NORTHERN SOUL hit B-I-G in '75. For the first time there was splash coverage from the top press, a flurry of releases - many of them mediocore - from the London-based record industry and even the Beeb jumped on the bandwagon with a special edition of Radio One's "Insight" programme devoted to the scene.
That beatin' rhythm even hit the telly - although the sight of Wigan's Ovation merrily murdering the Invitations classic "Skiing in the snow" was enough to make ancient Northern devotees drop dead in the middle of a backdrop.
As one old-timer told me this week; "Christ, when I started going to clubs like the Twisted Wheel ( in Manchester ) in the Sixties it was a really small grass roots movement. It was all part of the mod thing. Everyone used to know each other and we were all really into the music. If someone had told me then what the scene would be like today, I'd have sent him off to the loony bin. It's sickening to see the way the music has been exploited."
Clubs like the Wheel kept the soul fires burning in the Sixties after Southern club owners had given the sound of Black America the boot in favour of flower power and heavy rock. Not that you could blame the Southern clubs - the at - one - time - so refreshing dance beat of Tamla Motown, Atlantic and Stax had got TOO predictable.
But while the London-based business forgot about soul ( with honourable exceptions like Dave Godin's Soul City shop in the West End ) the rare soul discos at clubs like the Wheel, the Catacombs in Wolverhampton and the Chateau in Worcester got more popular. Disc-jockeys like Birmingham based Carl Dene - who played at the imensley popular Sunday afternoon sessions at the Chateau - found they had to constantly go to greater lengths to satisfy the dancers. "One day I got a letter from a guy in ****** who had a copy of Tony Clarke's 'The Entertainer' and I drove up there right away in case anyone else got it. But it was worth it - I got the record." remembered Carl.
Satisfying the dancers WAS a problem. Spinners soon exhausted the Motown catalouge and started looking for UK released items with that uptempo beat that hadn't done a thing first time around. Records like "There's nothing else to say" - The Incredibles ( Stateside ), "Dr.Love" - Bobby Sheen ( Capitol Disco '66 ), "Ready,willing and able" - Jimmy Holiday & Clydie King ( Liberty ) and "Here she comes" - The Tymes ( Cameo Parkway ) became sought after collectors' items and changed hands for £5 a throw. At the same time, enterprising dealers got hip to the cash potential from this underground movement and started importing esoretic US releases.
Clubs like the Wheel were suddenly getting a lot of attention . . . . and Northern Soul was ready to start going overground . . . . But the Seventies started badly - with the closure of the Wheel. Manchester drugs squad were getting increasingly interested in the amphetamine pushers and takers among the mainly "straight" Wheel crowd. After a series of spectacular and headline making raids, the club just had to shut.
At the time, it seemed like a death blow. Other clubs tried to take the Wheel's place but found it hard to get established. Then came the Torch . . . . .
Promoter Chris Burton explained; "We'd been running soul sessions at the Torch - a converted cinema at Tunstall, near Stoke - since 1968. The crowd kept asking me to try All-Nighters but I wasn't too keen. Anyway, I decided to have a go."
The first All-Nighter - on Saturday, April 14, 1973 - attracted a near thousand crowd from all over the country despite little advertising. Encouraged, Chris started running them once-a-month, then once a fortnight and eventually every Saturday. "It was a great time," Chris told BLACK ECHOES. "Really it was the kids' own scene. They knew what music they wanted and created their own magic."
Top-line artists like The Stylistics and Junior Walker appeared before the most knowledgeable soul crowd in Britain . . . . but the real crowd puller was Chicago soulster Major Lance. "He put us on the map and made people realise we were there. I don't think anyone in the industry could believe what we were achieving."
Contempo Records cut a live LP of Major at the Torch and it's still selling steadily. The record industry had at last cottoned on to what was happening north of Watford and was spotting gold in them Northern hills. "I suppose the industry had to sit up and take notice of us," admits Chris. "Personally, though, I don't think we had that much influence on the business - I'd say it was Wigan Casino that has done that."
When the Torch closed after 16 months of All-Nighters ( and a protracted battle with the drugs sqad that was eventually lost in the court room ) it seemed like nothing could ever emulate it. By the time it closed, Chris Burton's International Soul Club had 33,000 members. The market was huge - and DJ's like Tony Jebb and Alan Day were spinning an incredible variety of stomp-stomp dancers.
Other venues - like Bolton's Va-Va's and the Highland Room at Blackpool Mecca - filled the gap. But what was really needed was another big All-Nighter venue.
Enterprising disc-jockey Russ Winstanley convinced the management at Wigan's Casino club that an All-Nighter would be a success.
The first one was in Autumn '73 - and there's been one every week since. The club now claims a membership of 70,000 pluss, and manager Mike Walker proudly boasts that the club attracts soul fanatics from all over Europe.
One contraversal thing about the club has been the link with Northern copyists Wigan's Ovation with whom Mike Walker has a financial link. As one fan told me in the packed Wigan bar as scores of sweat-stained dancers took time off to plough through record boxes full of rare goodies for sale; "Trouble is, people who don't know anything about the Northern scene will think groups like that are what we like." "In fact, if they ever appeared here we'd throw things at them. We're into soul - not pop rubbish like that."
Just what Mike Walke's views are on the subject is unknown. When BLACK ECHOES checked Wigan out recently he was "unavailable" for an interview.
The growing Northern following has resulted in specialist Northern nights springing up all over the country - but quantity is no substitute for quality, is it ?