Friday, February 20, 2009
The Specials Conduct Series of Pre-Tour Media Interviews: "We Did Not Kick Jerry Dammers Out Of The Band"
The Specials conducted a series of UK media interviews published today including an in-depth interview with The Guardian and a shorter interview with NME in which Terry Hall reinterates that he and his bandmates did not kick Jerry Dammers out of the re-formed band.
The Guardian article is a great read. One of the best I have seen that really distills how the band's past still effects the current reunion and if Hall, Bradbury and Golding are to be believed, the real story on why Jerry Dammers refuses to participate. My gut tells me they are telling the truth here.
Here is the link to The Guardian story (the full story pasted below) and the link the NME story which includes quotes from The Guardian. I've learned that articles are also planned for upcoming issues of Q Magazine and Uncut Magazine (which will feature an interview with Roddy Radiation).
They broke up in a Top of the Pops dressing room in 1981, but now the Specials are back. In their first post-reformation interview, they tell Alexis Petridis how good it feels
Friday February 20 2009
There is something slightly disconcerting about seeing Terry Hall laugh - at least the first time it happens. This is, after all, a man whose permanently gloomy expression was once the stuff of urban myth: at the height of the Specials' fame, a playground rumour insisted that their frontman was physically incapable of smiling. Today, however, you quickly get used to it. Hall keeps laughing, as do his fellow Specials, guitarist Lynval Golding and drummer John Bradbury. They sit around a restaurant table in buoyant mood: "I've never had so much fun as I've been having since the Specials reformed," says Bradbury, resplendent in 2-Tone uniform of Crombie coat, skinny tie and dog-tooth check trousers. Golding and Hall enthusiastically nod their assent.
In one sense, the trio's disposition is hardly surprising. The Specials' reunion tour, announced on 11 December last year, sold out immediately ("45,000 tickets in an hour," notes the band's PR approvingly): evidence, should one need it, of the unique place the band holds in the nation's affections, almost 30 years on from the release of their debut single, Gangsters.
All the same, there still seems something unlikely about finding the Specials in such a cheery mood. For all their celebrated live shows, and the brilliance of their slender oeuvre, an aura of darkness clings to the Coventry band's story. Eight years ago, I interviewed the band's ex-members. They expressed plenty of pride in their achievements, but there was nevertheless a sense that all of them had been rather traumatised by the experience of being in the band.
The Specials' success had been sudden and immense: five top 10 singles and two No 1s in under two years between 1979 and 1981, with a whole youth movement, 2-Tone, effectively forming in their wake. Their concerts were regularly disrupted by violence (Hall and Jerry Dammers were arrested and charged with incitement to riot after one particularly bloody confrontation between fans and bouncers in Cambridge) and the attentions of the National Front: the band had begun playing ska in the hope of short-circuiting the far right's concerted effort to co-opt the burgeoning skinhead revival, and recruiting fans instead to their left-wing, anti-racist credo.
Relations within the band became fraught, exacerbated by a punishing work schedule - "we played everywhere," says Bradbury, "including a caravan park in Crosshands, which, with all due respect to the people who live there, is a little out of the way" - and the kind of arguments that bands with a less determinedly political stance might never face: there was much heated discussion over the ideological correctness of travelling by limousine.
"Everything was a drama," says Hall. "Getting picked up at the airport was a drama, checking into the hotel was a drama, leaving the hotel was a drama. You couldn't get any space, not even for an hour or two, because wherever you went there were these lads who'd travelled 9,000 miles to see you live and didn't have anywhere to stay, so you had to put them up in your room and then you had to sit up all night with them." He sighs. "Talking about the fucking Specials.
"Even their greatest achievement is mired in gloom: the 1981 No 1, Ghost Town, remarkable not just for its brilliantly original, impossibly bleak musical content but the way its tenure at No 1 coincided with some of the most serious urban rioting of the 20th century; and the fact that the band celebrated its success by splitting up in the dressing room at Top of the Pops.
Today, however, the three Specials' ebullience is such that it even seems to reflect on their history. "I've got to admit, this time around I feel a lot more at ease with the other people in the band, but I thought the first time around was absolutely brilliant," says Bradbury. "Needless to say, a lot of people look for the downside more than the fun side, in terms of journalism. A lot of the good side never got discussed."
Lynval Golding goes even further. Some ex-Specials have claimed that their fans' penchant for stage invasions made it virtually impossible to play live, but Golding insists they were fun: "The more people on the stage with me, the more I felt like we'd broken down a barrier. I thought we were really integrating, we're all brothers now." He didn't even mind the National Front turning up and sieg-heiling during gigs, which seems enormously sporting of him, given his raft of horrifying stories about experiencing racism in 60s and 70s Britain, and the scars he still bears as the result of a racially motivated 1980 knife attack. "I always thought: what is the point of having a person with a racist view and locking him outside? Bring him inside so I can talk to him, we can discuss each other's culture, we can end up understanding each other and shake hands."
Perhaps Golding's memory has been a little rose-tinted by the experience of meeting Specials fans too young to remember the band first time around. He had stopped playing guitar altogether and was living quietly in Seattle as a stay-at-home father when Lily Allen contacted him and asked him to perform the Specials' Blank Expression with her on stage at Glastonbury in 2007."
Afterwards, you get these 17- or 18-year-olds coming to you and talking about the music and the effect it has on them. This one kid, he had a Specials tattoo on his arm and when I met him, he started crying. I thought I'd done something to upset him, but it was the songs, the multiracial thing, it had really touched a young generation. It's fantastic, but it's pretty strange. And that's when I started thinking, oh my God, perhaps the Specials should reform."
Terry Hall, however, had always remained implacably resistant to a Specials reunion, while piloting an irregular solo career that took in everything from world music to a tenure as resident DJ at the Guilty Pleasures club nights ("I've stopped now - you were getting a lot of hen parties coming in," says the man who once skewered the awfulness of a cheesy disco, hen party and all, on the Specials' Friday Night, Saturday Morning). He says he found his feelings softening after seeing the reconstituted Pixies live: "It felt a bit ... not like religious, but they were fantastic." He and Golding began performing together occasionally, and mooting the idea of a reunion. Eventually, the Specials performed live, unannounced but to rapturous response, at last year's Bestival.
But for all the trio's positivity, a distinct whiff of the old trauma surrounds the band's reformation. The band's founder member, keyboardist and chief songwriter, Jerry Dammers, didn't play at Bestival, but was initially involved in the reunion. Then relations between him and the rest of the band appeared to inexorably sour. Hall suggested that "the door was still open" for him to take part, but Dammers put out a long statement that decried the reunion as "a takeover", involving Hall's friend Simon Jordan, the multi-millionaire former owner of Crystal Palace: the implication being that the tour's primary motivation is money. It went on to claim that Dammers had been "kicked out" of the band he formed, that he had been legally prevented from contacting any members of band, that the other Specials refused to rehearse with him. But the reformed Specials dispute pretty much everything the band's founder now has to say about the reunion. "I've read Jerry's statement and I just don't get it," says Hall, for once looking like someone who might be physically incapable of smiling. "'They're trying to kick me out of the band' - not at all mate, not at all."
No, they say, Dammers wasn't ex-communicated by the other members. Golding and Bradbury both claim they spent vast amounts of time trying to convince Dammers to take part and that it was his own intransigence that caused the split. "I spoke to Jerry night after night all the way through 2008," says Bradbury, "and at the end there just wasn't a meeting of the ways. A little more give and take, a few more people skills, it could definitely have worked out better." "He wanted to do one date, in Coventry, in front of 30,000 people, at the football stadium," says Hall. 'I thought that was a bit of a Take That thing. We wanted to play 2,000- to 3,000-sized venues. I don't think he likes the idea of touring, to be honest. I think he hid that a bit in his statement. But apart from that, I have no idea why Jerry isn't doing it."
And no, they insist, the reformation isn't about the money, although there's clearly a lot of it waiting to be made: it's about the fans and the music's continued relevance. "Part of me feels I shouldn't have to get on stage and sing Why?, which I wrote about beng attacked," says Golding. "But people are still getting knifed, and that really gets to me, because I know what it's like to be in the hospital, with all the doctors and nurses running around going, 'We can't stop the bleeding.'"
In addition, there's the feeling that the Specials reunion has to do with the band's members reconciling themselves with the past, putting a final positive spin on their turbulent history. All of them struggled with life in the shadow of the Specials' legacy. After the split, Hall, Golding and Neville Staple had success with the Fun Boy Three, while Bradbury and Dammers soldiered on together through another Specials album, In the Studio, which spawned the hit single Free Nelson Mandela, but seems to have been even more traumatic to make than its predecessors. But it gradually became apparent that nothing they did for the rest of their lives would ever quite measure up to what they had achieved for two years in their early 20s.
"We've all done good stuff individually, but we've never done anything as good individually as we did collectively," says Bradbury. It was a realisation that some found easier to accept than others. Various ex-members toured and recorded under names like Today's Specials, Special Beat and the 2-Tone Collective in the 1990s, but Hall says he spent years trying to blot the Specials out of his life entirely - "from 1985 to 1990, I distanced myself from everything, the music and everything, as much as I could, really" - before bowing to the inevitable. "It's obvious that when we're standing together there is a definite chemistry. That's something I wanted again in my life. I had an eye-opener a few years ago: I had to put my life in order. I just sort of wanted to reach out to the people I cared for - a couple of school mates, my family and especially this group.
"Hand on my heart, this is what I feel is a bit sad for Jerry. He's fucking missing out. He's missing out on being in this incredible band. We haven't changed that much, we still take the piss out of each other, there's an understanding there that hasn't gone away. And he's missing out on that, and it's sad for him, to be honest."
For a moment, a rather gloomy silence settles around the table, but then the cheery mood returns. The trio talk excitedly about making a documentary in which fans detail their experiences of the Specials' music, of how great it'll be to play without, as Hall puts it, "having to stop every five minutes because people are fighting", of how, Dammers aside, relations in the band have never been better.
"Now when there's arguments, I just laugh at it," says Golding. "Before I would have been like, 'You fucking bastard'; and now I can just laugh and laugh. That's where we're at now."
"The fuse gets lit all the time, but someone's able to stamp it out now," says Bradbury. He frowns. "Of course, there'll probably come a time when we're not able to. I don't want to be tempting fate in this article." Across the table, Terry Hall laughs again. "Being in the Specials," says Golding firmly, "is wonderful."