The Specials Illustrated Songbook is a collection of songs from The Specials song catalogue complete with amusing and highly original cartoon artwork for each track and many band photos included. The book was the brainchild of illustrator Nick Davies (who later went on to illustrate The Special AKA's 'What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend' sleeve and who had played guitar in a band with Horace Panter) and graphic designer Ian Haywood who attended the same art college (Lanchester Polytechnic in Coventry) as Jerry Dammers and Horace Panter. They approached Dammers and received his blessing to design the book and it was published in 1981. Long out-of-print, it has become highly sought after by 2-Tone fans and collectors.
Davies' amazing cartoon art, which is similar in scope and complexity to R. Crumb, brings the lyrics of each song from both albums by The Specials to life in intricate detail. Davies was kind enough to conduct an interview with me about his career as a graphic designer and illustrator and share some stories about the book and its illustrations and cartoons. He was also kind enough to share a number of scans from the book which are included throughout the post.
Where did you grow up and when did you become interested in design and illustration?
I grew up in Coventry and drew a lot when I was a kid, it was the only thing I was interested in. I studied art at school and that's where I became interested in illustration, more so than cartoons. Then when I was 16 I went to Art College and then did an art foundation course which is a 1 year pre-Degree course, but instead of doing an Art Degree I jumped ship and went to Amsterdam and got a job in a small design studio. I was a junior trainee dogsbody, made the coffee etc and was learning to be a graphic designer but I did a bit of general illustration and some cartoons and caricatures.
Who influenced your style?
Initially there were British comics like The Beano, The Dandy, Buster. When I was about 10, I had a gag cartoon published in Buster and got paid 50p for it, my first paid job. Then there was Heath-Robinson and his crazy machines, Ronald Searle who illustrated the St Trinians books, and Carl Giles of the Daily Express was a big influence, every year I got the Giles Annual for Christmas, then I got interested in older British comics from the 20's to the 50's and liked Roy Wilson a lot, there were others but very often the work wasn't signed so you wouldn't know who did what. After that there was Robert Crumb, Hunt Emerson, Graham Thompson, Paul Sample, Joe Wright, Seve Bell and I got more interested in caricatures, Gerald Scarfe, Ralph Steadman, basically any cartoons and caricatures I saw.
Where did you meet Ian and how did you start working together?
We went to the same school but Ian was a year older than me so our paths didn't cross although I was aware of him because he played drums in a rock band and I saw them play once at the school, but we met at the Lanch (Lanchester Polytechnic) on the foundation course, got on really well and hung around together. When I came back from Amsterdam we got together again and we spent most of the time joking, bouncing ideas off each other, there was a lot of verbal riffing. The Specials were big, especially in Coventry and we had the book idea, got the nod and that was that. We worked on the ideas and jokes together, I did the artwork and Ian designed and produced it.
When and where did you meet Jerry Dammers and Horace Panter?
Jerry and Horace were at the Lanchester Polytechnic doing fine art degrees but they were two or three years older than me and I never met them there, in fact they may have left by the time I got there, but I knew Horace through some mutual friends Geoff and Gaz Bayliss who I played guitar with. When I was about 17 I jammed with Horace's pre-Specials band Alive and Smiling, I remember playing Quadrant from Spectrum by Billy Cobham. I like to think that if fate had taken a slightly different path I might have ended up in The Specials....now there's a thought. I met Jerry when we went to see him with the book idea.
What gave you the idea to create The Specials Illustrated Song Book? Had you seen the band play? Were you a fan of the band?
After working in Amsterdam for three years I went back to Coventry and hooked up with Ian again who was working as a graphic designer in a studio in Warwick. Being in Holland I'd missed The Specials rise to fame but as soon as I heard the album I loved it. When I was 14/15 I was a bit of a suedehead so I was into ska and reggae. Jerry gave us a tape of More Specials before it was released so we could get some inspiration and I loved that too, we played it to death. I don't know which of us came up with the idea to do a book but I think I must have been influenced consciously or sub-consciously by The Ruttles, Eric Idle and Neil Innes's spoof Beatles documentary. We spent a few weeks kicking ideas around and got a dummy book together with the spoof cover and back of the first album and a couple of songs illustrated inside, can't remember which ones, I think Nite Klub might have been one of them. The Specials were recording More Specials in Horizon Studios and Ian phoned up and spoke to Jerry and we went to meet him at Horizon. He liked the idea, put us in touch with his music publisher, we went down to London, showed him, he liked it and gave us the go ahead
How long did it take you to draw and design each picture that accompanies the lyrics to each song? Do you have a favorite illustration from the book?
The whole thing took about six months from start to finish, but it was my first job on that scale and some of it was very busy, or action-packed and it took a lot to work out how to fit everything together, so although it was fun to do it was exhausting. My favourite illustrations would be Dawning of a New Era, Gangsters, and Man at C&A, and the covers and inside covers, as for the rest of it some parts I'm pleased with and other parts make me cringe but what can you do, If I could hop in my time-travel machine and go back and make a few changes I probably would but I can't. It is what it is. That's the worst thing about doing anything like this, the pressure to make it as good as you possibly can because it'll be out there forever and anything you're not happy with will bug you forever. I'm never 100% happy with anything I do, you always think you could do it better if you did it again, you just have to learn to live with it.
Was it difficult to get the book published?
No, it was as easy as falling of a log, I wish everything was that easy.
What kind of response did the book get when it was published? You also created a More Specials Illustrated Song Book right?
I've no idea. The people I knew all said it was great, but then they would wouldn't they? but as to the wider response I don't know. I don't even know how many copies were printed, or sold, only a few thousand I would think and I only ever saw one advert for it in Smash Hits so I don't think it had much of a push. I saw a couple of favourable reviews, but it was never destined to make the bestseller list. As for doing a More Specials songbook, we did and we didn't. I'm presuming from the question that you've seen the images on line and not seen the book in the flesh because it's actually like 2 books joined back to back and upside down, and you start at the front cover and make you way to the middle but when you get to the middle you turn it upside and start at the back which is now the front, (the front now being the back) and make your way back to the front, or the back or, if you like, the other front, or even the middle which is still the middle. Confused? Anyway the book covers both albums The Specials and More Specials.
What was the concept behind the art for the cover of The Special AKA single "What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend"?
I can't remember if the brief was to do it like that or if I had a free reign to do anything, but it was just a literal take on the song and I fancied doing something a bit different. I was experimenting with my style at the time and that spiky arty edgy style was quite popular so I was trying to blend my cartoon style with that, but I got over it.
The book is currently out of print. Are there any plans to re-issue the book in conjunction with The Specials 30Th reunion shows in 2009?
No plans to reissue it although I'm open to suggestions and offers, but I thought it would be nice to illustrate some of the songs that weren't in the book like Ghost Town, Enjoy Yourself, Girlfriend, Monkey Man etc maybe do prints of them, and maybe do prints of some of the original illustrations, maybe in colour? But we'll have to wait and see what happens.
What are your working on now and where can people see more of your artwork?
Since the book I've been working mainly for magazines in the UK, but I've got a lot of projects up my sleeve which I'm hoping to get off the ground soon. I'm also working on getting a website together and should have something out there soon. I have got a MySpace page but it's only just got up and running and there's not much on it yet. It's www.myspace.com/nickcartoons and click on my pics.
For more information about Davies' current artwork or to learn more about how you can get prints from the illustrations in the book, you can contact Davies at: firstname.lastname@example.org