Ian Dewhirst is the Zelig of dance music. As a northern soul ingénue DJing under the name “Frank” (he bore a passing resemblance to footballer Frank Worthington), he cut his teeth playing in Sheffield, Wigan and Cleethorpes, establishing himself as one of the northern circuit’s more forward-thinking jocks. Subsequent to that, he put together the group Shalamar, did his first line of coke with George Clinton, created the groundbreaking compilation series Mastercuts and got himself involved in every major dancefloor trend from jazz-funk to house.
During the northern years, Ian guested across the country, but is best remembered for his residency at the Winter Gardens in Cleethrorpes. As horizontal rain lashed in from Denmark, he’d spin immaculate soul a hundred yards out over the North Sea.
In 1998, we met at his offices in Simply Vinyl near Bond Street, before repairing to the pub, where he regaled us with increasingly outlandish tales, lubricated by increasingly large amounts of lager. The tape ran out before the stories, so we arranged to meet again. This interview, presented as part of RBMA’s partnership with DJ History, is with one of the great raconteurs of British dance music and an encyclopedia of American soul. – Bill Brewster
How did you get into black music?
I got into soul when I got my first transistor radio and I used to listen to [Radio] Luxembourg, of all people 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.
The school I went to was a grammar school and everyone was into heavy rock, I was the only one into soul. But I started finding this sort of little crowd that were into Motown, the youth club crowd essentially. When I was 15 I got a job at a clothes shop in Bradford and on the market there used to be a market stall called Bostock’s, and they used to do 20 records for a quid, American imports, with no centres in. At this time I used to buy records, even if I didn’t know what they were. Bostock’s had a chain, one in Huddersfield, one in Leeds and they had a lot of US and Canadian cut-outs, so I started buying all the Four Tops, Smokey and Stevie Wonder records that hadn’t come out over here. Anything, basically, on that label.
Every Saturday for about a year I used to go to Bostock’s in my lunch hour 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.
The next move, for my 15th birthday, I found this DJ who wanted to get rid of his records, which he had in this big case. 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 Art 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 16.
I went to a pub in Cleckheaton that had a Motown night and I saw these blokes in blazers with this symbol – The Torch – so I said to them, “What’s this thing?” And they were like, “It’s a soul club, mate. They have an all-nighter every Saturday.” And he started telling me about it. So we carried on talking and I said, “Well, I’m into that stuff, too.” So 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.
One of them was Earl Wright “Thumb a Ride.” Third week I went, he played it and the guy who was DJing was called Tony Banks, so I went up to where he was playing and said, “I’ve got this at home.” And Tony says, “No, mate, you haven’t got this.” (He was playing one of those emi-discs.) “There’s only one of these in the country, and Tony Jebb’s got that.” “No, no, I’ve got it. It’s called ‘Thumb a Ride’ by Earl Wright and it’s on Capitol.” So the next week, I brought it with me to show him, and of course at that point, you know, it caused this massive flutter because at that point there was only one known copy in the UK, and this wally, who’d only been going down there two or three weeks, had one. 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” by Alice Clark, The Shalamars, the Triumphs, The United Four’s “She’s Putting You On,” The Younghearts. I had lots of things that were Northern, but I didn’t realise that 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 anyway, I agreed to leave the records with him 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 to the Torch?
I went with the mob from Huddersfield. It was towards the end of the Torch, maybe about ‘73. I was about 18.
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 Martin Ellis, who was really good on the mic, he actually used to get people going. And this wonderful [adopts mock poncey accent] feeling of togetherness. All these other enthusiasts, misfits, nutters that had travelled from all over the place. It just like a really little, elite, very tight scene. Funnily enough I didn’t take drugs at that time.
Describe what it looked like.
Well, you’re pushing there. I only went twice. I could describe Wigan to a tee. I can describe the atmosphere: electric. I can remember some of the records; I remember hearing “Countdown,” “Crying Over You” Duke Browner, “Just Ask Me” Lenis Guess, “Catwalk” 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. There’s three versions: John Rhys and the Lively Set, the Tartans and the Kadoo Strings. I ended up buying an emi-disc of it.
That whole period when I was first venturing out was like a learning period for me. At the time, I think 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 Searling. But that always had a weird vibe to it.
When did you start playing at Wigan?
Within four weeks of it opening. We all went to the opening night. I remember Russ had this record called “Cool Off” by Detroit Executives, fucking brilliant record, and [Ian] Levine had been hammering for about six weeks and it turned into the number one record at the Mecca. And it was the record everyone wanted.
Russ had just got a load of records sent by his so-called uncle in Miami. 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 and then, of course, as soon as I got it (and the only place you could hear it was at the Mecca) I was smashing it at Cleethorpes, Samantha’s (Sheffield), the Central and it became a huge record.
I used to DJ with a guy called Twink, so it was Frank (after Frank Worthington) & Twink, and we were the residents at the Central. We used to hang around together cos we were also mates 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.
Did you have a regular slot?
Well, I used to roll up there about 3.30 AM; it was a better time to get there, I always felt. But that’s how I met Mary Chapman [who ran the Cleethorpes all-nighters]. I was coming back from Wigan, we stopped at Woody Edge services on the M62, and this elder woman sat next to us, started talking. I thought they were some dysfunctional couple who had accidentally stumbled into Wigan Casino. But they turned out to be soul fans. I ended up having a chat with them because they were really nice and so I said, “You should come to Samantha’s on a Friday.”
Friday night I was doing three gigs: Leeds Central (10-12), then I’d go over to Huddersfield do the Starlight from half twelve 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. [Jon 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. 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.
Where you there the first night?
It was a really influential spot that. The scene was governed by traditional old northern soul. Levine always had a bit more eclectic and – dare I say it – better taste. It would be Levine that would champion a record like Jody Mathis “Don’t You Care Anymore,” a lot of the real soulful ones, Levine would generally find them. There were a million and one fast stompers with a white vocal, that seemed to lean towards the Wigan. Soul Sam, that’s kind of all he played and Russ and John Vincent.
I had this little bit of a snobby attitude: it had to have a black vocal to it, male or female. I’d occasionally let a white one through if it was a Dean Parrish or Paul Anka. 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 Snoopy Dean 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” by King Sporty, “Seven Day Lover” by James Fountain, “I Can See Him Loving You” by The Anderson Brothers, “It Really Hurts Me Girl” by 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 16 he went to New York, still looking for northern records, but by this time he was hanging out in a lot of the sort of 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 South Shore 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, 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 was, if you went to the Mecca you’d have Levine leaning much more and more on to the newer stuff, but you’d still have Colin Curtis (who was into one-offs like Youilla Cooper’s “Let Our Love Grow Higher,” “No One Else Can Take Your Place” by The Inspirations).
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, for instance, banned new records. I can remember Levine getting his first spot at Wigan and he put on “Shake and Bump” by Snoopy Dean, 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 Dean 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. Cleethorpes was a melting pot for it all.
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.
The best example I can give is a track called “Ever Again” by Bernie Williams, because Colin had the only copy on Bell. It wasn’t a normal northern record, but it was just one that Colin would play in the last hour at the Mecca. The last hour at the Mecca used to have this tradition, that’s when they’d try out the new records. Every week Colin kept playing this Bernie Williams record and it had a small group of followers. And it really got under my skin; I really liked it and I thought I could definitely break that at Cleethorpes. I can remember ringing Colin and asking him whether he was going to do anything with that Bernie Williams record, I could really use it. “You’re too late mate, I’ve just done a deal with Jack Bollington in Derby.”
So I thought, “Well I’ve done a few deals with Bollington,” I thought I’d probably be able to get it off him. Jack always struck a hard bargain if he knew you wanted something. He said, “I don’t really wanna get rid of it, what’ve you got?” “Well, ‘World Column.’” (There were only four copies.) It doesn’t a sound a lot now, but it was a fuck of a lot of money, but he wanted £50, the World Column “So Is the Sun” on Tower and Susan Barratt on RCA. I was earning a bit from the gigs, but the records, previously, you could get them for £10-£20.
So anyway, I went down to Cleethorpes on the Saturday and you know the coffee bar at the side? That’s where all the deals used to go on. At that point Johnny Manship from Melton Mowbray had leapt into the DJ equation, suddenly started collecting records and bit by bit started getting some good ones, managed to get some spots at Cleethorpes. Johnny had a good contact in San Francisco called Bob Cattaneo and he used to get most of the good records from him. So anyway, he says, “Have you got any good records this week?” “Yeah, I’ve got one I’ve been after for ages, Bernie Williams’ ‘Never Again.’” “Never heard of it.” “Yeah, it’s the only one in the country, Colin’s played it, but only between one and two and I’m gonna bust it right open.”
So I’m just telling all this, thinking the deal’s sealed and I get back home on the Sunday and Sunday night I get a called from Jack Bollington: “Look, I don’t think I can do that deal any more.” “What are you talking about? The deal’s done, we’ve agreed on it.” “Yeah, but Manship’s rung and offered me a fucking fortune.” I said, “You’ve got to be joking! He doesn’t even know the fucking record.”
Then we had a bidding war, bit by bit it was edging up until my final bid was £100 in cash and four records, which would have taken it up to about £160. And Manship rang him and offered virtually the same four records and £150. And at that point I thought, “I can get gazumped here by any kid who’s got more money than I have.” Even if they know the record or not. Next time I saw Johnny I said, “You’re a cunt you are. You didn’t even know the fucking record.” “No, but a few people had told me about it. You weren’t the only one.” I only got my revenge four weeks later when he got the Anderson Brothers’ “I Can See Him Loving You” on GSF, which he didn’t realise was my most wanted record of all time, and I managed to it out of him for about £50. And bang! it suddenly shot up to £200.
How did his record do?
It did well! But there was a point when it was beginning to get really competitive. People who’d got some money, say someone who was a real saver, would suddenly launch and out bid everyone else. The big moan, after I pulled out, was that Chris King doesn’t even know the records, he’s just got loads of money. He’ll wait behind you and say, “How much do you want for that?” The guy would say £25, and Chris King would say £50. I’d been doing it for a long time at that point, and decided maybe it was better if I left England and moved to the States and looked for this stuff.
What sticks in your mind most about Cleethorpes?
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.
What was the Mecca like?
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 on to 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 pressure for everybody to get this record was ridiculous. The thirst for this record was huge.
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!
Do you remember the Northern crossover records?
Previously, there’d been “Hey Girl Don’t Bother Me” by the Tams, which I think was one of the early examples of something that had been rare and crossed over. By all accounts it had been a Wheel record. Barry Tasker, I think, was playing it. “You Sexy Sugar Plum” by Rodger Collins was another one. “You Sexy Sugar Plum” came from this guy in San Francisco, Bob Cattaneo, otherwise known as “Disco Bob” to collectors.
He had this record by Rodger Collins on Fantasy, and he’d already had a big Wheel record called “She’s Looking Good” on Galaxy, then there’d been this gap. Disco Bob was sending out lists and we were all looking for the most wanted records like the Carstairs, the Inspirations. And on the list is this “Sexy Sugar Plum” for four quid. “Can’t be any good,” we thought, because it was cheap and new. And of course somewhere along the line someone got it and then there was a feeding frenzy for it. It was a must have record.
The Esther Phillips [“What a Diff’rence a Day Made”] was Levine coming back from New York. These records coming from New York at that time were new, but it was taking them six weeks to come through to England. Like the Paul Humphrey record, “Cochise,” it was a new record. Another example is “Love Factory” by Eloise Laws. A couple of dozen records came through to the UK and that was it, it disappeared. Two or three years later, bang. It think it came out in ‘73 and ‘75-’76 it became huge. It didn’t feel like it was rare because it was on Music Merchant and you used to see loads of crappy Music Merchant records (but never the Eloise Laws).
It’s happened a few times that I’ve had records within my grasp and they haven’t felt that sexy so I’ve dismissed them, maybe because they’re on a label that’s not that rare. I did with Billy Woods “Let Me Make You Happy,” which is one of the greatest records ever made, purely because it was on Sussex. You used to fall over Sussex stuff everywhere, I just couldn’t imagine that there was a rare record on Sussex and it turns out to be one of the rarest records of all time.
What do you think its legacy is?
That ethos of exclusivity has pretty much continued. Those drum & 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 coalmines. 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 to the local pub just wasn’t going to be good enough. The period you came up was actually its 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.
Why was Cleethorpes different?
It 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. The weird thing is as soon as they nailed that venue, they rang me up and they said, “Look we’ve got a venue to do this all-nighter,” and 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 and Poke.
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 floorfillers. I had the Four Perfections’ “I’m Not Strong Enough,” “I Can’t Change” by Lorraine Chandler, The Carstairs which only Levine and myself had. Suddenly my gig rate shot up because I was the only one outside Blackpool who had that record.
The Carstairs had had a huge record at the Torch, “He Who Picks a Rose,” and then “It Really Hurts Me Girl” came out on Red Coach in 1973 and nobody could find it. I had the luckiest break with it, too. I was at an all-dayer at the Heavy Steam Machine at Hanley and got to this gig at four in the afternoon. This guy Dave from London was leaving and he had a record box, 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. So I asked him much he wanted for them and he said fifteen quid apiece. And I had about twenty quid so I bought the Carstairs, but I didn’t have enough for the Dena Barnes. Keith Minshull walks up wondering what I’m buying, sees the Dena Barnes record and asks how much. Fifteen quid, so he gets it.
So for the next two years, only me and Levine had it. 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, 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. There are very few records where there are one or two-offs; usually someone, somewhere will dig more up.
A great example was “Skiing in the Snow” by the Invitations. They’d already had a big one with “What’s Wrong With Me Baby,” which was a huge Wheel/Torch record and then out of the blue this record called “Skiing in the Snow,” which has got something in it about gear. It had all the great ingredients, a stomping beat, lyrics – anything with gear or getting high or other druggy connotations in it, for example. But there was only one copy. I have a feeling it was Levine who had it, but it used to get played at the Torch, so maybe someone had a copy there. Maybe Tony Jebb.
Someone went over to look for rare records and on the last day they were there, they had to go to Woolworth’s to get some razor blades and they had a counter with records for 15¢ and they had a copy of “Skiing in the Snow.” Came back to England, arranged to sell it at the Torch, so legend goes, travelling from wherever he was and had a car crash and he got killed and the copy went up in flames, which succeeded in turning the record into a legend. I’ve got an original copy at home, but it took me eight years to get it. I got mine from Soul Bowl in the late ’70s or early ’80s.
Can we go back to Wigan?
One of the best things was the anticipation of going there, because you always knew what to expect; you always knew you’d meet pals from all over the place, so there was that whole exodus thing. 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 speedheads in the car, who were vibing everything up.
I was the music person, so as soon as I got in I’d be looking in boxes of records and talking to DJs. We’d pull up. And there’d always be a mass of coaches and cars and this build up of atmosphere. Eventually we got sophisticated and used to get down about 3:30 or 4. So you’d spend three or four hours at the Mecca, doing the Mecca thing, and then it’d be about 45 to 50 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 or outside cars getting up to whatever they got up to.
But 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 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, but 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. When it opened, it was the right all-nighter at the right time.
The minute the Torch closed down, there was only really Mecca and Va Va’s, but I never really liked Va Va’s. There were always too many townies who took the piss out of the northern soulies. There was always a bad atmosphere. Wigan was totally different. You had to have membership to get in. It was that sense of community as well. It’s like going to Glastonbury these days, except it was every Saturday night. You were part of this select, pretty exciting scene.
When you look at most of the market towns, the height of the week would be going to Tiffanies in Bradford until two o’clock. Being drunk in the taxi queue. Getting a curry. Then there were all these kids, dressing really differently, and getting in a car and driving hundreds of miles. You had the nutters of course, who were “chemically motivated.”
Whichever way they came in, you could almost bet your life that a chemist would be broken into and done.
Was it you that told me about breaking into chemist shops?
Did that happen one time when you were going to a nighter?
It happened every week! Certainly wouldn’t have been me that did it, because 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 (when I was there during the recording of “Flashlight”).
What would happen with the chemist shops then?
I suppose the comical thing that would happen is somewhere along the line, some of the bad lads must’ve reconnoitered all the different ways into Wigan and looked at the chemist shops that didn’t look like they had the greatest security. There used to bunches from all around the country and you’d have people like Andy Wilson from Harrogate, Psycho from Leeds, whoever the nutter was from Nottingham. And whichever way they came in, you could almost bet your life that a chemist would be broken into and done.
I always kept one step removed from it. 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, literally, to get some gear, nine times of out of ten. I used to hear about people getting busted. It used to be a contributory factor into why those places always got closed down.
What kind of pills were there?
They even used to wear badges!
Smith Kline and Beecham?
Er, yeah... I think there was a motor oil company who had the same initials...
They used to have badges. The other thing is 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,” “Blowing My Mind,” “Cracking Up,” “Ten Miles High.”
And the Invitations as well?
Yeah, “gotta get my gear out, ready for winter’s near.” When I’d be going to these places with Rod and Sid and Smithy and Scotty, 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 someone else. It’s like that with acid house I suppose...
Like “I’m Rushing” by Bump.
When was that? [Talks about aciieeed chant craze at Shoom.]
Any good place I’ve gone to there’s always this highly charged atmosphere, and the condensation would be coming through the door.
Did you go to Shoom?
How would that compare with the Casino?
Difficult to compare because Shoom was...There was a similar thing, with the condensation. Any good place I’ve gone to there’s always this highly charged atmosphere, and the condensation would be coming through the door. There was a similar ambiance, but at Shoom you’d go down there, you wanna hear a few of your favourite records... at the time it would’ve been “Acid Trax” by Phuture, “Let the Music Use You.” I always remember Colin Faver playing “Pink Cadillac” down there.
Yeah, there’s a good C&C mix of it.
The difference is you fell in love with three minute records, as opposed to eight minute records. There was more passion about the northern scene. It wasn’t so flippant.
What was it like for you playing as a DJ 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.
Imagine: 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. I had things like the Carstairs, which were fine, and, in fact, one of the biggest ever records at Wigan, but that’s got a very powerful backbeat to it. “Shake and Bump,” for instance, was banned from there. So was “The Ladies’ Choice”... I can remember times when the record absolutely peaked. Do you remember “Afternoon of the Rhino”?
Mike Post Coalition?
Yeah. Boy! What a record. That’s a real crowd-peaking record. Everyone 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 that took the roof off at Wigan?
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.” Do you know that record?
It’s one of the three before eight.
Yeah. 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” by 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 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. Kegsy would go all over the place and he’d always go on about these records. And he came to the Central one Friday night with the Dean Parrish, which was on Laurie. And Laurie was a bit of a crappy label.
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 Kegsy had gone mad. “All you’ve gotta do is play it,” he says. Anyway, he’s 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 the thing about Russ is he’d 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.
The best thing about DJing was seeing your vision confirmed.
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. With this stuff, you’d find one record and that would be it.
I suppose 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.
Where and who were the best dancers?
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 used to be one of the guys who 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. In fact, I saw a guy die once doing an aeroplane spin. He couldn’t stop doing them. They twirl round faster than the eye can see. I once saw a guy at Cleethorpes get locked into doing one. And he when he came to a standstill, blood was coming from his eyes, his nose, his mouth, his ears. He blew up. It was upsetting because it was right in front of the DJ stand.
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? 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 they booked him specifically for that record?
Oh, well, yeah. I mean if you wanted “The Laws of Love” by the Volcanoes, another early Trammps record, Mel Britt “She’ll Come Running Back,” you had to book Richard because he was the only that had them. You knew who had which records and what exclusives. 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?
[R. Dean Taylor’s] “There’s a Ghost in My House,” [Rodger Collins’] “You Sexy Sugar Plum.” 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”? 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 a Holland Dozier Holland song. But pop records? Limmie & Family Cookin’s “You Can Do Magic.” That was a northern record, believe it or not.
Was it really?
Yeah, funnily enough, done by the same people who did “Skiing in the Snow,” Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell.
What was the perception of records like “Under My Thumb”? Was it regarded as rubbish?
No, not at all. A lot of white records were highly regarded. PJ Proby “That’s the Tune.” He sings the shit out of that, man. Here’s an example of a white act that’s made one of the greatest northern soul records: Paul Anka.
Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ “Seven Days Is Too Long.”
Good one, yeah. “I Never Knew” by Eddie Foster. I always think that’s gonna be a number one hit for somebody one day. Really. I can’t think of any other pop records. The Fatboy Slim one is a perfect example [it uses Just Brothers’ “Sliced Tomatoes”] with Funk Soul Brother. He’s done another one that uses “I’ll Do a Little Bit More” by the Olympics, I think it’s on “Gangsta Trippin.’” Kev knows that because he had to clear it. He owns the rights to the Olympics. He owns the rights to Mirwood and some of those Detroit labels, like Groovesville. He owns quite a few.
Tell me the “Tainted Love” story.
Marc Almond used to be cloakroom boy in the Warehouse. We booked 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 on tape for him. Probably even Judy Street, though I can’t be certain of that.
How much of a northern tune is Guy Darrell[’s “I’ve Been Hurt”], because interviewing Levine he played its role down. I thought it was a Torch record?
Torch. All the way through. Absolutely. It was one of the most popular tunes, too. What happened with that was it filtered down from the Torch into localised clubs.
What about the use of microphones in northern clubs, because the Twisted Wheel never used the mic, according to Rob Bellars.
Is that right?
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 Levine on the mic. Levine on the mic is very much what he’s like when you’re talking to him. [adopts Levine accent] “And now the most incredible record from the Carstairs. It’s the third time I’ve played this tonight, but it deserves to be played ten times a night.”
He could never get his head around the equipment side of things. So he’d come in the Mecca and arrange his gut onto the DJ stand. Often he’d go, “And that was the brilliant sound of the Just Brothers and now we’re... oh... what’s?... what’s happening here?... this is broken.... where’s Colin?....HELP!” And he’d be doing this on the microphone and there’d be 1,500 people thinking, “What the hell is going on?!” He was hopeless. Martyn Ellis, though, put some real presentation to it, I think, because he was an old mobile DJ. He was untouchable.
This interview was conducted in London in September 1998. © DJ History
To hear the sounds of Cleethorpes Winter Gardens, check out the playlist below, exclusively compiled by Kev Roberts for DJ History.