Soul deep at Wigan Casino (or should that be sole deep?)

Any parents reading the Sun or the Daily Mirror circa 1975/6 would have been understandably horrified by the lurid tales of all-night dancing and drug taking at Wigan Casino. As a 15 year girl, whose whole musical world revolved around the phenomenon called ‘Northern Soul’, felt like her scene had been violated by the tabloids. Being too young to go to Wigan Casino however, she could only drink in the news and reviews published in Black Echoes and Blues and Soul and wait for the latest discoveries to filter down to the local youth clubs, via pressings and bootlegs.

Eventually the girl grew up and managed to find her way to Wigan. Driving a battered, emerald green, Ford Escort van, she sallied forth across the Pennines, with various friends bouncing around in the rear of the vehicle – with no thought to health and safety – just a desperate desire to finally experience the famous Wigan Casino. With changes of clothing and deodorant in overnight bags emblazoned with soul badges, we were finally ready to rush up the famous stairs and through the double doors to dance on the most famous dance floor in our world.

Not being able to get there until 1980 turned out to be fortuitous, as 1979 through to the last night in December 1981 proved to be a golden era for the tracks discovered and played. The Mod Revival of 79/80 also boosted attendance temporarily, until that fashion went the way of all fashions.

In 1973, the early part of the allnighter scene at Wigan Casino, the venue didn’t open until 2.00am. But by 1980 the time had been bought forward to a more civilised midnight, still ending at 8.00am to the echoes of the ‘Three before Eight’. Any soulie worth their salt won’t need to be reminded about which tracks they were.

Now it has to be said that Wigan Casino was not your traditional nightclub in the genre of Tiffanys or Baileys. The venue started life as a ballroom, sporting the name of the Empress Hall. In 1980 it still had echoes of its former imperial splendour, but in truth the glory had well and truly disappeared under thick yellow-brown layers of nicotine and was a Sepia version of its earlier days. It still had the most fantastic, and enormous, sprung dance floor. Sprinkled with talcum powder, the floor was perfect for the spins, dives and drops that were a definitive part of Northern Soul. A huge balcony circled the dance floor, allowing you to marvel at the acrobatic dancing below, while you picked your way over prostate bodies unable to keep up with the pace.

The casino had a huge stage which was mostly obscure by a golden yellow curtain, with the DJs in front. Either side of the stage were steps allowing access to the DJs, where dancers trod a familiar path to request their favourite sounds. The DJs kept to a regular schedule – with the highlight for us being Richard Searling at 2.00am, followed by Soul Sam. These two DJs were responsible for the huge discoveries of this time, and their names will go down in the hallowed halls of northern soul fame.

Mr M’s, an offshoot, was a room that was dedicated to oldies, by that I mean older sounds – not people, although by 7.00am I think everyone felt they were one of those. Also an integral part of Wigan Casino was the record bar, where vast amounts of money often exchanged hands for the rarer records. This room was mostly populated by young men hovering over record boxes, flicking through the cardboard sleeves to find the sound they wanted.

Wigan Casino was also famous, or should I say infamous, for the awful state of its toilets. By 4.00am both the gents and ladies would be sole deep in questionable water quality. It was a test of your mettle if you managed to negotiate your way through the ‘Wigan swamp’ and find a toilet that wasn’t either blocked or too disgusting to use. The fashion for long circle skirts added to the challenge.

As 8.00am drew closer and after the famous ‘Three before Eight’ were played, the girl and her friends would slowly wend their way back to the ‘green rocket’ and make their way home back over the Pennines and bed, already dreaming of next Saturday.

(c) 2012 Wendy Tinley