LAND OF A THOUSAND DANCES
BY some miracle I managed to catch the train on time at Euston. Anyone who knows me will gladly confirm that I am a terror for time and usually see the tail end of the train I had planned to catch drawing away from the platform. However, with about two whole minutes to spare I made it, and before I had time to realise the reality of my long awaited situation I was travelling at great speed to the heart of the North's Soul lands; to Manchester City; home of the famed Wheel club, and meeting ground for some of this country's most ardent and dedicated Soul fans.
Believing all the propaganda that the South spreads about anywhere north of Tottenham I had taken my raincoat, and when I got into Manchester Piccadilly sure enough a fine drizzle of rain was making the roads glossy and reflecting the neon signs all about the station entrance. Luckily I had a base to go to first since some fans had very kindly offered me hospitality before going to The Wheel, and so I jumped into a cab and gave the address I had been give.
"Never heard of it" said the cab driver. As I was in a highly optimistic mood I merely smiled and said 'I m sure you'll be able to find it" and jumped in before he had time to take an easier fare from the waiting queue behind me! After a brief consultation over his inter-coin we were swinging round endless corners to my destination.
Somewhere out in that black dim night gloom—in this city of what looked like perpetual night—there was an oasis known as The Wheel. It was as if all the life energy of the great city was channelled into this spot and hidden away under the ground for fear of disturbing the "respectable" citizenry, because looking out of the cab windows on this dank and murky night, Manchester looked like a ghost town.
How wrong first impressions can be was to be shown by later events and happenings. Soon the cab drove up a side street and I saw a young man running down a garden path in the miserable night air stripped to the waist and waving! Being a simple-lifer I much admired such Spartan fortitude, and I thought such exuberant behaviour could only come from a raving lunatic or a Soul brother!
Sure enough it was the latter, and for the first time I was meeting Francisco O'Brien (or Fran Francisco as I stubbornly persist in calling him) whom I felt I had known for ages through correspondence, but it is always a great experience to finally meet some one face to face who you have up till then only known through~ letters and the odd phone call.
Soon we were all in Jackie's place getting to know one another. There was Les Cokell one of the DJ's at The Wheel who I hardly recognised since in a picture I'd seen of him he had had really long hair, but had now transformed himself into a suede-head. Boly from Earby was there (whose pash is Jackie,hence her being persuaded to put up with so many of us using her place as a central gathering point), and young Tim from Skipton, and Boly's cousin Alan. We were soon talking like we'd known each other for years (a common experience amongst Soul people since we always have so much to talk about which bores the pants off your average non-Soul fan), and the time flew by.
Soon we were joined by Tommy Barclay who was in town on a special visit, and everyone was busy getting themselves together for the evening which to all intents and purposes was going to be the last all-nighter at The Wheel since it has pleased the City Fathers to put a ban on such activities.
The fellows in their mohair suits and "right on now" black gloves, and Jackie looking as splendid as Brigitte Bardot, and we somehow managed to squeeze all of us into Les' van and we were off.
Before going to The Wheel however we stopped by the pub next door where all the brothers and sisters gather for a few bevvies before going in, since The Wheel would please the strictest teetotaller in being only able to serve cokes. coffee, flings and milk. The pub was crammed to the doors, and nearly everybody seemed to be young and together. Boly, Fran and the others knew almost everyone,
for there is none of the social stand-off-ishness in the North that plagues human relationships in the South! Soon people were coming up to me and introducing themselves, and I was able to match long-known names with newly discovered faces.
We decided to take a few photos there and then, and of course the flash gear wouldn't work! Eventually it did however, and the delays and the excited tension caused by them not working only served to break the ice more. Crazy rumours were flying round that the last all-righter at The Wheel would he honoured by a police raid, and I was told that special wire mesh pens had been constructed out the back to herd various people into. The prospect of this imminent drama added to the general elation that I felt, but I was relieved that as events turned out it was only an empty rumour. Young people have become too much a target for police harassment in Britain these days and one gets the impression that we are at times returning to the dark days of Victorian "morality" when all pleasure was considered improper and wrong, and one slips into a club to dance the night away with the furtiveness that people dropped into speakeasies in America during prohibition. Since the police station is directly across the street from The Wheel I could only hope that at least I'd not die of exposure in a pen before being put into a cell a few yards away!
I was reminded of how London's "Tiles" Club was virtually closed because of continued police activity which entailed people undergoing the indignity of a strip search for drugs, and all I could hope if the worst happened was that my Y fronts would be as spotless as when I first put them on!
Soon it was time for the pub to close, and when they call "time" in Manchester they mean it. Not like lax London where you can still buy drinks up to about fifteen minutes after the official closing time, and by three minutes past eleven the pub had emptied itself of brothers and sisters who by this time had joined the seemingly endless queue which had formed outside The Wheel. The club itself is in what appears to be an ex-warehouse or church mission. I like to think it the latter since it can at least be said it is carrying on a tradition of spreading the faith as well as doubling as a meetinghouse for the faithful.
The Wheel itself is on two levels. When one enters there is a cloakroom and drinks bar which is always crowded, and music from down below is relayed through speakers at this level. The lighting is subdued but not so dark that you can't see where you are going! Naturally such scarcity of illumination tends to have a widen effect on the pupils of the eyes. Being amongst the first in, I thought it would take a time for things to warm up, but on going down to the lower level I was surprised to see that already people were swinging out and doing their thing. The walls on the lower level are painted red, white and black, and the original arches which divided the various rooms have been left in place to act both as natural crush barriers, and also provide separate areas for groups of friends to form their own circles of dancers. Not that there is any suggestion of clannishness or of cliques forming. Anyone is welcome to get up and join in, and soon the place was alive with sounds and movement!
All over, the Wheel motif is repeated; rows of disused bicycle wheels line the ceiling in one place, and the whole of the DJ's area is a cage built of spokes and wheel frames, and is one of the few places that is brightly lit The light here spills out onto the floor, and the continual rhythmic movement of the dancers is only interrupted by the cheers of recognition that greet known favourites. There is no fashion as such, but naturally people tend to follow certain styles which have found favour and popularity. Never have so many Ben Shermans been gathered in one place at one time, and I noticed a style that I have not yet seen in London (but which I am sure will eventually drift down this way) in that very many young fellows wore black "right on now,, racing gloves. Apart from looking cool and groovy they also serve a utilitarian purpose for the dancing there is of such a high standard that a certain degree of acrobatic skill in incorporated, and when really carried away whole rows of lithe young bodies bend over backwards and touch the floor with their hands!
The dancing is without a doubt the highest and the finest I have ever seen outside of the USA— in fact I never thought I'd live to see the day where people could so relate the rhythmic content of Soul music to bodily movement to such a skilled degree in these rigid and armoured Isles! And, unbelievable as it seems, everybody there was an expert in Soul clapping! In the right places, and with a clipped sharp quality that only adds an extra something to appreciation of Soul music. And what a selection of Sounds there were to dance to. I had taken four treasures from my own collection which I thought would go down well, and sure enough, even on first hearing the Wheelites were able to fall immediately into the rhythm and mood of them, and were moving and grooving out as if they had all week to rehearse to them.
It is an irony that groups like Pans People. The Young Generation. and the grotesque automatons on "Top of the Pops,' are employed to combine bodily movement to Soul records. and yet even the most average dancer of The Wheel could show them how it should be done. It could be that one needs a certain amount of affection for the music in order to penetrate the unique peculiarity of its rhythms, but the people at The Wheel have done this, and have done it to brilliant effect. I estimated that there were about 750 people crammed into the premises, but at no time did it seem so crowded that one couldn't move or breath properly, and with the minimum of chat Les kept the records coming one after the other each a Soul classic, and each loved and respected by the crowd.
Between records one would hear the occasional cry of "Right on now".! or see a clenched gloved fist rise over the tops of the heads of the dancers. Every style of dress and life style was there—hair to the shoulders as well as hair like a five-o'clock shadow. Mutton chops and potential Santa Clauses (in which category I fell!), and the completely clean shaven. The tang of after-shaves and the girl's perfumes scented the hot air. The young ladies at The Wheel must be some of the most attractive in Britain cute as buttons, and as mean as they want to be, but in the nicest possible ways. And imaginative enough to bring a change of clothes with them, so that half way through the night the young girl you were chatting with in the white suit to begin with, was now dancing the night away in an entirely different outfit! And talk! I thought I'd never stop! Everyone was so friendly and kind, and I truly felt quite humbled that so many people knew who I was, and who came up and introduced themselves and had a kind word to say about my writings. I must mention a few of them hy name.
There was young Zan who really knows all about Soul, hut who still retains a soft spot for the Blues and people like Bobby Bland and John Lee Hooker. He comes originally from Scotland, and has paid his dues one way or another, but explained how in some ways Soul has played such a big part in his life that it helped reform it. He is one of The Wheel's guardians (which I am told are hardly ever needed). and he will look after any strangers or new comers and see that they settle in OK and no hustler who might slip in can take advantage of them. Everybody there certainly knew how to conduct themselves. There was no undercurrent of tension or aggression that one sometimes finds in London clubs, but rather a benevolent atmosphere of benign friendship and camaraderie. Everyone seems to know everyone else, and if they don't, then they don't stand on ceremony about getting to know each other, for one thing they know they all have in common is a love and dedication to Soul music, and it is this common factor that links everyone there. and makes everyone a potential friend of the other.
Some of the brothers and sisters had travelled miles to be there, and although they couldn't make it, Viv and Radio were thoughtful and kind enough to send a message to me via a friend. There was Tony from Cheltenham, and Rod (as imposing as Goliath and a DJ at other clubs itt the North), and Flash who is not in the least flash, but very hip and very much into Soul.
And then there was Ivor Abadi who is the owner of The Wheel, and who couldn't have been more welcoming and friendly, and who expressed gratitude for the efforts that "Blues & Soul" has made to draw attention to The Wheel scene, and the struggle that is going on to keep it open for swingers at the weekends. And there was one record that sticks in my mind as one always will on these occasions, which was the great "Darkest Days" by Jackie Lee.
I do most sincerely hope that The Wheel is able to carry on its traditional all-night sessions, and at the time of writing the appeal to the Crown Court has yet to be heard, and so they will continue until a final ruling is given, but win or lose, The Wheel has succeeded in becoming a legend in its lifetime, and a focal point for that aware and elite minority who are not content with the lifeless pulp that constitutes the bulk of the manipulated "hit" parade, but rather use their own taste and judgement to determine what sounds best related to their own ways of looking at things. Live and let live is a rather worn out well intentioned cliche these days when life seems to be coming more and more restricted and uniform, but you would have to search a long way to find a setting where that theory was put into such real practice as Manchester's Twisted Wheel club, and I shall always remember with gratitude that I was taken to its heart, and allowed to be part of that scene even if I could only stay for such a short time.
They are my kind of people, and as I went to the station to get the train hack home the faint sounds of Soul music reminded me that the Sunday afternoon session had already begun, and no matter what obstacles are placed in its way, Soul music, like life itself, goes on and on. Because each and every one of us keeps the faith—right on now!
‘Blues and Soul’ Journal on his visit to the Twisted Wheel.
Journalist, activist, arts cinema director; born June 31 1936; died October 15 2004