When you’re northern, you’re northern forever and you’re instilled with a certain feel for life that you can’t get rid of. You just can’t.
The very early sixties: my grandad, with a Yorkshire practicality and foresight demonstrated daily in his job as a loom tuner, bought my aunt, far younger and cooler than my mother, a reel to reel tape recorder. In grandad’s view, her pocket money was to be saved for more important things, because records were a waste of cash: you could just stick a mono crystal microphone in front of the radio and record all those new-fangled bands you liked, and when you got bored with them, just tape over the songs with new ones. The recorder got plenty of action a few years later, when my aunt developed into a fully-fledged Beatlemaniac and the Fab Four started to dominate the airwaves.
All the activity on Twitter over selecting 50 Debut Albums got me thinking, and what I wanted to avoid was reprocessing my own lists, because if you look through those, you’ll see my favourite artists and it stands to reason their debuts could quite possibly feature in any list I could make.. y’know, Costello, The Clash, Stone Roses, and so on. You know I like them. I’ve written about them before and I pester you with links to those old articles every now and again! Somehow it would have been simultaneously very easy and also a slog to come up with a list of 50, and I didn’t want it to be a slog, because that’s no fun.
So what’s a guy to do? Here are the ones that popped into my head. I don’t want to debate their comparative worth to ‘classic’ debuts by the Doors, Specials, Beastie Boys or whoever. Here they are, I like ’em, and that’s all, no further thought. I’m doing thirteen, like the Quietus does, in chronological order. And if you’re gonna argue with me that they’re live albums or compilations or another technical disqualification, and therefore don’t count as debuts, I’m putting my fingers in my ears.
A regular haunt when I was at University in the late 70s was The Star, in Back Hope Street, Salford. Ignoring the rather more easily accessible delights of the student bar at Castle Irwell (and the casino opposite), we’d walk out of the horseshoe-shaped village, down Cromwell Road, turn left, past the fish and chip shop which would come in useful later in the evening, and was also good for celebrity spotting – I stood in the line for chips next to Buzzcocks’ Pete Shelley once, struck dumb with shyness (I think we both were). On past Manchester United’s training ground The Cliff, eventually turning right down an unlikely-looking narrow street. No big signs, hardly any signs at all in fact, no foot traffic.. odds were you wouldn’t just happen to walk by, someone had to show you where it was, which was part of the attraction.
Opposite was the Horseshoe, which was a pretty good pub, but the main attraction was The Star and the folk club night, run by Martin Gittins, part of a duo called Pint’n’Half who, if memory serves, would often open up the show and then hand over to the guest performers. The folk/comedy stylists Mike Harding and Bob Williamson were probably the most famous of those, and we saw many more. The politics of songs at the club fit in with my proto-lefty leanings, and the Robinson’s beer (including the lethal Old Tom) was excellently kept by one-armed landlord and local legend Wally Marshall.
On darts night at The Star, the competitors would play on a Manchester Log-End, or Lancashire, board. You think darts is difficult: well, play on a Log-End and you’ll encounter a whole new source of frustration. They’re about two thirds the size of the ones you see on telly, and have no treble ring. They have to be kept in water, or they split – they’re sawn from an elm log – so about half an hour before the match started, someone would retrieve the thoroughly soaked dart board and hang it up. I’d like to see Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor or ‘Barney’ Barneveld have a go at one of those.
This all popped back into my memory a few days ago, so I did a quick search to see how things are now. The Horseshoe is now gone, and The Star had some problems recently, but I am pleased to see it is now run as a co-operative, bought by its regulars in 2009. Good for them. It is a fine place, and if you’re ever out that way, drop in.
Memory aid for this article provided by Jim Simpson’s fine history, on the pub web site.
Part 4 – Pure gold, and what might be described as Northern Soul’s biggest ever ‘find’, Frank Wilson’s Do I Love You (Indeed I Do) was originally released on Motown’s subsidiary label Soul in 1965. Frank wanted to concentrate on producing, and Motown boss Berry Gordy would certainly have had him do that. The vocal line isn’t quite as strong as you’d expect if Smokey or Marvin had cut the tune. Consequently the vast majority of the 250 demo discs were destroyed.
There may be as many as five in existence, and if the unthinkable happens and you find one, you’re on to a winner. In 2009, a copy sold for 25,742 pounds. That’s 40,000 dollars, Americans.
Not only a rare record, but a great record. And here’s the real zinger – it was the last record ever played at Wigan Casino when it closed in 1981. DJ Russ Winstanley explains what happened when he came to play the traditional set-closing ‘three before eight‘:
I played them, and then I played them again, because people were just handclapping to the beat when the records had finished. I don’t know why, but I then played what has since become recognised as the best and most valuable Northern track ever, Frank Wilson’s ‘Do I Love You’. After that, people just sat down and cried their eyes out.
A heartbreaking goodbye to the famous venue, but a moment in time which adds yet more lustre to the pure gold of the greatest record ever made*.
Part 3 – The daddy of all Northern Soul clubs was Wigan Casino, though, as this fine article by Chris Hunt says, it may not have been the coolest or the most innovative. If you wanted to dance, however, it was the place to go.
And when you’d wrung yourself out on an all-nighter, the day was breaking, and it was finally time to go home, the crowd would always be treated to a signature ending from the DJ.. songs that became known as the ‘three before eight’: Jimmy Radcliffe’s Long After Tonight Is All Over, Tobi Legend’s Time Will Pass You By and Dean Parrish’s I’m On My Way.
They’re fine songs. They’re not brilliant songs – vocal lines wobble a bit, those horn charts might not be the sharpest ever written – but because of the indelible association of time and place, once again, they become some of the greatest songs ever made.
Try and put yourself in that place: the Casino, mid 70s. It’s early morning, you’re tired but happy. You’re getting your act together after a long night of dancing with your fellow devotees. You might have found someone special to spend the last few moments with. And then you hear..
Now, that’s a little piece of magic right there, isn’t it?