By the time I left school at sixteen in the late-seventies the big sound was disco. That said, the real hipsters among the kids who underwent the same non-education as me were into northern soul (rare mainly American and mainly 1960s records that sounded like Motown but never made the pop charts). I first came across northern soul in the mid-seventies because a school friend shared a bedroom with an older brother who was obsessed with a handful of northern soul platters. This big brother would come in from his factory job, put Tainted Love (later a huge hit when it was covered by Soft Cell) or some other northern favourite on a record deck, then flop on his bed to listen to the music until his mum had made his tea. For some reason this particular teenager also liked prog, so he was also the first person to play me Greenslade!
By the end of 1976, I was into punk rock (one of only two pupils in my school into that scene then), while a couple of kids in my class were regularly going to Wigan Casino for its northern soul all-nighters. I can remember them saying to me: “You should come to Wigan, it’s great, we drop a load of blues and dance all night!” My reply was: “Why would I got all that way to listen to records? I like seeing live bands.” There were plenty of blues (amphetamine tablets) around at punk gigs too…
And so that was that, I blew my chance to go to Wigan – possibly the worst decision I made at the age of 14 or 15. Tony Palmer’s 1977 TV documentary makes it very clear there was a truly extraordinary youth culture blossoming there. Space put it this way: “Wigan Casino documents an idiosyncratic scene based around the weekly club night that ran from 1973 to 1981. From elegant slow motion dance shots to fervent scenes of vinyl swapping, Palmer precisely captures the bustle and energy, as well as the overarching subcultural strangeness, of the Northern Soul phenomenon.”
If you have any interest in soul music you should have seen Palmer’s incredible dance shots used by other film-makers or simply posted on YouTube. But it is worth seeing those scenes in context, with a record dealer talking about the prices paid for northern vinyl and a girl who works in a hospital laundry explaining that going to Wigan is the only meaningful thing she does in her life. There is also an interview with the manager of The Casino and a couple of elderly Wigan residents giving their take on life. Cut into this are old photographs of industrial Wigan, and shots of factory machinery that turn with an almost Brion Gysin-like flicker effect. The contemporary scenes of Wigan, particularly images of terraced houses by a canal, make it look every bit as derelict as the rest of England in the late-seventies.
Wigan Casino may be a 32-year old piece of TV, but it’s the best thing I’ve seen in an art gallery for some time! It is on until 19 December at Space 129-131 Mare Street, Hackney, London E8 3RH. Catch it if you can…
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!
Tags: 1960s, 1970s, 1977, 60s, 70s, amphetamines, blues, Brion Gysin, dancing, disco, east London, Greenslade, Hackney, London, Motown, northern soul, prog rock, punk rock, S.O.U.L., seventies, sixties, Space, Tainted Love, Tony Palmer, Wigan, Wigan Casino, YouTube