guy to bits, but he’s a self-publicist and he puts himself up there and people will shoot. For me, it was great fun. We didn’t play funk, but we used to play things like ‘Jammin’’ by Bob Marley at the Mecca or ‘Cocaine In My Brain’ by Dillinger, just an odd crazy record. People’d hurl abuse at that, but you’d just point at the dancefloor.

How long did the all-dayers go on for?
They dragged on in some form or other till 1977 or ’78. Even beyond that under a different guise, when I hooked up with John Grant but then it was starting to turn to the Black scene. Then that was knocked on the head because James Anderton, the Chief of Police was not into Black kids congregating.

How did that change musically?
The Mecca had run its course. It was the end of an era, that was what was happening. Where do you go from here? So, I’d been to Birmingham and Wolverhampton looking at clubs and thinking, well, I dunno… Kev Edwards who worked behind counter at Spin Inn in Manchester, he phoned me and said, ‘I’m going to Angels in Burnley tonight can I have a word with you’. Angels was more of a Mecca spin-off and Richard Searling used to play there on a Wednesday, so it was a good chill-out place. He said, ‘I want you want to meet this guy in Manchester, I want you to meet him and do something here’. About a month later, I drove into Manchester
Rafters, Manchester with Colin Curtis and John Grant

What year?
1978. Drove into Manchester to meet this guy called John Grant in a pub. In walked this guy with what looked like a Brillo pad on his head – his hair –  glasses, looked like me dad. He’s got speakers under each arm. Huge bloke. So he built this mobile disco while we drank our Cokes and then proceeded to play the night… He played similar to what we played at Blackpool but with a black feel. He had a mixed crowd, but it was busy. I spoke to him and we agreed to go and have a look at a few venues. We looked at a club called Fagin’s on Oxford Road. Fagin’s had been a rock club, loads of bands had played there and it had mainly been frequented by rockers. It was an absolute dump. I took one look at it and said, ‘No way’. He said, ‘Look we’ll chuck £5 or £600 at it. I know this guy who’s good with timber. I can put the sound in.’

Very reluctantly I agreed to get involved. We went to see the owners and said we’d rent it. They put bar staff in and took the bar. We got a couple of bouncers and ran the door. Four weeks after we opened there was 800 or 900 people there. We called it Rafters. These are Rafters charts [shows me loads of charts from time…]. These records that were being played and this all came from the thought process. John Grant turned out to be the image that I’d seen that first night. He was an organised bloke. He had no particular flair. He was competent on the microphone. He was a nice bloke who people got to know and people liked. He used to organise coaches and everything. I was a twat. I used to turn up, I was the star, pay attention now I’m on and then I’d go to sleep under the decks and don’t bother me until I’m ready to play again.

You used to sleep under the decks?!
Yeah, well I’ve never been into drugs. You can see the state of me after 50 years without drugs?! My mind has never been able to accept the control. It’s just a psychological thing. What happened to me in life has been self inflicted I’m afraid and nothing to do with drugs. Kev Edwards, coupled with John Grant and myself, these lists we did became potent weapons because when kids had been to the club they’d take one of these away and they’d be in Spin Inn on a Monday morning… 

How long did it run for?
We picked up some of the following from an old club in Fennel Street which Mike Shaft had done. I eventually hooked up with John Grant and Mike Shaft, but Rafters itself ran till about 1983. We did Rafters on Fridays and Saturdays. Fridays were more commercial, not pop, but more commercial. And on Sundays we used to do a club called Smarties which was right next to Spin Inn. Small club, packed every Sunday, 250 people, most of the records that became jazz funk were in there. The one thing that interested me was that we had already started to go into this more jazzy kind of stuff like Jeff Lorber. 

So when that ended is that when you got involved with Berlin?
Yeah. The whole jazz funk thing almost disappeared off the face of the earth. John Grant and myself found ourselves going round clubs during the previously successful years and playing to no people.

What were the successful years then?
1979 to ’83 or ’84. There’d been a constant all-dayers circuit then too. 

And the weekenders?
No, weekenders didn’t exist then. We attempted a weekender at Primrose Valley on the Yorkshire coast, and we sold 30 tickets. That’s why the Ibiza thing, when I thought back to Primrose Valley, I thought, no, it’s not going to happen. 

What all-dayers were you doing?
Blackburn, Stafford, Birmingham, the Locarno. At Birmingham Locarno, the all-dayers were different again, because what had happened is when we’d gone into Manchester and Levine had gone to London to do Heaven, which he regrets entirely now, which is sad. But we went to Manchester, initially with the Ritz, then Rafters, very white still, people coming from Scotland, and even London, but there was a kind of fear of black people by some white guys and the people who’d remained faithful to northern were also dropping away, so what we were left with what became the Black scene in Manchester and Birmingham in Nottingham, where I played at Rock City with Jonathan Woodliffe. We’d had previous success in Nottingham at the Palais. I came on in a coffin at one of those all-dayers! 

What other DJs were playing at the Birmingham Locarno?
Well the jazz room, I got crazily into jazz, got heavily into be bop, I went seriously down the jazz route. I was spending fortunes on records. We booked Paul Murphy, Baz Fe Jazz, one of my original punters, Dave Tilshaw and Williams from the Rum Runner club. In the main room, there’d be myself, Tim Westwood, Paul Trouble Anderson, great guy… I remember at the time I’d just started playing ‘Set It Off’ by the Harlequin 4s, records like that, which everyone said weren’t gonna work. Two months into the scene it really started changing. Then Paul’d come up and play the go go stuff from Washington. So you’ve got Westwood, Paul, the beginning of scratching…

So Westwood was playing electro and hip hop at that time?
Yeah. Pete Tong came up because he’d heard about the gig and he said, ‘Oh it’s too heavy for me!’

What year would this have been? 1985?

So tell me about about Berlin.
Well, something was going wrong in my life, physically, but I didn’t know what it was. I was struggling to cope, having blackouts while driving cars. It was a difficult time in my relationship personally. Getting to gigs was getting increasingly difficult. I wanted to do something that was just Colin Curtis, just me. So I had this night at Berlins with a local lad called Hewan Clarke warming up for me. Nice guy, big lad, over 6’.

First DJ at the Hacienda, wasn’t he?
Yeah. Nicest bloke you could meet. I remember playing a gig in Motherwell, we hired a mini bus to go up there, and we walked into the foyer, and this guy ran up to Hewan and said, ‘Colin! I havnae seen yer fer years!’ That was people’s perceptions of me. Hewan Clarke warmed up for me at Berlin. He collected records and there was a fabulous place, Yanks Records – originally Global Records where Richard Searling started off – run by an American guy called Ed Balbier. It was just a huge warehouse and Hewan had built up his collection here by paying a quid each for these records. He had great feeling and great taste. I used to get there and play from around 10-ish to three, just three or four crates of records and me. Although it was only a small club, 200 people would pack the place, but it was fantastic because for me it allowed me to let this audience loose on this idea. 

What did it look like?
It was on a corner, you went in on the top floor and there was a pay desk then you went downstairs. The dancefloor was like something out of a Dennis Wheatley film. Basement, low roof. I used to play a track by the Valentine Brothers called ‘Just Let Me Be Close To You’, off the album that produced ‘Money’s Too Tight’. I remember  Mick Hucknall used to ask for ‘Money’s Too Tight’ and we’d picked up sealed copies of this album in Yanks so I was ready for him. He asked and I gave him a copy of the album. If it had been in London it would’ve been more talked about and probably got bigger. You had black guys, Rastas, famous people, such a mixture. Gilles Peterson’s friend Andrew was there religiously every week, Dean Johnson, Barry Malleedy and they’d bring their own mates. I got to meet this Brazilian guy who was at college in Manchester and sometimes these guys would just come in and jazz dance to me, or I’d play to them. Fantastic freestyle jazz dancing. That was about 1986 and it was about that time that I became seriously ill and I got taken out of the loop from about ’86 – ’89. I did come back at the Playpen in Manchester during that period, but I wasn’t functioning properly. I was playing all the early house stuff from Chicago. 

When did you first come across that stuff?
I started pushing it heavily in 1986 and ’87. For me this was like being born again. Hearing all these records was just phenomenal. I’d buy a lot from Spin Inn, Selectadisc in Nottingham, wherever I could get my hands on them. 

What sort of records were you picking up on then?
We were playing Chip E, Farley Jackmaster, all the Trax stuff, Robert Owens. I’d been playing in clubs like Legend which has been used to hearing electro and dropping these real raw tracks and getting a reaction. Legend had been a real big club for Greg Wilson. He took the electro thing to a new level there. We were playing house before the Hacienda, a long time before the Hacienda. Hewan had gone in there and the original set-up was that they wanted an alternative thing. I remember Paul Mason coming there, who’d been at Rock City, he had a conversation with him [Hewan] and said, ‘No disrespect but I don’t want you and John [Grant] here’. He tried to do something different. At the Playpen, Mike Shaft had been playing the more traditional stuff, and I’d be doing house. 

What was the racial composition of the crowds? Berlin? Playpen? A lot of people I’ve spoken to all say it was black kids originally, who were into it.
It was. Originally. There was a set of girls, the something dancers, soon as I hit the deck, they’d come out, six or seven girls. The black guys were well into that Chicago sound. 

Were there any negative vibes between Black and white kids?
There was a perceived vibe, but there really wasn’t. Playpen was 50/50, mini-skirted girls with big hair. It was a period that had got all the tunes, but I wasn’t playing that often really. I was playing the house stuff at Birmingham and at Rock City we had a fabulous time with it. That was the period for Rock City. We’d come off the back off the jazz funk thing and we’d got 1,500 people in Rock City on a Friday. 

Was that just you and Jonathan playing there?
Yeah. Then we did all-dayers off the back of that. Rock City. Early all-dayers with jazz funk and a touch of northern were done at the Palais. Later, it was Rock City. Good black crowds coming in from Bristol, Northampton, Birmingham. It was a different feeling from Manchester.

What music would’ve been played at those all-dayers?
Bambaataa, Run DMC, Whispers, Salsoul: ‘If You’re Looking For Fun’ [by Weeks & Co], all the Randy Muller stuff,  jazz in the downstairs room, stuff like Keni Burke. Snowboy and Paul Murphy used to come up for that. Upstairs we were banging away: Teena Marie, Joyce Sims.

What were you playing when you were moving into the electronic sounds? Electro, house etc.
It went nuts, that stuff, particularly in Birmingham. ‘And Beat Goes On’ by Orbit, stuff like that. The whole dancefloor became like a sea, sad cliché, but it was like one nation under a groove. In Birmingham and Nottingham they were well into that. It became an identity for Black kids, across the Midlands. A similar identity to what Greg Wilson produced when he introduced the electro stuff. Warp 9, Orbit, they became huge. Massive records: Hanson & Davis’ ‘Tonight’, Serious Intention’s ‘You Don’t Know’. 

Did it happen quite quickly or gradually?
It was a bit like the Ritz in Manchester. There was a small growth in the corner of Black kids and it eventually took over. It was like that at Rafters, it eventually became a Black club. Derby at the Blue Note on Sunday, and in Birmingham, it was mainly Black from the start. The main difference between in the Black and white thing is the white guys liked to drink and the Black guys weren’t particularly into that. The dancing became the predominant feature. You’d get these breakdance groups. It was happening across the Midlands instead of Manchester. 

How long did it last, because it got decimated by the outbreak of house didn’t it?
Yeah. 1988 or ’89. There were two weekenders in Berwick, I did the 2nd. There was a mixed crowd, but the biggest thing was the reintroduction of ’70s music, with the Leroy Hutsons, Vandrosses, Ronn Matlocks. The soul scene jumped on to that big style. The modern scene that had been hovering hooked on to that sound, the Curtom sound. The dance thing wasn’t that strong on the weekender scene. 

Who were the big figures on the modern scene?
It kicked off through Richard Searling, myself, I knew the records from the first time, playing Arnold Blair ‘I’m Gonna Get Next To You’, I had two copies of that, Flowers’ ‘For Real’, forgotten album tracks, so you were revisiting a great period of music. It attracted the white soul fans. 

What was the theme running through those tunes, was it tempo, feel, what?
It was that midtempo, song, semi-underground feel. And on the sidelines you had this collecting scene growing out of trying to find these records. Richard pioneered that sound on his radio show. He started at the Halfway House and then we got together at a club called the Trafalgar. 

Where was the Trafalgar?
Just off the turn-off, Jct. 30, for Preston. Richard eventually went back to Manchester and teamed up with Dean Johnson at Parkers and again that brought the ball back and that was much more a 50/50 thing. 

What age were the Black kids going to that?
Parker era was an older age group. They’d lost their identity prior to that. In fact, the whole Black scene I’ve described to you that was one heaving unit, had disappeared like the dinosaurs. It just wasn’t happening anywhere. All the niche clubs like the Blue Note in Derby, it had just disappeared. 1,500 people, all gone. At Rock City we couldn’t get 200 people. 

What year was this?
Towards the end of the 80s, as the house scene had got an identity. 

Where did those Black kids go? Drum and bass?
I think they just went to normal clubs. If you think about Manchester when I first went in there in the late ’70s, there was the Reno, a huge Black club on Moss Side. Black people didn’t integrate in normal Saturday night clubs. 

Was that a racist door policy, though?
Yeah, absolutely. 

What do you think about what happened with house? It was such a behemoth, it consumed everything to start with, didn’t it?
Yeah, it did. Soul music itself got completely lost again, with no identity. For me it was exciting. I’m very much a spectator at this stage. My games business had taken off in the early ’90s. It was a more vague period for me. I’d go to the Hacienda. I knew Graeme Park very well, we used to book him at Rock City and give him £30. One thing that sticks in my mind with Graeme is he’d come on with two boxes and there’d be no LPs in there. The culture of our DJing, there’d be albums, 122, 7s, everything. That was it. That was the start of the mixing.

Roger Eagle spun the Wheel

Roger Eagle spun the Wheel

Starting there in 1963, Roger Eagle helmed Manchester’s Twisted Wheel to legend status, his upfront mix of rhythm and blues, rock’n’roll, blues, jazz, ska and soul inspiring a generation of Northern music lovers and laying the foundations for what would become Northern soul. In the Wheel’s interconnected cellars he entranced dancers with a diet of imported American records that couldn’t be heard anywhere else, earning £3 a night for seven hours of music. He left for rival club The Blue Note when the Wheel’s owners the Abadi Brothers refused to up this to a fiver. A few months later he opened his own place, the Staxx Club, in a Fountain Street venue that the notorious Jimmy Savile had recently been running as the Three Coins. In later years he was the lifeforce behind Liverpool’s post-punk epicentre Eric’s, where his future-facing jukebox connected a generation of Scouse music-makers. Tall, grumpy and singleminded, Roger was an educator, taste-maker and evangelist for the music he loved. He was very ill for the interview which is why it’s only short; he died the following year.

Interviewed by Bill in Wales, 10.9.98

When did the Twisted Wheel open?
The night I started there: November 24th 1963.

How did you get the job?
I was sitting in the place a week before it opened and I’d just imported a load of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley albums on Chess and Checker and the guy asked me if I knew anything about rhythm and blues and I said, ‘Yeah.’ So he said, ‘do you wanna DJ here at the all-nighters that are starting?’ And I DJed at every all-nighter for the first three years.

When did you start collecting
1954, rock’n’roll and jazz.

How did you get into DJing?
Basically when I started DJing I didn’t know what I was doing, but I just fell into it. I was just happy playing the music that I loved. I used to take a Grundig tape recorder out to parties and play stuff in the ’50s, but that wasn’t really DJing. I’ve always been a DJ in my bones. My influences were Alan Freed and Gus Goodwin. Gus Goodwin was on Radio Luxemburg in the ‘50s. He was a real wild guy, he used to spin around in his seat, shouting and yelling. His theme tune was ‘Basin Street Blues’ by Louis Armstrong, which features that great drum break by Gene Krupa. Then after that there was Guy Stevens at the Scene Club in London. He used to send me up records.
An ad for the Wheel in Roger’s fanzine R&B Scene, the first for blues and soul music.
Roger Eagle with Screaming Jay Hawkins and friend. Photo Brian Smith
Roger and John Lee Hooker. Photo Brian Smith

Did The Wheel start as an all-nighter straightaway?

How did that come about?
Don’t ask me. It’s probably because it was the popular thing to do. It was absolutely rammed right from the word go. Couldn’t get in.

Describe to me what it looked like?
On Brazenose Street off Albert Square. It held 500 or 600. You went downstairs and there were lots of small rooms with a big room for the stage. I was right at the back in a small room where the DJ unit which was sealed by bicycle wheels welded together. There was a coffee bar in between that and the main room.

How did it work. Did you warm up for the band?
No, just me playing and the bands were on. I played seven hours and the band did an hour somewhere in between. Little Walter, T Bone Walker, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Jimmy Powell and the Dimensions, Stevie Winwood’s band. Loads of American R&B. John Mayall, Spencer Davis Group.

What were you playing when it opened?
Rhythm & blues, which came before soul. Soul hadn’t been heard of then. The first soul album I heard was ‘The King of Rock’N’Soul’ by Solomon Burke. That was when the music started to change; it got a lot smoother, a lot more danceable.

How did the music develop, because the Motown stuff played later is more pacy than the R&B.
When I started DJing I could play what I wanted, but after three years I had to keep to same tempo, which is what Northern soul is. I started Northern soul, but I actually find the music very limiting, because in the early days I’d play a Charlie Mingus record, then I’d play a Blue Beat disc followed by a Booker T tune, then a Muddy Waters or Bo Diddley record. Gradually, there was this blanding out to one sort of sound.

Did you feel you were getting dictated to by the crowd?
Yeah, because the crowd was mostly into pills by then.

When did that start?
In the beginning everyone came because they loved the music. They came to see the blues singers and they came to hear the records, and for the social aspect. But after two or three years it became pills.

Was that why you left?

Did you carry on DJing?
I’ve always DJed, but I went into promoting and I owned clubs, like Erics. I still DJ today when I’m well enough. I also call myself Jukebox Johnson.

What stuff do you play nowadays?
My taste is the good stuff. Whether it’s blues or soul, jazz, funk, soul. You should come and see me. You’ll get a much broader view from me. I’m not doing the other DJs down; they’ve done well, they’ve made their money. But they’re very narrow, that’s what upsets me. But they don’t listen. They’re all locked into a Pavlovian warp where people react only to a certain kind rhythm and I think it’s depriving people of music.

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

Ian Dewhirst keeps the faith

Ian Dewhirst keeps the faith

Compiler, archivist, producer and label boss Ian Dewhirst is one of the finest DJs in the pantheon of northern soul, thanks to a lifetime of discerning collecting. He got his break in his teens when he realised the bulk-buy American 45s he’d been sifting through from a Bradford market stall contained some of the scene’s rarest and most sought-out tunes. Ian went on to play regularly in the key clubs of the northern circuit through the ’70s, including the legendary Wigan Casino and carved out a much-loved residency at Cleethorpes, where he’d get the Victorian pier quaking to the stomp of 500 dancers while the rain fell horizontally over the North Sea. He spun his DJing into a picaresque ride through the music business, where among many, many other escapades, he put Shalamar together, inspired Soft Cell’s ‘Tainted Love’, got on it with George Clinton, made the first British house record (Midnight Sunrise’s ‘On The House’) and launched the hugely inspirational Mastercuts compilation series. In more recent years Ian was behind the compilation labels Harmless and Suss’d, with series including Disco Discharge and Backbeats as well as a long-running Trax, Salsoul and Philadelphia International reissue programme. This is an edited merger of two separate interviews.

Interviewed by Bill in London, 14.9.98 and 2.4.99

What are your memories of Wigan Casino?
One of the best things was the anticipation, because you always knew what to expect; you always knew you’d meet pals from all over the place, everyone was going to be pouring in to Wigan. And Wigan, in those days, was a pretty depressing place to be going to. Miles and miles of terraced housing. A lot of the fun was the people you were with, because nine times out of ten, there’d be two or three speed-heads in the car, who were vibing everything up. We’d pull up, and there’d always be a mass of coaches and cars and this build-up of atmosphere. I was the music person, so as soon as I got in I’d be looking in boxes of records and talking to DJs.

Eventually we got sophisticated and used to get down about 3.30 or four. So you’d spend three or four hours at the [Blackpool] Mecca, and then it’d be about 45 minutes to Wigan. The great thing about Wigan was, as you drew up, you’d always see all these people milling about in the car park getting up to whatever they got up to. There was this tangible excitement in the air, because you knew you were going to be walking into a cauldron of activity and energy.

The Dancefloor at Wigan Casino

Describe going in.
The entrance to the Casino was really tatty. Zero money spent on maintenance. It was almost a dump. If it was a really busy night, there would be steam coming out of the entrance. I’ve seen that happen to cellar clubs a lot, but for a building that big! There was a lot of energy being expended there. As soon as you walked in, this whole thing hits you. You’re aware there’s a really fast record playing, clouds of condensation hit you in the face, you hear the handclaps. It’s almost like a drug. At its height, it was a real buzz. You know some clubs get it right. The right club at the right time with the right DJ; all the ingredients are right. And that’s how it was with Wigan.

You had to have membership to get in. It was that sense of community as well. You were part of this select, pretty exciting scene. There were all these kids, dressing really differently, and getting in a car and driving hundreds of miles. And you had the nutters of course, who were ‘chemically motivated’.

You told me about people breaking into chemist shops for amphetamines? Did that happen often?
It happened every week! Somewhere along the line, some of the bad lads must’ve reconnoitred all the different ways into Wigan and looked at the chemist shops that didn’t look like they had the greatest security. There’d be bunches from all around the country, and whichever way they came in you could almost bet your life that a chemist en-route would be broken into and done.

There’d be a contingent from where I came from, Mirfield. There was a mob from Huddersfield. I used to knock about with these people who introduced me to the Torch, from Cleckheaton and Heckmondwike. Their idea of a good weekend was, nine times of out of ten to get some gear. I used to hear about people getting busted. It used to be a contributory factor into why those places always got closed down.

This was on the periphery of my thing. I always kept one step removed from it. I never did anything then, believe it or not. I was Mr. Straight in those days. My induction into all of that came when I took a line off George Clinton [during the recording of ‘Flashlight’].

A lot of the records that took off had drug references in them. That was another peculiar side to the northern soul scene. Records like ‘Blowing My Mind To Pieces’, ‘Cracking Up’, ‘Ten Miles High.’ The Invitations’ ‘Skiing In The Snow’ goes, ‘Gotta get my gear out, ready for winter’s near’. I’d be going to these places with Rod and Sid and Smithy and Scotty, and that’s all they’d talk about. They’d be as high as kites. Those were the parts of the records they’d sing: ‘Gotta get my gear out!’ It was all part of the journey there. It was the song itself that was getting me off, but they were getting off to something else. It’s like that with acid house I suppose, when you had records like ‘I’m Rushing’ by Bump.

When did you start collecting records?
I was born in 1955 in Brighton, moved to Mirfield, between Dewsbury and Huddersfield. I started collecting records when I was 11, first record I ever bought was Felice Taylor ‘I Feel Love Coming On’, a Barry White production. I got into soul when I got my first transistor radio and I used to listen to Luxembourg: Tony Prince, Mike Raven, and then it was Dave Simons’ R&B show on Radio 1, Saturday afternoons five o’clock. I started hearing things on the radio that you wouldn’t hear under any other circumstances, and it was the Motown thing that got me.

When I was 15 I got a job at a clothes shop in Bradford and there was a market stall called Bostock’s, where they’d do 20 records for a quid, American imports with no centres in. Every Saturday for about a year I used to go to Bostock’s in my lunch hour and come back with a bag of 40 records, and my entertainment for that night was sitting down and playing the A and B-sides of these records and having my parents moan at me about saving money.

On my 15th birthday I found this DJ who wanted to get rid of his records, about 500 of them. There were things in there like ‘He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands’ by the Isley Brothers, James Carr ‘Freedom Train’, ‘Free For All’ Philip Mitchell, ‘Slippin’ Around’ by Bart Freeman on red Atlantic. I paid £25 for the collection, at the time it was a lot of money and my dad always reminds me that I never paid him back! Together with the stuff I was buying in Bradford market, I probably had about 1,000-1,500 records just before I was sixteen.

How did you hear about the northern scene?
I went to a pub in Cleckheaton that had a Motown night and I saw these mods in blazers with this symbol – The Torch – so I said to them, ‘What’s this?’ And they were like, ‘It’s a soul club, mate. They have an all-nighter every Saturday.’ I said ‘Well, I’m into that stuff, too.’ But he says, ‘No, you won’t know this stuff. This is northern soul. But there’s a place in Leeds on a Friday night and we go down there. It’s called the Central.’ So I went down with them, and it was like everything I’d been looking for.

All of a sudden, this sort of underground, secret world. I didn’t know 95% of the records, but they all sounded fantastic. It had this elite feeling to it; there were some nice looking, well-dressed girls, and the guys looked pretty smooth. The DJ had played a couple of records I had in my collection and, though I knew what they were, I didn’t realise the significance of them. The DJ was Tony Banks. Third week I went, he played Earl Wright ‘Thumb A Ride’, so I went up to him and said, ‘I’ve got this at home.’ And Tony says, ‘No, mate, you haven’t got this. There’s only one of these in the country and Tony Jebb’s got that.’ (He was playing one of those emi-disc copies). So the next week, I brought it with me and it caused this massive flutter because at that point there was only one known copy in the UK. All these guys were offering me money and swaps for it, but I wasn’t really into letting anything go.

I had a few others similar that I didn’t think anyone knew about, so I started bringing those down. A lot of stuff that came from Bradford market: ‘You Hit Me’ Alice Clark, The Shalamars, the Triumphs, The United Four ‘She’s Putting You On’, The Younghearts. I had lots of things that were northern, but I didn’t realise they were. Like lots of early Wheel or early Torch sounds, but there was a lot that actually weren’t known.

Banksy starting borrowing my records and within a few weeks they started becoming popular. Every week before I left he’d say, ‘Are you going to bring your records down next week?’ One week I was going to go on holiday the following week and Banksy said, ‘Can you leave your records with me?’ I didn’t really like the sound of that, but I agreed if he’d let me do the warm-up DJing when I got back. Came back and started playing between nine and ten o’clock on a Friday when there was hardly anybody in, then he’d come on at ten o’clock and go all the way through to two. That’s the point when I really started collecting. I started going to the Torch. It was just at the point when everything was just starting to get good.

Along with Manchester’s Twisted Wheel, the Golden Torch in Tunstall, near Stoke, was one of the foundational clubs of northern soul

When was the first time you went?
I went with the mob from Huddersfield when I was 18. It was towards the end of the Torch, maybe about ’73.

Describe it.
Just like nothing else I’d ever seen. You’ve got to imagine a kid from Mirfield, never been further than 20 miles outside of Dewsbury and Huddersfield, to be getting in a car with all of these hardened soul boys, going down, stopping at Knutsford services. There was an air of expectation going in there. It was like a dream. Like suddenly knowing you’re home. The first DJ I saw was Martyn Ellis, who was really good on the mic, he actually used to get people going. And this wonderful ‘feeling of togetherness,’ [he means drugs]. All these other enthusiasts, misfits, nutters that had travelled from all over the place. It was just like a really little, elite, very tight scene.

It was like being part of a movement. But it was even more underground. They seemed to carry themselves with air of superiority to the average beer-swilling guys. There was very much a feeling of elitism. The women looked better than your average girl. The northern scene at that particular time had up-to-the-minute fashions. Customised trousers nine times out of ten. The women would be dressed that little bit better and slinkier than the others. There was certain prestige to being on the scene at that time, especially during the Torch more so than the Wigan era.

Can you remember what it looked like.
Well, you’re pushing there. I only went twice. I can describe the atmosphere: electric! I can remember some of the records; I remember hearing The Tempos ‘Countdown’, ‘Crying Over You’ Duke Browner, ‘Just Ask Me’ Lennis Guess, ‘Catwalk’ by Gerry and Paul. The first time I went to the Mecca the thing that stood out for me there was ‘Nothing But Love’ by the Tartans. I ended up buying an emi-disc of it.

I was restricted to when I could go because of school and exams. It used to be a pain in the arse, explaining to my parents that I was going to this all-nighter. Then I got a motor and that started making things easier. I then became one of the few with a car. There wasn’t too much happening on the east-side of the country at that time, it was mostly Stoke, Manchester. I remember going to the Heavy Steam Machine at Hanley. I think at this point the Torch had shut and the Mecca was the place where you’d go every Saturday. There was Va Va’s in Bolton with [Richard] Searling. But that always had a weird vibe to it.

What about the use of microphones in northern clubs, because according to Rob Bellars the Twisted Wheel never used the mic. Were they talking at the Torch?
Yeah, Martyn Ellis was the king of the microphone. Most northern DJs can’t use the microphone. I can remember all sorts of funny incidents with Ian Levine on the mic. He was hopeless. Martyn Ellis, though, put some real presentation to it, I think, because he was an old mobile DJ. He was untouchable.

Did he talk between every record?
No. It had to be fairly fast and pacey, too. I don’t understand why people did it, when you wanna keep people dancing. It seems illogical now! At the time, I think it came from the showman DJ. The Stringfellow type.

When did you start playing at Wigan?
Within four weeks of it opening. We all went to the opening night. By this point we all had records. I used to fancy myself as a footballer, I wasn’t any good, but I came home from a match having scored three goals and a friend started calling me ‘Frank’ after Frank Worthington. I remember Russ had this record called ‘Cool Off’ by the Detroit Executives, fucking brilliant record, and Levine had been hammering it for about six weeks and it turned into the number one record at the Mecca. Russ had just got a load of records sent by his so-called ‘uncle’ in Miami [most likely record dealer Simon Soussan]. And in amongst them, there’s this ‘Cool Off’ that I particularly wanted and I always remember saying to Russ, ‘Ah man, I could really use that,’ and he said, ‘I don’t think it’s that good.’ I ended up getting it for some easy swap. Up till then the only place you could hear it was at the Mecca. As soon as I got it I was smashing it at Cleethorpes, Samantha’s [Sheffield], the Central [Leeds] and it became a huge record.

I used to DJ with a guy called Twink, so it was Frank & Twink, and we were the residents at the Central, we used to hang around together and we’d go to the Mecca every Saturday, then on to Wigan. And Russ just said, ‘Well, do you guys wanna do a spot.’ So we did a spot and bang, that was it.

What was it like playing at Wigan?
The first gig that we got at Wigan, that was quite a big step. I’d done all the smaller gigs. At this point I was starting to get some great records together. The problem at Wigan was that you had two or three thousand kids there and you had to keep that energy level. There was no such thing as blowing a spot at Wigan. You couldn’t afford to. If you can imagine the collective downer if two records on a row bombed out, the atmosphere would palpably slump, and I’ve seen it slump for certain people. And all of sudden it’s a drag.

So Wigan was less adventurous in terms of breaking records. I always like DJs who had exclusives that were great records, but didn’t try and break new material to the detriment of the atmosphere. That’s quite a balancing act, especially with two thousand people. It’s one thing that I’ve been very conscious of ever since: programming is dead important. There are two decks on a stage and you. It’s not that different from playing a concert. These aren’t normal people. They’ve worked their balls off all week. And they’ve come here to have a great Saturday night. All night. It really makes you keep your programming together.

And Wigan was stomper-friendly. It was not the environment to be playing nice sweet Philly things. I had a foot in both camps. Do you remember ‘Afternoon Of The Rhino’ [by Mike Post]? That’s a real crowd-peaking record. Every one of those you played, you had to have a killer mid-tempo tune to keep them on the floor. So pacing was really all-important.

What was the feeling like when you played a record at Wigan and it took the roof off?
Incredibly fulfilling. Especially if it was something that you wanted to see break, and maybe it’s taken a bit of time. There were some really weird records. I didn’t find this, but I was instrumental in Tobi Legend’s ‘Time will Pass You By’. I found the Gerri Grainger, ‘I Go To Pieces’. It wasn’t my type of record at all. I played it because the girls seemed to like it. ‘I’m On My Way’ Dean Parrish, was another.


Did I tell you about Kegsy, the guy who discovered that? Kegsy’s this guy from Bradford. Completely off his nut. He’d be walking around bombed all weekend. You’d arrive at Bolton or Wigan at three in the morning, and Kegsy would generally be hanging about outside. And you’d be, ‘Hiya Kegsy. Alright?’ ‘Well, yeah, I set off from Bradford last night with 12p and a Mars Bar and now I’ve got £23 in my pocket and a bunch of records!’ That was the joke with this guy, he’d always end up with money and records.

Anyway, he came to the Central one Friday night with the Tobi Legend which was on Laurie. And Laurie was a bit of a crappy label. But Kegsy could be quite powerful. And he came up, all sweaty and hardly able to speak, saying, ‘Play this, it’s fucking brilliant’ I put it on in the cans and all I can hear this horrible guitar at the start. I honestly thought he’d gone mad. ‘All you’ve gotta do is play it,’ he says. Anyway, he’s been at Va Va’s sticking it in Searling’s face, then at the Mecca he’s doing the same to Levine! Then he’s at Wigan, on the stage, and the funny thing about this guy, he had a tooth missing and looked a bit of thug, but he’s got the record in Russ Winstanley’s face. And Russ would cave in to pressure and also he’d give things a try, he had a nice democratic attitude about records. So Russ played it, and the rest is history! The poor guy’s plugging it for 36 hours before anyone plays it.

What’s your best memory of playing at an all-nighter?
Playing Wigan was great. Playing Sheffield Samantha’s was great. But for me, probably because I was headlining, it would have been Cleethorpes’ Pier. It was such a unique venue. You always got a bit more leeway with a residency. You could steer the crowd from week to week. If you got a great record, it would take you four to six weeks to break it, because you’d be the only one with it. That’s another big difference between the house scene and the northern scene, records are freely available to everyone now. With this stuff you’d find one record and that would be it.

The best thing about DJing was seeing your vision confirmed. It must’ve been the same for a musician. If a musician writes a song, and eventually gets accepted, it must be a gas playing it. It’s the same with finding an unknown record. You listen to it at home and wonder whether it will work. It’s like seeing a baby suddenly mature. Suddenly it’s a hot one. And seeing an unknown record go from zero value to being valuable. It was almost like a stock market.

I found two records in one day in Los Angeles once: Judy Street, ‘What’ on Strider, HB Barnum’s label, and I finally uncovered ‘Let’s Do The Duck’ by Richard Temple, which turned out to be called ‘The Duck’ by Willie Hutch on Dunhill.

Who was playing it as a cover-up?
Simon Soussan [notorious northern soul character] found it. It was incredibly rare. One side called ‘The Duck’ and the other ‘Love Runs Out’, both really good. James Carmichael production.

What about Ian Levine? He discovered a lot of great records.
If you were a serious collector, the only place you could conceive of going was Blackpool Mecca. Levine was there, and Levine was the arbiter of taste. He always had the most breathtaking array of records. You might not know them all, but you’d know they’d all be good. And he would take chances. You’d never have heard ‘Seven Day Lover’ by James Fountain at Wigan. I have to give him respect, even though he’s pretty obnoxious to be around a lot of the time, and he always was.

He was the guy who brought back ‘There’s A Ghost In my House’ by R Dean Taylor. It was a VIP single. Levine comes back from the States and of course I’m on the phone on the Saturday afternoon. And he says, ‘I’ve got the greatest northern soul record ever.’ But he used to say this all the time. It’s on VIP, it’s written by Holland Dozier and Holland and it’s by a well-known singer. It’s ‘There’s A Ghost In My House’ by R Dean Taylor. So I’m like ‘Fuck off!’ It must be around, it can’t be that rare. That night he played it about six times and by the third time everybody realised that, yes, it is the greatest record ever.

Overnight it’s the most wanted record in the country. The buzz spread. He’s done it again, he’s found a killer. So the next day everybody’s onto their contacts in the States, saying come on you must be able to find this; it’s easy: R Dean Taylor. We all went for it and everybody came up with a blank. We just couldn’t believe that it was that rare. This went on for about six weeks and the thirst for this record was huge, the pressure for everybody to get this record was ridiculous.

Then the weirdest thing happened. Someone was coming back from Wigan Casino and went into a motorway service station and was bending down to get a Sunday paper and there was a rack of those old Music For Pleasure budget LP racks. And there was an R Dean Taylor compilation called ‘Indiana Wants Me’. Track three, side two, there it was: ‘There’s A Ghost In My House’. So it’s in every record shop in the country and we all fucking missed it! Of course, the game was up, within about a week I’d found about 50 copies and I was knocking them out at a fiver each!

As well as finding rarities he started playing new releases. He got a lot of stick for playing ‘modern’ records, didn’t he?
What happened was Levine would go to Miami to stay with his parents once or twice a year. They had a casino in Blackpool and a house in Miami. So Levine from a young age was in every warehouse in Florida and, of course, discovering incredible stuff and bringing it back. Now, there was a point after one trip when he came back with Gil Scott-Heron ‘In The Bottle’, a terrible record called ‘Shake And Bump’ by Snoop Dee, and ‘Cochise’ by Paul Humphrey. Now ‘Cochise’ was an immediate monster. Nobody knew it at the time, but it was a new release. But it might as well have been brand new northern. And so this modern influence drifted in. Previously when that had happened it was records like Millie Jackson ‘My Man Is A Sweet Man’, which by accident was a stomper. It was about that time that he brought in ‘Music Maker’ King Sporty, ‘Seven Day Lover’ James Fountain, ‘I Can See Him Loving You’ The Anderson Brothers, ‘It Really Hurts Me Girl’ The Carstairs – my favourite record of all time.

And Levine, gradually, was bringing in more and more modern ones in. Then what happened was he stopped going to Miami and when he was sixteen he went to New York, still looking for northern records, but by this time he was hanging out in a lot of the big underground gay clubs. I think the one he went to at the time was the Anvil. He started bringing back this stuff. If you look at the early disco stuff, like ‘Free Man’ by Southshore Commission (a big Mecca record), was the same pace as northern, but just a more modern recording. ‘Super Ship’ George Benson: one of the biggest northern records, even though it was a new release.

If I hadn’t been down to the Mecca on a week that Levine got back from the States, I’d ring round on the Sunday and ask what he brought back. ‘The fucking biggest record of the night was “Super Ship” by George Benson.’ ‘What label’s that on?’ ‘A label called CTI. It’s a new release in the States.’ Then I’d get the record, put it on, and yeah it all made sense.

The scene hadn’t yet split, but what you were getting if you went to the Mecca you’d have Levine leaning much more and more on to the newer stuff. But then you’d have Colin Curtis who was into one-offs like Eula Cooper ‘Let Our Love Grow Higher’, ‘No One Else Can Take Your Place’ The Inspirations. And Curtis used to like stompers, but also quite like some of the new stuff and Levine would bring doubles back for him and Colin.

You used to get a real balance of these new records which were essentially early disco, and that kind of dovetailed with the northern stuff. Russ [Winstanley] banned new records. I can remember Levine getting his first spot at Wigan and he put on ‘Shake And Bump’ by Snoop Dee, which isn’t my favourite record anyway, cos it was quite funky and it didn’t really dovetail with what you’d call northern soul, but Russ made a thing of saying ‘I don’t want Snoopy Dee and I don’t want ‘Ladies Choice’ by Boby Franklin’. There were some records that were more funky than others and Levine could get away with them at Blackpool, but Russ wasn’t having them at Wigan. Then Cleethorpes was a melting pot for it all.

Why was Cleethorpes different?
It was almost the naiveté of the people who ran it, Mary and Colin Chapman. What they did was get that venue, which has to be one of the greatest venues ever, as far as mystique goes. I used to get to Cleethorpes Pier about four in the morning and by that point all you’d hear was this stomp-stomp-stomp from about a mile and a half away and it’d be the dancing. It was surreal; there’s this place jutting out into the sea and it’s four in the morning and all you can hear is stomp! Multiplied times a thousand.

There was no precedent for doing an all-nighter anywhere east in the country. So there was a good contingent from Yorkshire and Humberside. What was brilliant about Cleethorpes was that it offered an alternative. Credit where credit’s due, they didn’t go for that headhunting of top names, I was the nearest to a top name and Kev [Roberts] did a few. They let the local lads coming through have a chance like Rick Scott from Scunthorpe. I can’t imagine how many people in that area they turned on to it, you’re a prime example. I took it really seriously; I did seven till eight and generally I’d do a spot between three or four. The point when I did Cleethorpes was when I was riding high. I had a box full of records that were guaranteed floor-fillers. I had the Four Perfections ‘I’m Not Strong Enough’, ‘I Can’t Change’ Lorraine Chandler.

And then I was at an all-dayer at the Heavy Steam Machine at Hanley about four in the afternoon. This guy Dave from London, he worked at HMV in Berwick Street. I hadn’t seen him for about a year and I knew he always had odd records, so I said, ‘Can I have a quick look through your box?’ Flicking all the way through and the last two records are the Carstairs ‘It Really Hurts Me Girl’ and Dena Barnes ‘If You Ever Walk Out Of My Life’. The two biggest records in the country and he’s got them at the back of his box in paper sleeves. I asked him much he wanted for them and he said fifteen quid a piece. I had about 20 quid so I bought the Carstairs. So for the next two years, only me and Levine had it. Suddenly my gig rate shot up because I was the only one outside Blackpool who had that record.

The Carstairs used to be on that label Okeh. Then they turn up on a subsidiary of De-Lite, the Kool and the Gang label, and you put the needle on the record… Jesus Christ, man, if you want everything on one record, then this record’s got it. The most passionate vocal on it, scintillating beat, brilliant strings, produced by George Kerr, the fucking archdeacon of northern soul! Everything compressed into this one record. I spent almost a week looking at the label.

Northern soul was the first time people travelled around the country to different clubs. As a DJ you must have been covering some miles.
Friday night I was doing three gigs: Leeds Central 10-12, then I’d go over to Huddersfield do the Starlight from half 12 till half one, then I used drive over the Pennines to Sheffield, get to Samantha’s about half two and stay till eight in the morning. It was a good kick-off to the weekend.

Quite often, I’d then drive off down to Kings Lynn in Norfolk, to Soul Bowl. John Anderson was the guy who used to get records in. He’d go to the States every four weeks. His list always had interesting stuff on it, but once he got on the northern thing, he’d go over and find stuff. The main thing was trying to pin him down the day he got back from the States, because whoever got there first, got the first pick. So once out of every four or six weeks, I’d leave Sheffield after Samantha’s, drive all the way to Kings Lynn for about ten in the morning, get all the records bought, finally crash out for a couple of hours in the car in the afternoon and quite often I’d try and dovetail that with doing a gig on the east coast, especially if I was doing a gig in Cleethorpes as well. Quite often they’d have gigs in Louth; occasionally I’d do Burton-on-Trent.

At that point I was doing both Wigan and Cleethorpes, and Russ got funny about Cleethorpes so he said it’s either one or the other. But Cleethorpes, at that point, had a different vibe about it to Wigan and so I thought Cleethorpes I’d been with literally from the word go and Wigan can be a bit wanky if they’ve got the wrong guys on, so I stuck with Cleethorpes.

I was doing Cleethorpes every week, but I was getting disillusioned with what I was having to pay for rare records. The top DJs would be Levine, Curtis, Searling, Soul Sam, me, Russ, there’d be about ten of us. And if we wanted a record, whoever sold us it knew we’d only have to play it three weeks and it would be worth ten times what we paid for it. So, by that point I was being asked to pay a lot of money for unknowns. I was getting in bidding wars with people.

Frank Booper (in dark shirt) and friends at the Twisted Wheel

Who were the best dancers you remember?
The legendary dancer from the Torch was a guy called Frankie Booper. Every scene has a king, and Frankie Booper was the number one dancer. Everyone would get out of his way, and he knew it. He was one of those guys who had a strong physique, and he would run up to the wall and do backflips off it. He’d do things of such astounding athleticism. Frankie was the king at the Torch. I did notice in the Wigan period, you’d always get the ones doing aeroplane spins. They twirl round faster than the eye can see. I saw a guy at Cleethorpes die doing an aeroplane spin. He got locked into doing one, couldn’t stop doing them. When he came to a stand-still, blood was coming from his eyes, his nose, his mouth. He blew up. It was upsetting because it was right in front of the DJ stand.

Wow! Pretty intense, then!
You didn’t want to see any diminution of atmosphere on the dancefloor. The trick was to keep the same level of intensity, even if you varied the tempos. You could fill the floor with a slow record, almost as easily as a fast record. Did you ever hear the James Fountain record? ‘Seven Day Lover’? They didn’t play this at Wigan, because they never had a copy. I think they booked Levine at Wigan because he had a copy.

So clubs would book specific DJs just to hear a particular record?
Oh yeah. You knew who had which records and what exclusives. If you wanted ‘The Laws of Love’ by the Volcanoes, another early Trammps record, or Mel Britt ‘She’ll Come Running Back’, you had to book Richard Searling because he was the only guy that had them. That’s why we used to go to the Mecca every week, because, between them, Curtis and Levine probably had three or four dozen records that only they had.

The quality of an all-nighter was generally dictated by the quality of DJ. One of the problems of Wigan was that you had Richard Searling, who was what you’d call a good taste DJ, and then you had Russ Winstanley, who really would play some pap. It was one of the things used to wind me up about him. Here he is, he’s got this great club. It’s packed to capacity with kids. And we’ve got all of this incredible music at our disposal, so why is he playing ‘Good Little You’ by Joey Dee & the Starliters? Some white records are just right. It’s a difficult line.

Do you remember any records that crossed over as a result of Wigan?
‘There’s a Ghost In My House’ R Dean Taylor, ‘You Sexy Sugar Plum’ Rodger Collins. That started off on a list. You couldn’t get it because it was in San Francisco. There’s a record called ‘The Flasher’ by Lloyd Michael and Mistura that became a novelty pop hit.

What about ‘The Night’ by Frankie Valli? Was that a big Wigan record?
Mammoth. It didn’t do shit when it came out. Some of those records burned out quite quickly.

Why was that? Because they were pop?
Yeah, we’d drop them a long, long, long time before they were in the charts.

So does no-one ever play ‘There’s A Ghost In My House’ now then?
No. It’s a shame, it’s a good record.

Ian Levine is all remorseful about playing it now!
What’s he talking about! It’s Holland Dozier Holland.

Tell me the Tainted Love story.
Marc Almond used to be cloakroom boy in the [Leeds] Warehouse. We booked [soul band] Q Tips to play on the Tuesday and Wednesday night. I thought, Great, I’ll pull some soul stuff out. I brought the more accessible northern stuff out, so I could play it as people came in. I put ‘Tainted Love’ on and this guy who I’d conspicuously avoided for nine months – he was always getting in fights with women or something – he came rushing up in the middle of Gloria Jones. ‘What’s this record? I’ve got to know what this record is!’ ‘It’s Gloria Jones “Tainted Love”’ ‘I’ve got to have a tape of it!’. He’d done an EP called ‘Mutant Moments’ which was doodly electronic stuff that I couldn’t play. He’d done something on a Some Bizarre compilation and ‘Memorabilia’.

Great record!
Yeah, right! I think it’s a lot to do with Daniel Miller’s production. Anyway, the upshot of it was he ended up coming round my house. I remember it because he’s allergic to dogs. I put Gloria Jones and a load of other stuff. Probably even Judy Street, though I can’t be certain of that. I’ll show you one record I put on the same tape [goes looking for the record].

Did people overdo the drugs?
Some people did, some people didn’t. I was always acutely aware of there being drugs around at the all-nighters, mainly because on the way back from all-nighters I was always starving hungry. Coming back from Wigan we’d pull into Charnock Richard services, nearest to Wigan. That would be the first port of call on the way back over the M62, and again another place for seeing all your mates. You’d see a lot of people with green faces, and that washed out pallor, skeletal features. I used to meet girls at these things, and I’d spend all day Sunday with them. And they’d be just talking complete shit, while I’d be trying to get them in bed. After 24 hours you suddenly begin to think that these guys are on a completely different planet to me.

Actually, I’ve got a funny story for you. I had the car and I used to drive all of the lads everywhere. There must’ve been some particularly good drugs that week, because they were all on cloud nine, talking complete gibberish. I’m driving and flagging badly, and none of the conversation is making any sense to me at all. One in the front’s jabbering away talking about the birds, another guy’s talking about a record, another one’s talking to his knee. I’m on the M61 that leads to M62 and beginning to drop. So I said, ‘I’m going to have to pull over for a kip’. So I pulled over to the hard shoulder. I put my head back and fell asleep and went straight into this dream. And in the dream, I’m in the same car with the same guys, and the car goes out of control. So I woke up. I shouted, ‘Look out!’ And the guy in the front goes, ‘Look out!’ Suddenly everyone was screaming. And after about 20 seconds I said, ‘Er, we’re not moving.’

How would you sum up northern soul’s legacy?
The period you came up was actually it’s biggest. When I stepped off to go to America I felt it was at the height, and when I came back it just wasn’t the same. It’s almost like we found the great records in that 1972 to 1976 period. If ever there was a period to celebrate northern soul it was that.

We’re talking about northern soul, but that ethos has pretty much continued. That exclusivity is still going on. Those drum and bass guys have to have everything on acetate now. When the whole rave thing went ballistic, to me, it felt like northern soul 20 years on. Lots of people getting off their heads, dancing to fast music and this love attitude. This is this generation’s version of northern soul.

What was so revolutionary about northern soul was there was no antecedent for it. It was something that naturally came up. You talk to people that insist that the northern soul thing happened because of merchant seaman going over to the States and bringing back records and the DJs would be the first guys on the docks waiting for the ships to come in.

The northern soul thing to me was almost like an Eighth Wonder of the World. You’re looking at the depressed north of England where there wasn’t a great deal there apart from steelworks and coal mines. So you had people doing this boring repetitive work during the week; and hard work, too. And when they went out on a weekend, they really wanted to go out. Just going out to twelve o’clock in the local pub just wasn’t going to be good enough.

© Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton