Music Features

Harangue The DJ: Craig Charles

Craig Charles has been a fixture in British entertainment for over thirty years. From his beginnings as a performance poet in the rich musical scene of his native Liverpool, he’s gone on to do stand-up comedy, acting, writing, presenting and DJing. He’s been in cult television series Red Dwarf since its debut in 1988, provided the voiceovers for re-runs of bizarre Japanese game show Takeshi’s Castle, and helmed six series of amateur engineer battle show Robot Wars. He’s now best known for playing taxi driver and Northern Soul fan, Lloyd Mullaney, in long-running soap opera Coronation Street – a role he’s had since 2005.

However, Charles has been involved in radio since the early 90s, when he presented the breakfast show on Kiss FM. Since BBC 6Music’s inception in 2002, he’s hosted the station’s funk and soul show, playing a diverse mix of tracks old and new from around the world. This show has spawned a club night spin-off and now, a compilation CD too, released through Freestyle Records last month.

Clearly you need an awful lot of energy to be involved in as many projects as Craig Charles is, and so it proves when he spoke on the phone to No Ripcord’s Joe Rivers. Despite having been promoting the new compilation for most of the day (which included a break when he was called into Coronation Street at the last minute to film a scene), he’s still full of beans and enthusing about the music he loves, as well as reciting a poem back from when it all began. When Joe managed to get a word in edgeways, he asked a few questions.

How did you get the new compilation down to just nineteen songs from all the ones you had to choose from?

It’s been a nightmare, to be honest! We do the Craig Charles Funk & Soul Club all over the country and we thought we’d try and do a CD that would be kind of indicative of what you’d get at one of our club nights. It’s difficult to decide what you put on it, what you’re going to open with, what you’re going to finish with and how to build the journey. I’ve initially signed up to do three Funk & Soul Club compilations but a lot of the tracklisting was a toss-up – it’s all my favourite music. I could release an album a week of all the new stuff that’s coming through. We’re lucky in a way because on the radio show we deal with the golden era of black American music and the European and British response to that, but this album’s not like a history lesson. There are still some old tracks there; it’s got Al Wilson’s The Snake on it, a bit of Northern and stuff like that, but mainly it’s music that’s getting recorded by acts that are playing live now. You’ve got The Apples coming out of Australia with Killing, you’ve got The Excitements coming out of Spain with Wait A Minute, you’ve got Smoove & Turrell coming out of Newcastle, Haggis Horns out of Leeds via Scotland, you’ve got Brenda Boykin coming out of Germany on ChinChin Records. So, a lot of the album is new music, and some are covers that I think are better than the real thing.

There are four or five covers on the record, aren’t there?

Yeah, The Incredible Bongo Band’s cover of Satisfaction is brilliant. I play that at the club and if you turn it up really loud when those bongos kick in, it drives everyone crazy. Amen Brother [played by The Bamboos] is a cover as well, it’s an old gospel song – a traditional tune. You’ve got Seven Nation Army from Alice Russell – I love that version. Then there’s Prince Fatty’s version of Insane In The Brain!

When I first saw the tracklisting I thought, “no, that can’t be…”, but it is.

It’s a really cool cover as well – I love it! When we do the club night we start off really high-tempo, really up, to get everyone excited, bang! So you start off with something like Amen [Brother] – actually, to start the record it was a toss-up between that and The Mighty Showstoppers’ Shaft In Africa. So, we start it up then you bring it down after about five or six records when everybody’s knackered and they want a pint – you can’t keep that red-hot, maximum tilt pace all the time, so you bring it down a little, put on a bit of ska there like Rocket Man [by The Stiff Naked Fools] or Alice Russell, then you slowly bring it back up again, perhaps with The Haggis Horns or a band like that until you’re at the show-stoppers again going fucking crazy.

You’ve been doing your radio show for ten years now. Is the fact there’s so much good new music coming through what keeps you going? Yours must be the main show to play that kind of stuff on national radio.

There’s a vibrant funk and soul scene in this country and throughout Europe. People are still making music that’s really exciting and they’re recording it analogue and they’re recording it with real drums, real bass and real horn sections. A lot of that stuff, if you weren’t an aficionado you’d think it was recorded back in the day. But it’s modern music, it’s a scene that’s alive and I’m glad to be representing that. We originally thought we were going to be doing a little cliquey show for the chosen few on 6Music but it’s now got the highest audience share of any show on the station. That proves there’s a market out there for it and people still want to hear it. We get emails and texts from people saying it’s the first time they’ve heard the show and they didn’t realise what they’re hearing is funk and soul. People sometimes confuse funk and soul with Lemar and people like that, and it ain’t! It’s shit-kicking, tub-thumping, exciting music. On the album you’ve got big beats, basslines, banging brass – it’s music you can’t stand still to, it’s music to get the party started and that’s kind of my raison d’être.

With so much music out there, what do you find is the best way to come across new stuff for the show?

Soundcloud’s brilliant for discovering stuff, but you do have to wade through a whole latrine of shite to find a decent floater! That’s a terrible analogy, I’m sorry! I’m lucky insomuch that I’m one of the only people exposing this sort of music so I get sent an awful lot of it by new bands. I buy a lot of vinyl, I go to record shops – people should support their local independent record shops because otherwise they’ll go out of business. I get people that do mixes for me and mash-ups; people like The Reflex who are great remixers. You get it all over – the world’s full of music, you’ve just got to go and look for it. I’m the Indiana Jones of funk and soul, me!

How do you put together the show and how does that differ from the club nights or compiling the CD?

Basically, you’ve got to balance the old and new. When we do the radio show we always start with a musical lollipop – that’s the name we give to something that’s really groovy but also really well-known so you don’t go too deep too early. Sometimes we tailor it to the radio show that’s been on before. We used to start differently but now we’ve got Giles [Peterson] on before, we might go a bit Latin or jazzy at the top to keep his listeners interested. It depends on what DJ’s on before you really. Even at the clubs, if there’s a DJ on before you and they’re banging out something and the crowd is loving it, you start from the place where they’ve finished and take it on your journey from there. Every gig is different and you never play the same set twice. 

You grew up in Liverpool which is obviously a very famous musical city, but you seemed to almost have a parallel musical upbringing with funk and soul, but do you think the city shaped your musical tastes in any way?

Growing up in Liverpool, the only decent black funk and soul band coming out of there was The Real Thing and I do remember going to their shows. But when everyone was bopping to punk and stuff like that in 1977, I was at the black clubs in Liverpool dancing to P-Funk, Parliament, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, that sort of thing. I had to go North to Manchester and Wigan for my musical fix when I was that age because Liverpool was more of a beatnik city. When I was in my early teens, Liverpool had fourteen bands in the Top 20 at one stage, but none of them were funk and soul. Obviously I don’t only like funk and soul, but you’d have Wah!, Teardrop [Explodes], Echo & The Bunnymen, A Flock Of Seagulls, Icicle Works, Care (who went on to become The Lightning Seeds), Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Big In Japan – all these bands were charting and I was part of that scene, but mainly into black music.

Is it right you got your first break at a Teardrop Explodes gig?

Yeah, I used to do stand-up poetry and they were playing four nights at a place called The Temple Bar in Liverpool. I heard them turning on the mics and getting the equipment ready so I jumped on stage and did a poem called He’s Really Into The Music Scene:

No-one’s been but he’s been
He saw The Pistols at The 100 Club
He fucked the girlfriend of a UK Sub
‘Cos he’s really into the music scene
He told me Strummer was a queer
Said he bought Siouxsie a beer
When he mentions Ian Curtis, well, he always sheds a tear
‘Cos he’s really into the music scene
He was a punk before ‘76
He said he lived with Crass – they were a shower of pricks
Roger Eagle wanted him to manage Eric’s
‘Cos he’s really into the music scene
He taught Pete Wylie all he knows
Used to manage The Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes
He’ll tell you everything because he knows loads
‘Cos he’s really into the music scene
“What’s his name?” I hear you shout
I can’t say; he’ll sue if word gets out
But I’ll tell you something that’ll give you hope
It begins with ‘Julian’ and ends in ‘Cope’

…and then I fucked off from the stage! Cope came on growling!

Obviously it’s a busy time for you but is there anything else on the horizon?

I’m just consolidating at the moment really. We’ve got more compilations coming out but I’m doing a load of press for this one because I really want people to go out and get it because it’s a brilliant listen and it’s a great introduction, and it might shock a few people who think they don’t like funk and soul. They might find that they actually really do. So I’m doing that, I’ve got a lot of work on Coronation Street at the moment, I’m still doing the gigs every weekend, I’m planning to do another Red Dwarf and that’s busy enough if you ask me.

Can you recommend just one funk and soul tune that you think everyone should hear?

This is on the more Latin end of what we call funk and soul, but everyone should go out and get Mario Biondi’s This Is What You Are. It’s not on my CD, though it might be on the next one.

The compilation, The Craig Charles Funk & Soul Club, is available now through Freestyle Records. You can catch Craig DJing throughout December, in Preston, Newcastle, Birmingham, Brighton, Hitchin, York and London. Full details available from The Funk & Soul Club Facebook page.