The Wigan Casino has a blue plaque. (Look, here it is.) Thirty years and more on from its final all-nighter, three decades on from the bulldozers ripping apart its famed sprung dance floor, former members, admirers, dancers and DJs have won approval for a historic marker.
For some, it’s the culmination of a campaign which goes back a number of years. What hope, they wondered, of a working class youth phenomenon in the north of England ever gaining true recognition from the London-centric, bourgeois bodies of academia?
Far from the only major northern soul club in this era – there are those who insist that Blackpool’s Mecca venue broke more new tunes, and followed a more adventurous path – the Casino nevertheless remains the scene’s most iconic nightspot. It’s a place that still inspires filmmakers, which acts almost as a by-word for the entirety of northern soul itself.
So it’s undoubtedly a moving occasion. The chaos and trauma of the 1970s and ’80s – the collapse of heavy industry, soaring youth unemployment, next to no hope or opportunity – was played out against a Detroit soundtrack, a cavalcade of horns, girl groups, soulful vocals and music that spoke of self-empowerment, of pride in your background and those around you.
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Channel 4's Paul Mason with the Wigan Casino plaque (via Twitter)
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Yet in a curious way it’s barely necessary. The site the Wigan Casino previously occupied is now a shopping centre, the club having been demolished back in 1981, and indeed the current Grand Arcade already pays homage to its history with its Casino Café. Alas, despite adding to the halo that surrounds the location, it’s difficult to imagine soul tourists making their way to this town purely for the glimpse of a blue plaque.
Equally, the sheer poetry of youth culture often relies on its transient nature, its ability to fade tantalisingly into the past. The vitality of youth lies in its ability to re-generate, to erase and build again, for mod to be superseded by skinhead, for the northern soul network to give way to the rave phenomenon.
Few other venues are remembered in this manner. The Flamingo has been demolished; the WAG is a cocktail bar; and even the 100 Club itself – site of the world’s longest-running northern soul all-nighter – barely clings on, in part surviving thanks to an association with Converse. It seems that reputation, that historical importance, matters little when it comes to paying the bills. And when the sums don’t add up the doors will be locked, however uncharitably, for good.
But this only adds to their power. Youth burns brightly, intensely and then fades away, a space to be continually conquered and then – sadly, reluctantly – surrendered. It’s curiously difficult to imagine aging ravers deciding on a suitable monument for, say, Castlemorton. Perhaps a monolithic stone structure, which hides enormous amplifiers erupting in Palaeolithic drones across the English countryside, would do the trick.
In this manner, British pop culture remains strangely distinct from its American counterpart. Whereas our stateside cousins have a plethora of Hall Of Fame ceremonies to pick from, UK-centric attempts to mimic this – the British Music Experience, for example – have been widely mocked. The sad decline of CBGB only serves to underscore with this fact, with the New York venue closing in 2006 only to re-open as a John Varvatos clothing store. The interior was expertly preserved, right down to the graffiti in the toilets – essentially freezing punk’s primordial cesspool in time for the benefit of shoppers, rendering it impotent in the process.
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Wigan Casino, 1976, 8am (via)
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Ultimately, it’s the fate of all youth cultures to fade away, for those temporary pleasure domes, those sub-cultural citadels to be brushed away. The Hacienda must be built, but it must also be demolished to cleanse the pipes of cultural creativity, for something new to be constructed from its rubble. When these structures aren’t brushed away, the sub-cultures that surround them tend to stagnate, to reach the realms of parody: the lonely punks of Camden or the bowl-haired rave survivors of Madchester.
But perhaps that’s uncharitable. Pictures of Wigan Casino can still chill the spine, and if any club truly deserves to be immortalised then what better site for northern soul to place itself into the history books. After all, it has already fuelled a stage play, while Elaine Constantine’s forthcoming, beautifully etched Northern Soul film largely revolves around the club.
But don’t expect to find the scene’s spirit living on in that blue plaque, in a simple reminder. It’s there in a 56-year-old mother shuffling around the kitchen to Darrell Banks, the family she raised herself dancing in the living room. It’s there in the life of a 62-year-old man who sacked off his day job after an inspirational night in Wigan and never looked back. Most importantly, it’s there in the music, in the countless abandoned discs which were given a new home, treated as sacred objects, their makers retrieved from the sidelines and placed – for a short, fleeting moment – back into the limelight.
Keep the faith.
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Words: Robin Murray
Main Photo: via
Elaine Constantine's 'Northern Soul' film will be given a general release in October.