Culture Review: Twisted Wheel

  • NQ's Verity Carson looks over Twisted Soul, a night which fuelled Manchester's Northern Soul scene

Sunday’s for most are a day of rest after a busy week, for others they’re a chance to relive their youth at the Twisted Wheel held every month at Manchester’s Alter Ego. For me, it was an opportunity to witness the hype around the Northern Soul scene that still exists despite the closure of the original Twisted Wheel.

The opening of the Twisted Wheel coffee bar and nightclub on Brazennose Street in 1963 heralded the emergence of the Northern Soul scene in Manchester. The all-nighters had a live soul performance at the club each week with the list of performers including notable artists such as Jackie Wilson, Edwin Starr and Tina Turner.

The scene was nothing like anyone had ever witnessed in the North of England; hence the popularity of the Wheel. The club played a variation of genres not just soul, with R&B being a popular choice for DJ’s who played vinyl’s which had been imported from the US. But what made the Wheel stand out were the all-nighters; something of a rare occurrence before the Wheel was established. 

But the Wheel unfortunately closed in 1971 due to the owners (the Abadi brothers) being unable to secure an all-nighter licence and the constant pressure being put on them in regards to drug searches (amphetamine use was rife in the club as a result of the no alcohol policy). Yet it wasn’t until 2000 that the Twisted Wheel was officially reopened under the management of Pete Roberts who himself attended the original Twisted Wheel.

Roberts spoke to us about his reasons for opening the Wheel: “I first went to the Twisted Wheel in 1968 just before I left school so I would’ve been just 15 at that time, I went there with a friend of mine. What made me want to go there initially was all the hype around it, you know it had a very bad reputation and that intrigued me to go, but once I had attended I realised that it didn’t really deserve the reputation that it had.

“So what happened was that I kept pubs for two years, but I always wanted to reopen the wheel so I approached the owner of the Stageroom in Manchester (which was demolished in 2012) and he said ‘well why didn’t you come and see me I would’ve let you do the wheel.’ I always said that when I finally come out of pubs I am going to reopen the Twisted Wheel and I did but I wish I had done it ten years sooner.”

Fast forward to present day and the demolishment of Stageroom led to the Twisted Wheel finding its new home at Alter Ego on Princess Street.

Sure it’s a long way from the all-nighters that they used to attend at the Twisted Wheel in 1963 and the Wigan Casino which also hosted Northern Soul all-nighters, but what’s humbling is the loyalty that the club goers have to the Northern Soul scene. If you go into Alter Ego which is just off Canal Street on the second Sunday and the last Sunday of every month expect to see a room filled with women and men (the majority aged 50+), decked out in Fred Perry button down shirts, freshly polished brogues and the Adidas bowling bag with the original Northern Soul patches stitched on. They even dance like I can imagine they did when they were teens – the floor in each room was full of Wheelers shuffling to tune after tune (just minus the splits and the backdrops). The most humbling part of it all being that although they are all from different walks of life, one thing that connects them is their sheer passion for Northern Soul.

While it was the first time I had ever attended such an event, I still felt as though I had always had a connection to the Northern Soul scene, which is mainly down to the influence of my dad who attended the Wigan Casino and the original Twisted Wheel from the age of 15 and still has a passion for the music 40 years on. Having being too young to ever experience the original Twisted Wheel and the Wigan Casino, the energy in the room made me envy any who had the chance to attend the all-nighters.

Although I was definitely the minority at age 22, it was still a surprising to see that the scene had started to attract younger people.

Roberts explained why it is vital that it continues to attract the younger generation: “A lot of the original Wheelers are now unfortunately in the cemetery, which means there needs to be young blood coming through otherwise the Wheel will die with us. Luckily there is young blood coming through, we do get young mods who come to the Wheel.”

“I say to most people that Northern Soul has never been as big as what it is today, but I don’t know if it’s done it a lot of justice because I’m a dinosaur and still live in the 60’s. It’s a total different scene today then what it was then.”

One of the young Wheelers is Jade Bateson who has been attending the event at Alter Ego for five years, she explained what brings her to the event: “I’ve been coming to the wheel with my dad since I was 18 and the event is just brilliant, it’s a good crowd, good music and a good session.”

Bateson who says she was brought up listening to the music explains why she still has an interest in the scene: “Well like I said my dad is a ‘mod father’, he’s like Steve Marriott (lead member of mod rock bands Small Faces and Humble Pie) and I’ve grown up with him so as soon as I was old enough I was coming here, but I became interested in Northern Soul music since I was 14.

“However I don’t think it is the norm, I feel that you either connect to the scene and the music or you don’t, but I am jealous that I never got the opportunity to go to the original Twisted Wheel.”

The Twisted Wheel has continued to thrive despite suffering many setbacks since it was established; not least having been located at more than five different sites since its beginnings on Brazennose Street.

Roberts who believes the Wheel will die out if there is no young blood coming through to attend the Wheel, says that BBC DJ Richard Searling is responsible for the scene still being popular: “A mean a friend of mine who is a very famous DJ and was one of the original DJ’s at Wigan Casino played a very important part in the Wheel still being open, I always say to Richard that I honestly think that if he wouldn’t have stuck with it then the scene would’ve died.

“I think if anyone has kept the scene alive then it is certainly Richard Searling.”

With the Twisted Wheel being a huge part of the North’s music scene, I sincerely hope that the next generation get to witness the Northern Soul scene still alive and shuffling.