‘Dancing kept me sane’: how black British youth found a home in northern soul

From winning dance competitions to confronting Nazis, black veterans of the 70s soul all-nighters share their stories – and counter the idea that the movement was exclusively white

In the run-up to Christmas in 1977, viewers of Granada TV were offered a glimpse inside a little-understood world. The documentary maker Tony Palmer had ventured inside the Wigan Casino, the centre of the northern soul scene, to shoot a 30-minute film called This England.

Palmer didn’t know anything about the club, the scene or the music when he arrived in Wigan – but over the course of a couple of nights he captured famous footage of a northern soul all-nighter in full swing. There’s the crush at the front door as a lone doorman tries in vain to instil some sense of order; the gravity-defying spins and splits that lit up the dancefloor; the interviews with the fans who articulate their obsession with obscure soul records in thick Lancastrian accents. It’s all punctuated by thousand-yard stares from amphetamine-fuelled punters – you can almost smell the Brut aftershave and sweat.

It might be strange to think now but in the mid-70s there was a moral panic about northern soul – the music scene where young people gathered at all-night parties, mostly in the north of England, to listen to African American soul records that had largely flopped on release a decade earlier. Much of the press coverage focused on drug consumption at all-nighters; the Observer, a month after This England was broadcast, went to Wigan Casino and reported that “police observations” found that a strangely precise 98% of dancers were on drugs.

‘It was a predominately white scene, but for me it was about the music.’ Idell Kamili (right) and sister Viki at Rugby train station after a Stafford all-nighter.
‘It was a predominately white scene, but for me it was about the music.’ Idell Kamili (right) and sister Viki at Rugby train station after a Stafford all-nighter. Photograph: Idell Kamili

But Palmer’s film was something different. He wasn’t interested in finding a dark underbelly. Instead, he wanted to answer the central question: if Wigan Casino was an escape, what was it an escape from? And, as he painted the social backdrop for the phenomenon, he ended up highlighting something else about the scene.

Throughout the documentary, Palmer’s camera lingers on the faces of several black teenagers. There’s Gideon Harding from Bolton in a bright yellow vest, spinning in slow motion as he moves balletically, almost frozen in time. A lad with an impeccable afro waits patiently at the bar. Two mixed-race girls smile and wave at the camera before they jump on to a coach. They are mostly “blink and you’ll miss them” moments, but they offer an alternative to the perceived wisdom that northern soul was an exclusively white movement.

Rhonda Finlayson was one of the dozens of black teenagers who went to the Casino, and other venues, including the Torch in Stoke-on-Trent and the Catacombs in Wolverhampton. Born in Jamaica, she moved to Manchester with her family as a three-year-old and started going to all-nighters after attending the Twisted Wheel as a teenager. Finlayson was like several northern soul fans, a young immigrant to the UK who was searching for somewhere she belonged, and she found it at the all-nighters. “It was like being in another world,” she says of the dancefloor at Wigan Casino.

Escapism and excitement drew Finlayson into the scene. She would regularly hitchhike to nights around the north, meeting up with friends from other cities and using dance moves she had borrowed from her older brother. There was something about the music’s energy and often raw, yet defiant, lyrics that worked as a balm for her as she tried to find her place in Britain. “I’ve got a song that I loved so much, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles – I Gotta Dance to Keep from Crying,” she says. “At that time I was very mixed up as a kid, and dancing was massive for me – it kept me sane.”

Finlayson became well known on the northern soul scene after coming second at a dance contest at the Torch, and other black dancers were hugely influential on the scene. Steve Caesar, another recent arrival to Britain from the Caribbean, would go on to win the inaugural dance contest at Wigan Casino and write himself into northern soul lore.

Born in Saint Kitts, Caesar had joined his family in Chapeltown, Leeds, as a 13-year-old and thrown himself into British youth culture, first as an ardent Leeds United fan, and then through northern soul. He remembers hearing black American music emanating from the radios of his neighbours in Saint Kitts on a Sunday as a child, and that interest in African American music would last a lifetime.

“There was a camaraderie about the whole thing – people really believed in ‘keep the faith’,” says Caesar, referring to the scene’s slogan. “I remember going to Leeds Central [soul club] and seeing white kids wearing one black glove, which came from the Mexico 68 Olympics black power protest.”

A still from This England, directed by Tony Palmer, 1977.
A still from This England, directed by Tony Palmer, 1977. Photograph: ITV/Rex Features

Ian Obeng arrived in the UK from Ghana as a child, after his family had been advised to leave the country in the wake of independence because of their ties to the British colonial administration. Like Caesar, Obeng was a football fan, following Manchester United. He had been drawn into the scene after seeing northern soul dancing at his local youth club in Sale.

“It’d be a long weekend,” says Obeng. “You’d do the Friday ‘oldies’ at Wigan, get back home, shower and then off to an away game with United. Watch the game, come back, shower and get ready for the Saturday all-nighter and if there was a Ritz Sunday all-dayer in Manchester, you’d do that as well.” Obeng ran the Night Owl Soul Club in Stockport for 25 years.; He along with the record collector Tim Ashibende, who supplied many of the scene’s DJs, was part of the underground network that powered northern soul.

Confrontations with racists on the way to events were common. Dean Anderson, a DJ from Newark, was at a service station in the 70s when a group of a dozen people confronted him, a mixed-race friend and their white associates. They told them they were going to kill them, after shouting Sieg heil in unison and telling the group they shouldn’t be seen together.

“It was the worst moment of my life,” Anderson told the Guardian in 1997. “I went to the all-nighter and I was just numb.” Despite the dangers, Finlayson, Caesar and others would travel by themselves to all-nighters, even if that meant facing potential violence.

Another veteran of the scene, Idell Kamili, says that her decision to attend northern soul nights turned heads in the close-knit black community of Northampton. “By the time I’d got into northern soul, the rasta scene was in full swing. I did go to a few nights but I just found it too constrictive, I wanted a bit more freedom, and I’d always preferred soul anyway,” she says. “You can imagine the names I got called, because it was a predominately white scene, but for me it was about the music. [The first time] I walked through the door, they were playing Do I Love You by Frank Wilson. Everybody was already clapping. Then I went up on to the balcony and that’s when they played Cecil Washington, I Don’t Like to Lose and it was like time just stopped. Even now when I hear it, the tingles go up and down my spine.”

Steve Caesar, centre, wins the inaugural Wigan Casino dance contest in 1974.
Steve Caesar, centre, wins the inaugural Wigan Casino dance contest in 1974. Photograph: Steve Caesar

It is true that many black music fans were drawn to the most cutting-edge music of the era, as roots reggae, funk, soul and disco mutated and morphed into myriad genres and scenes during the 70s. White and black crowds tended not to mix. The subject of whether or not racist incidents happened at all-nighters such as Wigan Casino is a divisive issue. Racism outside a venue is one thing, but hostility in the inner sanctum (where black music was the reason for congregating) is impossible for some people to accept. Northern soul message boards are full of people dismissing the idea, but it did happen occasionally. One black northern soul fan, who asked to remain anonymous, said they suffered racist abuse while at an event with a white partner. “We discovered that there are people in the all-nighters with racist attitudes – remember that people had come from different places across the country,” they said.

“It was a scene that drew its hardcore from working-class communities so there must have been incipient racism in the mix, but it was easily overwhelmed by the obsession with undiscovered genius,” adds Stuart Cosgrove, whose memoir Young Soul Rebels includes mentions of Caesar. (It is important to note that the vast majority of the black soul fans I spoke to said they never had any problems at all-nighters.)

Cosgrove says what made northern soul different from other predominantly white and working-class youth movements was the obsessive interest in African American music and wider black culture. “I think that meant that young black Britons were given respect on the scene – Steve [Caesar] and Dean [Anderson] are legends and their blackness was respected,” he says.

When the Wigan Casino shut in 1981, there was a final dance contest. Caesar had gone home with the first prize for the inaugural event and, fittingly, another black dancer, Vernon Pryce from Bradford, won the last competition. His athletic moves were captured by the Italian photographer Francesco Mellina, who, along with Palmer, produced images that have defined the scene. For Caesar, northern soul became a lifelong obsession. “It just spoke to me,” he says. “Once you had heard something like JJ Barnes: Please Let Me in, and that Detroit sound, there was no going back.”


Lanre Bakare

The GuardianTramp

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