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A Northern Soul Legend On 25 Years Of Foot Stomping Floor Fillers

by Finton
20 September 2011 18 Comments

Richard Searling, a legend of Northern soul and co-owner of Expansion Records, talks about the legendary Wigan Casino, how he nearly signed Joy Division and his 25th anniversary album that is released this week...

If Carlsberg did DJs

Not many people can say they co-own one of the most influential and respected record labels in the country.  Or that they’ve graced the wheels of steel at “The Best disco in the World”.  Fewer still can throw in the fact they’ve promoted a succession of legendary club nights or hosted any number of iconic radio shows over a 28 year period.  We’ll not even mention knocking about with one of rock’s most iconic figures or helping to set up the UK’s first independent community radio station, Sunset Radio in Manchester.

Then again, not many people are Richard Searling.

After abandoning early teaching aspirations, Richard started working for Global Records in Manchester – the very first importer of American vinyl – in 1973 before hooking up with Russ Winstanley at “Russ’ Records” in Wigan two years later.  He’d been DJ’ing since 1971 and was soon offered a slot by Russ at the now legendary Wigan Casino where he remained until 1981, all the while still carrying out his “day job” with RCA. Once the “three before eight” had been spun for the last time, Richard moved into the world of radio where he stayed in one form or another until 2009, all the while managing to promote events like Parkers, The Howard and The Ritz All-nighters which have long since passed into clubbing folklore.  No wonder he never managed a weekend off in twenty nine years.  There was a lot to fit in!

Then there are the labels. “Go Ahead Records” – set up last year to re-release Northern rarities – is flourishing but it’s the “Expansion” label Richard started in 1985 with John Anderson and since joined by Jazz FM main man Ralph Tee, that’s just racked up 25 gloriously soulful years with over a hundred releases since WQBC’s “Love Me Anyway” hit the shelves in 1986.  To celebrate this, “Expansion Soul Sauce 25″ is due out the 19th September.  In true “Expansion” style, they’ve resisted churning out a formulaic “Best of” retrospective, choosing instead to fill it with brand new up tempo party cuts from both legends of the genre and the absolute cream of today’s contemporary artists.

I caught up with Richard to find out a bit more about Expansion Records, his views on music today, how he nearly signed Joy Division to RCA and what exactly happened to the “Best Disco in the World” award given to Wigan Casino in 1978.

ST : Given that the UK charts were healthily stocked with soul acts back in 1985 what was the motivation behind starting Expansion?

RS : Major label soul releases were easily available, but at the time the independent labels were only trickling into the UK on a limited basis on import.  Many of these independent acts and their performances had the major label quality and we figured that getting them more widely distributed throughout the UK via a new specialist label would promote both the acts and American independent soul music.

ST : Speaking as someone working in record shops at the time, it seemed that the major labels dropped soul like a stone as soon as House became popular in the early 90s.  Is this what happened & what effect did this have on Expansion?

RS : I wouldn’t say that soul was dropped like a stone but it was true that certain DJs abandoned their soul roots to follow a more formulaic style.  Usually House and Garage.  As for the labels, by that time the creative people in the States and Europe had been replaced by accountants and computers.  This meant that artists not making a quick return in investment were dropped, after only a few months in some cases.  The days of major labels investing long term in smaller (soul) acts was well and truly over.  Ironically, as these acts found themselves without deals, Expansion was perfectly positioned to step in for the likes of Gary Taylor and Howard Hewitt.

Back in the 80s we had the pirate radio shows and a thriving club scene but now technology has taken over and soul is “unfashionable” to many.

ST : The label has worked with a lot of legends of the genre over the years.  Many of the artists featured on “Soul Sauce 25″ like Keni Burke, Jean Carne, Gwen MacRae and Evelyn King all enjoyed  a degree of mainstream success “back in the day”.  How frustrating is it that the newer ones on there – Maysa Leak, Kloud 9, Kindred etc – can’t get anywhere near the mainstream charts nowadays?

RS : Things have changed dramatically for the worse for acts like these.  Back in the 80s we had the pirate radio shows and a thriving club scene but now technology has taken over and soul is “unfashionable” to many.  We all thought 20 years ago that by now there would be a national soul radio station accessible to all but sadly, despite the good work of Solar and a few others on a digital platform, this hasn’t materialised.

ST : Where do you stand in the whole digital v physical debate?  How important do you think it is for people to still be able to buy CDs / vinyl?  Can you ever see a day when Expansion will be purely download only?

RS : Indeed I do see that day coming.  It’s expected of us, but the advances in technology have, in my opinion, only served to create a situation where music has somehow ceased to be “art”.  By that I mean there is no tangible “collectability” associated with it.  CDs were a great way for companies to reproduce their catalogue and force us all to replace our vinyl with “improved” sound, but as Maurice Oberstein said to me when he viewed the first tranche of CDs coming onto the market, “they’ve given away the masters!”  How very, very true those words have proved to be!.

ST : Speaking of “fashionable”, Northern soul just seems to go from strength to strength. Why do so many  people find themselves so attracted to this form of soul music?  Surely it can’t just be the aesthetic appeal of a pair of parallels and a nice vest?

RS : The thing with Northern soul is that it’s easy to get into, and of course the “scene” itself is one where people embrace nostalgia and look back to “the good times”.  I can fully understand why the sound of uplifting Northern Soul hooks the newcomer.  After all, “it drains away your sadness , fills your life with gladness”.  It’s lasted the test of time mainly thanks to the quality of the melodies and the desirability of the collectible items associated with the 60s and early 70s.

ST : On a similar note, how easy was it to play new stuff at the Casino, given it was famous for 4 to the floor uptempo stompers?

RS : I found the Casino crowd, particularly in the period 77-81, to be incredibly open to new tracks and they welcomed super rarities and obscure new releases from the likes of  King Tutt, ZZ and Company, Bobby Thurston  and Carol Anderson.

ST : Did Wigan Casino deserve its title of “Billboard’s Best Disco in the World” in 1978?

RS : I m sure it did.  However I think it’s extremely odd that we did not celebrate or publicise such an important international accolade at the time.  Neither, to the best of my knowledge, has any official paperwork or trophy ever been produced.   As I was a resident DJ at the venue at the time, working for RCA and playing Billboard Hot Disco releases at the like of Angels in Burnley, I m sure I would not have missed it.  In fact I would have been shouting from the rooftops about it………go figure!

I’m still certain we were the catalyst that got them on the road to stardom though we continue to get airbrushed out of movies like “Control” which makes no sense.

ST : When you were with RCA I believe you almost persuaded them to sign Joy Division?  How did that come about given they must have been a fair way off your radar musically?

RS : Well I knew Ian (Curtis) quite well, and Barney was a nice guy too.  We cut them in 78 when no one else wanted to know, ostensibly for the American market.  I’m still certain we were the catalyst that got them on the road to stardom though we continue to get airbrushed out of movies like “Control” which makes no sense.  RCA were eventually interested but by then the guys had fallen into the hands of the Manchester music mafia who had convinced them a move to a (London based) major would be a backwards step.  So eventually we sold them the master tapes back, and the rest, as they say, is history.

ST : Of course, no music interview would be complete with you naming your top 5 Wigan Casino classics.

RS :

1)    Cecil Washington – “I Don’t Like to Loose” (Profonics)

2)    Vickie Baines – “Country Girl” (Parkway)

3)    Frank Dell – “He Broke Your Game Wide Open” (Valise)

4)    Bobby Thurston – “Just Ask me” (Mainline)

5)    Yvonne Baker – “You Didn’t Say a Word” (Parkway)

If you want to catch up with Richard or find out where he’s playing, get yourself along to his blog at where you can find a full list of events, gigs and releases.

Other recent stories you might like:

The Story Of The Wigan Casino

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image descriptionCOMMENTS

Martin Quirk 12:00 pm, 20-Sep-2011

Great article that reminds me that I must get my anorak out of summer storage. I remember going to Wigan to cover for the manager of the busiest record shop in town in about 1993, and being very shocked that even the main branch of WH Smith in Wigan didn't even stock Blue & Soul magazine.

Finton 12:41 pm, 20-Sep-2011

God is in the detail Martin.....or failing that, the catalogue number ;o) Wigan has a very chequered relationship with soul / dance music. Despite nights like the Casino, Greg Wilson,s Pier residency, Casanelli's soul funk nights, the Pier's house nights locking out hundreds in 91 etc, the Wigan public, bar a relative handful, aren't really that arsed.

David B 2:30 pm, 20-Sep-2011

I'm too young to even have been aware of Northern Soul at its zenith, but I really, really admire the movement and its followers. To me it is the most authentic youth culture this country has ever produced. Way more influential than punk could ever have been. Northern Soul was a group of kids who drove it forward organically and that's what made it special and unique. It was not manufactured or driven by fashion the way that almost every other movement (acid house aside to a degree) was. Every old punk will deny it, but Punk was a youth culture invented specifically to sell clothes and the star of the scene was not McLaren, Rotten or Vicious, it was Vivienne Westwood. Northern Soul could not be more different. Simple, joyous unfettered love of music and fun in the face of a usually dreary existence. These kids were stars and taught the acid house generation (of which I am one) how to do it and do it brilliantly. You look on You Tube at old footage of Wigan Casino and all... Who'd have thought in 1974 or whenever, that there would be an invention 35 odd years later where you could search and see yourselves in your younger glory, as a part of what we now know is musical history. Brilliant piece of writing. Bravo mate!

Finton 2:49 pm, 20-Sep-2011

Many thanks for the kind words there David, it's much appreciated. Re the Acid comparisons - dancing all night ripped to the tits in some dark club to American music & a 4/4 beat. What's not to love? You're spot on re the kids driving the scene forward in 1974 & it's amazing the number of old punks I know who now frequent all-nighters. My only gripe with the scene is the steadfast refusal to acknowledge any kind of new music but hey, whatever floats your boat. The Expansion 25 album is actually a Modern Soul compilation rather than Northern, exactly the kind of stuff that continues to flounder whilst Northern goes from strength to strength but that's another interview for another day……

David B 2:58 pm, 20-Sep-2011

Hi Finton. There's a book out just now called 'You are not a gadget' It's a critique of the sort of synthetic culture that modern technology has created. What makes it notable is that it's not some old cynic that's written it. It's Jaron Larnier - a pioneer of all things digital. Anyhow, he argues that there has been essentially no new musical movements since Hip Hop in the late 80's (I know it was around years before that, but in a less commercial form) many may shake their heads in bewilderment, but he makes a pretty solid case. I'm not sure if I totally buy into the thinking, but he's definitely got a point. If he is to be believed, then the period between Northern Soul ending as a movement (circa '81?) and say Public Enemy starting (1987ish?) is little more than half a decade. Frankly, it's no wonder these old heads struggle to get into anything new...

Finton 3:39 pm, 20-Sep-2011

David, just had a quick peep at his Wiki page - not sure if I agree with his views on Linux / Open source etc ( I'm a Unix chap by trade nowadays ) but I'll have a look at some of his theories. Anyway, back to the music. As an American, I'd say he's probably unaware of the whole House / sampling explosion 1987 onwards but things certainly ground to a halt round about the time he states, shortly after the "digital revolution" of the early - mid 80s. If nothing else, Tony Wilson's "13 year" theory has definitely taken a battering this past decade. On a personal level, I wouldn't like to think I've already heard the best record I'm ever going to hear. It's all about the next big thing for me & for a movement that used to pride itself on "overstickering" ( even if the track stickered was old, no one had heard it before ), there's an awful lot of music lovers missing out on an awful lot of next big things. I think it's a society thing as much as anything. Bands from Led Zep to Pulp have all reformed & made a lot of money the past few years on the back of the nostalgia circuit so there's obviously a market out there. Each to their own & all that.

darren 4:06 pm, 20-Sep-2011

An interesting view from Richard regarding Joy Division and he has a point. However, The RCA tapes offered little and I don't see how the band would of worked with a 'London' label as well as they did with Hannett/Factory. However, as New Order, they did 'end up at London' and looked what happened there!

David B 4:38 pm, 20-Sep-2011

Finton. There's a lot I reserve judgement on that he argues, but he does argue his point quite convincingly. I just meant that if he happened to be right it would explain a lot. Worryingly I don't think I've updated my desert island top ten albums since around 2003. I hope that means that I've not already heard the best music I'm ever likely to hear.

Russ Winstanley 4:57 pm, 20-Sep-2011

Shite review. Not a bloody word aboout me. Built the casino brick by brick.

Terry Thomas 6:02 pm, 20-Sep-2011

Great article Finton, northern soul is more popular now than it ever was which is great in one sense though sad in another. To be part of something that was underground and only known by a few always feels that little bit special. I'm glad the scene is thriving but the amount of people claiming they actually attended the northern nights at the Casino grows longer by the day, especially by Wiganers. I actually went to the Casino... admittedly it was to the Rock Night that ended when the Northern All Nighter began. Got a lot of time for Mr Searling, good article mate.

Frank Kirkham 6:16 pm, 20-Sep-2011

Richard is very much one of the good guys, never became in any way big headed - hard to believe its 35 years since I first met him. His knowledge of soul is so spot on that I would often buy a track I hadn't even heard purely because in a review Richard rated it.

pawanap 7:21 pm, 20-Sep-2011

Very interesting article, I was aware of Richard but didn't know too much about him. Sounds like a great guy. I'm from Halifax and go the the Free Soul Club at Bar Eleven most months. There's a great feel to the place but, at 43, I'm one of the youngest there. There doesn't seem to be any young blood coming through.Still, it's nice to see overweight bald old men working up a sweat! And Finton, Tony Wilson's '13 year' theory still stands it's just that this decade's change has been in the delivery of the music, not the music itself. The MP3 is the new punk, house music, whatever ... No-one's done it yet so I will - KTF.

Finton 9:20 am, 21-Sep-2011

darren - They'd certainly have ended up with a different sound. Can't see many RCA engineers being that clued up on the merits of recording drumkits in the khazi etc etc. David - get it updated ;o). And keep those ears open!! Frank - Never actually seen or heard a bad word spoken about him. V rare in a scene that can get incredibly bitchy. Pawanap - Fantastic point re Wilson's theory & I've never thought of it like that before. Re the young blood point. I know exactly what you mean. Whilst it does the ego good to be the youngest at an event by a good 10 years, it makes you wonder what this will inevitably mean for the scene. I did actually ask Richard this question but edited it from final cut due to space restraints & the fact I was trying to keep the interview more general & not get bogged down in stuff the average reader may not be aware of. See below : ST : From the Modern soul nights I attend, it seems that the age of both the punter & the DJ isn't getting any younger. How can the soul scene attract the youngsters? RS : The only hope is radio, and unfortunately the national soul shows that do exist are all over the place musically, trying to please all tastes. They fail to lead and consequently they fail to influence to any great degree. Also, the "modern" soul scene is widely split, not unlike the Wigan v Mecca style clash in the 70s. Many want to stick with that classy 70s soul sound , mid tempo and memorable, while DJs on the same bill will take you back to believing you are in the Hacienda! It just doesn't gel. People are confused about what "modern" soul really is, and where it's going.

The Master Tee 7:20 pm, 21-Sep-2011

Has he ever dropped Rhythm Is A Mystery at 2am at Dreaming A Dream ? Has he balls. I have

phill shorthose 9:57 pm, 21-Sep-2011

a superb article . i didn't know anything about richard's involvement with new order . wait until i tell my seventeen year son about that . he's a huge fan. great to read david Bs positive comments about the northern soul culture . dave you would have loved the casino , and yes once the mainstream press had finished with us and our scene ,it went back to doing what it did best , discovering , playing , and dancing to some of very best music ever played. and in many ways the reputation the casino had for playing 4 to the floor 100 m.p.h stompers is not deserved . certainly in the last three years some amazing records of all tempos were played. this was largely influenced by richard searling ,with other d.js like soul sam , pat brady,and gary rushbrook following on. no one would ever claim the soul scene has been one big ,happy family through the years . the divisions and fall-outs are well documented down the years in various journals but which scene spanning this number of years is without incident! so many great clubs since the casino ,rotherham- clifton hall, stafford-top of the world , morecombe and cleethorpes for a bit of seaside soul , the howard and in the big M town the ritz , parkers, sandpipers , the gallery and berlin to name but a few.had a look at the hacienda but it wasnt for me.the common denominator for the quality in a lot of the venues ive enjoyed over the years has been the name richard searling. invariably over the years when ive talked to richard about music he says "its the best thing ive ever heard " . when you hear that phrase you know theres music out there worth hearing. richard is like a soul version of john peel but doesnt always get the plaudits he deserves. came back from ibiza this summer and to hear some people talk of the so called "super-star DJs makes me smile.i would love to see some of the younger generation more in evidence at soul gigs but apart from the odd group of students now and again its not happening. with so many youngsters ,my own son included listening to retro music from all scenes , and with formats like youtube i cant believe more youngsters don't give soul a try. lets be honest a large proportion of current music is very poor. with genres like dub-step hardly qualifying as music. looking forward to richard's book some time soon and a national radio show covering soul from mid sixties to the present day would be nice .more soul articles please!

Dave Molloy 9:28 pm, 26-Sep-2011

Great article and refreshingly factual and accurate account from me old mate Richard , who in my opinion, over the years has contributed much to the uk soul scene with both passion and professionalism before anything else. It should also be said, that his much missed radio shows,along with his promotional work, was a major contributing fact in the restoring of the soul, and especially the Northern souls scenes popularity and rebirth than any other single catalyst....Incidentally i was well pleased to see his involvement with Joy Division in writing . My son thought i was taking the piss . I remember well, driving over to a pub in Pendlebury with him, to drop of some R.C.A. promos by Sad Cafe..and playing me the studio tape of the then relatively unknown Joy Division . A big thanks to Richard and yourself for highlighting our music and one of the scenes most respected stalwarts. keep up the good work.

Finton 1:13 pm, 27-Sep-2011

Thanks for that Dave & Phil. It's much appreciated. I know Richard is very pleased with the reaction this piece has received & has even had Billboard get in contact with him on the back of it. Maybe they're sending out a belated "Best disco in the World" award ;o)

Dean Cavanagh 7:27 am, 19-Mar-2013

So many great memories of Richard's sets especially at the Morecambe Pier Allnighters in the early 80s when he was pushing the new sounds. One of my fave RS times was in the backroom at Bankhall Miners Club in Burnley where he would drop a real soul spectrum of sounds.

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