Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Exclusive: Interview with Neol Davies of The Selecter

The history of The Selecter is in many ways the history of 2-Tone. The band was a microcosm of many diverse parts of both the 70's white and black music scenes in Coventry, with all the main players in The Specials, The Selecter and various other bands having had some some musical connection with one another. In fact, during the mid-70's, Neol Davies and Jerry Dammers played together in a popular soul band called Nitetrane (fronted by Ray King, a rival to UK soul legend Geno Washington). It was this musical apprenticeship, including an infamous 2-week tour of Tunisia, that set Davies and Dammers on their ways to later issuing an iconic 7" single and kicking off a social and cultural revolution. As far as musicians go, Davies remains an unsung guitar hero in my book. Along with Roddy Byers of The Specials, he deserves a lion share of the credit for successfully combining rock-influenced guitar with reggae rhythms to invent something extraordinary and new.

Davies (whose neighbor was The Specials original drummer Silverton Hutchinson) was one of the few White musicians who ventured to the Holyhead Youth Center in Coventry, which was a social center for West Indian youth. As The Selecter's original bassist Charley Anderson has noted, 'Silverton lived on the same street as Neol Davies and suggested we invite him to play lead guitar over reggae music. He rehearsed with us in the cellar a few times and also performed two gigs with Chapter 5 (a short lived Coventry reggae band featuring almost all the original members of The Selecter). It was almost a disaster at the reggae club - Neol's guitar was so loud, people were not used to hearing lead guitar on reggae, we nearly got canned off the stage. It was there that Davies met many of the musicians who would later fill the ranks of The Specials and The Selecter and where he learned to play reggae. More significantly, it was in the Holyhead Youth Center where, improvising bluesy riffs over Bob Marley riffs, he honed the guitar sound that would later define songs like 'Missing Words', 'Celebrate The Bullet' and 'Washed Up And Left For Dead' (see and listen below).

After touring with a re-formed version of The Selecter in the early 90's, Davies started a number of other musical projects, including Box Of Blues with Horace Panter. He recently joined up with Pauline Black and Charlie 'H' Bembridge for an acoustic set by The Selecter as part of Holocaust Memorial Day in Coventry in early 2009 and released a free download of a song called 'Return Of The Selecter' in 2009 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the release of the original version. He has also has been known to sit in with Pama International.

Until recently, Davies had ceded The Selecter spotlight to Black. While the band's 30th anniversary came and went in 2009 without a formal reunion, Black has been carrying the flag for the band and its contribution to 2-Tone, performing shows across the UK, EU and South America throughout 2009 and 2010. However, on June 1, 2010, Davies tossed his hat in the ring, distributing a press release announcing the launch of his own version of The Selecter featuring a new front man, an all female horn section and the promise of some new songs. His band are scheduled to perform their first show in London later this month. Of course this means there are now two versions of The Selecter. What's a fan to do? My recommendation is to support both bands and keep fingers crossed that at some point, like their counterparts in The Specials, they will put their differences aside and play a proper reunion for the sake of the fans.

I recently connected with Davies to learn more about the early days of The Selecter, his guitar playing and sound and to find out a bit more about his new band. Read on.


When did you realise that you wanted to be a musician?

I wanted to play the guitar as soon as I heard it on the radio in the late 50's. My brother Leon gave me a guitar when I was 9. By the time I left school in 1968 I knew I didn't want to work in a factory or office all my life, even though I did both from then up to 1979 when 2-Tone enabled me to be pro from then on.

When did you hear reggae and ska for the first time?

It just seems like it's always been there somehow. I guess the date would be the same as when it was first on radio, which is where I got my music then. I might have heard things at my friend's homes when their dads might have been showing off their radiograms! As I got older I jammed with people who could play reggae (some were later in The Selecter), and I learned the feel the more I played.

You have an incredibly distinct guitar sound. Who influenced your style as a young guitar player and what kind of guitar do you play?

I started with a Watkins Rapier and a Burns Tri-Sonic as my two electrics, both had tremolo arms but were cheap and hard to play. I was about 22 when I bought a Gibson SG Junior. I played that for some years until I bought my first Fender Stratocaster in 1976 and started to explore using the tremolo in a different way, not just adding a wobble to one note but as a part of my playing. I had three waves of influence. The first was twang like The Shadows/The Ventures into early Beatles etc. The second was mid-60's pop and I mean The Kinks, The Who, The Small Faces, The Spencer Davis Group. The third was the blues and reggae, in particular Peter Green, into Jimi Hendrix....then it was the 70's and I started to write songs.

I've always been fascinated with a proto version of The Selecter called The Transposed Men (named after the comic book above) that you formed with John Bradbury of The Specials in 1977-78. Tell me about the genesis of the band and the sound you were going for? A number of The Selecter's most well known songs were written during that time right? Do any recordings of that band exist?

After the recording of the 'Kingston Affair' instrumental it seemed like a good idea to form a band. I remember having to persuade Brad that he needed a drum kit but once he did actually buy one he instantly became one the best reggae drummers because he had spent many hours listening to reggae and dub. We rehearsed a set and played several gigs, and nearly got a deal with Virgin Records. The line up included Desmond Brown on Hammond organ (who joined The Selecter), Kevin Harrison on guitar (he later formed urge) and Steve Wynn on bass. I have one recording of several songs from a mono cassette at a rehearsal which Kevin has helped me archive and enhance.

Not everyone knows the story of how your first single 'The Selecter' came about. The song was originally titled 'The Kingston Affair' right? It was just you, John Bradbury and a man named Barry Jones who played a memorable trombone line.

It was the time of DIY singles and Brad suggested that he and I make a single. I thought it was a good idea because up until then I had been recording demos at home on a Revox. I knew Roger Lomas, who had built a studio outbuilding in his garden, about the size of a garage. He had a 4- track tape, mixer, echo, flanger pedal and a drum kit. We both went to visit Roger who agreed to produce and engineer the sessions and we had many laughs while we were in that room.

The melody, the drum beat and the sandpaper percussion were my conceptions. I played the bass, guitar and percussion. Brad played the drums ( first thing recorded-no click track!!) and we were lucky to get Barry Jones to play the trombone. First, he could play well and second, we didn't know any other trombone players. He was able to translate my ideas of swooping notes like I was doing with the tremolo arm. Brad was an "executive producer" and a motivator of and in the project which is why I split the writing credit with him. Although we signed a publishing deal for the track, nothing came of it. We formed Transposed Men, and then Jerry (Dammers) was planning to record 'Gangsters' and he asked Brad to play on the recording. Brad became a permanent member of The Specials which was the end of Transposed Men. There was no "b" side for 'Gangsters' was made so, months later, the two tracks became the first 2-Tone Records double "A" sided single. I overdubbed a rhythm guitar to the original mix of 'Kingston Affair' and Roger Lomas produced that session, and I re-named it 'The Selecter' by The Selecter. I formed The Selecter as a 7 piece band about 4 months later.

Is it true that the original hand stamped sleeve of the first 2-Tone single read 'The Special AKA Gangsters Vs The Selecter' but that you stamped yours the other way around 'The Selecter Vs The Specials AKA'? I understand its quite a collectors item right?

Well, I don't know. It's an item in my collection! I couldn't resist it. We were all stamping these endless boxes of records so I simply reversed the stamps. None of us knew what was about to happen at that point.

I'm a big fan of the 'Celebrate The Bullet' LP. Can you share a bit about the experience of writing the songs for that album and the approach you took to recording them? They really sound unlike anything else from the 2-Tone era.

The main thought I had then was to re-connect with the sound of 'The Selecter" and 'On My Radio' which had been produced by Roger Lomas. The title track's drum patterns and the guitar/trombone were a continuance of the original sound I wanted for the band, but we were pushing to move the music forward too. Music and fashion moved fast then so there was pressure to come up with the new. Although it didn't sell- the title stopped airplay of the single- I was very pleased with the album and over time many people have said how much they love it and it was received well by the critics at the time. you can't always get what you want but if you........ (The picture above is of Neol's 12 string Fender guiate which he found in a pawn shop on The Selecter's first American tour in 1980. He used it on several tracks of the Celebrate The Bullet album which was recorded when the band returned from the tour. He no longer owns the guitar, but the sounds he created with it will live on...)

What was your impression of American ska when you toured the U.S. in the early 90's?

I was glad to see so much of it, being played with passion a lot of the time. yes it's good that the music is still loved all over the world by many different people. from The Skatalites to now. It's just such a great rhythm.

You recently announced you will be performing a show as The Selecter later this month at the Hoxton Bar & Kitchen in London. Can you tell me about your new band? What is the line-up? Who will be singing? What songs will be performed? Are more shows planned?

I have more songs and music that belong in that era so I've created a new version of The Selecter which will play my songs from the original days. The complete line-up will be announced on www.theselecter.com very soon but there is Hammond organ, there are trombones and the singer's name is John Gibbons. I need the audience to answer about more shows!! I know it's been a while....

There seem to be two versions of The Selecter at the moment. What are the chances that you, Pauline and other members of the original band will end up on stage together sometime this year to celebrate your 30th anniversary?

I don't wish to comment further than to say the 30th anniversary was, for me at least, last year. 1979 was the year 2-Tone Records was launched and The Selecter broke through with 'On My Radio'. Thanks for the chance to answer your questions and thanks for those taking the time to read them.

Davies version of The Selecter will play their inaugural show at The Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen in London on Thursday July 29th while Pauline Black's version of The Selecter including Gaps Hendrickson will be celebrating the 30th anniversary of the 'Too Much Pressure' album with a concert on Saturday, November 13, 2010 at the Bloomsbury Ballroom in London.


Steve from Moon said...

Very interesting interview with Neol! Thanks for doing it, Marc!

The last time I saw The Selecter with both Neol and Pauline black was during their 1992 tour, when they played Tramps in NYC. It was an incredible show...

Anonymous said...

I saw that show too, it was amazing. I had been a huge fan growing up up in the UK, but was too young to see them live then. So that show was a huge opportunity.

Nice interview Marc!


REFFA said...

More good Selecter triv Marco, cool!

Anonymous said...

Marco -

Amazing, Amazing interviews!! Pauline, Neol, and you had Charlie a while back. Thank you so much and keep up the great work as I subscribe to the RSS feed and read 'em all!

The Mike Johnson

Steve from Moon said...


Check out the YouTube videos of Neol Davies playing a few Selecter turnes with The Toasters last year in Birmingham--the link has been posted on The Specials' fan site bulletin board...