Notes from the Passenger Seat of Northern Soul’s Big Bang – Seven Years on the Road with a white van man ‘legend’.
I first met Richard Searling as he struggled under the weight of his record boxes, at the entrance to the Va Va Northern Soul all-nighter in Bolton, when I was still at school.
He was soon trying to groom me, with visits to a noisy North London establishment, to see some foreign geezers called Villa and Ardiles: But I wasn’t destined to be a Spurs fan.
In fact, I’ve since become a double Heretic:
…Who believes the whole Northern Soul record box should be bloody-well-remixed, re-modelled, re-recorded and reworked.
To impress him with my knowledge of Northern tunes, I asked if he had a record I believed only Ian Levine owned (Rat Race by the Righteous Brothers Band, I think).
At subsequent all-nighters I wedged myself up against the perspex sheets surrounding the Va Va’s DJ box and we became friends, thus beginning my seven/eight year stint as Richard’s original co-pilot, in the first of many steeds; a white Escort van.
Like many a well-parented teen, I at first pretended to be a pill-head, to fit in with what I thought was expected of me by my peers. But dancing all night wasn’t intended for clean-livers/liver’s
After my first ‘bluey’s’ (Drynamyl – ‘normally 5mg Dexamphetamine, 32mg Amylobarbitone, Magnus!’), there was no keeping me off the dance floor – all-night, all-day, all damn week.
The modernistic Va Va’s hard-core pill-head all-nighter was short-lived, running as it did from April 1973 ’til August of the same year.
At the time, Richard’s day-job was at Global Records – not far from Manchester’s Peveril of the Peak – and whilst my memories of that first summer are sketchy, by the time Wigan opened in September, I too was a hardcore ‘soulie’, a regular at Blackpool Mecca’s Highland Room, had become acquainted with a clutch of jemmy-owning dodgy bastard’s – who over the coming years would fuel my weekend exploits – and had a girlfriend (and a handy box-room at her parents’) in Blackpool.
Come Wigan’s opening night, my name was on the Wigan Casino guest list (…though I never made it) and my stint in arguably the most privileged passenger seat in the history of Northern Soul was properly underway – only Ian Levine (who would’ve expected me to carry both record boxes: – poor Bernie!) and Colin Curtis’ passenger seats could compete, and I would not have exchanged mine for either.
We all tend to believe our Time of Living Dangerously was unique. And whilst I consider myself to be less prone to sentimentality than most (the waves grow in direct relation to the years), I honestly believe the collision of elements that ignited the spectacular carnage of the real Northern Soul, was something way beyond the average coming of age saga.
I should state now that whilst I turned into a bit of a rum ‘un, Richard (unless his book ‘Putting the Record Straight’ tells you otherwise) was a picture of Professionalism, and more often that not he’d finish his set at the Casino and drive home for some sleep, and although his mission was still to be fully defined, pharmaceuticals were not going to get in his way.
We’d be Back Together Again (a pun yet to be revealed) on the Sunday, at Blackpool Mecca, Manchester Ritz or some other all-dayer, before I’d be back in the passenger seat on our way home.
By Tuesday, I’d be a twitching mess with a rotting tongue (and feet, too, if I’d danced throughout in the same socks!). But I was never one to let that seat go wanting, and whilst Mr Professionalism was back on the decks at Carolines on Deansgate, Manchester, I’d be back on the dance floor, shuffling and sweating it out for Legend and Country.
Where we got to on the other weekdays depended on Richard’s DJ bookings, and it could be anywhere from Wolverhampton to Barrow in Furness, and I even recall a midweek run of nights at the Casino, which was a depressing sight without ‘phet and we bobbing, sweaty mongrels to give it relevance. Then came the soul radio shows, on Radio Halom in Sheffield or Piccadilly radio in Manchester, where I’d sit twiddling my thumbs or catch up on lost sleep in a corner of the studio.
When Richard got a job for RCA Records, at their Piccadilly offices (ran by the lovely Derek Brandwood), a new world opened up to me by proxy – we were soon off to gigs and after show parties, of RCA acts like Hall and Oats (previous pun now revealed), Sad Cafe and others, plus regular promotional stints at clubs like Pips and Placemate 7 with Andy Peebles (how on earth did he get to interview John Lennon?) and the like.
One of my occasional roles was ‘buying’ RCA’s singles into the charts. I can’t recall the technicalities of this dodgy practice, but, say, if a record shop ordered ten copies of a single, and they sold two, they couldn’t return the rest and had to enter the full ten copies ‘as sold’ (thus bumping up the numbers for a higher singles chart listing).
I’d get dropped off at record stores, whose sales were linked to the chart index, to buy copies of a given RCA single. The only reason this sticks in my memory is because of my acute embarrassment: not at scamming the chart system, but rather at the worry someone might spot me – a true Northern Soul disciple – buying mainstream chart shite, which I’d never have lived down.
I also saw Joy Division on one of Richard’s scouting missions, when they performed at the Free Trade Hall as support for John Cooper Clark. And I was the only ecstatic person in that underground Preston club, when the Sex Pistols failed to show for a gig on a similar reconnoitre – punk had zero appeal for someone who loved a pulsing melody and musicians who could actually play!
Initially, I was intimidated mingling with music industry types and players – so much ambition, so little passion and talent – particularly at RCA events and after-show parties: I mean, I was just a child-labourer from a shitty factory floor, with no head (nor inclination) for dizzying social heights.
It was at one of these after-show ‘do’s’ that I asked Tricky how he dealt with big stars like Bowie: was he ever overawed?
His answer was roughly this: there’s always a door between you and them, and if you turn back, you’ll be turning back all your life – just walk through it and deal with whatever awaits.
I’ve since learned that this Confucian truism comes in a variety of translations, but it nevertheless had a profound effect and it is great advice for anyone, to get you to the point where no door fears you (except perhaps the final curtain).
I used to think it was in these RCA days that Richard developed that sideways glance, coupled with the disarming smile, as a ruse to lull competitors and egos into a cosy foetal ball (he doesn’t need it as much atop of his own substantial pile). But in truth, Richard Searling was – and thought like – a businessman from day one, and one of Dave Molloy’s mates used to tease him that he always wanted to be Alan Sugar.
The instinct for business, the relentless work ethic, and the drive for…for…what, exactly?
A cheap answer occasionally suggested is money, but this isn’t true. Not strictly. Rather, with Richard, the perpetual motion of business is the yellow brick road, to the real businessman’s nirvana of control.
Also, to be lost in motion is the ultimate defence against the silence and contemplation that leads to deep thought, which can reduce even Titans to a shivering wreck (and which catches up to re calibrate you in times of need, though only if you’re willing).
Another old friend, who has lost (and made) and lost (and made?) tens of millions, once remarked in a moment of vulnerability that he thought he was happiest when skint and living in a bedsit in Heaton Mersey. But I doubt such thoughts have ever caught Richard off guard, because he would never stay still long enough for them to hatch (and if they did, he’d never discuss them…. and I wouldn’t tell you even if he had done…probably).
We former Apprentices (geddit?) cum-co-pilots are a small and devoted bunch: well, later ones more than me, I suppose, because when Richard and I became friends, the big adventure hadn’t properly started and neither of us had a pot to piss in (though the pot he didn’t have was bigger than mine), and friendships founded on equal poverty tend to foster a healthier equilibrium and a willingness to say what you mean (as opposed to what might be expected).
Last December but-one I ran into one of my old school friends, Colin Markland, at Farnworth Cricket Club’s monthly Northern Soul Night. I last saw him at Blackpool Mecca’s Highland Room back in the day (when I was in a hallucinogenic state…allegedly), and he asked rather perplexedly why some Northern Soul folk don’t like Richard?
Envy is another cheap answer, though again only partially true. The Northern Soul people I know (and have known) are pretty accepting of others, though in latter years – when the faux ‘love’ of ‘phet wore off – it has turned into one of the most cult-like music movements on the planet, with a full pecking order of clergy.
As in many a cult – which magnify articles of faith without offering spiritual benefits – there are zealots aplenty, and as they’ve got older and crankier, the Zealots have taken pot shots at Richard from the touchlines; for his dominance of the musical genre, and the construction of a Fiefdom from Northern Soul building blocks.
But the fact is that few have navigated the tricky tightrope, between a love of black American music and personal business interests, as successfully as Richard, and an even harder fact is that without his relentless work ethic, his innate determination to make ventures (and venues) work – particularly through the late 80’s and barren 90’s – and the contacts and money he’s made over the years (nobody handed any of it to him), Northern Soul would simply not exist in anything like its its death-defying pre-COVID exuberance.
This said, some parochial types might’ve preferred him to be a commercial failure (like the recording artists they idolise), so they can gather around their parish’s empty dance floor, to draw dividing lines and bemoan The Faith’s lack of Limpieza de Sangre like the petty inquisitors they can’t quite help becoming, and discuss the obscure merits of dull, rarest-of-rare Z-Side offerings like a bunch of Ronnie Scott pseuds… with two left feet in retiring slippers (Oops! Talons came out for a moment – scratched my bloody keyboard, they did!).
I thought Robert Maxwell was a tw*t (I don’t take much Sugar, either), but he once made a remark that had me take note, to the effect that when you get lots of hands on the steering wheel, you end up going nowhere.
There was only one Captain of Richard’s ship, and he only ever intended to sink or swim by his own efforts. And when you see 3000 plus people packed into the Blackpool Tower Ballroom or the Winter Gardens, and not a space on the dance floor for the whole night, it might well be a victory of nostalgia and pantomime (‘He’s Behind You, Zealots,!’) over musical metamorphosis, but it never fails to raise a pulse and a nod of appreciation, for the White Van Man ‘legend’ who mastered the business of putting on a bloody good show, though whether his enthusiasm for running venues is diminished or dented by COVID remains to be seen.
Although barely noticeable in those heady days of youth, there was always one degree of separation in our characters, which made it inevitable we’d be forever moving in different directions, for I was drawn by a star which shone in places that for Richard were blind spots: – one man’s treasure is another man’s dead-weight.
Still, we made a good team back then, because neither of us were clingy, and I always understood – and was happy with – our unspoken roles: I was there to provide company, whilst Richard went about what otherwise would’ve been a lonelier ascent of Mount Northern, in exchange for my Golden Ticket to the speed ball.
Anyhow, what started with a piece of music pretty much ended likewise: we were driving somewhere (Sheffield, I think) and Donna Washington’s Coming in for a Landing was playing on the car stereo, so the year was 1980.
Not one of Lamont Dozier’s more timeless efforts, and on that night the music seemed doubly hollow.
I think it was Simone Weil who warned that music could become ‘a background for daydreams’, which, like Caliban’s sweet airs, ‘give delight and hurt not’ as deeper realities slide by unnoticed
By now the drugs were a dirty memory and I yearned for more than daily dopamine from a gushing soundtrack, and a hitched ride on the back of someone else’s rising star.
In June of that year, I blagged a job teaching tennis in Bournemouth, and that was the end of my Soulie adventure. Well, apart from expecting to swan-in on the guest list every five or ten years, though the last few times the tight bastard has made me pay!
However, I’m grateful to RCA records’ ‘tab’ for the opportunity of learning how to dine out and eat without using my fingers, and a controlled environment of egotists in which to sharpen fledgling faculties.
And there will forever be a place in my heart for my first bezzie outside of school, for the friendship we shared and my passenger seat at the eye of what was indeed a unique musical storm.
And whilst that one degree of ever-traveling separation made (and makes) us forever different, in the stuff that truly matters, we’re all forever the same.