Craig Charles is without doubt a massive household name. He’s had a long and colourful career, and while many will know him as poet, comedian or TV star, he’s been whipping up a large fraction of the population into a funk-fuelled frenzy every soulful Saturday night for the last 11 years with his Funk and Soul show on BBC 6Music. What Craig knows about Funk and Soul can not be measured by talking about it, but by the following he’s amassed, and the legacy he leaves behind at every live date. Still, we asked him this once to tell us a little bit about it. Craig kindly gave us his time to talk about that and so much more…We don’t even have enough column inches to share with you what he shared with us about working on cult shows Red Dwarf, Robot Wars, Takeshi’s Castle or even Corrie. So there’s plenty more to read if you shoe shuffle over to Outlineonline.co.uk.
You’re coming to Open again this month; you came not so long ago and went down a storm…Yeah, we kind of tore the place apart when we arrived, didn't we? But then again, you know, I'm dealing with the golden era black American music, and it's very difficult to do a bad set when you're playing that kind of stuff. Plus, you know, a lot of stuff we do is very new. It's not like - it's not a history lesson. It's kind of stuff by bands that are recording and playing and touring now, so it's very on the ball, on the money, on the minute as well. It's not just old tunes played by a sad old man. It's new stuff as well. Do you know what I mean?
Absolutely. But I did hear – and I think you'll get some insurance claims coming your way from friends of mine that haven't danced like that in years, let's say. Sore feet. Aching knees. That kind of thing...Oh, I've got people pulling muscles. I've got calf strings gone, hamstrings gone –
Have you not seen that ‘where there's blame there’s a claim’? It's all coming your way, mate.Disco injuries. You can't blame me. That's disco injuries. I get them sometimes. I came back and my hamstring, for about three or four days; I felt like a footballer after extra time in the FA Cup, plus penalties! Because I really go for it as well, you know? But then again, it's good-time music. It's past-time music. It's party music. You know, if you're not dancing to the music, you're already dead. It's infectious, and that's the way we try and keep it. People are there to have a good time, and we're there to provide it. And you know, there's no navel gazing. I don't get too hung up with being super cool and playing tunes that no one's heard of and stuff like that. Too cool for school kind of stuff. I try and keep the dance floor bouncing.
So when you're not behind the wheels of steel, what's your relationship with the dancefloor like? Are you first on?My instructions on soul music were from my dad, you know? He came to England in the late '50s with a pocket full of change and a bag full of records, so when people were dancing to The Beatles in Liverpool and stuff like that, I was listening to Aretha Franklin, and Ray Charles, and Nat King Cole, and stuff like that. So, I've kind of been inbred with this music from a very early age really. So, to me, it's kind of a natural thing, but a lot of people don't even know they like funk and soul until they hear it. I mean funk and soul is not what you hear on the radio; that kind of black pop music or something like that. That's not funk and soul music. Funk and soul is about live drums, live bass, live guitar, horn sections, singers that can strip paint clean from five hundred yards. You know, it's about a pure emotion and pure expression, and a beat that makes you boogie. You know what I mean?
Absolutely. Well, I'm a soul baby through and through. People say, "Why do you like soul music? What is soul music?" And it's hard to define. It's as much of a depth of feeling as anything rather than a genre. How would you answer that?People say, “You know, soul music; do you think it's going to have a resurgency?” And I'm like: "What do mean a resurgency?" Some of the biggest albums of the 21st Century have been essentially soul albums. Amy Winehouse's ‘Back to Black’, and Adele's ‘21’. They're basically soul albums, you know? It doesn't need a resurgency. Soul music is everywhere, you know? And when you get people like CeeLo Green topping the charts for months and months and stuff like that, it's all soul to me, you know? Soul music, as I said, is not R&B. It's not drum machines and samples, and stuff like that, although it can be. You know, but I think you're right. It's a bit like mod. How do you define mod? Mod is not a music. It's not a dress code. It's a feeling and stuff. And I play a lot music that people would say, "Oh, that's a bit - that's a mod tune." Do you know what I mean? A bit of Georgie Fame or something like that. But it's because of the emotion and the passion behind it, you know, and it's - because it's made by human beings rather than by machines mostly, and that's what kind of comes across. You know?
Yeah. And when you look at Northern soul, you know, it's more of a dance scene than anything. There's a certain beat, like they call it 'fall to the floor', you know? Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. There's a certain kind of beat with Northern soul. Though I don't play that much Northern. I mean, I grew up with all of that as well. A lot of the guys that were DJing it at the Wigan Casino have now become sort of friends of mine. The amount of history associated with Northern soul, it's something that is quite difficult. You'll never be an expert in Northern soul - there's too much to bloody learn. There's too much to know. Bob Stanley is a good friend of mine. What a DJ he is. He's forgotten more than I'll ever know about Northern soul, you know, so I'd never claim to be an expert on anything to do with funk and soul music. All I can say is I'm an enthusiast. And you know, hopefully my enthusiasm comes across in the way I perform and the music I play in my Radio Show and stuff like that. But it's very difficult to become an expert in this. The genre is way too big and there's far too much to learn. And do you know what? It's very difficult to find a bad tune as well. And you'd spend more time studying it and trying to work out a back catalogue than actually enjoy it, wouldn't you, in the end? And do you know something? I got offered the chance to go on Mastermind and people were like, “Go on. Go on. Go on. Go and do funk and soul. Go and do it."
Oh no, the pressure.There's no way. It's just like you'd have to have a brain like an encyclopedia to be able to anticipate what kind of questions they were going to ask you, you know? But there's some people who I take my hat off. They know so much more than me and they help me out on my show and stuff like that. And I've been doing my Radio Show for - what - about eleven/twelve years now. And it's like, you know, it's got the biggest audience share on the network. BB6 Music, which is a bit of a surprise really, because we thought we were going to do this very genre-laden, niche sort of show that people wouldn't like - that would just be for people into the scene. It's just grown so much now, and we're getting such a young following as well now that people are discovering the joy of the music; realising that they didn't really know what funk and soul was because they didn't think it was this. And you know, soul music can be rocking and fucking Oasis when it's happening. Do you know what I mean?
You came to Latitude Festival recently and I heard reports that you absolutely smashed it there. But the festival crowd is so diverse. How do you prepare for that kind of thing?Well, actually, I don't even think about the crowd anymore. I don’t mean that to sound arrogant. I just kind of try. I don't even think about what set I'm going to play. It depends on what mood I'm in, you know? I've got all this music and what I try and do is like what's going to make them dance, you know? It's nice to get a young crowd. I'd hate turn around and look at the crowd and see all middle-aged men like me. Boogieing like it was back in the day. I don't want this to be a history lesson - this is about getting young people into it. And in some cases, showing young people what they're missing. In some cases, showing young people where the music they're listening to actually comes from. Because my dad did that to me. I was listening to - because all the kids in my school were all white and they had long hair - they were all listening to like Led Zeppelin and that kind of stuff. And I remember borrowing a Led Zeppelin album, playing it in the house, and my dad saying, "Boy, they stole that, you know." And I'd go: "What do you mean, dad? What do you mean? Whatever, old man." And he went: "Come here. Come with me," and then he played me John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters and all this Blues stuff. And you can actually see where Led Zeppelin stole it. It was the time before samples. If they were doing it now, they'd probably use the samples a bit, but you can actually see where Led Zeppelin lifted this and they'd lifted that, all that. And my dad gave me a real history lesson that day, you know? So, I'm just carrying on my dad's legacy really, showing people where that sample came from. Say Beyonce's ‘Crazy in Love’. A lot of people aren't going to know that that sample comes from The Twilights, you know? So it's kind of nice giving them a bit of a history lesson as well.
My Mum is from Liverpool and I still have family there; it’s a city with a real pulse, with a real beat, isn't it? Being a magazine concerned with locality, tell us what it was like growing up there… Could you feel the rhythm in the city?I could feel it was always very different. I mean I suppose Norwich is like that in some ways as well. Maybe even Norwich more so, simply because you're only going to Norwich if you're going to Norwich! It's not somewhere you're passing through, so that gives it that particular identity. I just wish it'd get a motorway. You know, with a motorway, it'd be brilliant. Do you know what I mean?! Liverpool is a bit like that. You know, it's not one of them cities that you can say: "Oh, I'm just passing through Liverpool." You actually go into Liverpool. It's a destination of choice. And so, I did grow up feeling that Liverpool was - actually, I grew up in the '80s, my formative years when Thatcher was trying to close down everywhere. Everyone got told to get on their bike and find work in the South and stuff like that. And it gives you a real sense of solidarity with fellow man as it were, but we're a city apart. We're something special. We're different than the rest of Britain. We've got a different accent. We've got a different sort of community mindset. I mean no - I seriously believe that no other city in Britain could have organised a city-wide boycott of The Sun newspaper like Liverpool did. I don't even think they actually even try and sell The Sun in Liverpool anymore, because Liverpool - the people - just closed it down after what they said about Hillsborough. I think the city of Liverpool just said, "No, we're not having this. We're not buying your paper," and I don't think they sell one copy in Liverpool. And that's how solid that city is and that city can be, you know? And it does make you feel - I wouldn't say special - but different. You feel different than the rest of Britain. I'm certainly proud that I spent a lot of time growing up there. It's just so vibrant. It's just a great place to be.
I’m obviously in Norwich now, and Norwich is proud to have created and hosted the John Peel Festival for New Music. He's a man that helped you in the beginning of your career, isn't he?He certainly did. My first two Peels. I did two Peel sessions. I think the first one was in 1983, so I would've been - what – eighteen when I did my first Peel session? And it went so well that he put it at number seven in his Festive 50 that year, which was great for me, as this young poet. I was doing poetry at the time with the band behind me of course. And yeah, and then I went to see him a few times after that. And he was always a great supporter of new music and stuff like that.
As a radio DJ, you have a very personal role with your listening public. You're coming direct into people's homes and you soundtrack their Saturday night. I sometimes make my tea listening to you, as so many people do, don't they?I know. I should probably do that thing called a ‘Slow Cooker’ now, you know? You know, like the ‘Get a Room’ tune. It's like, okay, it's time to put down the pots and pans, get a hold of your partner, and dance around the kitchen while your kids shout “Get a room!” We get a lot of people getting ready to go out for a big Saturday night. We get a lot of people who are staying in, cooking dinner. A lot of people introducing their children to this kind of music. You know, probably being boring dad, going: "Listen to this. Listen to this. Now we're just getting white boys with guitars. Listen to this. Listen to this.” So we get an awful lot of that going on. Yeah, it's a great time slot actually to be had, simply because up against us on television are things like Strictly Dancing on Ice or X Factor, or Britain's Got Knobheads or whatever. And if you're not buying into that and if that's not really what you're into, if you want something a bit more eclectic, a bit more actually cool, a bit more real, then why not stick on the radio on 6Music between six and nine, and you don't have to watch that. You can listen to some real music. Not people doing karaoke in front of backing tracks, you know?
And Saturday night, if you weren't on the radio, what would be Saturday night for you now?My Saturday nights are - I'm gigging every Friday and Saturday night these days. I don't think I've got a weekend off. So, generally, we try to do the show live. What we'll do is we'll do six to nine live, and then I'll get in a car and I'm lucky living in Manchester, because it's central really. Sundays are always spent with the family. It's my day off, so I've got a wife and two kids, and we generally - actually, I generally lie on the couch with the remote control in my hand, ordering my children around! Saturday nights are generally work nights for me, you know? Monday to Friday I do Coronation Street, and then Friday night and Saturday nights we'll gig. And Sunday is a day of rest really.
I'd get told off if I didn't ask you a little bit about your TV career. You've been associated with cult shows, aside from Corrie - that's universal. What draws you to working on a program?Well, it was always trying to be doing something different, you know? Because I was doing Saturday Night Live and all this kind of stuff, doing the poetry and all that. And when I was doing Saturday Night Live, it was me and Ben Elton and Fry & Laurie and Harry Enfield, and all that. The guy who was producing that left to do this show called Red Dwarf. A guy called Paul Jackson. And he goes to me: "You know, what do you think about this script?" So, I read it and said, “It’s brilliant. Can I be Lister?” And he went: "No, fuck off. No. No. No.” And like the guys who wrote it were from Manchester. And Manchester and Liverpool have always had a certain antagonism. There's no way these guys who wrote Red Dwarf from Manchester wanted Dave Lister, their hero, to be a fucking Scouser. Do you know what I mean? It took quite a while for all that to come to pass, but I got that job. And after that, it was always trying to do something a little bit cutting edge. A tried doing a bit of this thing called Cyber Zone, which was the first ever kind of reality TV program. We were well ahead of the proper technology, if you know what I mean.Technology was way behind us, but it was still trying to do something different. And then, when Robot Wars came along, Robot Wars, I just thought: "Oh man, we've got to have that, you know?" And at one stage, I thought that was going to tank.
Did you?Yeah, well the first day, I was in the dressing room and looking in the mirror, and looking down at the arena. And they were pulling the robots into the arena on an invisible twine because nothing was working. And I was thinking: "Oh my God, what have I done with my career?" And you know, within the blink of an eye, it was the most watched show on BBC2.
I was spectacularly hungover on Sunday and I switched over to Takeshi’s Castle, and it's just brilliant to watch, isn't it, when you can't think about anything else?!Just watching masochist Japanese people running to doors and breaking things. It was just such good fun. And the way we'd film that was we'd go - there was no script or anything like that. We'd go to the pub and have about four pints, and then we'd go into the studio and there'd be a video cassette player and a microphone. I’d put the cassette player on and then start talking. It was like ‘say what you see TV’. I can't believe some of the stuff I got away with. You know, I was like: "She's on her hands and knees. Big black balls bouncing off her bottom lip."
Well, Craig, we're so excited about having you back in Norwich. I’m gonna set up the website DiscoInjuries.com, and I'll be taking claims the day after your set.Good on you.
But you're looking forward to coming back?Oh great, I always love coming to Norwich. As I said, I wish it had bloody motorway, but apart from that it's always been a great city for me. You know, it's like I say it's one of those cities that reminds me of Liverpool in many ways, you know? I'm looking forward to it again, and please get everyone to come, because we're going to tear the roof off the place.
And Craig, you're my kindred bother. 11th of July. That's your birthday. Is that right?It certainly is, yeah.
Mine too. Mine too.We must be twins!
Emma R. Garwood
Craig Charles brings his Funk and Soul band to Open on Saturday 5th October. For tickets, go to www.ueaticketbookings.co.uk. Read the uncut version of this interview on Outlineonline.co.uk