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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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