FOR DANCERS ONLY: THE STORY OF WIGAN CASINO
There were clubs that were far cooler than Wigan Casino. There were clubs more progressive in their evolution of new styles of ‘Northern Soul’. There were clubs for purists, for innovators, for collectors, but if what you really wanted was a club for dancers, then Wigan Casino was the place to go.
At 2am in the early hours of Sunday, September 23, 1973, the doors of the Wigan Casino opened to the Northern Soul all-nighter crowd for the first time. Following in the all-night traditions of Manchester’s Twisted Wheel club of the late ’60s, Northern Soul had been bereft of a spiritual home since the closure of the Golden Torch in Stoke six months earlier. The Highland Rooms of the Blackpool Mecca had developed a passionate following under DJs such as Ian Levine and Tony Jebb, but as the Mecca existed in normal club hours, the scene was still in search of a favoured all-nighter venue. At first Wigan looked to be just another temporary resting place – its founding DJ Russ Winstanley had little more than a local reputation and the venue itself had seen better days – but after closing the doors on its final weekly all-nighter some eight years later, the Casino had established itself as ‘the heart of soul’, the most famous of ‘Northern’ venues.
When Blues & Soul journalist Dave Godin first coined the term ‘Northern Soul’ in 1968, he definitely didn’t have in mind the sound that Wigan would begin to evolve some five years later. It wasn’t even intended as a generic journalistic term to sum up a developing musical movement. For Godin, it was merely a handy quickfit reference to help out the team at his Soul City record shop in Covent Garden.
“I started to notice that Northern football fans who were in London to follow their team were coming into the store to buy records – but they weren’t at all interested in the latest developments in the black American chart,” explains Godin. With contemporary black music evolving into what would eventually become known as funk, to differentiate the tastes of the die-hard soul-lovers of the north, whose musical preferences seemed to have stalled somewhere in that classic mid-’60s era of Motown-sounding black American dance, Godin referred to their requests as ‘Northern Soul’. “I devised the name as a shorthand sales term,” he says. “It was just to say ‘if you’ve got customers from the north, don’t waste time playing them records currently in the US black chart, just play them what they like – ‘Northern Soul’.”
Little did Godin know at the time, but he had created an epithet that would bind together a disparate array of clubs, DJs and playlists for many years to come; one which – largely thanks to the Casino – would eventually rob him of his original definition. “Wigan was far from a purist location,” he says. “For me, soul music is synonymous with the music of black America. It’s an American musical form, but Wigan played all sorts of records, and they weren’t particularly fussy where they came from as long as they had that ‘thing’.”
That ‘thing’ was the ‘Wigan sound’. Confronted by the biggest of Northern dancefloors, the DJs of Wigan needed to find the biggest of tunes to fill it. As a building the Casino was well past its heyday, but with the best-kept dancefloor that the circuit had seen – and with superb acoustics to match – it could have been tailor-made for Northern Soul. Its huge ballroom easily held 1200, the dancefloor flanked on three sides by ornate balconies where the acrobatic dancers, illuminated by just two fluorescent lights suspended from the domed ceiling, could be watched from on high. An ante room known originally as the Palais – later Mr M’s – was a scaled-down version of the main hall, giving the Casino another substantial dance area that was soon utilised as a regular ‘oldies’ room, increasing the total capacity of the venue to well over 2,000.
Wigan’s dancers were demanding and the music had to be just right or they would walk. There could be few experiences worse for a DJ than standing behind the turntables on the stage of the Casino’s main ballroom when the mighty, heaving, Wigan dancefloor cleared in a show of spontaneous musical disapproval, revealing that vast expanse of sprung wooden flooring to the watchers on the balcony. With those kind of pressures dictating the playlist, Wigan’s unique circumstances were shaping the music that was played, enabling the club to develop a style of its own, often out of keeping with what was happening elsewhere on the ‘Northern’ scene.
Wigan was totally different to any of its predecessors. Unlike the small, concrete-floored Twisted Wheel, the dancefloor at Wigan was ideal for the back-flipping daring of its dancers. Similarly, the rigors of eight-hour-long, alcohol-free dance marathons, on a floor that dwarfed that of the Blackpool Mecca and the Golden Torch, led to an amphetamine culture that required the sounds of Wigan to be fast and frenetic, the beat to be stomping. “The drug culture and the size of the venue made the tempo of the records extremely fast,” explains original Wigan DJ Kev Roberts. “Therefore the Casino created its own records, a wider variety of Northern Soul than you’d hear elsewhere. Northern Soul has never been just about ‘soul’, it means much more than that.”
The driving force behind the all-nighters at Wigan was local DJ Russ Winstanley who, together with Casino manager and soul enthusiast Mike Walker, persuaded the venue’s owner, Gerry Marshall, to take a gamble on the nights. “We started the all-nighters in September 1973 and thought if it lasts until Christmas we’ll have cracked it,” recalls Winstanley. “By the time we got to the first anniversary it had taken off and in a lot of respects it really started running away with us.” But rather than go to the big name spinners of the Torch and the Mecca for support, Winstanley set about building a roster of talented but untried young DJs who would help develop a unique sound and style for Wigan.
As word spread, people would travel from all over the country for the weekly all-nighter at the Casino. It wasn’t long until the opening time had to be brought forward from the original 2am start because of the volume of people congregating outside the building in Station Road, but this brand of rare soul was so scarce that you had little other choice if you really wanted to hear it. “You’ve got to remember, the records that Wigan were playing were very rare,” explains Roberts. “The Torch? Well there had been rare records there too, but when Wigan came along the people who were discovering the records were digging far deeper.”
In a world long before re-release culture became the norm, these records were often so rare that even other DJs did not know the true identities of the artists behind some of the scene’s biggest hits. In the constantly evolving battles of one-upmanship between the DJs – and to fend off the bootleggers, ever eager to identify and press up a ‘breaking’ track – ownership of a rare sound was safeguarded by ‘covering it up’, replacing the label with a bogus name and title. By the time a record was finally identified by collectors or ‘uncovered’ by the DJ, a spinner could have gained several months of exclusive play. If a record was genuinely hot and you were the only DJ with a copy, no-one could compete with that.
Cover-up culture had existed on the Northern scene before Wigan, but never to the same extent, and it goes some way to explaining the lengths that soul fans would go to get to their favourite all-nighter each week. “It really got under your skin,” says Russ Winstanley “It was so different because you had to go to this place to listen to the music – there were very few other places and nowhere else was playing the same music. Okay, they were playing a similar type of Northern Soul, but we had our own records that were exclusive to Wigan Casino.”
Wigan is best remembered for its dancers – those spinning youths throwing themselves around the dancefloor in 32-inch wide Spencers and vests adorned with the badges of their favourite ‘nighters’, slogans like ‘keep the faith’, ‘the heart of soul’ and ‘the night owl’. Among the dancers on the mighty floor of the Casino there was a pecking order. “We didn’t realise it at first,” says Winstanley. “We’d see them dancing at the front and we’d think blooming heck we’ve got some of the best dancers in the world here, but what we hadn’t realised was that the better they got, the further they moved towards the stage where the DJs were.”
“Watching the dancers at Wigan was awe-inspiring, it gave you a great boost as a DJ,” recalls Richard Searling, perhaps the most popular and progressive of Wigan’s disc spinners. “Conversely, if you played a bad track you’d know about that just as quickly and clearing the floor was also awe-inspiring in a different way and could shatter people. It wasn’t an easy gig to play because there was a certain sound they wanted and if you wanted to experiment you had to think about what you were doing or they’d let you know about it – 1200 people would be in that room and when the dancefloor cleared the light shone off the wood and by god it looked awful.”
The dancing had a code of its own that was impenetrable to outsiders. “People would clap in time with the music at certain points,” explains Russ. “When you had a couple of thousand people who clap at a key moment, it sounded like a pistol cracking. And if they particularly liked a track or a session, they’d applaud the DJ at the end. These were the peculiarities of the Northern Soul scene.”
After Russ Winstanley and his helper Ian Fishwick, Kev Roberts was the third DJ to man the decks at Casino all-nighters, having been plucked from the crowd as a 16-year-old in only the club’s second week. It was in this early period that he saw the true passion for dancing that the Casino inspired. “I was just starting to feel confident after about six weeks and I felt that this gig was going to be just fantastic,” he says. “Each night was getting bigger and on this particular night we’d got about 1500 people in and the place was rocking. I had managed to get this record by Sandra Phillips called ‘World Without Sunshine’ – it just had this incredible bassy piano intro that tells you something astounding is about to happen – and as I played the record for the first time this guy just leapt from the balcony and dived onto the crowded dancefloor. People picked him up and he just carried-on dancing.”
At the height of its popularity the Wigan Casino had over 100,000 members – indeed by April 1975, Mike Walker had to temporarily suspend the membership because of complaints about overcrowding. The Casino’s Saturday soul nighter grew and eventually the club also featured regular evening soul sessions on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, an under 18s club and a monthly Friday all-nighter featuring Casino oldies. Although primarily a record-based scene, the Casino also played host to live performances by many of the greats of soul, like Jackie Wilson and Edwin Starr, while it also contributed to building the popularity of artists such as Tommy Hunt and Betty Wright. Extending the name of the Casino into other genres, at times the club also provided a regular Thursday punk night and Saturday rock session, featuring many of the big touring bands of the day.
The Casino developed in the formative years of British dance music and many of the mistakes it made have become lessons for future generations of dance entrepreneurs. Its ill-advised involvement with manufactured ‘soul’ records by the likes of Wigan’s Ovation (Ski-ing In the Snow) and Wigan’s Chosen Few (Footsee) might have brought chart hits and thousands of new soul fans to the Casino, but they seriously damaged the credibility of the club. Its relentless eight-year search for unheard stompers with ‘that Wigan sound’ also led to the playlisting of white pop records, b-sides and novelty numbers by the likes of Helen Shapiro, Samantha Jones and Tony Blackburn that, while becoming monster dancefloor hits, alienated many true soul purists.
Through it’s last year in existence, the Casino’s future was constantly in doubt, as the town council prepared to demolish the building to make way for a new Civic Centre. By the time the final night came in late 1981, many of Wigan’s best-known DJs had jumped ship and a hole was left in the heart of the club following the surprise suicide of popular manger Mike Walker. Russ Winstanley had only missed one of the Saturday all-nighters in the club’s eight year run, but still he didn’t feel like turning up when the farewell night finally arrived.
“It was the only night I never wanted to go,” he says. As the end approached, he played the three records that traditionally closed every all-nighter at the Wigan Casino, the ‘three before eight’: Jimmy Radcliffe’s ‘Long After Tonight Is All Over’, Tobi Legend’s ‘Time Will Pass You By’ and Dean Parrish’s ‘I’m On My Way’. “I played them, and then I played them again, because people were just handclapping to the beat when the records had finished,” says Russ, “I don’t know why, but I then played what has since become recognised as the best and most valuable Northern track ever, Frank Wilson’s ‘Do I Love You’. After that, people just sat down and cried their eyes out. It was absolutely awful.
“It’s funny isn’t it,” he adds, “the Cavern Club was demolished, the Hacienda was demolished, and the Wigan Casino was demolished. It seems to be like the most famous places aren’t there any more – and they never even built the new Civic Centre.”
For all the criticism that the club garnered from hardcore soul purists, 21 years on Richard Searling is still proud of the part he played in the Wigan story. “There was a certain type of sound that was needed at the Casino because it was an amphitheatre of a place. It had to be a pounding, powerful sound and if you tried to play mid-tempo subtleties you’d bomb out big time. When you listen back now, a lot of the records were by white artists, and while they might sound shit now, at the time, believe you me, they didn’t! Those records were big and in context they were perfectly acceptable.
“Tastes have changed now – 25 years on we are all a little more experienced,” he adds, “we are more refined in our tastes, but that has only come with the passing of time. The Casino sound was powerful – okay, it wasn’t the most soulful, but it got Northern Soul on the map and brought people onto the scene who are the roots of today’s scene. I don’t think Wigan has anything to apologise for musically. To this day, wherever I go, even if it’s somewhere obscure, if I start talking about Northern Soul, there’s only one place that people remember – and that’s Wigan!”
LIVING THE NIGHTLIFE: THE PIONEERS OF NORTHERN SOUL
THE TWISTED WHEEL
THE GOLDEN TORCH
THE BLACKPOOL MECCA
© Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007