Wednesday, August 20, 2008

An interview with Roddy Radiation of The Specials

The one member of The Specials who has always intrigued me the most is guitarist Roddy Radiation. He brought a punk rock and rock-a-billy look and sound to the band that perfectly complimented Lynval Golding's straight up reggae and ska rhythm guitar playing. Roddy also wrote "Concrete Jungle" and "Rat Race" which remain two of my favorite songs by the band.

I discovered an interview that Pauline Black of The Selecter did with Roddy nearly 10 years ago. Despite the passing of time, the interview is timeless and provides great insights into Roddy's experience of being in the band and his take on his band mates and their place in musical history. At the time of the interview in the mid-90's, Roddy was a part of the reformed Specials that also included Lynval, Neville, Horace and Brad. They had recorded and released the album "Guilty 'Till Proved Innocent" and the band was touring the US.

Roddy still performs live on the club circuit in the UK with his band The Skabilly Rebels. You can visit Roddy's website and read another interview he did recently with The Coventry Telegraph about his new band and his take on reforming The Specials.

Here is the interview with Pauline Black:

How did you first get involved with The Specials?
I was drinking in a local club called The Domino in ’77 and Jerry Dammers asked me to play guitar on some sessions that he was doing in London. At first I thought it was just drink talk, but the next morning he came round with er, what’s that blokes name who used to run Kylie Minogue, er Peter Waterman. He was looking after Jerry at the time. So I went down and did a few sessions and joined the band shortly after that. Silverton was on drums at the time and the band was called Coventry Automatics. At the time I was trying to get Jerry to join the punk group I was in, called The Wild Boys, but we were not having a great deal of success. Plus I was listening to a lot of Bob Marley at the time, so punk and reggae, seemed like a natural way to go. A lot of punk bands at the time were including reggae in their repertoire.

Did you listen to much ska music then?
No I used to get beaten up to it though, when I was very young, because I had long hair. In my early teens, the local skinheads in Keresley village where I lived, were into that kind of thing.

How much did the fact that you were a songwriter too, have to do with you being picked by Jerry to join the band?
I don’t know really. ‘Concrete Jungle’ was originally a Wild Boy’s song that I brought with me into the Specials. ‘Rat Race’ I wrote later on. In the early days I was sharing a room with Terry Hall for quite a while, so I’d spend all our free time singing my songs in the room, so he would hear the way I was singing them and try and get them close to the way I wanted them. Well almost. Sorry Terry!

Do you think that caused tension in the band?
Yes, so Lynval said to me. In fact when Terry left to join Fun Boy Three, Jerry said he ought to have got me to sing, but in music it’s not always the case of what’s better for the band musically, it’s more a case of who’s in control. I think if that had happened and Jerry had given me more control over the band in terms of songs and direction then it would have been better. But, as people have said about him, he was a benign dictator.

What's your best memory of the early days of the band?
It was nice doing Top Of The Pops, that was a sort of dream come true, I suppose. The first time we played I got banned from the BBC bar because I still had my punk head on at the time. I had an argument with one of the top guys there. He pushed in front of me at the bar and I had a go at him and then they threw me out. After the show, I was that drunk that I thought it was a live gig and I was looking for the back stage entrance trying to find out where the band was. Most of the band were pretty heavy drinkers at the time. I seem to remember that Brad (the drummer) was pretty drunk too. It was great fun in the early days, but they kept us working and working. The problem was that we weren’t really school buddies to start with, we were just musicians from other bands who just happened to get together, so we weren’t really that close. It’s that closeness that gets bands through all the crap, because you’ve been friends for a long time. Since we weren’t particularly great mates, then it was a lot harder to keep it going.

What’s your worst memory of that time?
The seaside tour in 1980. A great idea to play all round the coast of England and wake up every morning and look out your hotel window and see the sea, but on the day of the start of the tour, Jerry Dammers decided he didn’t want to do it. He was on downers and seeing a doctor and was cracking up due to personal things and just pressure, I guess. So I said to everyone else, oh bugger him, why don’t we get the sax player, who also played keyboards, to do his parts and go without Jerry. That didn’t go down too well. But Jerry got better and did the tour anyway. Jerry would tend to throw wobblers if he didn’t get his own way. So to try and get my own material or input noticed, I had to throw as big a wobbler as him, which wasn’t always the best thing to do.

Was it important for you to get your material noticed?
Yes because I‘ve always written a lot of songs. That’s the main reason why I re-joined the present line-up, or played in local bands or my own groups. Unfortunately my own projects never got the same kind of distribution as The Specials did. But I’m not very pushy. I don’t like dealing with the suits. Some people are good at it, and will do anything to get their own way, but I don’t find it very pleasant, because I automatically dislike those people, which is not very helpful. In the early days we did a load of gigs in Los Angeles, two shows a night for 4 days at the Whisky-A-Go-Go. On this particular night, we came off stage after the last gig and the business suits from the record company turned up. We were all hot and sweaty and one of them said to me, "Oh I love that song of yours ‘On My Radio’ (a Selecter song!)" and "could you teach me how to pogo?" That shows how much they knew about us as a band. They wanted us to put our stage clothes back on and pose with them for a photo and Jerry, who was really tired just told them all to ‘Fuck off! Then the rest of us joined in with him. Jerry had also done an interview with the Los Angeles Times, which is the newspaper in California and when asked how he liked America, he told the interviewer that he’d had more fun on a school trip to Russia. When the record company read that they stopped pushing the record. Whereas if we’d all shook hands and had our photograph taken with them, we would probably all have big bank accounts and mansions in the countryside, instead of being poor as piss (much mutual laughter!). But it felt great at the time telling them to F-off!

What’s your favourite Specials’ album?
The last one we just did! It’s got more songs that I wrote.

Did you get on with Terry Hall?
Yes he was all right. He was a very quiet person, he wasn’t one of the lads type. I liked having a few beers in the bar, but Terry would sooner sit quietly somewhere with his girlfriend back then. It’s just different people and different ways of dealing with things.

How did you feel when Terry, Lynval, and Neville split away and formed Fun Boy Three?
If you went and interviewed everyone in the band, then probably each person would remember it differently. I’d been told that my days in the band were numbered by Lynval on the way home, after a big outdoor gig in Leeds. He said that Jerry was thinking of sacking me, because I was still causing problems in the band. It’s horrible really because when you read that book about the Two–Tone Story, Rick Rogers, our old manager makes me out to be like some kind of thug, threatening to smash Jerry’s face in and taking swings at him with my guitar on stage, which is half true, but it wasn’t quite as dramatic as all that. As you know managers tend to blow things up to make a good story.
We were playing a gig in Birmingham once, in the very early days and I walked on stage and it seemed like all of a sudden everybody in the band had suits on and had gone for the mod image, which Jerry had borrowed from Paul Simenon of the Clash. Paul Simenon used to wear rude-boy gear when he wasn’t on stage and Jerry had seen this and thought, yeah that will work, so we all had to wear these suits, which I wasn’t particularly keen on at the time.

So later when we had a bit of money, we bought the kind of gear that we wanted to wear. The whole band was made up of individuals and we all dressed differently and had different ideas. I bought a leather jacket and Lynval would wear his soul gear. When we turned up for a photo session, Jerry would always pick on Horace and say, ‘I think you’re wearing the wrong clothes’, when what he really meant was that everybody looked wrong. We all had to go back to the hotel and get changed, so we could put on something a bit more in keeping with the image of the band. Then Jerry came out of his hotel room wearing a tartan suit and a tartan hat. We were all pretty peeved about this after him trying to tell us to dress in the band image.

For example there was another incident when we were in Blackpool. Jerry jumped up on this wall and I pretended to push him and it was about a 100ft behind. Then he accused me of trying to kill him. I said to him at the time, look Jerry if I’d meant to kill you, then I’d have killed you. It was just a joke, because I was really wound up.

Before all that Jerry and I were best buddies, we used to go to parties and hang out with each other a lot, but when it came to the songs and stuff, it was more a case of if you don’t tow the line then….. (long pause!). Jerry had very definite ideas about where the band should go and the way I was leaning wasn’t the same.

Did that difference of opinion upset you at the time?
Yes it drove me round the bend. We were all under a lot of pressure, because it all happened so quickly.

Why do you think that Fun Boy Three split away?
After that Leeds gig I mentioned, everyone had their own thing going on. I had my own band on the side ‘The Tearjerkers’ and everyone was doing demoes of their stuff. And I guess that Neville, Terry and Lynval decided their stuff was good enough to do on their own. We all thought we were getting to be big boys and could manage to do it on our own, without Jerry’s guidance. The press in England had decided that Jerry was the genius behind it all and that actually messed Jerry up quite a lot.

Do you think the competition between all of you was a healthy thing?
Well that is what made the band what it was. Everyone was different, I thought I was playing in The Clash, Horace thought he was playing in Little Feat or whatever band he was into at the time, Lynval thought he was in a reggae/soul band and Terry thought he was in The Cure. All those different influences actually managed to work and make the sound of the Specials.
Elvis Costello was brought in to produce the first album and he told the band to sack me at the time, because he thought my style of playing wouldn’t fit in. He’d heard the early ska stuff, like the Skatalites and he said that he didn’t hear a punk/rock and roll guitar working with that sound, so he decided I was wrong. But that was the whole point of the band, we were a mixture of things and that mixture worked.

When did it become clear that everyone in the band was pulling in different directions?
From the very start really!

Do you feel the times were against you?
In Coventry everybody had cut their hair and were suddenly playing ska, because there was an opening there and you can’t blame people for thinking that way.

You don’t appear on the Specials AKA album, ‘In The Studio’ except for a guitar solo on Racist Friend. Why was that?
John Shipley was the guitarist on that album and he couldn’t play that bit, so they used my track off a demo I’d done earlier. The press said that I’d returned to the fold when they heard that one track, which was untrue.

Did it upset you that you didn’t carry on with Jerry?
No, I wanted to do something completely different, which was the reason why I formed The Tearjerkers in ‘81. It was what I’d always been into and I thought I could do it. I spent eight years with that band and failed miserably. But we had a lot of fun. Unfortunately we were in competition with the likes of Duran Duran and if you didn’t have brilliant production then you didn’t do so well. So me trying to turn the clock back to the early days of rock and roll didn’t work. We built up a big following, but the kids who’d been into 2-Tone weren’t particularly into it.

Do you think that being associated with 2-Tone has held everything back for you?
Yes, The Tearjerkers had to play Concrete Jungle and Rat Race, because people came to hear those songs and since I’d written them, I had to play them. Also I didn’t want to use the name Roddy Radiation, but the manager disagreed. So we went along with it.

What about your other band The Bonediggers?
That was a similar kind of situation. I tried again in the early 90’s with The Bonediggers, but didn’t have much success. That carried on until I joined the reformed Specials.

Why did you re-join the Specials in ’95?
We were asked to back Desmond Dekker on an album and to get together as many of the original band as possible. That line-up became the re-formed Specials. Then we were offered two weeks in Japan, and the money was really good. It was the first time we’d been back on stage for 15 years and it didn’t seem that different. It was still working well, even though some members weren’t there. Then we were offered more work in America, but at that particular time nobody had decided to make it an on-going thing. After the tour of the US, it all started looking like it might be a second chance. I thought it was a chance to get some more of my songs out. Most of the rest of the band were thinking let’s just play the old stuff and make a living.

How did you feel when the covers album ‘Today’s Specials’ came out?
I was about to leave. I was totally disgusted with it.

Whose decision was it to release it?
The idea was that it was supposed to be like UB40’s ‘Labour of Love’ album. Lynval and say half the band thought it was a good idea, but I said at the start, that to come out with a covers album and call ourselves The Specials was a bad move and I was proved right afterwards, because the press completely slagged us.

What did you want to call the band?
Me and Horace wanted to call it Specials2. But obviously record companies and promoters wanted us to use the name of The Specials, because it would be stronger business-wise. That didn’t make Jerry very happy. At first he said he didn’t mind us doing it, but when we got offered a record deal he changed his mind. He phoned me up to moan about it. He was just afraid that we might do well without him. Anyway he didn’t want to do it. He hated touring and hated America and so it wouldn’t have been possible for him to do it. Also Terry Hall was doing so well in his own career at the time that he didn’t want to do it either. I enjoyed it because it gave me a chance to sing, which was quite nice.

What about the last Specials’ album, ‘Guilty ‘Til Proved Innocent’, were you more pleased with that?
All the songs I wrote on that album were written before we re-formed. I wrote Bonedigging, Tears In My Beer and Man with No Name. The rest of the material was written between us. It took about 4 weeks to record it in Van Nuys, which is a rough area of Los Angeles. It was weird having to live with each other for all that time. Neville had got in with the manager of Waycool Records at MCA, who had very definite ideas about what we should be doing, so that was always a battle. He was very bossy and we had a few problems with him and that’s why the album never got world-wide distribution. It only came out in America and Japan. Everyone in the business knows that a band is continually battling against record companies, because they always think they know better than you do. But Neville went along with the record company guys, because he thought they were right.

How did you find touring?
It was hard work. The Warped Tour was all open air gigs. I don’t like playing outside very much, especially at midday in hot temperatures in Arizona or somewhere like that. Rancid was on that tour and had been influenced by us having grown up listening to us and I used to play with them on stage sometimes. Also me, Lynval and Neville did a track on Rancid’s last album; that was good fun. In Europe we mostly played in the rain. We were getting worn out, because we were twice the age of most of the other bands. Most of the other bands had flash luxury buses and loads of tour support, whereas we had the worst tour bus and no money back-up from the record company. That was a bit strange. But we still went down a storm and mostly ended up headlining the shows, because none of the other bands could follow us, but it takes it out of you. It was basically The Specials and Rancid that ruled the tour.

What do you think of Third Wave Ska?
I get on well with most of the bands. I like the ska/punk bands more, like the Suicide Machines in Detroit appealed more to me than the ones who try to sound like the 2Tone bands. The Bosstones are good and mix it up a lot more.

Do you wish that The Specials organised themselves more like Madness, and just re-formed once a year to do a huge London gig and collect the money?
No, I always thought we meant more than that. I thought it was more of a political and social thing, which is very hard to keep together in this business.

Do you think those ideas are hard to get across to today’s audience?
I don’t know, I’m not sure that kids today care whether the stance is working class anymore. I think kids today like to see their heroes in limos and have mansions in the countryside, which we’ve never had. In the early days, Jerry refused to travel in limos. Often we’d have to move out of hotels, because Jerry thought the hotel was too posh for us. That was going a bit far.

What are you doing in the future?
I’m having a break at the moment. I’m trying to put together a skabilly band right now, probably called Roddy Radiation and the Skabilly Rebels; perhaps with some local musicians. I also did some work with Neville recently around California, that was fun, but I think we need a break from each other for a while. I’m doing a couple of gigs soon with a Leamington ska band called Skaboom, just because I like to play.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

this was a great read.thanks for posting mate.did you get a recording of the recent 2-tone bbc2 radio show?the bbc wouldnt let me listen to it in spain on i-player!
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