Thursday, December 18, 2008

Exclusive: Interview with Paul 'Willo' Willams Author of 'You're Wondering Now - A History of The Specials'

Everyone I have ever met who is a truly devoted and passionate fan of 2-Tone and ska tends to have followed a similar path. Like alien abductees, we remember in great clarity and detail that singular moment when we heard The Specials first album for the very first time. And almost to a person, I have noted that the lightning bolt 'religious' experience of hearing that record has led each of us to other 2-Tone bands (Madness, The Beat, The Selecter) and then to an exploration and journey back to the golden age of ska, rocksteady and reggae in Jamaica in the 60's. For me it was when a friend at school played me The Specials first album in late 1979 (which he had stolen from his older sister). I rushed out and bought my own copy and that started a regular routine every Friday after school when I haunted the local record store near my house. I pestered and annoyed the clerks there so much about The Specials that when they saw me coming they would suggest new records for me to buy. This was the start of my ska and 2-Tone education and it lead me to where I am today.

I count Paul Williams (aka Willo) a fellow traveler and 2-Tone devotee. Though we lived thousands of miles part, our love of 2-Tone and the impact it has had on us throughout our lives is striking. Willo's first exposure to The Specials sent him on a path that has included being an author, promoter, commentator and lifelong fan of 2-Tone, ska music and British skinhead subculture. He is best known for writing the book 'You're Wondering Now - A History of The Specials'.

Willo's love of ska and 2 Tone started in 1980, when he snuck out of his parents' home in York and travelled to nearby Bridlington, where he saw The Specials perform live when he was 13 years old. This event had a long-lasting and profound effect on him. Throughout the 1980s, Willo played briefly in the ska band "The 'Matics," and began hosting a regular ska night "Pressure Drop" in York. In the 1990s, he created, wrote and distributed his own quarterly ska and 2 Tone fanzine Street Feeling (1994-1998) from his back bedroom. In 1995, Willo wrote 'You're Wondering Now - A History of The Specials'. It received many favorable reviews, including three stars from "Q Magazine", and was used to compile the band history section on the official Specials website. The book is now a collectors' item. 'You're Wondering Now' was the first book to fully document The Specials history and it pays equal attention to the bands that followed their break up - Fun Boy Three, The Special AKA, JB's Allstars, The Colour Field, Vegas, and so on. The book also includes one of the most complete Specials discographies.

Willo's experience and knowledge about 2-Tone and The Specials has made him a frequent guest and interview subject with media outlets (VH1and Channel 4 in the UK). He has been featured on BBC4 Radio's celebration of 2-Tone music, "Fashion Music" and was interviewed by Radio Coventry for which he contributed rare Specials tracks to the program. His work can now be seen online, as the co-administrator for the official Specials website and as the administrator for Roddy "Radiation" Byers' MySpace profile In 2007 he designed and maintained the Ska Splash website for the UK's first International Ska Festival. Willo continues to promote and review ska and punk rock bands in the North of England under the banner of "YorkSka Promotions".

In his role as co-administrator of The Specials official web site, Willo has a unique vantage point. He is in touch and is friendly with members of the band and their management (he was standing off stage during the Bestival performance). He is also a fan of the band and serves as a conduit of information and news to the many thousands and thousands of fans around the world who visit the site for the latest news about the band and the tour. Willo was kind enough to share his story, his experiences and his thoughts as The Specials prepare for their 30th anniversary tour next Spring. Enjoy the interview.

Can you tell me about your introduction to ska music and 2-Tone in particular?
My first introduction to Ska was with the coming of 2Tone in 1979.I just remember sat at home,doing homework from school and there was a local TV programme on.They introduced this band,I was not taking much notice to be honest but the sound.....My god- I became transfixed.The offbeat struck me like a sledgehammer. I dont think I blinked til the full three minutes was up.It was The Specials and 'Gangsters'. I bought the record the day after.I was then caught up in the frenzy of the 2Tone boom-clothes,records,gigs,the lot.Through listening to the 2Tone covers of old ska classics like 'Guns Of Navarone' and 'Longshot' I found a much bigger ska world- I was in my element.I became a Skinhead- Life was very good.The whole youthful gang thing,the camaraderie,the bank holiday trips to the sea to get up to mischief,having rucks with Mods and Teddy Boys and with 2Tone and original ska music as my soundtrack- it was electric.

What was it like growing up in York? Did you experience the 2-Tone explosion firsthand? You promoted ska shows right?
Growing up in York was boring. An ancient tourist town with no venues for bands to come to.No decent shops for clothing- we always went through to Leeds for the gigs and the clothes.The only thing York was good for was the local independent record shops like 'Red Rhino' and 'Track Records'- always up to date with releases and had every format of those releases (i.e. 7",12", albums, cassettes,picture discs etc..) When 2Tone was popular,York had a good crowd but the town is so fickle when it comes to fashion.Whatever is NOW is how the town goes,even to this day.Its taken 25 years for York to get a decent Oi!/punk band!!! Ska bands? well, we got a couple of student ska/punk/experimental groups but nothing to write home about.It has a hardcore group of punks and skins that has developed over the last five years or so but it took me 40 years to leave the place after many years of saying I would and moved to Darlington in County Durham to be with my lady.I put ska nights on in York in the 80s when it was quite unfashionable to do so- started out just me and a few friends in back room of a pub and it got a decent crowd and then in the late 80s I started promoting concerts and putting bands and stuff on in the town.I created YorkSka Promotions as a vehicle to put on the shows,and had great success with a Desmond Dekker gig.Other acts like Roddy Radiation & The Skabilly Rebels,Bad Manners, Rough Kutz, Skaville UK and the Ska Dance Craze revue have always gone down a storm,and lots of the smaller bands over the years have been well supported.My last York venture was The Steady Boys at the end of September 2008.I'm bringing Roddy and Skaville UK back next year.York is still a tough town to please and suffers a lethargy to get out there and experience music at its live best but I never give up trying.I'm just glad the shows have gone well.

Tell me about your 90's 2-Tone skazine "Street Feeling".
Ah,Street Feeling.My baby! Street Feeling was fanatastic and the heights it rose to were beyond anything I imagined.It ran from the early 1990s for about fourteen issues- It had a great reputation,and as it was the first and only proper 2Tone fanzine, people lapped it up.It proved to me that the love for 2Tone was well and truly alive.I was talking about The Specials ,Madness up to date stuff and people couldn't get enough.It was done with just cutting out and typing in my kitchen.It was a quarterly Zine,that gave away live concerts cassettes and ran competitions as I had a deal going with the great Dojo Records label where they supplied me with new releases on CD to give away as prizes. I miss Dojo! The zine got great reviews in many other Zines and mags and the subscription list went through the roof.I made many friends through the Zine as well,many that I still see now.It went all over the UK,USA,Europe and went to Russia,Australia and the Philippines.Its still remembered today which is nice.

Tell me about your book "You re Wondering Now- A History Of The Specials". What prompted you to write the book and what did you learn about the publishing business?
I was prompted to write it because I loved the band.People were releasing books on Madness and Bad Manners and I thought 'whats going on here?'. The Specials deserved something-I had started the book back in the mid 80s and then I forgot about it.By the mid 90s,I was very much an avid fan of George Marshall's ST Publishing stable.I thought stuff like Zoot! and the Skinhead Times that George published were brilliant.I approached George with an idea about doing a Specials book and he was so positive.He gave me free reign and it went from there.I had the time of my life doing the book,met some of my heroes,it was great.I wasn't that pleased with the final result though, because material was omitted and I never liked the cover, but it was out there and George was a top man all the way through,can't thank him enough.It did very well on the sales front.It will always be the first biographical account of the band and Im pleased with that.The book also led to a Radio 4 show I did for the 25th anniversary of 2Tone.I am revamping the book completely with great unseen photos for the 30th Annivesary next year- its looking good and I will get it to look how I always really wanted it to look at last.As for the publishing business- all I know is send in the manuscript and leave the rest to someone else LOL!!!!!

You seem to be very well connected with members of The Specials. How did you meet them? Which band members mobile phone numbers are on your mobile phone?
I met the various members of the bands through many years of gigging and interviewing them for 'Street Feeling' and then hassling them and interviewing them for info for the Specials book.Ive had some great times with them and can count on some as good friends.As for mobile numbers? Ive got.........

When did you get involved with helping to manage The Specials web site and how big a task is it to serve as one of the admins of the community forum?
I registered with the site on the very first day I got my first computer back in 2003.I have always contributed to the forum and early last year the other admin main man Mike Cornwell asked to me help out which I was pleased to do.We have managed to get it updated a little and now we have added the ability for members to post videos which was long overdue.We have tried to get the site overhauled but the Specials management have said that may be happening in 2009 so exciting times ahead!!!! As for running the forum,as Mike would also tell you its a huge task. Last year we were getting hit by serious spamming and we had to delete thousands of rogue members and posts-it took forever.The forum often crashed but we got it debugged, and since the reunion of the band and the tour has been announced- it has gone through the roof!! Its a task but we love it.

Who are some of the more passionate fans who regularly post on the community forum? Does anyone stand out in particular?
Well,in between the lunacy of it, everyone is passionate in their own way.It would be hard to single people out because some people stand out for many other different reasons! Its definitely full of characters and I have had plenty of laughs as well from it as well as headaches! I have had a look around other forums and The Specials is one of the more zany ones! but it provides a great access link to up and coming gigs and news and keeps people connected.We announced the pre-sale of tickets for The Specials tour a day before the actual sale day to members only- it was always gonna be hard to stop people using that link who weren't members and I would have preferred a code system we could have mass emailed to members- but it seems like everyone got what they wanted and that was the result we were looking for.

Have you met any of the fans of the band who post on the community forum?
Yes I have met a great deal of them in person at various get togethers and events.I think the new Specials tour will see more of us getting together either prior or after the gigs as well-theres definitely going to be a party atmosphere.

Were you privy to plans for The Specials first reunion show at Bestival in September?. I know you and your mate Mike Cornwell were there. What was it like seeing the show from the side of the stage and seeing the band before and after the performance?
Yeah,Mike and I were honoured that we were privy to the info.It had been on the cards a few months.It was deemed very important by their management that the group remain a secret act on the Bestival bill and this was the case with the Bestival organisers as well.Their performance there caused a few understandable ripples on the forum but for me it was just the fact that they were back together.I never thought I'd see the day.Ever.We almost missed the opening of the gig as the UK was hit by terrible weather conditions that day and we were running 4 hours behind schedule.It was a manic trip by train from the north to London that caused the problem then a speedy car ride to Portsmouth,a quick hovercraft and a speedy taxi ride to the event (we will always be grateful for the carelessness showed by the taxi driver to get us there!!)We arrived as they went onstage.Being a fan first and foremost, I cant describe in words the feeling to be stood on the side of the stage with them.I couldn't believe it.I think Mike and I definitely had tears in our eyes! It was out of this world and to top it,they played brilliantly!!! .Afterwards it was a party atmosphere- one of the best moments of my life.

What is your take on Jerry Dammers? Do you think he will decide to tour with the band to help mark the 30th anniversary? Is it still The Specials without him?
I think Jerry is a genius .Without him we wouldn't have what we have today as 2Tone is his creation but the picture is much bigger than that.However, in the present climate, I can't see him touring with the band but never say never I suppose.I have personally liased with Jerry over the last few years regarding The Specials so I see both sides to the current situation.We have one side claiming he IS The Specials etc...and for his fans that's how it will always be but for me personally,I admire all of them.Every one of those seven men were there at that one moment in time in 1979,with their own individual contributions.All of their skills came together to make The Specials.Like I said,I'm a fan first and foremost so I would go see a paper bag perform if it called itself The Specials.That's why I went to see Specials Mk2.I wasn't stupid, I knew there was only four of them and knew it wouldn't be The Specials as such but it was still good and give credit where credits due I say.Its a shame the relations with Jerry and the other lads are at an all time low but in essence,that's their concern to sort out.Lets go with what we have is what I say-it still promises to be great.People have seen many many bands with far less original members-From a fans point of view,this tour is very very exciting as the ticket sales have shown.

What is your favorite 2-Tone song and why?
Easy this one.'Too Much Too Young' (THE LIVE EP SINGLE) by The Specials -and why? Because it encapsulates the pure energy and power of what The Specials were all about and it is also a true picture of the 2Tone sound.Nothing comes close.Put it on your turntable- and turn the volume up full.

What is your take on the ska scene in the UK at the moment? What do you make of The Rough Kutz and Skaville UK? Do you think another revival is in the works?
I'm not so sure about a ska revival.Would it be good for the scene if it did break big? I'm unsure on that also.We have to remember how fickle the music industry is over here in the UK- a big revival could be detrimental to the bands once its died its death. Since the late 80s boom came,things have sort of simmered on an underground level.The odd track breaks through, there are a great deal of ska bands out there in the UK and I think the scene is quite busy.You could probably go to a ska gig a few times a week at the moment.I think the 30th anniversary of 2Tone next year will definitely raise the profile of ska and I also think that bands like the Specials and Madness should cater for the young and the not so well known long standing bands that are about at the moment as support acts.The Rough Kutz I have known for over ten years and in my eyes the passion they have for ska and their own unique style, is immeasurable.Their albums are fantastic.One of the best bands to come out of the UK ska scene.As for Skaville UK,well,Nick Welsh has an amazing musical pedigree and his songwriting skills are superb.The original material he has knocked out through Skaville UK shows there is a market for ska in the music biz.With big company backing,some Skaville tracks would have topped the charts.

You can read more about Willo at his MySpace web site page or contact him directly through The Specials web site.

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