Saturday, March 14, 2009

Exclusive: Interview with Roddy Byers of The Specials

I'm a fervent believer in the concept of a band. The coming together of individuals from different walks of life, different cultures, different musical influences and perspectives is often an amazing thing to behold. The mixing of these elements in a musical cooking pot has created some of the greatest music of the rock and roll era. More often than not, the parts are never stronger than the whole that is created.

To that end, I have always believed that the secret ingredient that made The Specials the band they are has been Roddy Byers inventive and creative guitar parts. Listen to any Specials song - Dawning Of A New Era, Long Shot Kick The Bucket, Rat Race, Hey Little Rich Girl -- and its usually Roddy's guitar licks that stick with you. In fact, the interplay between Roddy's punk/rockabilly tinged licks and Lynval Golding's ska and reggae infused guitar playing is as important to the band as the partnership between Keith Richards and Ron Wood. Roddy's singing voice is just as valuable as his guitar playing. Its a voice that that can tell a story but one that includes shades of vulnerability that draw the listener in. Have a listen to 'Concrete Jungle' - always one of my favorite song by the band - and you will hear just how important Roddy was to making The Specials more than just a ska revival band.

Here is live video of 'Rat Race' from The Specials tour of Japan:

Roddy came to The Specials as a well known musician in the Coventry music scene. Jerry Dammers has often said that he knew exactly what he was doing when he invited Roddy to join the band for a recording session in London after meeting him in a pub the night before, He was aware of Roddy's first band The Wild Boys, who were one of the most popular bands in Coventry in the mid-70's before The Specials. While Dammers and Roddy never saw eye-to-eye on many things, it was this creative tension that fueled the energy of the recordings and live performances. Watch any live show and you will see what a live wire Roddy was on stage.

Thirty years on, Roddy remains a creative musical force. He has never rested on his 2-Tone laurels. In fact, he's continued playing music since the band broke up in 1981. He actually started his next band The Tearjerkers before The Specials called it quits. The Bonediggers and The Raiders followed. More recently he started The Skabilly Rebels who are the embodiment of Roddy's combination of Kingston ska and Memphis rock and roll. .

Roddy was kind enough to take time to answer my questions. He's always been very approachable and is a regular online presence on The Specials web site's community forum. I was interested in learning more about his early days before joining The Specials and his approach to guitar playing. The interview is below. Enjoy.

What are you earliest memories related to music?
My earliest memories? Well hearing The Beatles at the local fair. Seeing Elvis on T.V. the usual stuff I guess.

How old were you when you got your first guitar? What kind of guitar was it?
I was thirteen when i bought my first guitar off a school friend for 8 quid. It was a Selmer Spanish type acoustic.

What was the first record you ever bought?
Not quite sure? Either a Monkees record or The Kinks.

What was it like growing up outside Coventry? How did a young man from outside Coventry end up such a big fan of American rock n' roll and rockabilly?
I grew up in a coal mining village from the age of 4 to 18, which was pretty tough in those days with many different miners family's from all over the U.K. living there. I liked all the rock n' roll originals -don't know why really. But seeing Jerry Lee ,Elvis, Johnny Cash, Buddy, Gene, Eddie on T.V. -- I just wanted to be like them.

Tell me about The Wild Boys.
I formed the Wild Boys about 1975, with guys i had been playing with in working men's club type show bands. We played mainly covers -- Bowie, Lou Reed, The Stones and other rock,n,roll standards plus a few songs I had recently started writing.

What was Coventry music scene of the early 70's like? How did the advent of punk effect you musically after 1977?
The early 70's scene in Coventry only had a few free and easy jamming places like The Smithfield Hotel, where you got up with your mates and bash out a couple of cover songs. It wasn't until punk came along that venues and a thriving local music scene happened well for me anyway,i guess. There was also a local Black music scene, but i hadn't connected with it at the time.

Did having two Wild Boys songs on the Coventry music comp "Sent From Coventry" help the band's career?
Not for me as I had passed on the name of the band to my brothers band and joined the Coventry Automatics.

Your guitar playing makes The Specials sound like The Specials. What kind of guitar and amp did you use in while you were in the band? Do you still play the same guitar?
I've been told by Lynval and other musicians that my sound is instantly recognisable! It's just the way I like it to sound? I guess its a late 60's sorta sound? I still use the same type of equipment -- a Gibson Les Paul and a Vox AC 30 amp. I've tried all sorts but keep coming back to those two.

How did you and Lynval work out who would play lead and who would play rythym on songs in the recording studio and live?
Like the early Stones there isn't always a strict lead and rhythm. We interchange it, but I tend to play most lead parts.

I've always wanted to know more about the single 'Braggin and Tryin' NotTo Lie' which was credited to Roddy Radiation and The Specials and was distributed with the 'More Specials' album. Its it fair to say this was the first ever skabilly song?
First Skabilly song? Well I used to put ska rhythms to country songs for a laugh, but i guess "Braggin" was the first serious effort to merge Kingston Jamaica with Memphis Tennessee!

You started The Tearjerkers towards the end of The Specials right? The band seemed to form very quickly after the The Specials broke-up? Any memories of those days?
I formed The Tearjerkers before The Specials split. It was obvious to most of us that the end was near. I also hoped that I could do my own thing successfully at that time.

What are your fondest memories of playing in The Specials Mk2? I've always enjoyed the 'Guilty Till Proved Innocent' record. Do you perform any of the songs you wrote from that album?
The MK2 Specials as I call them started off with great optimism, and I was pleased to be out front doing the majority of the lead vocals. But here in England the press never accepted us as The Specials, whereas in the States they didn't seem to mind us not being the total original band. So we mainly toured America, Europe and Japan . The first MK2 Album "Today's Specials" I was totally against reforming to record a covers album! But as I was the only ex-Special with any new tunes I guess they didn't want a Specials Skabilly album. But I wrote 'Bonediggin', 'The Man With No Name', 'Tears In My Beer', 'Keep On Learning' for the second Guilty CD. I play those songs with The Skabilly Rebels plus my early Specials songs and a few favourites from the first and second original Specials albums.

You formed The Skabilly Rebels a few years ago and continue to tour and record. Is it still as much fun to play music now as it was when you started?
Like Neville Staple, I'm very busy with both The Specials and my own band. I still love playing live and like my father and grandfather will continue to perform until they throw the sod over me!

Here is a video history of Roddy's musical career:

You can read more about Roddy at his website and MySpace page.

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