The majority of photo’s from this article come from the brilliant ‘Soul Boys Soul Girls’ site. This was a fantastic resource during the project – we recommend you check it out. A big thankyou to Paul McKee, Terry Farley and John Wild.
Interviews: Spencer Lowe
Words: Mark Watts
In the 1960s and 1970s, due to the government’s slum clearance programme, many Londoners from the Angel Islington, Fulham, Notting Hill, Shepherds Bush, Bethnal Green, and Paddington found themselves relocated to Slough. Coming from the rougher areas of London, the new younger residents of Slough set about forming gangs, and the area developed a reputation for antagonism and violence.
This looked like a template that was destined to remain unchanged and unchecked, but in a remarkably short period of time, things did change, and the youth of Slough were given a glimpse of a more hopeful future where violence wasn’t the be-all and end-all of things.
The graffiti advert for ‘Sully’s Bootboys’ makes it sound as if ‘Sully’ must have been bad news, another symptom of early seventies Slough which had a reputation for violence and little else besides. But Sully was Alan Sullivan, once one of the leaders of Chelsea’s notorious Shed group of football supporters, but someone whose love of music was later to transform the lives of numerous young Slough inhabitants. Through the soul music he played as a DJ, and through the gigs he encouraged young music fans to attend, he showed that there was another way to vent your energy rather than with violence. Terry Farley, now a successful DJ, was one of the young people that Sullivan took under his wing and passed on his passion for northern soul to.
Terry sees Alan Sullivan as having been crucial to showing young people that there was another road they could go down:
“He was playing all of this American black music, and he was very much a dancer. He really danced northern soul well. He had this reputation of also being Sully of the Shed, so nobody was going to f**k with him, but all he would talk to you about was music, and: come and dance! And we’re going out, forgetting all that stuff. It definitely was an alternative to that kind of mindless gang culture that was really prevalent in Slough in the early ‘70s. …So, we were only two or three years later, after that culture was very much prevalent, that suddenly kids were dancing and buying funk, and thinking: there’s a better way. Which was brilliant really.”
John Wild was another member of Alan Sullivan’s circle, a good friend of Terry Farley’s who had also been moved to Slough as part of the slum clearance programme. Before the northern soul bug really bit the first music he and his friends were into was skinhead reggae like Liquidator and Monkey Spanner, Elizabethan Reggae, Greyhound, Bob and Marcia.
‘Really’, he says, ‘for me, it started off at little dancehalls around Slough. And then just buying records. I mean the first northern soul record I ever heard was: Little Piece of Leather by Donny Elbert, and I never even knew it was northern soul but I remember Farley buying it, and I remember saying to him: that’s northern soul, that record, isn’t it? But we never really knew what it was. That was about ’73 when we were still at school.”
Alan Sullivan, alongside an asian called Rafiq Chohan – started organising coach parties, and they would take maybe two hundred people in four coaches to venues like the California Ballrooms in Dunstable for funk concerts. The California Ballrooms was something like the southern equivalent of Northern Soul mecca, the Wigan Casino, but with a greater emphasis on funk.
The problems arose when half the people on the coach-trips from Slough were there to see and hear bands like the Fatback Band and the Ohio Players, but the other half were there for a punch-up. Over several visits to the Ballrooms, the young music fans saw a number of bands play, but enough trouble was caused that in the end, anyone from Slough was subsequently banned from the California Ballrooms. But the coach trips and excursions continued.
“We’d all congregate round at his (Alan Sullivan’s) flat with his girlfriend,
and then he’d say like: Right, I’ve sent off for eight memberships for Wigan Casino. And we’d go: What? Are we going to do northern soul? And he’d say: yep, and I’ll take you all there…”
“We used to do coach trips to Baileys in Watford on Christmas Eve, and
we’d go and see bands like the Four Tops, and all these seventeen year old kids would have to get dressed up in suit jackets and ties, and shoes! And you’d get chicken in a basket, and then you’d have an American soul band playing live.’
Terry Farley believes that there was something unique to Slough that enabled these soul expeditions to take place, a mad, insular energy which could manifest itself in good and bad ways.
“I just think that that kind of energy, that everyone seemed to have there,
enabled all these things to happen. You know, if you was living in Shepherds Bush, the idea that you could’ve got two hundred kids from Shepherds Bush to get on coaches to go all the way to see an obscure funk band in Luton. They wouldn’t’ve done that!”
Around 1975-76 Alan Sullivan DJed at various venues in and around Slough, including The Spiders Web, the Merrymakers at Langley, Blues, The Dolphin Hotel, Slough Town Football Club, The Slough Centre, and Skindles. Wherever he was playing he would be accompanied by a loyal band of followers enjoying the music.
There was also a hardcore of dedicated soul fans who would travel up to London to the real underground clubs such as Crackers, and Global Village. But making the journey there from Slough could be a hazardous business.
Terry Farley recalls:
“In them days as well, because the soulboy look was considered quite effeminate – you know, we were wearing straight trousers, plastic sandals, American overshirts – you had to be really careful. You certainly couldn’t get on the bus on Britwell to go into Slough to get the train. Because the bus-stop was right by the Jolly Londoner, the pub, and you would’ve got absolutely slaughtered, so you would have to walk to Burnham. That was the safest route, to get on the train at Burnham to go to Paddington, not via Slough.”
And for their troubles Slough’s dedicated soulboys would only be able to stay at Crackers for two hours on a Sunday night, before having to catch the last train home at eleven o’clock, before most of Crackers’ London clientele had even arrived. That did not mean that there was no-one there to pick up new dance moves from. Terry Farley says:
“People from Slough would go to Crackers, they would study someone, spend all week in front of the mirror, and then go to the Slough centre on a Friday night and do this dance, and just licked ‘em.”
Dancers played a crucial part in the development of a fully-fledged soul scene in Slough, and the importance of the dancers signalled a seismic shift in Slough’s club culture. Paul McKee says:
“You’ve got to remember that you’re coming out of really quite tough estates where people never used to dance, and all that used to happen at a lot of the clubs, at the end of the night there was always a fight… So, all of a sudden for them guys to start dressing the way they were, wearing the pegs and plastic sandals and the bowling shirts or whatever, and to be dancing. It was quite a big step really, for a lot of people, so I think that changed everything as well really.”
Keeping up with the latest dances proved to be virtually a full-time occupation. Overa two or three year period the ‘in’ dances changed almost every week. By the mid-70s people were coming to Slough to dance. Paul McKee remembers:
“For me to see these guys coming from London, it’s hard to describe it but at the time you’ve got these little tough nuts, real tough kids were all doing these amazing dances.”
Tommy MacDonald, who was said to be the best white dancer in London became a fixture on the Slough scene, and hooked up with all the hardcore Slough soulboys. There were a few people in Slough who were really good dancers, but most of them came from places like Ealing and Acton and Wembley. But, says Terry Farley, they become part of the Slough scene as well:
“Clive Clarke, who was a little black guy from Acton, he went on to do the choreography for New Order videos, and for shows, he was in Rick Astley videos… He was a very important dancer.”
The reputations of some dancers reached such a level that they were accorded superstar status. Paul McKee attests to their importance:
“I think the dancers really helped to develop the scene. I mean people like Tommy Mac and Clive Clarke. And a lot of these people, who were brilliant dancers, when they come to Slough they were literally like superstars. Really like superstars. I seen Tommy Mac walk into the Centre, I can remember it, it was a big, big venue, and it was pretty full. He literally walked in, and the crowd just parted!”
On the Slough scene, Terry Farley believes that Alan Sullivan’s DJing nights at
Skindles were perhaps the best.
“They moved it to Friday nights at Maidenhead, Skindles with Alan Sullivan, and that was probably, I think, the best club. I know it’s in Maidenhead, but everyone was from Slough.”
This period coincided with punk and so fashionwise the two scenes collided with people travelling from Reading and West London in their bondage trousers to hear the cutting edge soul sounds played by Alan Sullivan at Skindles. The elite Slough soulboys, people like Gary Aysler?, had their own distinctive style, which proved too flamboyant for some. Terry Farley says:
“He knocked on my door to go to Skindles one night, and my dad was absolutely outraged! He said to my mum: He’s gonna turn that boy! I think I was about seventeen and… I think he had a big red mohair jumper on, black leather gloves with no fingers in, and his pegs, and big winklepickers, and his hair, I think it was a dyed blond crop.”
The Slough Centre was a huge council-run venue which had in its time housed many a prog rock concert, and it played a big part in the flowering of Slough’s soul scene circa 1975-76.
Paul McKee remembers it as:
“a great old venue. It was a great place to start off with, for me that’s what it was, a place to start as a club.”
As the 70s went on, the black and white kids did mix really well. And the longer it went on… In the later ‘70s, 1978-79, they used to have soul all-niters in Slough, and bands like Light of The World, and Players Association would come and play at the Slough Centre.
There was another club that opened in Slough called Blues. Terry Farley remembers its importance in the scheme of things:
“That was quite an important place. That was the first place, I think, that Greg Edwards who was the big DJ on Capital Radio at the time, he come to Slough to play there, and it was a big deal. It was almost like you were being validated. You know, someone’s: Right! All you lot in Slough now, you’re part of something, you’re validated now.”
Terry Farley and Paul Mckee stress that the dancing, the fashion, and the music were equally important for the Slough soul scene to develop. The place that the youth in Slough went to look for the latest vinyl imports and releases was the Slough Record Centre.
The Slough Record Centre was a huge shop positioned on the Farnham Road at the end of the Britwell estate, which people used to journey from miles around to get to. Terry Farley remembers:
“You’d go in there, you’d buy this copy of Blues and Soul or something, you’d read this review, and you’d say: have you got that? The guys in there were older than us but really helpful and really passionate. You know, buying records was as important as buying clothes, and if there hadn’t been that record shop in Slough I don’t think things would have moved on as they did.”
In many ways, says Paul McKee, the path from being a skinhead to being a soulboy was a logical one:
“I think it was a completely fresh scene. But if you was a skinhead, it reminded you a little bit of buying old ska records, Tighten Up volume albums , you know one of those compilation albums, so there was a kind of affinity there, where you was a skinhead, you bought the ska records, and then with the soul scene there was that coupling straight away…”
John Wild sees a clear connection between the concerns of being a skinhead and the concerns of being a soulboy:
“Because the skinhead thing was more of a smart… it was all about having the latest clothes and the latest records. It wasn’t about going beating people up really. But that’s how it gets portrayed.”
People found out about soul venues largely through word-of-mouth. Soul fans would go somewhere, and they’d see a couple of the better dancers, and then there’d be pressure on the DJ to play more soul. The dancers were seen as much more important than the DJs. The DJs were viewed as the least important part of the equation, only as good as what they played, there to be tormented by savvy soul fans.
“I was a right f**kin’ pest to be honest with you. Wherever I went, I was always going up asking for really obscure records, knowing that the DJ wouldn’t have them. Just to really f**k him off! And I hate it when people do this to me now, ‘cos I know they do it. What do you mean, you ain’t got that? You don’t know it? And that’s what you do when you’re young. But when there was enough of you, then the DJ would realise that he could actually play better music, and things kind of evolved like that.”
Paul McKee says:
“What is important is that people, black and white, did mix eventually. I bet there isn’t many places that mixed in the same way as Slough did. I mean, most of our friends, it was a real cross-section of all of us. And if you look at some of the earlier photographs, you’ll see there was a mixture between loads of different people, and I think that was a really positive thing. Moving out of Slough, I look back on that time, and I realise how positive that was.”
Less happily, the people who were being targeted were young asians. There was no crossover at all between the asian community in Chalvey and the west Indian or white London community who were living on the estates.
On bank holidays Slough’s soul fans would decamp en masse for either Bournemouth or Margate.
“Yeah, the whole of Slough sort of emptied.”
As the soulboy scene grew, Bournemouth and Margate were where everyone congregated. Inevitably a scene that had been so underground was now attracting so many followers that it started to cross over and become much more commercial. The seaside towns would be overrun by soulboys in the same way that you would have mods at Brighton.
“Every bank holiday it was Bournemouth or Margate, when people’d go
down. And Terry used to go to Margate quite a lot. There was a club called Atlantis where people used to go, and then I used to go down to Bournemouth every bank holiday.”
The Maison Royale was the main nightclub where the Slough clubbers used to gather in Bournemouth. On the earlier bank holiday excursions the Slough soulboys never used to go for the weekend. They just used to go for the day, then they would take the coach back and get home at about quarter to three in the morning.
Another big draw for soul fans was the soul night held at Windsor Safari Park. Terry Farley remembers:
“It was huge! It used to finish at half ten. A lot of the times, we had no money, we’d walk home! And a whole scene built up around that. There was a big thing in the mid-70s about kids getting American cars. American Grafitti had been out, and it was part of being a soulboy, having an American car. And especially at Windsor Safari Park, you used to see processions of people in Mustangs, all driven by teenage kids.”
As an example of how soul mania touched all aspects of life, Terry Farley cites the case of his wife-to-be setting off on holiday:
“My missus, she was a Slough girl, from Langley, and her and her mates went to Benidorm for their first holiday when they were sixteen, so it would have been 1976. And they were soulgirls, and she said, when her mate turned up she had a suitcase and a little seven inch record box, and they went: what have you got that for? And she says: well, in case the DJ hasn’t got any good records!”