The Death of the Cats

Mickey Nold, Dave Allen, 'Barmy' Barry and Dave Krynski.jpgMickey Nold, Dave Allen, ‘Barmy’ Barry and Dave Krynski at The Catacombs club. All club images courtesy of Dave Allen and The Catacombs blog

There’s a tomb on Temple Street in Wolverhampton, where the city has buried something long forgotten.

For those outside of the West Midlands, Northern Soul isn’t typically associated with Wolverhampton. The underground club movement, known for its obscure music and energetic dancing, is popularly considered a- well, northern phenomenon.

But in the late 1960s, a cult following of dedicated soul fans emerged in the UK’s industrialised heartlands. For just seven years, The Catacombs club lived out its short but brilliant life in a former Wolverhampton smelting works, helping to forge Northern Soul from the genre’s earliest days.

Known as The Cats to its followers, the club began playing Northern Soul records in October 1968. Alongside places such as The Twisted Wheel in Manchester, The Catacombs was one of the earliest Northern Soul venues on the scene.

The windowless second storey room was closer to a cellar in the sky than a typical dance hall: nicotine stained condensation would drip down the walls, generated by the heat of enthusiastic, often speed-fuelled dancers.

Nigel Carter, a frequent attendee at The Catacombs, says the smelting work’s vaulted ceilings made the club unique: “the song that reminds me most of The Cats is Psychedelic Soul by Saxie Russell. The way it echoed down the passages is still etched in my mind.”

Aspects of The Catacombs ranged from the bizarre to the downright dangerous: the club served orange squash by the pint and boasted a fire escape made of wood.

“It was so unsuited to what I thought of as a club as a teenager,” says Dr Rosalind Watkiss Singleton, a lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton who attended The Catacombs.

Dr Singleton, who is now leading a research project on the club, feels the oddness of the building was part of its charm: “The other Northern Soul nights locally and further afield tended to be in more salubrious buildings. I think that’s part of why The Catacombs is remembered so fondly.”

Catacombs dancefloor 1974.jpgThe Catacombs dance floor in 1974

Attendees of the club were predominantly white working-class men from the areas surrounding Wolverhampton such as Tipton and Dudley.

“It was accessible because it wasn’t too expensive,” says Ian ‘Pep’ Pereira, a former record dealer and DJ at The Catacombs who first attended when he was 15.

“We had a work hard, play hard attitude- weekend highs, then back to work in the week. The Catacombs gave ordinary working-class people the opportunity to be part of something trendy, fashionable and fun. It was economical happiness, an escape from drudgery.”

The men found ways of challenging typical masculinity at the club through their acrobatic dance moves.

“The dancing was my first love, even before collecting music,” says Pereira. “People would run up the walls and do somersaults. It didn’t matter what you looked like because it was so dark that you could lose yourself in the music.

“I had hang ups about how I looked at that age, but in The Catacombs, it was all about the music. Northern Soul was the beginning of dancing on your own, because prior to that it was considered a bit sissy for a guy to dance. But in 1968, there was a sea change in what was acceptable.”

dj ian 'pep' pereiraDJ Ian ‘Pep’ Pereira

The year would become infamous for the town: Northern Soul nights at The Catacombs began just six months after Wolverhampton MP Enoch Powell gave his Rivers of Blood speech, and the area became emblematic of anti-immigration sentiment.

Powell’s insistence that immigrants had no cultural value to offer Britain was rejected by attendees at The Catacombs. While hardly free of racism, the club was a space in which the white working-classes celebrated a cultural import, specifically a black American one.

“There’s never been a large percentage of black or Asian people on the scene,” says Pereira. “There are more now than there were then, but it’s always been kind of blue-eyed. But it was black people who made the music.”

“Not everyone even realised it was black American music,” says Dr Singleton. “There was a feeling among a lot of people at the time that there was a failure to recognise that fact. But to a certain extent, the music brought people together.

“In Wolverhampton at the time, there were clubs that weren’t actually defined as white only, but you knew that black people couldn’t go there. There was less racial tension at The Catacombs compared to other clubs or even other Northern Soul venues nearby, like The Ship and Rainbow just outside of Wolverhampton. There was a lot more racial tension there.”

Mickey Nold and friends.jpgMickey Nold and friends

The Catacombs, like the music it venerated, was a diamond in the rough. The Northern Soul scene was a precursor to modern hipsterdom, where obscurity is venerated above all else. Explicitly anti-commercial, Northern Soul fans worshipped Motown records that were left on the cutting room floor, tracks that were somehow too awkward or unwieldy to achieve mass appeal.

“You tell people nowadays that nobody knew This Old Heart Of Mine  and they don’t believe you,” says Pereira. “But they were unknown records at the time, re-released based on the demand created by the scene. Motown in this country owes so much to Northern Soul.”

DJs like Pereira spent huge sums of money mail-ordering records from the USA: “That was the era of imports. Tens of thousands of American records were never released over here. It was guesswork, all done blind from lists of artists and labels.”

If you stumbled across a hit, the record became a precious commodity. Such was the case for ‘Farmer’ Carl Dene, a Catacombs DJs whose obtained the only copy of Baby Reconsider by Leon Haywood.

Northern Soul devotees could only hear the track by attending venues where Dene played- that is, until another copy was found and taken to The Twisted Wheel in Manchester. Baby Reconsider became synonymous with The Wheel, and Dene’s part in popularising the record was largely forgotten.

“There’s this idea that The Wheel was where so many records were broken, but details like this suggest that it wasn’t always the case,” says Dr Singleton. “A lot of records were actually broken at The Catacombs or the Chateau Impney in Droitwich before they were played at The Twisted Wheel.”

The Catacombs, already anomalous because of its industrial building, could not obtain a regular all-night license and so suffered in comparison to larger venues in the north. Fans would attend The Catacombs until closing time, then drive to other venues for an all-nighter.

“People used to go to The Golden Torch in Stoke on Trent, which was a big all-nighter that ran at the same time in 1972,” says Pereira. “People would always rather go to an all-nighter than a soul night. The Torch had an adverse effect on The Cats but it was only for 9 months before it lost its license. Then the club came back to life.”

For Pereira, the summer of 1973 was the heyday of The Catacombs: “In 1973 we discovered the best stuff first. For discovering music, The Catacombs and the Blackpool Mecca were the places to go.”

But in autumn, the club’s fortunes changed. The opening of Wigan Casino, which would go on to become the most famous Northern Soul club in the country, drew many regulars from The Catacombs with the lure of all-nighters.

“Hundreds went up on coaches,” says Pereira, “bypassing The Cats completely. Slowly the numbers started to dwindle and the owners decided to throw in the towel. But we were still ahead of the game, right until the end.”

catacombs djs blue max and basilCatacombs DJs Blue Max and Basil

On 13th July 1974, The Catacombs held a rare all-nighter to send the club off in style. “It was too crowded, really,” says Pereira. “There were about 1,000 people from all over the country in a place that held about a third of that. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a hotter room in my life.”

The heat was so intense that the building’s red paint melted off the walls, as though the club itself was bleeding. Grieving fans made cassette recordings of the final playlist and carved their names into the brickwork. On one wall was a simple epitaph: “It’s the death of The Cats.”

As the morning drew closer, pink membership cards littered the floor, discarded tributes to the club that had become so beloved. When crowds finally left The Catacombs, they were haunted by the words of Where Have All The Flowers Gone? by Walter Jackson. The Catacombs had finally become the tomb its name evoked.

Months later, Nigel Carter and his friends discovered that the door to the abandoned building was still open. “One of my friends took the signing in book. I did grab some of the membership cards and I still have them: not proud of semi-breaking in, but I’m glad I got them.”

With the club closed, the early role it played in shaping Northern Soul began to fade from memory. Over the next 45 years, pop culture depictions of the Northern Soul scene would focus almost exclusively on the north of England, with the Midlands marginalised.

“DJs who played at The Catacombs as well as places like The Twisted Wheel still say that The Catacombs is one of the most important clubs of the scene,” says Dr Singleton, “and the one that’s not been sufficiently recognised by academics.”

Since the club’s heyday, Wolverhampton has suffered through the decline of British manufacturing and fluctuating levels of employment. The old smelting works that housed The Catacombs, another ghost of former prosperity, was eventually knocked down and rebuilt. On the site where it stood, there is now a Jobcentre.

jobcentre.jpg(Image via Flickr)

Yet the legacy of the club lives on through its dedicated fans. For many The Catacombs was the start of lifelong relationships, including Pereira, who met his late wife Helen at the club.

“The day I proposed, I said, ‘I can only give you a £10 ring, because I spent half of that on a record last night,”” Pereira recalls. “She wasn’t too pleased at first, but I think she liked the record I bought with it better anyway: I’m On My Way by Dean Parrish.”

The erasure of The Catacombs from studies of Northern Soul is a source of some resentment for Pereira: “The record is being put straight, over time. It’s not just another local club, and any hardcore fans on the scene know that. But people are drawn to places like Wigan Casino instead.”

Historians like Dr Singleton are working hard to highlight the importance of the club: “You have to be a real fan of Northern Soul to know much about the Catacombs. We’re really trying to redress the balance by coming outside of The Twisted Wheel and Wigan Casino, and focusing on the Midlands area.”

Half a century since Northern Soul first filled the chambers of The Catacombs, the club’s history is buried just beneath the surface, ready to be discovered. Thanks to the efforts of DJs, fans and local historians over the last fifty years, The Catacombs never truly died: it was just waiting to be found.

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