There are times when working as a music journalist feels like anything but work. As I await a phone call from arguably the nation’s favourite Scouser, this is definitely one of those times. CRAIG CHARLES has been in the public consciousness for a quarter of a century, in a variety of guises – from cult TV to Corrie, poetry to playing records. He’s the man who educated this Kent teenager about real Liverpudlians, beyond the plastic stereotypes portrayed by Harry Enfield and Brookside.
As presenter of BBC 6Music’s longest-running and most popular show – The Craig Charles Funk and Soul Show – Charles has been responsible for getting the Saturday night party started for over a decade now. After calming my fanboy nerves with a simple “How’s it goin?”, he reveals how the show’s success has taken him completely by surprise: “I thought it’d be this curious little niche programme on a niche station, but I didn’t care as it gave me the chance to play the records that I loved. It’s amazing how the audience has grown over the last ten years. When we started most of the 6Music output featured white boys with guitars, but we’ve been able to take it somewhere different.”
To commemorate that growth, Charles is releasing a compilation, The Craig Charles Funk & Soul Club, out later this month on Freestyle Records. It’s an absolute gem of an album, guaranteed to ignite any dancefloor. Press play, start dancing. There’s a potent mix of classic tracks from the likes of The White Stripes, Rage Against the Machine and the Rolling Stones, energetically reworked; stalwarts of the UK funk scene like Lack of Afro and The Haggis Horns; and a selection of the brightest new talent from across the world, from Barcelona’s The Excitements to The Bamboos’ Aussie funk.
Far from being the preserve of the old and backwards-looking, funk and soul is growing in popularity – a fact I see borne out on a weekly basis in my view from the booth of the dancefloors of Liverpool. There’s a vibrancy and excitement in these 19 tracks that’s sorely lacking elsewhere in the musical landscape. This second generation soul gives a tasty new flavour to a tried and trusted format – like sushi on a pizza. Charles’ hardest task was trimming the tracklist down: “I’ve got so many great records that I want to share. The album could have featured 19 other tunes and still been brilliant! What we wanted to do was recreate the feeling that you get from coming to one of our live club nights on a CD, but we didn’t want to put out a dead album. Over 70% of the bands selected are still playing now, so people can still get out to a show and experience them live.”
That live element is a key component in bringing the funk to a new generation of fans: “We deal mainly with golden era black American music, but most of those guys are passing away or have passed away. For this album we concentrated on the response to that golden era here in the present. It’s no surprise that the two most successful artists of this century, Amy Winehouse and Adele, are both heavily influenced by classic soul.” As was a young Craig Charles, whose parents rocked to the sounds of the Temptations and Otis Redding, when all about them were still obsessed with mop tops: “My dad arrived in Liverpool in the late 50s with a couple of quid in his pocket and a bag full of records. Whether it was Ray Charles or Reverend Al Green, our house was always alive with music. As I grew up and started going clubbing, I saw there was a thriving underground scene. While everyone else was down at Eric’s or Brady’s I was down at the shabeens in Liverpool 8 listening to P-funk and Parliament.”
Out of this scene came a rare national success for black musicians from Liverpool, when The Real Thing topped the charts. Only The Christians have come close since, a fact Charles finds baffling: “It’s been a disgrace. In the 80s there were so many bands from Liverpool in the charts – Echo & The Bunnymen, Icicle Works, Teardrop Explodes, OMD, Flock of Seagulls, and none of them were black. The talent was there but back then there wasn’t that much support. When the record companies were flocking to Liverpool with their chequebooks flapping they weren’t going down to the shabeens.” Charles has been a keen supporter of Liverpool talent, inviting the likes of 6toys onto his show for live sessions. “I’d love to help put Liverpool on the map. I’m a fan of Manukah, and I’m always on the lookout for more local acts.”
A love for music has been a constant companion throughout Charles’ career. His first big break, as a performance poet, was jumping up on stage at a Teardrop Explodes concert to recite a less than complimentary poem about the lead singer. Since then he’s written songs for others as well as starting bands himself, including the fantastically named Craig Charles and the Beat Burglars, and Sons of Gordon Gekko. At the height of his Red Dwarf fame he even signed to legendary record label Acid Jazz. “I’ve always been involved in music, but I saw it as a bit of a hobby. There were a few times where it threatened to take over, but honestly I don’t see it as work. It’s like I’ve been invited to a party where I get to choose the music.”
Right now Craig is busier than ever, with a well-received new series of Red Dwarf just off our screens as well his continued role in Coronation Street as loveable cabbie Lloyd. He’s also taking The Funk and Soul Show back on the road, after wowing the crowds at some of the UK’s biggest festivals over the past 18 months. Alongside his monthly residencies in Leeds and Manchester, there’ll be a UK Christmas tour in support of the album. Despite his celebrity status, Charles is adamant it’s the power of the music that keeps the crowds coming: “People come to the Funk & Soul Club for the music. We sell out wherever we go, but not because Dave Lister is the DJ. Celebrity DJs aren’t my bag, which is why I love 6Music. Our station is full of people like Jarvis (Cocker), Lauren (Laverne), Guy (Garvey) and Huey (Morgan) who are really passionate about their music, and the audiences really buzz off it.”
Craig Charles’ Funk & Soul Club is out now on Freestyle Records.