Oi Polloi

The Right Place at the Right Time: the Fillmore and the Twisted Wheel

Published: Fri Oct 14 2016

We’ve made some jeans with Levi’s which should be available fairly soon. These were vaguely inspired by the music of San Francisco (where Levi’s are from), and Manchester (where we’re from).

With this in mind, we looked at two important venues  the Fillmore and the Twisted Wheel…  

On the face of it, San Francisco and Manchester don’t have much in common. San Francisco is a sun-soaked city on the West Coast of the United States, known for steep hills and pelicans, and Manchester is an industrial city in the North West of England, famous for rain and football.

They’re definitely more chalk and cheese than swings and roundabouts.

But if you squint your mind a bit, a few similarities do emerge. Both are what you could call second cities, and whilst New York and London are full of people trying to make it big, San Francisco and Manchester are filled with normal people quietly going about their business.

Both were also home to what a Sunday supplement pulled out of The Guardian might call, ‘cultural movements’ — both of these occurred in the mid-1960s too.

In San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium, long-haired sorts gathered to listen to the bands like Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead — and in Manchester’s Twisted Wheel, sharply dressed crowds danced all night to fast-tempo soul records brought over from America. Both are still talked about to this day.

The Fillmore Auditorium — 07:34 Tuesday the 26th of July, 2016.

The Fillmore may have been home to some of the most infamous shows of the last hundred years, but at half past seven on a weekday morning, you wouldn’t know it. Across the street there’s a man in blue overalls cleaning last night’s detritus from the pavement with an industrial pressure washer, and in a nearby bus stop a man is shouting at passing cars.

I try to find someone to talk to about the building, but the shouting man isn’t much help. He tells me that there’s somewhere nearby that shows videos, but beyond that I can’t really make out what he’s saying. Finding anyone else to talk to proves difficult.

The dry cleaners next door is already open, but there’s no action at the Fillmore. Not sure what I expected really. Why would there be anyone in there that early? With nothing else to do, I go for a nap on a bench around the corner.

After an hour or so, I try again. This time, the door is open, and I can see the stairs that lead inside, but there’s a metal gate blocking me from getting in.

I lurk around outside hoping someone comes past. After being accosted by a street preacher, and eventually baptised, I spot a man in a brown t-shirt walking in carrying some large boxes. It turns out he’s called Tony Biancalana, and he’s worked at the Fillmore for 32 years. Although he’s busy with the day’s tasks, he’s more than happy to spend a few minutes telling me the history of the mass of bricks we’re stood next to.

“This building opened in 1912 as the Majestic Ballroom. The Beth Israel synagogue was here before, but it was levelled in the 1906 earthquake. So after that, they built this building and the new Beth Israel was next door where the post office stands now. There was also a Presbyterian church near there which later became Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple, but that’s another story entirely.

They did ballroom dancing here, and then in the late 40s, they started the Ambassador Roller Rink here.”

It’s in the 50s that things get interesting. Due to redevelopment in a nearby area, a promoter by the name of Charles Sullivan was forced to move his jazz club, Bop City, into the building. “He’s the guy who first started calling this place the Fillmore Auditorium. He’s the guy who started doing the live music here. He put on Little Richard and Ike and Tina Turner. In fact, Hendrix played here before The Experience with the Little Richard band,” said Tony.

“And then along comes Bill Graham in 1965 with a mime troupe. The S.F. Mime Troupe had gotten in trouble with the city government for using profanity in public in Golden Gate Park, so they all got arrested. So the first show Bill Graham did here was a benefit to raise money for their legal defence, because originally he was the business manager for the mime troupe.”

Then there was Jefferson Airplane with John Handy, and then the Great Society, and then the Grateful Dead. That’s pretty much when the whole modern era of music started happening. This is where it all began.”

Fair enough. But surely these bands were playing in other places too? I ask why the Fillmore is the one that is the one everyone remembers — the one everyone has heard of.

“A lot of that has to do with this neighbourhood. There was a large Filipino contingent here, there was a large Japanese contingent here, there was a large Jewish community here… what you had here was a really big melting pot. Bill was smart enough to realise this. He would put together bands that had nothing to do with each other, so people were exposed to music that they wouldn’t have listened to otherwise. If you look at some of the posters upstairs, you’d have Woody Herman and The Who, Buddy Rich with Ten Years After or Miles Davis with the Grateful Dead. You’re clashing all these people together, and that’s kind of what this town is about. Lightshows began here, P.A. systems began here. Up until the Fillmore, when you’d go and see someone, there’d just be one microphone that people sang through and the soloist would go up to. It wasn’t a big rock show like here.”

Tony also put down the venues success to something more — timing. “It was part of the whole social scene, the whole hippy movement, which basically was primed by the beatnik thing which happened in the 50s. It was everything coming together, the right place at the right time. Things just seemed to happen that way back then.”

At this point, Tony was called back to work. A truck full of speakers had arrived, and it wasn’t going to offload itself.

The Twisted Wheel — 12:21, Monday the 26th of September.

Two months later, and I’m snooping around like a weirdo on Whitworth Street near Manchester Piccadilly Station. In 1965, the same year that Bill Graham arrived at the Fillmore Auditorium with his potty-mouthed mime troupe, the Twisted Wheel moved from its original location behind Manchester Town Hall, and down into a basement on this unassuming street.

Soon, this small club which sold just Coca-Cola, Fanta Orange, tea and coffee would become renowned for its allnight soul sessions.

Phil Saxe, who would later go on to DJ there, was only 14 when he first attended. “As a Jewish boy growing up in Stretford, my parents wanted me to meet and befriend other Jewish kids. With this in mind I was often shepherded to North Manchester and Jewish youth clubs. There I met some cool boys and girls, who were much more cosmopolitan than my friends in Stretford, and started accompanying them to Manchester's mod clubs and coffee bars: places like the Jungfrau, Oasis, Jigsaw, the Mogambo and the Swinging Door in West Didsbury.

“There were plenty of clubs of this ilk. The Wheel was top of the tree. You progressed from the lesser haunts to the Wheel because it was infamous for its drug-taking allnighter crowd. Nice kids, regular people, didn't frequent it. I started attending allnighters soon before my fifteenth birthday.”

In the mid-60s there were many clubs in the North of England playing music from across the Atlantic. So what set the Twisted Wheel apart?

“The Wheel was different from other Manchester clubs by virtue of the music it featured and its far-flung clientele. After 1967, when many allnighters in other cities were closed down, the Wheel mopped up those who had attended allnighters in places like Sheffield, Wolverhampton, London, North Wales, Glasgow, Gloucester and the like. The Wheel played soul music, as most clubs did, but it was soul that was driven by an amphetamine-fuelled dancefloor. The Wheel also differed from the mainstream by allowing jeans, polo shirts and tennis shoes.”

“Other clubs were places you went to meet members of the opposite sex. Whilst the same activity occurred at the Wheel, the music, and the scene generated, was more to the fore. The Cavern in Liverpool, Sheffield's Mojo, New York's CBGBs and London's Scene share similar characteristics. Almost none of these still exist in their original spaces or forms because cool people don't live in the past, they move on.”

These days it’s impossible to get inside the Wheel. It was filled in a few years ago to form the foundations of a new hotel which was built on the site. There’s a plaque up on the wall commemorating the club, but beyond that, nothing is left. I asked Phil how he remembered it.

“The walls throughout the club were black, dripping with nicotine-tinged sweat. There were no chairs. People just danced in small circles, sometimes progressing to the circle's centre to display a particular move, spin or back flip. I can't remember ash trays and dimps on the floor but, given the times, I'm sure it was smoky too.”

Phil had explained to me how he is often critical of historical accounts due to their subjective nature. This is an important point. None of this stuff in this article is meant to be taken as absolute fact. This all happened a long while ago, and the human mind may sometimes forget or warp certain details. Saying that, Phil did manage to conjure up a fairly comprehensive description of how his nights at the Twisted Wheel would go down...

“If United were playing away, I'd be in town early afternoon meeting mates as they arrived at Piccadilly or Victoria stations. By 9.00pm we'd all congregate outside the Blue Dolphin, a coffee bar on London Road, to talk and buy pills for the night. The pills came in three levels: entry level such as Dexies; mid-level like Green and Clears or the heavy gear such as Black Bombers. Dependent upon your familiarity with these you'd 'drop' 5, 10, 15 or 20 en route to the Wheel, around 11.00pm.

The acts over the years included Ike and Tina Turner, Billy Stewart, Solomon Burke and Edwin Starr. The DJ, up to the act coming on stage, was generally Paul Davis, a long term resident, who mostly played what we dismissively termed ‘club soul’. After the act the ‘real’ DJs, those that people had come far to hear, took over. Besides myself, these included Brian Phillips, Les Cockell, and Brian Rae. It was then the drugs were in full flight and the dancing most intense. We'd dance till 7.30am, then march to Piccadilly public toilets for a wash and a change of clothes before heading elsewhere, like Top Twenty at Hollinwood, to continue until late afternoon.”

By January 1971, the Twisted Wheel had closed. And although new venues were popping up playing ‘Northern Soul’ (a term apparently first used in 1968 by a London record shop to describe the fast, raucous, dance-orientated soul that Northerners would often look for on trips down south), many of the original movers and shakers had moved on.

Phil did play at the Wheel’s replacement for a short while, but was fired for refusing to play pop music. In response, he played Iggy Pop’s Search and Destroy and then left. “After the Wheel closed I abandoned that scene. At nineteen, I was getting tired of it all. I got involved in the nascent glam rock scene. By age 20, I was married.”

An Attempt at a Conclusion

Now I’m sat in the corner of a stockroom trying to tie all this stuff together. At first I thought maybe with a bit of delving, I’d find that the venues had a lot in common — that although the music, the clothes and the chemicals of choice were different, once you got beyond the aesthetic differences, the skeletal cores would be the same. But I don’t think they were.

The Fillmore was an ex-roller rink that heralded the start of big-production rock concerts and people gazing at fancy lightshows, whilst the Twisted Wheel was a basement filled with a tightly-knit group of people dancing like their lives depended on it.

Yeah — chalk and cheese. Actually, maybe that’s the point? Just because two things are completely different, it doesn’t mean they aren’t both good. Chalk and cheese panini anyone?

The Levi's Oi Polloi jeans will be available relatively soon. Keep an eye out for more news in the next few weeks, and maybe sign up to our newsletter if you're into that sort of thing...