Skankin’ and rockin’ to a Skabilly beat – the Roddy ‘Radiation’ Byers interview

Hot Rod: Roddy ‘Radiation’ Byers in live action with his band, the Skabilly Rebels.

While no one could reasonably argue against the notion that Jerry Dammers was the architect and conceptual mastermind behind The Specials and the 2 Tone movement, his bandmates Roddy ‘Radiation’ Byers and Lynval Golding played a big part in establishing the guitar sound that brought ‘60s ska into the next decade … and beyond.

Nearly four decades after The Specials’ highly-influential self-titled first album, both are still out there playing, with Lynval last heard of biding his time between live performances with US-based Gigantor and occasionally The Specials, while Roddy remains in his native Coventry or performing far and wide with his Skabilly Rebels.

What’s more, it’s clear that Roddy, the writer of Rat Race, Concrete Jungle and Hey Little Rich Girl (as memorably covered by the late Amy Winehouse) and his brand of ska-punk and skabilly are still attracting new fans, and he’s not content just peddling nostalgia.

These days the 62-year-old fronts a band he describes as ‘the next phase of an audio formula’ he’s been working to perfect since the day he first stepped into a recording studio with The Specials in 1979, ‘fusing the driving rhythm of ska and the gritty, hard edge of rockabilly’.

And while it appears there may be a little animosity between various factions within the original Specials camp these days, I was with recent writewyattuk interviewee Pauline Black  when she said, ‘I’ve always had a very healthy respect for him, because essentially he’s a local working-class poet, who isn’t afraid to let people know that he sings what he means’.

I caught up with Roddy while he was at home in West Midlands, gearing up for his next live engagements with his band, starting by mentioning how (rather scarily) it will be 40 years this year since he joined The Coventry Automatics, who would soon be renamed The Special AKA, and then The Specials. Does it feel like it’s been that long?

“Well, I’ve been playing guitar in bands since I was 13 years old … and yes it does!”

The Specials have reformed twice since the original band regrouped in 1981 and Roddy first went his own way, with many of the original members still out there playing, in one form or another. I can’t imagine any of them taking it easy, mind, even though only vocalist Terry Hall is still in his 50s (and only just). Does Roddy – who left the band four years ago – feel his age coming off stage some nights?

“Most of my heroes who are still alive – The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Who, and so on, are still performing, so I guess I shall carry on for as long as I can … into my 70s and beyond. It does hurt more now, but I still do the moves I’ve always done on stage.”

Early Days: The Specials in their late ’70s breakthrough days, with Roddy ‘Radiation’ Byers second right

Roddy comes over as fairly shy, at least compared to some of his old bandmates. Does that make it harder for him to go out as a frontman? Or does he just let his songs and playing do the talking?

“I’ve been the front vocalist in bands before the Specials and in between our different reformations. I am a quiet sort of guy and don’t do long introductions, but I’m not the only singer/songwriter who lets his music speak for him. Lou Reed and Van Morrison are good examples.”

Are the Skabilly Rebels good company out on the road? And is he enjoying this as much (or maybe even more than) his days with The Specials and the other bands he played with?

“The new line-up are great guys, good company, and the best musicians I’ve had back me in this band. And in The Specials we didn’t socialise unless we had to.”

He’s fairly close to home ground this weekend when his band play the Hare and Hounds, Birmingham (Saturday, January 13th), and the following weekend has dates closer to my patch at The Old Courts, Wigan (Friday, January 19th) and Blackpool’s Waterloo Music Bar (Saturday, January 20th). I see he’s also at a couple of old haunts of mine, London’s 100 Club (Monday, January 29th) and the Holroyd Arms, Guildford (Saturday, March 10th), then closer still to me now at the end of the year at The Continental, Preston (Saturday, November 3rd).

Roddy certainly still gets around a bit. Does he have any particular past memories of those North West towns he’s about to visit?

“My father was actually from the North East – Whitley Bay – so I always have a great deal of affection and good friends from around those parts of England. But I’ve played so many places around the UK and abroad that I don’t always remember until I see the venue!”

So what can we expect on this tour? A mix of Skabilly Rebels and Specials songs, and a few covers, maybe?

“We play the songs I wrote for The Specials and my favourites from the first two albums, plus the songs I wrote for the Specials Mk. II in the mid-‘90s line-up. I’ve written so many songs over the years that it’s sometimes hard wondering what to leave out, so we change the set from show to show. But my skabilly stuff is basically what I’ve always done, in The Specials and with my own ventures, and Hey Little Rich Girl is a rockabilly song played in a ska way.”

Debut Offering: The first LP from The Specials, from 1979, remains a favourite on the writewyattuk sound system

Are you touring with The Beat vocalist Dave Wakeling this year too?

“Not this year. I’m concentrating on my own band nowadays, and not guesting. But I’ve done shows with Dave in California and the UK though – a lovely bloke … for a Brummie!”

There was that initial spell in the capital with The Specials, and plenty of touring – all over – but I’m guessing the Coventry area has always been home to you.

“I lived in London for a short while, and some of the band based themselves there after the band took off, but I’m a country boy at heart. I moved back to where I grew up recently, just outside Coventry, and I find my roots keep me sane. I’m a grandfather now, and my grandsons and family are the most important thing in life to me.”

I make it seven years since your last album of original songs, Blues Attack. Any new recordings lined up?

“I’m rehearsing material for a new album at the moment, and hopefully we’ll have a release ready later this year.”

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Angelic Upstart: Roddy Byers, spreading his wings with the Skabilly Rebels

Your more recent songs seems to have a more bluesy and sometimes even a country feel alongside what we might expect first and foremost. Does that reflect what you tend to listen to?

“As a youngster I listened to a lot of early blues music – John Lee Hooker, Lightning Hopkins, Jimmy Reed, and so on. Blues has always been a part of what I do. I started listening to early country in 1980 – Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Jimmie Rogers, when I was on tour. White man’s blues, I suppose you could call it. I guess it was a soundtrack for all those lonely hotel rooms away from home.”

The ska spirit remains strong, with further generations turned on since that initial late ‘70s-/early ‘80s period when you helped define the scene. That must be very satisfying.

“Ska seems to have made a comeback again recently, all over the world, and it’s nice that young people have discovered some of the best dance music there is around. And we played our own version in The Specials, mixing punk and all sorts to create what has become the 2 Tone sound.”

The Selecter and The Beat are also still out there too (albeit each in two parts), while The Specials are split between factions, and Madness are more or less a British institution today. Do you still feel part of a wider Two Tone movement?

“It’s great that The Selecter and The Beat are doing new albums of new songs, I wasn’t happy when The Specials reformed in 2009 and most of the band didn’t want to record new material. Even though I know people want to relive their youth, music should progress, not become a nostalgic knees-up.”

It’s coming up for four years since you announced you’d left The Specials. Do you keep in touch with any of the original line-up?

“Sadly, when me and Neville (Staple) left, we were not on good terms with the other guys. But The Specials were always very different people with different musical tastes, and getting an agreement on what and how we should play things was always difficult.”

Were you close to John Bradbury (the late Specials drummer was 62 when he died in December 2015)? He seemed pretty fired up about playing with the band again towards the end. It must have been a shock.

“I’m sorry to say we were never close. I was deeply shocked when he died though. And he was the best drummer I’ve ever worked with.”

Thankfully, fellow Specials associate and all-round ska legend Rico Rodriguez got to reach a grand age (He was 80 when he died, just a couple of months before Brad), and seemed as prolific as ever in his later years.

“I worked with Rico a couple of times after the original band split, and he was like a grandfather to all of us. A true legend.”

Is there any animosity between the surviving members? Or is it just a case of lads who met when they were young having moved on? You were, after all, in separate bands beforehand.

“Pass!”

Fair enough. So what had changed by the ‘90s to entice you back on board? Were you all easier to work with by then?

“I think we thought as we were older and wiser we could make it work again, but after several years the disagreements started again. I suppose it was the old story of ‘too many chiefs, not enough Indians’ – as always!”

I’ve been re-living The Clash years a lot in recent times, a band you were inspired by and got to know pretty well, also touring with them. Did you keep in touch?

“Well, I’ve said before – I always wanted Mick Jones’ job! Actually, Paul (Simonon) came to see the Skabilly Rebels recently, and we had a nice chat about the old days. And Joe (Strummer) always asked me how my own bands were doing when I saw him, and always knew what the current band was called. And The Specials’ first UK Tour was supporting the Clash, so we drew inspiration from them in many ways.”

Live Wire: Roddy ‘Radiation’ Byers, still giving it the big six-string moves in 2018

How important was their manager, Bernie Rhodes, to you? You’ve said before that he helped The Specials build an image. Was that his biggest contribution?

“He never actually managed us, but it nearly happened. Jerry Dammers, our leader, had a plan, so I don’t think Bernie was needed. Bernie did make us realise we had to conform to a certain image and sound to succeed though.”

How about the band’s time being managed by Pete Waterman and then Rick Rogers? It seems like each brought something different to the party.

“We had several people helping Jerry get the band off the ground, and Peter was a friend of Neville’s and helped us a bit in the very early days, until Rick became our proper manager. But Jerry was the man behind everything, and Rick took his ideas and made them work.”

I’ve read the horror stories of The Clash and their crew kipping down at Rehearsal Rehearsals in Camden Town. I’m guessing things weren’t any better by the time you were bedding down in that former railway depot. What’s more, The Specials on the road often involved sleeping in your own tour van. Were those good times though?

“Yes, as Horace (Panter) says in his book – working with Bernie and supporting the Clash was like rock’n’roll boot camp! But when you’re young it all seems like fun, even if we didn’t always eat or have a bed for the night.”

I’m guessing your days and nights on the road with The Go-Gos and The Bodysnatchers were also quite something. Was it all a blur in retrospect?

“The Seaside tour with The Go-Gos and The Bodysnatchers was the last major tour The Specials did. By that time we were not a happy band, but there were a few good times … and a coach full of girls made it interesting and fun!”

Ska Boom: Coventry’s The Specials, back in the day, with Roddy, rear right, tucking into the rider

Is that right that your father played trumpet in a soul band? And if so, what made you pick up a guitar?

“My father and grandfather were both musicians, so I guess it’s in my blood. I played trombone and my brother Chris played trumpet, but I fancied playing guitar and singing, so swapped my trombone for a guitar.”

Your early band, The Wild Boys, seemed to embrace that whole early glam-rock ethos. Did a love of Jamaican music follow when you discovered punk rock? Or was it always there?

“l’d been a Bolan and Bowie fan and formed the Wild Boys in 1975, doing glam rock and some rock’n’roll covers. I also started writing my own songs. But a friend of mine moved to London and told me about these bands he thought I would like. So I went down and he introduced me to Joe Strummer, and I got to see the Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Damned in 1976. I was going to move and join a punk band, but stayed in Coventry and eventually joined what became The Specials.”

How old were you when you wrote Concrete Jungle? To me, it’s still rather chilling, truly conveying the horror of a night out amid inner city violence. Yet if you look at the internet comments about it, it seems a lot of people miss the point, getting nostalgic about those dark days.

“It was 1976, so I was about 20. I’d moved to a flat in town and sometimes it was a little rough around there, so I wrote a song a song about it. And there are still unsafe places in most major cities.”

That song, plus your other credited songs on the first two Specials albums, Rat Race and Hey Little Rich Girl, still have real resonance all these years on, evocative of that era for working-class city kids. If you didn’t have music, what do you think you’d have done for work?

“I had a place at art school but decided l’d rather get a job so I could buy a new guitar and amp. I worked as a painter and decorator for the council from school until I left to go pro with the Specials. I’ve gone back to the brushes on and off in lean times. And Rich Girl was about a girlfriend I went out with in the early ‘70s.”

Radiation Therapy: The Clash, a big influence

How important was punk for you in breaking away?

“The music scene at the time was in general about older musicians who looked down on the up’n’coming young players, but when punk came along it didn’t matter if we were not great players. In fact, image and being young and not caring what people thought was more important.”

Were you particularly aware of multi-cultural influences around you, growing up? There was a lot of National Front bigotry, but I’m guessing you had mates of all cultures from early on.

“I had a Pakistani mate at school, and never bought into the racist crap! I didn’t get into ska and reggae until I discovered Bob Marley, which got me into Jamaican music and led me to join the early Specials.”

The 2 Tone movement proved a positive catalyst for change in a wider sense, not least the anti-fascist/anti-racist message. You must feel proud to have been part of that.

“Yes, The Specials and 2 Tone saved a lot of people from getting involved with right-wing organisations. I’m proud of that.”

You’ve amassed many great memories as a musician over the years. If you had to mention just a couple of  career moments, what would they be?

Top of the Pops was a surreal moment after watching the show for years as a kid, and performing Gangsters the first time felt great! Also, Saturday Night Live in New York, performing on that in 1980 was brilliant, with Keith Richards turning up to meet and watch us.”

So is there truth in the rumour that you helped usher in punk-ska, as well as the skabilly you play now?

“Well, it’s been said I invented ska-punk, but really I just played the only way I knew how, and let Lynval Golding – the other guitarist – handle the ska and reggae. Skabilly? If you go back to the 1950s and early rock’n’roll, ska and country had a lot in common and there are songs from those genres that have that same offbeat dance feel … so I rest my case!”

Rebel Rouser: Roddy ‘Radiation’ Byers, coming to a town near you, with a rockabilly skank

For a link to Roddy Radiation and the Skabilly Rebels’ Facebook page, head here, where you’ll also find full details of the band’s forthcoming dates. 

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About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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