Keeping the Faith

Mel Thorley remembers Chorlton’s part in the story of Northern Soul and shares a timeless party soundtrack – let the good times roll!

Any Mastermind contestant answering questions about Manchester in the 1960s could probably tell you when London Road station became Piccadilly, or when George Best first laced his boots up for United. Ask about the origins of Northern Soul, however, and the answer is less forthcoming. 

We know that the music found its way across the Atlantic, but where exactly did its boat dock? There’s Wigan Casino; Blackpool could claim its Mecca Ballroom; Tunstall could claim the Golden Torch – and closer to home, the city centre had its famous Twisted Wheel.

You see folks, there is no official answer to this question, but, if any ‘Keep the Faith’ blue plaques are to be installed, I want a circular 7-inch on a wall opposite Southern Cemetery, marking the spot of The Oaks Hotel.

I started listening to Radio Luxembourg in 1957 and collecting vinyl singles in 1960. My mate Barney and I craved R&B. Despite both being under-age, we went everywhere we could to find the music we loved. We were more like reporters than dancers, feverishly scribbling down the artists and titles. 

We noticed how the DJ (then Gary Laine, owner of the legendary Spin Inn record shop) wasn’t keen on revealing too much. I remember the day we went into Ralph’s Record in Stockport and asked for anything by “Salmon Dave”. He nearly choked on his bacon barm.

We felt we were part of an underground movement; searching for these obscure singles at a time when the pop charts were the be-all-and-end-all. In October 1966 we discovered great B-sides and ‘’dancer power’ had begun. At that time, we were the ones telling the record companies what to release, and these fantastic records, once so obscure, went on to become big hits.

One fateful evening, we were on our way back from a European night at Old Trafford and I had my Triumph Spitfire’s hood down. We stopped at a red light on Barlow Moor Road, and saw what looked like a great party in a big building across the street – this was our first sight of the Oaks. We had found our Nirvana. Finally, I was home.

The sounds blasted out, one after another, the beat never ceasing. So impressive was the track list I had to run back out to the car for my notepad. The secretive DJs covered the labels on their decks so we couldn’t even see their colour! The Oaks led the way with the playing of rare, deleted, sometimes unheard-of tracks – no fancy tricks, just honest, investigative disc jockeying. Dancers came from miles around.

So popular were the ‘unearthed’ sounds played throughout 1968, we were in Ralph’s Records and The Spin Inn all the time, pestering them to tell the company reps to get their bottoms in gear. A massive total of thirty ‘Oaks’ Sounds’ were re-issued in 1969 to meet our demands. 

And while these 7-inches were created in the USA, they travelled everywhere: so many are still classics, even now. Their true beat was the Soul Of The North of England. It was the sound of Beyer Peacock and the Gorton Tank, Trafford Park Estate on full chat and the roar of the Kippax and The Stretford End.

The Oaks later forged a new identity as a punk and post-punk venue, before closing its doors for the last time in the early 1990s. It was demolished to make way for the Christie Fields development and a part of Manchester’s soundtrack was lost forever.

When Mel grew up, he became a train driver and drove the Orient Express. Now retired, he shares his home with a meticulously catalogued record collection and is the only man in Chorlton who can track down Sugar Pie DeSanto faster than his clean socks.

Read the full list of the Oaks Thirty – and listen to Mel’s fantastic Oaks playlist on Spotify

Time for a party.