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Craig Charles: ‘Northern Soul will never go away’

The legendary BBC 6 Music DJ tells Rolling Stone UK on 50 years of Wigan Casino and why Northern Soul is still finding a captive audience in 2023.

By Sophie Porter

Craig Charles (Picture: BBC/Dean Chalkley)

As the 50th anniversary of legendary Northern Soul venue Wigan Casino looms, BBC 6 Music has announced plans to mark the milestone with a night of special shows dedicated to the hugely beloved underground movement.

Northern Soul emerged from the underground rhythm and soul scene in the North of England in the late 1960s, which combined American soul and motown with a distinctive, athletic dance style.

At the epicentre of the scene was legendary clubs such as Wigan Casino, The Torch in Stoke on Trent, Catacombs in Wolverhampton, Manchester’s Twisted Wheel, and Blackpool Mecca, which would host legions of spirited teenagers for whom the heavy beats and fast tempos provided a means of cathartic release from the dire economic backdrop of 1970s England.

The movement was defined visually by a style, namely circle skirts and wide legged trousers, which, along with illegal stimulants, enabled an all-night stint on the dancehall floor. Half a century on, and the spirit of Northern Soul is still palpable around the country, continuing to fill out dancehalls, clubs and community centres, with its longstanding community of Soul-ies, and, more than ever, is appealing to a younger generation of appreciators.

The upcoming all-nighter will include a special Northern Soul edition of The Craig Charles Funk and Soul Show and a broadcast of Stuart Maconie’s Northern Soul Prom, which was recorded at the Royal Albert Hall in July. The show will also welcome stories from key figures from the scene, taking listeners on an audio journey around the dancefloors of these iconic venues.

We caught up with Craig Charles ahead of the broadcast to chat about the vitality and community of the movement, and the reasons for why it still holds a pivotal place in British youth culture history.

Tell us a little bit about your personal history with Northern Soul and the stand out record or single which had the biggest impact on you?

Craig Charles: I was too young to go to Wigan Casino but a couple of kids in my school who were a couple of years older, they used to get the bus from Smithdown Road every Friday night and used to beg me to come with them. My mum and dad wouldn’t let me go! So I was an outsider looking in on a Monday at these tired and weary faces and people explaining to me what the atmosphere at these places was like. You have to remember that youth culture at that time was very, very tribal. You had your punks, your rockers, your skinheads, suedeheads, guys into prog rock, your two-tone guys. There was an awful lot of pent-up aggression – loads of fighting. So, they told me about this place where everyone seemed to be happy. Everyone just danced. It was all just about dancing and music. That was my first introduction to it – as an outsider. There are two stand out records for me and they’re probably big ones in the Northern Soul cannon. Al Wilson’s The Snake and Frankie Valli’s The Night. They’re two records that on my show get requested more than any other record.

Celebrating 50 years of Wigan Casino this year, why do you think the Northern Soul movement gripped the UK – particularly the North –  in the way it did.

CC: There’s a real sense of community in it, even though the dancing is quite isolated – you need space to dance Northern Soul, so you can’t cram, jam and ram people into a venue. You become part of a group or a pack that’s into something that’s slightly different. It makes you feel special and part of a group that’s cooler than the other group! There’s also that sense of expression with the exuberant dancing and there’s escapism in the music. It’s also got a lot to do with the clothes, the clothes are sharp! I think it always will be relevant to people who are looking for joy, happiness, to be part of a great community and to have to have a hobby like crate digging. Looking for new and undiscovered records becomes quite an addition, trying to find records than no one else has got and play music than no one else plays.

By extension, the likes of Deptford Northern Soul club are bringing that movement to a new generation and is being discovered more and more by a younger audience – what is it that Northern Soul offers that is potentially missing from other contemporary genres/movements?

CC: The Deptford Northern Soul club are doing fantastic work. There’s also Sheffield Soul Girl, Amy Hodkin, who does the Younghearts Soul Club in Sheffield where young kids come to dance to Northern Soul – it’s absolutely brilliant. There’s also Levanna McLean who goes by Northern Soul Girl doing dance steps. She did a dance to Recipe for Love by Lack of Afro all the way down Clevedon Pier – it’s quite exceptional. I think people are getting into it because it’s good music – well written, played, orchestrated and produced. It’s music that puts a smile on your face and makes you dance – a glide in your stride and a wiggle in your walk. There’s no way it can’t catch good spirits in you, so I’m sure that’s why it will never go away.

Do you think we will ever see such a momentous dance movement again?

CC: The floorwork that they do in Northern Soul translated into break dancing. They were doing that in Northern Soul first then the break dancers took it on. There will always be dance movements and large scale group events, where people get together in a community spirit to dance. That will always reinvent itself, but its roots are in Northern Soul.

Whenever I’ve been to Northern Soul nights I’ve always been taken by how much of a solitary act it is on the dance floor – what is it that unites people in that space, making it the community that it is?

CC: Everybody likes to watch good dancers. Although with Northern Soul, you do need space to dance and you do get lost in the dance, everyone will turn and dance around a good dancer – watch their steps, moves and floorwork. It’s a peacock thing, a way of strutting your stuff. I think Northern Soul fans respect the people who can really dance – there’s a community in that. Everyone will want to aspire to be the one that they dance around and watch.

The recent Northern Soul Prom saw the BBC Concert Orchestra perform classic Northern Soul tracks with a number of singers – what was it like hearing and experiencing these songs arranged in such a way, outside of the traditional club and DJ setting?

CC: The whole of soul lends itself to an orchestral setting. You only have to look at Barry White and the Love Unlimited Orchestra, Hacienda Classical, Pete Tong and The Heritage Orchestra. Northern Soul music is so well written. It’s already intricately produced and the musicianship is excellent, so it’s always going to lend itself to a full on orchestration. When you’ve got a huge, live orchestra giving it that energy, it’s just going to be exceptional.

Tune in to BBC Radio 6’s Northern Soul All-nighter from 6pm on Saturday 9th September to 8am on Sunday 10th September. Stuart Maconie’s Northern Soul Prom will also be broadcast on BBC Two this Saturday 26th August.