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

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...
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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 www.richardsearling.co.uk where you can find a full list of events, gigs and releases.

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The Story Of The Wigan Casino

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