The Specials’ star Neville Staple tells Dave Freak how his career has taken many turns.
Why re-form?” queries The Specials’ Neville Staple. For the Jamaican-born, Warwickshire-raised frontman, it was more about family than reuniting with old comrades.
“A lot of kids haven’t heard about The Specials. My grand-kids ain’t seen ‘em. My grand-kids say ‘what’s that crap music, grandad?’. But that’s just kids. They might like it if they see us.”
Another in an ongoing stream of pop reformations (see also Spandau Ballet, Ultravox etc), Coventry’s ska/punk heroes The Specials announced last April that they would be returning to the stage to mark the 30th anniversary of their debut single, Gangsters.
Mutating from The Coventry Automatics into The Special AKA and then The Specials, the multi-racial seven-piece – vocalist Terry Hall, keyboard player Jerry Dammers, guitarist/vocalist Lynval Golding, guitarist Roddy ‘Radiation’ Byers, bassist Horace Panter, drummer John Bradbury and vocalist/toaster Staple – fused ska and reggae with the political force and energy of early punk.
“I met Jerry at a youth club where he and them used to practise,” recalls Staple of his introduction to the band.
“I was into Jamaican ska, reggae, but used to like other kinds of music too, different types. Other black guys I knew used to stick to reggae, they didn’t like ‘the white man’s music’ - punk, all that spitting.
“Me and my mate used to set up our sound-system, then go next door to see Jerry and them play what we’d call ‘white reggae’. I liked how it sounded and went in and asked: ‘any chance of me coming around?’ So I started humping stuff.”
But for the ambitious Staple, the job of lugging amps, guitars and speakers at gigs was not enough and he quickly graduated from humble roadie to toasting vocalist after leaping on stage during a slot supporting The Clash.
“I’m an entertainer! I was at the mixing desk and they were doing an instrumental, Guns Of Navarone, and I just jumped up on stage. I thought, what’s the worse they can do? Kick me off?”
Gangsters, their forceful take on Prince Buster’s Al Capone, released on their own 2-Tone label in 1979, and was quickly followed by a string of other top 10 hits including Rat Race, A Message To You Rudy, Too Much Too Young and Ghost Town.
Their success helped launch the careers of Birmingham’s The Beat, as well as Madness, The Selecter [also from Coventry] The Bodysnatchers and Bad Manners. However, their time was not without controversy. Too Much Too Young commented on teen pregnancy and Ghost Town delivered a damning comment on their home city, while live appearances, often infiltrated by the far right, erupted in violence.
“The violence didn’t frighten me,” recalls Staple. “I was used to that on the streets and all that on stage, getting stuff slung at you and the spitting, I’m used to running. We kind of got used to the National Front ganging up on us. Basically, that element only came in now and again. When they did, I did not enjoy the gig.”
Meanwhile, the pressure of running their own label, coupled with constant touring, caused ruptures in the band and, in 1981, Staple, Golding and Hall quit to create the Fun Boy Three, leaving Dammers to helm the re-named The Special AKA.
“We needed a break,” Staple says of his leaving. “We burned out, totally. The Fun Boy Three was a rest period. I thought I’d done my apprenticeship in The Specials, now I could write my own songs and I could sing, not shout.”
Moving to California in the 1990s, where he helped fuel a US ska/punk explosion and worked with acts such as Gwen Stefani’s No Doubt, Staple’s eventual return to Coventry found him struggling to re-establish his career as a credible artist, rather than a nostalgia act. Finding little assistance from old friends, it was local teens The Enemy who acknowledged his iconic past and continued relevance.
“When I came back and tried to tour with Madness and all those old bands that The Specials helped, nobody was interested in me. The Enemy, they gave me a chance, a young band had the decency to ask and that was really lovely. When I heard that they wanted me to come up on stage with them, I thought that was brilliant but all those people I’d worked around didn’t want to know.”
Today, after five years’ hard graft, the Neville Staple Band are an established live act, which makes The Specials’ comeback (minus Dammers) annoyingly ill-timed.
“I was fine about it, although I didn’t want to do it,” he says of the Lynval-instigated reunion. “I’d rather do my own stuff. Once you get back into a group situation, it becomes a waste of time, there are too many egos.”
Ask how he feels about the war of words between the band and Dammers, how the old hits will be interpreted and Staple’s answers are filled with anger and frustration. He refuses to name names, but his responses are uniform. “They moan and they groan, but you can leave me out of it. They’ve got issues from years ago.”
And it appears that there’s been trouble brewing in The Specials’ camp since their first, seemingly successful, appearance at Bestival last year.
“I didn’t like it. As soon as we finished, I had a car waiting to take me to Luton where I was on stage that night with my own band and that felt great!,” says Staple. “I got in the car, went to the ferry and drove to Luton and I felt happy to be on stage with my band. No egos.”
His first book, the autobiographical Original Rude Boy: From Borstal To The Specials, A Life In Crime And Music, is published on May 1.
“I’ve been dying to write a book for ages,” he says. “I want to say what’s on my mind. I wanted to put my story across, about leaving Jamaica, getting into trouble. People write books about The Specials saying things about me, talking to newspapers, I wanted to correct those misconceptions.”
* The Specials gigs: Apr 25-26, O2 Academy Birmingham; May 15, Ricoh Arena, Coventry; Aug 23, V Festival, Weston Park, Shifnal.
* Neville book signings: Apr 25, Waterstone’s, High St, Bham, 1pm; May 15, Waterstone’s Coventry, 1pm
* Original Rude Boy, by Neville Staple with Tony McMahon, is published by Aurum Press on May 1, price £16.99.