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Northern Lights: The British dancefloors that changed the world

Northern Lights: The British dancefloors that changed the world

Flannels blog article
Northern Lights: The British dancefloors that changed the world

In the 1970s, self-expression and rebellion exploded onto the dancefloors of industrial towns in Northern Britain. Teenagers found Northern Soul, and while sounds and styles changed over decades, the spirit stayed alive through super clubs such as The Haçienda and Cream. Here, journalist Thomas Gorton traces the global impact that the North has had on fashion and culture.

“On a regular Saturday night, I’d say 10 percent of the kids here are from Wigan, or a 15-mile radius of Wigan,” says DJ Russ Winstanley in Tony Palmer’s 1977 documentary This England. “They’re coming from the south of England, or the north of Scotland.” In the early 1970s, the Wigan Casino was the epicentre of British youth culture, a dancehall in the Greater Manchester town where teenagers found freedom in the sound of forgotten Black music imported from America. It’s where the concept of the “all-nighter” was born. Where style defined the subculture.

The casino wasn’t the birthplace of the genre – Manchester’s Twisted Wheel and Stoke’s Golden Torch were the scene’s torchbearers – but the opening of the Wigan Casino as a Northern Soul venue in 1973 accelerated Northern Soul’s explosion. And the building will forever be synonymous with the sound, its hall of fame. For eight years, until its closure in 1981, thousands of British teenagers flocked through its doors to hear rare soul records imported from America and to shuffle until the sun came up. It was the genesis of rave culture in Britain, where “dance music” was born.

Northern Soul was music you could dance all night to, but similarly possessed a yearning and a pain that captured the hearts of young working-class kids in Britain. Euphoria, adrenaline and unrequited love are all established parts of adolescence in any culture, and Northern Soul possessed all of it, its hopelessness as powerful as its high tempo beats. One of the songs that would traditionally close all-nighters was “Long After Tonight Is Over” by American soul singer Jimmy Ratcliffe, that contained the lyrics “Here in my arms, when I hold you, I can feel that the world is mine. Don’t go away, don’t you leave me, or I’ll cry ‘til the end of time.” There’s added sadness in the fact that Ratcliffe died two months before Wigan Casino opened, unable to witness his single truly cement its place in the hearts of British teenagers. That this transatlantic connection between cities like Detroit and towns like Blackburn or Burnley was occurring pre-internet is testament to the power and determination of youth to leave its own desire lines on the cultural landscape.

The rebellion going on inside these Northern clubs was reflected by the fashion, an evolution of the Mod style that preceded it. Boys wore made-to-measure suits, Fred Perry shirts, furiously polished brogues and clipped their hair short. Hardcore “soulies” would even have record labels or pharmaceutical companies tattooed on them. The shirts would often be removed as the night wore on and the high kicks, spins and splits became more frenzied, with dancers competing to create the best combinations in a fever of macho tenderness. Girls wore loose skirts and flat shoes, functional outfits that had the dancefloor firmly in mind. The looks would influence designers decades on – Fred Perry released a “Twisted Wheel” collection in 2013, and the same year it was easy to spot Northern Soul’s influence on the Prada runway, a sign of the recurring nature of subculture motifs.

Northern Soul died at the turn of the 1980s, but generations of the future kept the faith, drawing from its anti-establishment anarchy. The halls of Northern towns that came alive in the 1970s would prove to be the blueprint for underground British youth culture movements in years to come, the foundation on which an acid house was built.

In a 1984 interview filmed inside the Haçienda, Tony Wilson is standing with New Order bassist Peter Hook. When asked why they chose the name for Britain’s most legendary club, opened in 1982, Hook replies “we found it inscribed on a tablet at our last gig”. Wilson interjects, adamant the story isn’t true. In fact, the Haçienda’s name was taken from French political theorist Ivan Chtcheglov’s situationist text Formulary for a New Urbanism: “You’ll never see the haçienda, it doesn’t exist. The haçienda must be built.” Both Hook’s answer and the truth provide a snapshot of the myth-making that engulfed Manchester in the 1980s, led by Wilson and the artists that released through his label Factory Records. By way of Chicago, acid house arrived in Britain and into the Manchester club, a seismic cultural shift that mirrored its predecessor Northern Soul – a cross-country pollination, a generation of kids inspired to experiment with fashion, to stick two fingers up at everything else. This time though, the clothes were baggy, the colours neon, the hair long and unkempt.

Globally recognised bands such as the Happy Mondays and New Order were the faces of Factory Records, but the label was recognised and endlessly referenced because of its elegant, stark artwork, designed by Peter Savile. Savile’s work didn’t just influence other record labels, but the work of fashion designers for years to come. For his AW03 collection, Raf Simons lifted Savile’s sleeve artwork for New Order’s Power, Corruption & Lies and used them on his parka jackets, and for his SS18 collection he dug through the graphic designer’s archives again – Savile’s work had been an inspiration to Simons since he was a young man studying industrial design in Genk. Streetwear brand Supreme also adapted the seminal floral artwork for Power, Corruption & Lies for its SS13 collection.

The lore that surrounds the Haçienda and its glowing punk spirit has inspired endless artists around the world, while Savile’s work has become an established artistic language. However, Ben Kelly was the person who designed the club itself. Having never designed a club before, it was firmly in keeping with Factory Records’ modus operandi to make it up as they went along. The interior’s famous stripes were used by Virgil Abloh on Off-White pieces, something that upset Kelly at first, although they then went on to develop a fruitful creative relationship, working together on numerous installations and projects that referenced the Haçienda, introducing the story of the long-gone club to a new generation.

A decade after the Hacienda opened, 30 miles down the road, Cream opened in Liverpool at Nation on Wolstenholme Square, founded by James Barton and Darren Hughes, two men both in their early 20s at the time. By 1996, a year before the Haçienda closed, Cream was the biggest club in the country, carrying the torch for the new Northern super club era. It began as a house club but was also a breeding ground for the trance explosion in the UK, a sound that would prove highly influential decades later on America’s EDM scene, a sonic juggernaut that thrust DJ culture firmly back into the mainstream, for good or bad.

The fashion in Cream varied, from the smiley-laden, fluorescent neons adopted by acid house, to the Fred Perry polos worn by the city’s football fans. Cream was revered not just for its music but also for its vibrant, peaceful atmosphere, despite the punters pouring in from all walks of life. Cream closed in 2002, but Scouse House bounced out of it and into smaller clubs like The 051 and The Pleasure Rooms, a new era of manic clubbing defined by bright Lacoste shell suits and crewcuts, a sound that dominated the North West at the turn of the millennium. The style of Scouse House was derided in the mainstream media as being for “chavs”, and caused panic at Burberry, who significantly reduced production of its signature nova check in the early 2000s, only to re-embrace it in the late 2010s when streetwear became “acceptable” again.

It’s a common theme of culture in the North of England – fearless trailblazing that’s misunderstood or rejected by the mainstream, only to go on to influence the world around us regardless. From Wigan Casino to Wigan Pier, a bright light burns in grey, industrial towns, beauty formed from barren beginnings that has shaped art and fashion as we understand it today, created on dancefloors that define us.