Surely a city would protect the birthplace of Northern soul music from destruction? Not Manchester.
They’re queuing around the block on Whitworth Street. It’s December 30, 2012 and hundreds of 1960s soul fans have come for the very last session at the venue once known as the Twisted Wheel.
The company that owned the building went bust and now London developer Olympian Group has an agreement with a German budget hotel chain, Motel One, to tear it down and build a 330-bed hotel.
“We hate the Germans!” shouts one woman in the queue wearing a green wig.
I work nearby and have had a nagging feeling for months that I should go down and record the last night before it vanishes. Now I’m standing outside on a drizzly December night with a video camera trying to work out the best shots to capture the size of the queue.
Campaigners tried to stop the hotel plan, saying the building had cultural significance as the birthplace of the Northern soul movement. It hosted performances by the likes of Ben E King, Lee Dorsey, Ike and Tina Turner, and Edwin Starr. But the city council passed the application, holding the view that its heritage value was “not considered to be of sufficient special interest”.
Now the punters have come to pay their last respects to a place that’s lost out in the regeneration game. There’s no place for sentimentality when a big overseas investor is promising to create jobs.
The Twisted Wheel was founded in 1963 by Jack, Phillip and Ivor Abadi as a Brazennose Street coffee shop, with DJ Roger Eagle putting it on the map as a soul and rhythm and blues venue. It moved to Whitworth Street in 1965 where it ran until 1971 when the venue became Placemate 7, and Northern soul took off in venues like the Wigan Casino and the Blackpool Mecca.
Latterly the building became the Legends nightclub, a gay club, hosting nights like Bollox and Homoelectric. In mid-2013 the demolition crews moved in and it was torn down along with the Outpost bar – which was the cafe part of the Twisted Wheel in the 1960s – and the 52-bedroom Hotel International on the other side of the Monroe’s pub. All were run by leaseholder Julian Lyons who tried to buy the buildings but was beaten to it by Olympian which agreed a deal before they came up at auction.
The soul sessions were run by DJ Pete Roberts for around 12 years under the Twisted Wheel name. A former punter at the original club, he saw the appeal of a revival night where the only records played were those released between 1963 and 1971 – the years the venue was open.
When I went to see him several weeks before the final night he told me: “Everyone’s worked that stage. I’m totally disgusted this club is going, you’d think on heritage value alone and the importance of this little club that they’d have kept it. But obviously someone made the decision that a 330-bedroom hotel is more important than this legendary club.”
He also remembered a friend for whom the club was so important his dying wish was to have his ashes buried in the stage.
“He had two brain tumors sadly… in fact he’s in the stage. His last wish was for me to put him in the Wheel stage so when he was cremated I bored a hole in the stage and I poured his ashes in. So Obie from Stoke-on-Trent is actually in the stage. And people are saying, ‘Well, what about John?’ Well, sadly, John’s got to go down with the building. We can’t get John out – the stage is concrete.
“When we tried to win the appeal to keep the building and I said I’d put someone in the stage, Julian said to me, ‘Oh God! Let’s hope there’s not going to be a murder enquiry’. Of course everything we did – we had English Heritage down – we couldn’t win, they were determined to get their own way and they did.”
Roberts was happy to have me in the club, visibly pleased that someone had shown some interest and not at all inhibited by the camera poking into his DJ booth. The stifling heat of the packed cellar club kept misting the lens and it was hard to get different and steady shots with enough light. But I managed to capture all of the last two songs – Jimmy Radcliffe’s Long After Tonight Is All Over and Sam & Dave’s Soothe Me.
They were a perfectly poignant combination. As the regulars sang along to the Radcliffe number they seemed to be stating an undying love for the place:
Let me tell you
Long after tonight is all over
Long after it’s all gone
I’ll be yours
For ever and a day I’m yours
Come anything that may
You’ll always be just everything to me
With the Sam & Dave tune they were seeking solace for the loss.
The film I made is about the loss of this particular club, but also about the way people and their passions make the cities we live in – yet are often given short shrift by planners and politicians.
For me, the emotion in the sweaty and straining faces singing along to Long After Tonight Is All Over was matched by the heartfelt views expressed by Jackie, the barmaid at the Outpost. At 70 she felt she was being thrown on the scrap heap and couldn’t understand the forced closure of a viable business.
“I don’t understand why they’ve got to demolish this place when over there that fire station has been like that for 28 years and they’ve still done nothing to it. So why do they need this place? Why do they need to make so many people redundant when they’ve got a place over there that’s not derelict, but more or less, why do they need to pick on us,” she said.
“There’s no consideration of the people that are employed here, and all my regulars. They’re thinking, ‘well, where can we go?’ Because this place is a one off. It’s a proper, proper bar, it’s a proper pub. It’s not a wine bar, it’s not a posey bar, it’s a bar that you can come in, be who you are and get on with it. And then the Twisted Wheel, that’s another story, that’s going back longer than this bar. Why are they doing it? Disrupting everybody’s lives, for what? I’m 70, I’ve got more to give, more to offer than them that are thinking, ‘right, that place is surplus to requirements’, but it isn’t. We’ve got a lot going for this place. They’re obliterating a place that’s regenerating money into the city.”
The site was completely cleared last year and construction has now started with the first two floors of the hotel partially built.
By James Graham
You can watch James’s film here:
Pete Roberts’s Twisted Wheel soul sessions continue at Alter Ego, Princess Street in Manchester, on the second Sunday and last Sunday of the month