It will be 40 years in May since debut Special AKA single ‘Gangsters’ thrilled a nation, the first single on 2 Tone Records a fine example of all that followed from that ground-breaking independent label.
Before 1979 was out, a band originally known as The Coventry Automatics had settled on The Specials, their impressive self-titled first album – produced with Elvis Costello – rightfully making a huge impact, nationally and internationally.
It wasn’t just that they wrote great songs – their first seven singles were top-10 hits, including No.1s ‘Too Much Too Young’ and ‘Ghost Town’ – but all they stood for, not least a message of racial integration during a period when right-wing political extremists were on the rise. And for that reason alone, they remain as relevant today as ever before.
All these years on, Specials co-frontman Neville Staple, who later featured with fellow ex-bandmates Lynval Golding and Terry Hall in The Fun Boy Three and then in the Special Beat alongside close friend ‘Ranking’ Roger Charlery, continues to spread his message.
These days, ‘The Original Rude Boy’, 64 next month, fronts the Neville Staple Band, while Lynval and Terry are back in tow with Horace Panter in the latest version of The Specials, currently celebrating the band’s first No.1 album, Encore. Clearly, the world still loves that heady mix of late-‘70s ska revival, kind of bluebeat mixed with dashes of punk and new wave. And that reaction’s something Neville’s witnessed first-hand in recent years too.
“The way we brought ska to the mainstream was by mixing Jamaican music with the English style, which at the time was punk. The movement helped transcend and defuse racial tensions in Thatcher-era Britain. The actual black and white chequered imagery of 2 Tone has become almost as famous as the music itself. I remember the massive reactions to hit songs like ‘Ghost Town’, ‘Too Much Too Young’ and ‘Gangsters’, and fans still write to me about my rugged, energetic and fun stage presence.”
Neville was in a reunion line-up of The Specials from 1993 to 2001, and again from 2009 to 2012, when he left the band due to personal reasons and some health concerns. But he remains a forerunner of the ska revival movement, popular as ever, playing across the world.
His most recent LP – one of many with his own name on the cover – was last year’s Rude Rebels, credited to Neville and Sugary Staple, the latter his wife and manager, aka Christine, its studio guests including former Specials guitarist Roddy ‘Radiation’ Byers, recorded in his beloved Coventry, where he returned in 2004 after a spell in California.
As well as their music, Neville and Sugary work with schools, charities, university and youth groups giving talks, music and performance tuition, and helping publicise fund-raising projects. They were also part of a successful campaign to help Coventry gain City of Culture 2021 status, and continue to work with inner-city children on various creative schemes.
But there have been lows too, and since his grandson, 21-year-old Fidel Glasgow, was fatally stabbed in Coventry late last year, Neville’s been talking publicly as and when he can about the horrors of knife crime and knife culture.
What’s more, when we spoke he was between hospital visits to see his old friend Roger, who died this week aged 56, after undergoing surgery for two brain tumours while and treatment for lung cancer.
Of that sad news, Neville would later announce, “So devastated to lose my super friend and Special Beat partner. We’ve been privately at his bedside, with him and his family, every opportunity over the last couple of weeks, willing him the strength to recover again.
“Sadly the fight of the lion’s fire has gone out. Christine, the whole band and I are so saddened. I will miss him so much. Rest up Turbo. One of a kind!”
It was in 1990 that Neville joined Roger to form Special Beat, playing hits from both bands in the title in response to an explosion of interest in the US, the so-called third wave of ska. Neville moved to California around then to work with many new ska acts, including No Doubt, Rancid, Unwritten Law, and Canadian outfit The Planet Smashers.
When he returned 15 years ago, he formed the Neville Staple Band, the critically-acclaimed album The Rude Boy Returns involving contributions from Clash guitarist Mick Jones and Damned drummer Rat Scabies. The group also featured ex-members of fellow 2 Tone label originals Bad Manners, a few more personnel changes following before Sugary began performing with the band in 2015.
Along the way, there’s been relentless touring in the UK and Europe, the Middle East, Australia and New Zealand, and several successful outings with Pauline Black and Ranking Roger as Legends of Ska and Special Beat.
Looking back a few days after our interview, when news broke of Roger’s death, his old friend’s health battle was clearly on his mind when we spoke, but I found him nothing short of courteous and engaging throughout, and we started out by dwelling on Neville’s 40th anniversary as a recording artist.
“It’s gone quick, hasn’t it. You don’t realise it happens so fast. So much has happened through the 40 years. Even before the Specials reunion I’ve been carrying the flag in America, over here, all over, touring. Then I guess they said, ‘Ah, Neville’s spreading the word’, and they reformed. But 40 years? It just seems like yesterday.”
Soon, he’ll be on the road with his band, as special guests of fabled Northern Irish punk survivors The Undertones. And while on the face of it, that’s perhaps not an obvious blend, the two bands have a lot in common, not least both having put their respective areas on the map and each touring with The Clash.
While The Undertones featured on a US leg of a tour in late ’79 which trailed the classic album, London Calling, The Specials were there with Strummer, Jones, Simonon and Headon the previous year, on the Out on Parole tour.
“Remember, we had the same management as The Clash – Bernie Rhodes – and toured with them amid the whole punk thing … oh God, that was beautiful!”
You say that, but after some of the tales I’ve heard about your cash-strapped days stuck in their Camden HQ, that must leave you in a cold sweat, thinking back.
“Well, no, it was just an experience. It’s all changed now, it’s the Stables Market, But before that … what can I say … it was rough. Rats running around, and we had to sleep on the floor.”
“Oh yes, it was. And then Bernie sent us off to France, saying ‘Here’s the minibus, guys’. That was it.”
Did you keep in touch with him?
“No, we lost touch, but I’d have loved to. I moved to America and was there 10 years, losing touch with a lot of people I used to know.”
In fact, Neville recalled those earlier days in conversation with John Robb for Punk Rock – An Oral History (Ebury Press, 2006), saying, “I was in a youth club doing my DJ stuff, playing reggae at the time, and The Specials used to rehearse in the room next door – Jerry, Horace and Lynval. They asked if I could go out on the road and help them as a roadie. The punk scene hadn’t really started at the time. That was just coming up. We were called The Automatics, playing reggae and ska. I used to see the punk bands when they came through Coventry. We saw The Clash a lot. When The Specials got going we did the Out on Parole tour. That was fucking brilliant.
‘That was the first time I’d seen so many kids jumping and spitting. You should have seen the fucking spitting. It was like fireworks, man. What the fuck is going on here? Punk made us speed our music up. Playing in front of those kids made it more energetic. I used to really like the Buzzcocks. But it was The Clash who we were very close to. They were a great band. The Bernie Rhodes connection came through Jerry Dammers. We were living in Coventry, and Jerry had all the contacts and knew where to go. We used to rehearse at Rehearsal Rehearsals – it was a fucking pit, man! We used to sleep there in sleeping bags, and there were rats all over the place.”
Going back to that Undertones link, as we’re celebrating your 40th anniversary as a recording artist, 1979 was a huge year for both bands, with ‘Gangsters’, The Special AKA debut single out in May, the same month as their self-titled debut, and your own following in October.
“Yeah, I remember all that pretty well, and in them days you got to know all the bands around – The Undertones, The Clash, Sex Pistols, The Damned. We all had something in common. Nowadays there are bands around and you haven’t got a clue who they are.”
Some of those links ran right through, you going on to work – for example – with Mick Jones and Rat Scabies.
“Yeah, all of them. I still talk to Rat. And all those bands, we got on. It wasn’t about competition. We were all doing what we were doing and gelling together – it wasn’t that band against that band. It was more like a community thing.”
Neville was barely five when he came to the UK from Manchester, Jamaica, his family settling in Rugby. That story is told in detail in his autobiography, The Original Rude Boy (Aurum Press, 2009), but we spoke a little about it.
“I remember where we lived and what it was like. There were no roads. We had to go through the tracks. When we went back there were roads though. The animal rights people aren’t going to like this, but at five we would catapult birds then roast them on the fire. I remember walking to school through the undergrowth, all happy memories.”
I guess your family moved here to find work.
“Oh yeah, but when they sent for us I remember seeing on the doors the ‘No Irish, Blacks or Dogs’ signs. I also remember seeing snow for the first time, putting my hands in it then putting them in front of the fire, getting chilblains.”
And that was in Rugby, before you moved to Coventry?
“Yeah, I moved here about 19, but used to come over all the time as kids, staying with friends.”
Did you find an active scene there? And how important was the Locarno in Coventry in your sound system days?
“Well, the Locarno was where I met Pete Waterman, but before that I had my own crew. Pete used to get all the old Jamaican and Northern Soul songs, had his little shop above Virgin Records, and was DJ-ing at the Locarno. The girls and the boys had competitions there, and Pete took the winners – me and this girl – down to London. Yeah, Pete and I always got on.”
That was long before the Megastore days, with Pete and a mate running the Soul Hole upstairs from what was then Virgin Records and Tapes in Coventry, apparently ‘spouting enthusiatically and selling rare soul imports’ according to a feature for the Coventry Music Archives blog. In fact, the Locarno’s resident DJ would go on to briefly manage The Specials before truly making his name as part of the Stock Aitken Waterman pop enterprise. And he also happened to write the foreword to Neville’s autobiography.
Neville’s first involvement with The Specials – when still The Coventry Automatics – was prior to Terry Hall and John Bradbury’s arrival. He initially joined as a roadie, but at a gig supporting The Clash, Neville took to the stage, and never looked back. That Bernie Rhodes link followed, Neville later famously toasting ‘Bernie Rhodes knows don’t argue’ at the beginning of debut hit ‘Gangsters’. However, he’s said before now the lyric actually refers to ‘Bernie Rhodes’ nose’, the size of their manager’s conk of some amusement in Specials circles.
He sang lead vocals on some tracks or additional and backing vocals to Terry Hall’s lead, his early style mostly toasting, having honed his skills with his cousin’s ‘Messenger Sound’ then later his own ‘Jah Baddis’ sound system crew. When he joined the Automatics, the line-up already included Jerry Dammers and Horace Panter, plus John Bradbury’s predecessor Silverton Hutchinson on drums. Then came Terry Hall, replacing Tim Strickland on vocals, and past WriteWyattUK interviewee Roddy ‘Radiation’ Byers on lead guitar.
I put it to Neville that The Specials were very much a coming together of styles that made something magical, influences like Roddy’s love of punk and his love of Jamaican music somehow fused by Jerry’s overall wizardry. Whatever it was, it worked wonders.
“Yeah, everything just gelled. That’s just how it was. The punk scene was happening at that time, and ska was big anyway for me.”
As it was Terry Hall’s’s 60th birthday when we spoke, I asked if he was still in touch, and got a negative response. It wasn’t so much a blunt no as a pensive, deliberated one. It possibly means the same though. It seems that the former Specials and Fun Boy 3 bandmates aren’t so close nowadays.
I try again, stumbling for words, encouraged by Nev to speak my mind. Whether it’s The Specials, The Jam, UB40, or a few other notables – for instance, those confusing situations with The Beat and The Selecter where at least two bands of each tour different parts of the world – …
“There’s egos floating around, mate.”
Well, that does seem to be the case sometimes. And that’s always a bit sad for us fans.
“Of course it is. With the (Specials) reunion, I’ve always said I’ll go back and do things for the fans, but I don’t think they (the band) want me back. So I just carry on doing what I’m doing. They said the door’s open, but it seems to be closed. I did say I’d go back and do things with them for the fans’ sake for the 40th year. They’ve said ‘Neville didn’t want to come back’, but Sugary, my wife, spoke to the management.”
Accordingly, you get the impression he’ll not easily be tempted back now. Besides, he’s happy with how things are with his own band instead.
“Nah, it’s a lot of egos. My band is a lot better – there’s no egos floating around the band. Everyone’s treated the same. It might be my name, but I don’t use that with them, I don’t think I’m bigger. We’re a family.”
So now we have the Neville Staple Band, delivering ‘punked-up anthems, dancehall ska and sweet rebel reggae and bluebeat’. That’s some manifesto. I was going to say you’re returning to your roots, but I’m not sure you ever really left those behind.
“We haven’t. And we have Roddy on a few tracks. The whole idea and concept is still taking from all that.”
He also tells me he’s been an item with Sugary for ‘nearly eight years now’.
“She was my pin-up. I saw her and thought, ‘She looks gorgeous … even when I was on stage. You know what I mean? And you can see we’re all having fun on the stage, my wife there next to me. It’s like a family. Everyone gets on and enjoys what we do.
“If you see the show, you see the fun and the elements coming from the band, interacting with the crowd, like they’re on stage with us. We get them participating. If we’re doing a Specials song, rather than three and a half minutes and it’s finished, this band get the fans involved and keep going. It’s fun, it’s party time, and we’re saying something.”
From those halcyon days with The Specials to two more amazing years with the Fun Boy Three, his Special Beat work, and so on through to the Neville Staple Band, he’s certainly made his mark. It’s the same, I suggested to him, for the likes of his old bandmates, plus former WriteWyattUK interviewee Pauline Black with The Selecter, Ranking Roger and Dave Wakeling with The Beat, and so on. In a sense, they’ve done far more between them towards breaking down the old black and white barriers and making a mockery of the racists than any politician.
“Yeah, at the time we started there was the National Front and all that. As a black and white band we’d have that element coming to our gigs. But we got through that, and they could see that was what we were about. And some of those would then turn around and got into it. The message was there.”
Much as I love The Specials, some of those songs do carry an element of the underlying feeling of fear and despair in that early ‘80s Thatcher era, not least Roddy’s ‘Concrete Jungle’ and Jerry’s ‘Ghost Town’. They were dark times, and you reflected that perfectly.
“Oh yeah. You couldn’t walk out at night … and not just because you were black. That type of stuff. ‘All the clubs are being closed down’, you know?”
It’s something we seem to be heading back to now. It appears that we still need the likes of yourself and Pauline Black to try and get that message across.
“Yeah, we do, and that’s what we’re going to do, and we’re doing a lot on knife crime since my grandson died. We’re putting our bit across, saying what we’re seeing, how that shouldn’t be happening. But then it’s up to the kids. It’s not like we’re preaching.
“We’re just saying there are other ways with your pent-up anger, like we used to do – fighting fist to fist. But then it went to guns, now to knives, and there was a 12-year-old the other day who had a knife in school. This knife culture – what can we do? We can talk about it and hopefully some of what we’re saying gets through. And it will get through to some of them.”
I see you’re going into schools with your message.
“Yes, myself and Sugary, a lot of talking in schools and youth clubs and to young offenders and on the news as well, saying our bit. At the end of the day, some will listen.”
To that end, there’s also a splendid and timely reworking of their 1967 rocksteady cover, ‘A Message To You, Rudy’ from the band out there to buy right now, titled ‘Put Away Your Knives’, recorded with guest vocalist and the song’s originator, Dandy Livingstone, with all the details on Neville’s website, supporting the work of the Victim Support charity.
And amid all that, Coventry clearly still remains … erm, special to Neville, his base again since returning from California, throwing himself into campaigns like those for City of Culture status … although he plays that down.
“My wife’s done a hell of a lot more than me for that, putting in a lot of work. And we’re still here, while in The Specials – one’s in Seattle, one’s in London …
“Roddy’s still here too. I don’t wanna big ourselves up, but we’re here flying the flag for our roots. And not just Coventry – up North, down South … we’re still spreading the word – not preaching, but saying it as it is. And we don’t beat anybody down, we just carry on.”
The Neville Staple Band are special guests of The Undertones on their 40th anniversary tour this May, with tickets for all shows £25 advance, taking in: Friday 3 May – Coventry Empire (08444 771000); Saturday 4 May – Bristol SWX (0117 945 0325); Friday 10 May – Leeds O2 Academy (0113 389 1555); Saturday 11 May – Manchester O2 Ritz (0161 714 4140); Thursday 16 May – Norwich Open (01603 763111); Friday 17 May – Bexhill De La Warr Pavilion (01424 229111); Saturday 18 May – Southampton Engine Rooms (0800 688 9311).
For more about the Neville Staple Band – including details of the ‘Put Away Your Knives’ single, supporting the work of the Victim Support charity – head to his website and seek out his Facebook and Twitter pages.