Monday, January 26, 2009

Flexipop Magizine Features 2-Tone Band Photo Spreads and Collector Edition Versions of The Selecter's 'On My Radio' & Bad Manners 'No Respect"


Living in the digital age of the 21st century its hard to even fathom the small innovations that the music industry rolled out in the early 80's. Remember Sony Walkman cassette players? What about Flexi-Discs?

For the uninitiated Flexi-Discs (or Flexis) were records pressed onto thin, flexible vinyl. They were really cheap, easier and faster to produce and press than conventional records, and their form meant that they could be included in a magazine or book with little trouble. For what they were, the fidelity of Flexis wasn't too bad. Their light weight often made them slip on a turntable, so many Flexis had a space for taping on a penny - sorta lo-fi & DIY. Personally, I found that after just a few plays they had already worn out their welcome...

The earliest flexis originated in the UK during the mid-1950's and were manufactured to be played at 78 RPM. Flexis came of age in the 1960s when The Beatles sent out flexis featuring interviews with the band and Christmas wishes with their annual fan club newsletters. Later, flexis were widely used as promotional tools and magazine freebies. Both the NME and Melody Maker competed for readers by affixing flexis to their covers with unreleased tracks and excerpts of music from various bands. The flexi was not necessarily seen as a prestige item and rival magazines in the 80s made big play of their ability to substitute the flexi with conventional 7" singles, referred to as "Hard Vinyl"

However, for fans of 2-Tone and 80's British new wave and punk, Flexipop Magazine was well known and famous for bringing the flexi back in vogue in the UK during the 80s. Launched in 1980 by ex-Record Mirror journalists Barry Cain and Tim Lott, the magazine featured a flexidisc in each issue, usually unique to the issue. Interestingly, the first ever issue of the magazine contained a 2-Tone bonaza of materials including The Selecter's "Ready Mix Radio", which was a dub version of "On Your Radio" as well as photo stories of The Selecter and Bad Manners, live photos of The Specials on tour as well as a Madness band factfile.

According to the 2-Tone Info Web site, this flexidisc came free with the first ever issue of the magazine FlexiPop. Like most flexidsics playing it was easier said than done. This remix of the bands single 'On My Radio' is mostly instrumental in nature and is unavailable on any other format. The magazine is an interesting item in itself aside from the flexidisc, it includes features on all of the bands on Dance Craze with the exception of The Beat. The Selecter, The Bodysnatchers & Bad Manners each have silly photo stories... there's a typical Madness band members factfile and a nice three page spread of photos of The Specials by The Specials on tour. There's also a really nice promo for More Specials on the magazine back cover and a competition to win said photos & autographed copies of More Specials to boot... not bad for 60p.

Below are the photo series of the The Selecter and Bad Manners from the first issue of Flexi-Pop as well as the three page spread of photos of The Specials on tour and a Madness factfile. At the bottom of the post is the download of "Ready Mix Radio" by The Selecter and 'No Respect" by Bad Manners courtesy of Judge Fredd at The Beef, The Original and The Cover and 2-Tone collector and expert Liam. The images are very large, so click on them to see them in their full size as they cut off a bit in the blog format.











Below is the download of The Selecter's Flexipop Magazine single 'Ready Mix Radio' from Issue 1 in 1980 and the Bad Manners Flexipop single 'No Respect' Blue Flexidisc:

The Selecter - Ready Mix Radio

Bad Manners - No Respect

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Members of The Selecter perform in Coventry as part of Holocaust Memorial Day

Pauline Black, Neol Davies and Charley 'H' Bembridge performed an acoustic set of songs by The Selecter in Coventry as part of 'The Stand up to Hatred' walk that took place around the city center on Saturday January 24 as part of a weekend of events to mark the national Holocaust Memorial Day commemorations which this year are being held in Coventry.

Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD) is commemorated on January 27th each year. The date marks the anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau where 1.6 million men, women and children (including 1.2 million Jews) were killed. Coventry will host the National Commemoration on Sunday January 25th, an event which will see local people attend side by side with national leaders and survivors of genocide and conflict as well as international survivors of Nazi persecution.

According to photographer John Cole who attended and shared pictures from the event, the band performed 'Missing Words' and 'Redemption Song' by Bob Marley. Also in attendance were Lynval Golding of The Specials, noted 2-Tone producer Roger Lomas and Coventry music journalist and 2-Tone historian Pete Chambers.

Below are a series of pictures from the event:

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Neville Staple Autobiography "Original Rude Boy" Now Available for Pre-Sale

While we bask in the glow of President Obama's inauguration here in the US, I have also been celebrating all things related to The Specials 30th anniversary. Without realizing it, I noticed that the last few posts have been about long lost photos and cartoon artwork about the band. It seems only natural to keep The Specials theme going for a little bit longer.

Following in the foot steps of his bass playing band mate, Horace Panter, it's been confirmed that Neville Staples' 288 page autobiography will be released in time for the kick-off of The Specials UK reunion tour this April. The book was originally scheduled for a 2010 release but was rushed to take advantage of the tour. Indeed, news is that a photo shoot of the band took place this week and the pictures will be included in the book. The tome is called 'Original Rude Boy' and it will include Neville's life story as well as his exclusive inside take on the 2-Tone era. According to sources, both Ranking Roger and Pauline Black have contributed to the book as have a number of Third Wave American ska bands. In fact, the book will give Third Wave ska the recognition it's long deserved. Neville lived in California for eight years and worked with bands like No Doubt and Unwritten Law.

Here is a synopsis of the book that was posted on the Waterstone's web site: 1979. The dawn of Thatcher's Britain. It's a country crippled by strikes, joblessness and economic gloom, divided by race and class - and skanking to a new beat: 2-Tone. The unruly offspring of white boy punk and rude boy ska, the new music's undeniable leaders were The Specials. Bursting out of Coventry's concrete jungle, their lyrics spoke of failed marriages, petty violence, crowded dance floors, gangsters and race hate - but with a wit that outshone their angry punk forebears. On stage they were electric, and at the heart of this energy was vocal chemistry of the ethereal Terry Hall and Jamaican rude boy Neville Staple. In 1961, aged only five, Neville was sent to England to live with his father - a man for whom discipline bordered on child abuse. Growing up black in the Midlands of the sixties and seventies wasn't easy, but then Nev was hardly an angel. His youth was marked by scuffles with skins, compulsive womanising, and a life of crime that led from shoplifting to burglary and eventually borstal and Wormwood Scrubs. But throughout there was music, and now Nev tells how a very bad boy became part of the most important band of the eighties. He remembers sound system battles; the legendary 2-Tone tour with The Selecter, Madness and Dexy's - and their clashes with NF thugs; he recalls the band's increasing tensions and eventual split; his subsequent foray into bubblegum pop with Fun Boy Three; and a new found fame in America, as godfather to the third wave of ska and bands like Gwen Stefani's No Doubt. The Specials have announced their reunion tour - beginning on 22nd April 2009 and ending at the Brixton Academy on 7th May Horace Panter's "Ska'd For Life" (978033044073X) has already proven a clear market for The Specials' story. This book lays bare the difficult relationship between the band's white grammar school kids and working class rude boys. Neville continues to tour, both here and abroad, with The Neville Staple Band and has built up a large and dedicated following. A major publicity campaign includes signings, gigs, press, TV, radio and merchandise.

Aurum Press will publish in the UK; a US distribution deal is yet to be nailed down but the book will be available via Amazon in time for the UK tour. If you live in the UK you can pre-order the book from the Waterstone's Web site.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Exclusive: Interview With Nick Davies - Bringing The Specials Songs To Life In Cartoon Art

With the 30th anniversary of The Specials now upon us, I wanted to highlight one of the most creative pieces of art work associated with 2-Tone and The Specials that I have ever seen. I've previously posted about the art design of 2-Tone and the genesis of The Specials logo 'Walt Jabsco" as well as the approach The Beat and cartoonist/artist Hunt Emerson took in designing The Beat girl. I just recently posted about an exhibition of never before seen photographs of The Specials from 30 years ago that were taken by John Coles. Another noteworthy and highly sought after collection of cartoons/graphic art to come out of the 2-Tone era is The Specials Illustrated Songbook which was published in 1981.

The Specials Illustrated Songbook is a collection of songs from The Specials song catalogue complete with amusing and highly original cartoon artwork for each track and many band photos included. The book was the brainchild of illustrator Nick Davies (who later went on to illustrate The Special AKA's 'What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend' sleeve and who had played guitar in a band with Horace Panter) and graphic designer Ian Haywood who attended the same art college (Lanchester Polytechnic in Coventry) as Jerry Dammers and Horace Panter. They approached Dammers and received his blessing to design the book and it was published in 1981. Long out-of-print, it has become highly sought after by 2-Tone fans and collectors.

Davies' amazing cartoon art, which is similar in scope and complexity to R. Crumb, brings the lyrics of each song from both albums by The Specials to life in intricate detail. Davies was kind enough to conduct an interview with me about his career as a graphic designer and illustrator and share some stories about the book and its illustrations and cartoons. He was also kind enough to share a number of scans from the book which are included throughout the post.

Where did you grow up and when did you become interested in design and illustration?
I grew up in Coventry and drew a lot when I was a kid, it was the only thing I was interested in. I studied art at school and that's where I became interested in illustration, more so than cartoons. Then when I was 16 I went to Art College and then did an art foundation course which is a 1 year pre-Degree course, but instead of doing an Art Degree I jumped ship and went to Amsterdam and got a job in a small design studio. I was a junior trainee dogsbody, made the coffee etc and was learning to be a graphic designer but I did a bit of general illustration and some cartoons and caricatures.

Who influenced your style?
Initially there were British comics like The Beano, The Dandy, Buster. When I was about 10, I had a gag cartoon published in Buster and got paid 50p for it, my first paid job. Then there was Heath-Robinson and his crazy machines, Ronald Searle who illustrated the St Trinians books, and Carl Giles of the Daily Express was a big influence, every year I got the Giles Annual for Christmas, then I got interested in older British comics from the 20's to the 50's and liked Roy Wilson a lot, there were others but very often the work wasn't signed so you wouldn't know who did what. After that there was Robert Crumb, Hunt Emerson, Graham Thompson, Paul Sample, Joe Wright, Seve Bell and I got more interested in caricatures, Gerald Scarfe, Ralph Steadman, basically any cartoons and caricatures I saw.

Where did you meet Ian and how did you start working together?
We went to the same school but Ian was a year older than me so our paths didn't cross although I was aware of him because he played drums in a rock band and I saw them play once at the school, but we met at the Lanch (Lanchester Polytechnic) on the foundation course, got on really well and hung around together. When I came back from Amsterdam we got together again and we spent most of the time joking, bouncing ideas off each other, there was a lot of verbal riffing. The Specials were big, especially in Coventry and we had the book idea, got the nod and that was that. We worked on the ideas and jokes together, I did the artwork and Ian designed and produced it.

When and where did you meet Jerry Dammers and Horace Panter?
Jerry and Horace were at the Lanchester Polytechnic doing fine art degrees but they were two or three years older than me and I never met them there, in fact they may have left by the time I got there, but I knew Horace through some mutual friends Geoff and Gaz Bayliss who I played guitar with. When I was about 17 I jammed with Horace's pre-Specials band Alive and Smiling, I remember playing Quadrant from Spectrum by Billy Cobham. I like to think that if fate had taken a slightly different path I might have ended up in The there's a thought. I met Jerry when we went to see him with the book idea.

What gave you the idea to create The Specials Illustrated Song Book? Had you seen the band play? Were you a fan of the band?
After working in Amsterdam for three years I went back to Coventry and hooked up with Ian again who was working as a graphic designer in a studio in Warwick. Being in Holland I'd missed The Specials rise to fame but as soon as I heard the album I loved it. When I was 14/15 I was a bit of a suedehead so I was into ska and reggae. Jerry gave us a tape of More Specials before it was released so we could get some inspiration and I loved that too, we played it to death. I don't know which of us came up with the idea to do a book but I think I must have been influenced consciously or sub-consciously by The Ruttles, Eric Idle and Neil Innes's spoof Beatles documentary. We spent a few weeks kicking ideas around and got a dummy book together with the spoof cover and back of the first album and a couple of songs illustrated inside, can't remember which ones, I think Nite Klub might have been one of them. The Specials were recording More Specials in Horizon Studios and Ian phoned up and spoke to Jerry and we went to meet him at Horizon. He liked the idea, put us in touch with his music publisher, we went down to London, showed him, he liked it and gave us the go ahead

How long did it take you to draw and design each picture that accompanies the lyrics to each song? Do you have a favorite illustration from the book?
The whole thing took about six months from start to finish, but it was my first job on that scale and some of it was very busy, or action-packed and it took a lot to work out how to fit everything together, so although it was fun to do it was exhausting. My favourite illustrations would be Dawning of a New Era, Gangsters, and Man at C&A, and the covers and inside covers, as for the rest of it some parts I'm pleased with and other parts make me cringe but what can you do, If I could hop in my time-travel machine and go back and make a few changes I probably would but I can't. It is what it is. That's the worst thing about doing anything like this, the pressure to make it as good as you possibly can because it'll be out there forever and anything you're not happy with will bug you forever. I'm never 100% happy with anything I do, you always think you could do it better if you did it again, you just have to learn to live with it.

Was it difficult to get the book published?
No, it was as easy as falling of a log, I wish everything was that easy.

What kind of response did the book get when it was published? You also created a More Specials Illustrated Song Book right?
I've no idea. The people I knew all said it was great, but then they would wouldn't they? but as to the wider response I don't know. I don't even know how many copies were printed, or sold, only a few thousand I would think and I only ever saw one advert for it in Smash Hits so I don't think it had much of a push. I saw a couple of favourable reviews, but it was never destined to make the bestseller list. As for doing a More Specials songbook, we did and we didn't. I'm presuming from the question that you've seen the images on line and not seen the book in the flesh because it's actually like 2 books joined back to back and upside down, and you start at the front cover and make you way to the middle but when you get to the middle you turn it upside and start at the back which is now the front, (the front now being the back) and make your way back to the front, or the back or, if you like, the other front, or even the middle which is still the middle. Confused? Anyway the book covers both albums The Specials and More Specials.

What was the concept behind the art for the cover of The Special AKA single "What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend"?
I can't remember if the brief was to do it like that or if I had a free reign to do anything, but it was just a literal take on the song and I fancied doing something a bit different. I was experimenting with my style at the time and that spiky arty edgy style was quite popular so I was trying to blend my cartoon style with that, but I got over it.

The book is currently out of print. Are there any plans to re-issue the book in conjunction with The Specials 30Th reunion shows in 2009?
No plans to reissue it although I'm open to suggestions and offers, but I thought it would be nice to illustrate some of the songs that weren't in the book like Ghost Town, Enjoy Yourself, Girlfriend, Monkey Man etc maybe do prints of them, and maybe do prints of some of the original illustrations, maybe in colour? But we'll have to wait and see what happens.

What are your working on now and where can people see more of your artwork?
Since the book I've been working mainly for magazines in the UK, but I've got a lot of projects up my sleeve which I'm hoping to get off the ground soon. I'm also working on getting a website together and should have something out there soon. I have got a MySpace page but it's only just got up and running and there's not much on it yet. It's and click on my pics.

For more information about Davies' current artwork or to learn more about how you can get prints from the illustrations in the book, you can contact Davies at:

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Specials 30th Anniversary Celebrations Kick-Off In Coventry With Plaque Unveiling & Exhibition Of Never Before Seen Photos Of The Band

The Specials 30th anniversary reunion celebrations have started! Ever since the reunion was announced and the tickets for the UK tour went on sale (and sold out in minutes), the excitement has been growing. No where is this more true than in Coventry, the heart and soul of 2-Tone. Just this week alone a plaque was unveiled near the canals in the city where the iconic photographs of the band that graced the covers of their first and second albums were taken. To commemorate the occasion, both Roddy Byers and Horace Panter were on hand to help unveil the plaque. The plaque and the event was the brainchild of Pete Chambers of The Coventry Evening Post and author of several books on 2-Tone was there to serve as the MC.

Here is video of the plaque unveiling:

As part of the plaque unveiling celebrations, The Lock Gallery, which is in a redeveloped area of Coventry right on the canal, opened an exhibition titled "Setting the Two Tone" featuring never before seen photographs of The Specials taken by local photographer John Coles. Coles frequently photographed The Specials during their heyday and his photographs serve as testimony to the great moments in rock and roll history that The Specials own. From what I can gather there is both an art and a science to shooting a rock concert. The art comes in because live shows and musicians are unpredictable and spontaneous. Musicians tend to be expressive, especially when they are performing , so the results when done well, can be images full of emotion and energy. However, this energy is also the cause of one of the biggest challenges from a technical perspective in live music photography. Capturing the gyrations of seven members of The Specials had to be a tricky business. Coles has delivered on both accounts.

According to remarks prepared by Chambers at the gallery opening on Thursday, "Coles was born in Coventry on 1955 and attended Bishop Ullathorne RC School. With over forty years behind the lens, and sixteen of those as a wedding photographer, John sums it up in his usual ‘matter-of-fact way, “After forty years I think I can safely say that photography has long ceased to be just a hobby, it’s much more a way of life now”. As well as the 2-Tone roster, John has photographed the likes of The Adverts, The Killjoys, The Stranglers, Boomtown Rats, Ian Dury, Elvis Costello, Golden Earring, the Who, Automatics, Squad, Clash, 999, Uriah Heep, Queen,The Tubes, The Flys, The Buzzcocks and new local heroes Pint Shot Riot, The Ripps and The Enemy. His work has appeared in Sounds, and the Coventry Telegraph."

I had the chance to conduct a short interview with Coles, who related that he is Coventry born and bred and has been a professional photographer for most of his life. He has been friendly with The Specials since their early days and frequently had a backstage pass to their shows which provided him with unique access to the band and the opportunity for many close up pictures of the band performing. The photographs are striking for their ability to capture the energy and intensity of the band performing live. Amazingly, the large cache of pictures that are now on display had been stored at Coles home for the last 30 years. Among the pictures are many from The Specials last performance. Coles mentioned that he has spoken with the band about photographing them during their upcoming UK tour when it visits Coventry in May.

The Lock Gallery is an independent open studio and art gallery located in Coventry's Canal Basin within the hub of Coventry's art scene. (local arts and craft workshops and studios surround the canal basin.) It is run by artist and sculptor Emma O'Brien (below hanging a picture) who curated the exhibition.

O'Brien was kind enough to conduct an interview with me about "Setting The 2-Tone:

How long has the Lock Gallery been open?
Since May 2008.

How did you connect with John Coles?
Through Pete Chambers. I was Talking to pete about the plaque unveiling, and how it would be good to have an exhibition in the gallery.

How much work went into preparing for the show?
A huge amount. Pete Chambers kindly donated a lot of original memorabilia, from the era, and it was very hard sifting through all of Johns fantastic images to find the right ones to display

What is your take on the pictures?
I think they're amazing, there has been great interest so far in them as they have never been published before, and there is also such a huge response in the return of The Specials, with lots of excited fans having the chance to take a trip down memory road through the exhibition

Are you a fan of 2-Tone?
Not as big as some, but I am proud to be part of all this, and to open the 30 year celebration with my exhibition, is a real honour, I'm glad we are celebrating the great things that have come out of Coventry

What kind of response have you had to the pictures?
A great response, a lot of people like to talk about the concerts they were taken, and if they were their or not, they are definate conversation starters!

How can fans purchase copies of the prints?
By coming into the Gallery, each print has 2 large sizes, 2 medium and two small and available to buy (ltd edition) from £10.

You can watch a BBC Midlands news piece about the plaque unveling and the photo exhibition here.

The exhibition opened on Friday January 16th 2009 and will remain up until Saturday January 31st 2009. Reprints of the photographs on display are available for sale at The Lock Gallery. For more information about the exhibition or to find out how to purchase reprints contact the gallery via their website or their Facebook page.

Coles was kind enough to share photos he took at the plaque unveiling and exhibition opening with me. I've included a number of them below. Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Exclusive: Interview with Rhoda Dakar of The Bodysnatchers, The Special AKA & Skaville UK

I distinctly remember the first time I heard The Bodysnatchers. I had just purchased the U.S. version of the "Dance Craze" LP and while I recognized the songs by The Specials, The Beat, Madness, The Selecter and Bad Manners, I was surprised to hear one song by a band I was not familiar with. It was "Easy Life" by The Bodysnatchers and it very quickly became a favorite. Though with my more refined ears I can now hear that the band was still learning to play its instruments, they were saved by the compelling vocals of their lead singer Rhoda Dakar and the pure energy and enthusiasm of their performance which carried them through. Watch the Dance Craze movie and you will see what I mean.

The speed and pace at which The Bodysnatchers went from concept to reality and then on tour is astounding. Nicky Summers, who was selling fruits and vegetables from a stand in London, had an idea for an all girl ska band that came to her after seeing The Specials perform at the Moonlight Club and Hope & Anchor in London. She had tried to join the band The Modettes but that went no where, so she placed an ad in the music papers looking for 'rude girls'. Within weeks she had assembled a working band that included Nicky on bass, Penny Leyton (a freelance illustrator) on keyboards, fashion designer Sarah "SJ" Owen on lead guitar, Jane Summers (no relation) on drums, a 17 year old saxophonist named Miranda Joyce and Stella Barker on rhythm guitar. As wide and varied as the group was, the one thing they had in common was that they could barely play their instruments. Of those who could just about manage a few notes they were either self-taught or were given the occasional lesson by boyfriends etc and for those who couldn’t play at all they just "learned to play as they went along".

Missing from the mix was a singer but that soon came in the form of civil servant Rhoda Dakar, who possessed a unique voice and who Summers had been introduced to by Shane McGowan (later of The Pogues) at a show in London. Dakar was born in London to an English mother and Jamaican father. Based on her Father's musical pedigree she was destined to be a singer. Her father first came to Europe to fight in the First World War with the British West Indian regiment. The soldiers in the regiment weren't allowed guns, but he was decorated for saving an ammunition dump. He returned to Europe in 1923 and lived in Belgium before moving to Paris during the 1930s. There he befriended Louis Armstrong and Josephine Baker and played music and sang. With the Second World War looming, he had to leave France for England, as he was a British citizen. Settling in London, he owned a few nightclubs in London's West End and that's where he met Dakar's mother.

According to the 2-Tone Info web site, the band decided on the name Bodysnatchers because they said "the music is body snatching" but deciding on what material to play was less straightforward. Although they had taken inspiration from The Specials and it was indeed their intention to play ska in its new 2 Tone form they found the pace of ska was too much for such an inexperienced group of ‘musicians’. Instead they opted for a slower style in the form of rocksteady. Now that the band had found a style of music within their somewhat limited capabilities they collected together a number of songs, which would give the band a set to play live. They choose some old reggae/ska songs to cover such as 'Monkey Spanner , 'OO7 'and a song, which was to become their first single, 'Let’s Do Rocksteady'. Also among their early set lists was a reggae version of 'London Bridge Is Falling Down'. Once they were confident enough they composed their first original song, 'The Boiler'.

The band got their first gig in November of 1979 at the Windsor Castle pub in London and at only their second gig were asked by The Selecter to support the band on their forthcoming tour. By the end of 1979 the nation was well and truly in the grip of 2-Tone fever and it wasn’t longer before the music press was suggesting that The Bodysnatchers would be the labels next signing. So with only a few months experience behind them they were indeed signed to the label. Their signing didn’t exactly meet with universal approval within the 2-Tone camp, with some voicing concern about what lay in future for such an inexperienced band. Here was a band that by their own admission were not competent musicians and they were about to jump under the media spotlight which was waiting patiently for the labels first failure.

The Dandy Livingstone song, Let’s Do Rocksteady, was the choice for the bands debut single. For the b-side the band selected an original composition, Ruder Than You and producer on both tracks was Roger Lomas who was working with Bad Manners at the time. While the band were on tour with The Selecter the single entered the charts at number 44 and peaked at number 16 which earned them an appearance on Top Of The Pops. With a single in the charts and the 2 Tone connection the band received moderate media coverage and made the occasional television appearance.

The band had signed a 2 single deal with 2 Tone and for the second release an original was selected, Easy Life, and this time a cover version would appear on the b-side. The track chosen was Winston Francis' Too Experienced and the resulting track stayed faithful to the original. Although the band were pleased with the single and it certainly deserved a higher position chart than it received (50), by this stage of 1980 2 Tone was beginning to loose its appeal with the record buying public.

The band soldiered on regardless and managed a short headlining tour of their own and picked up the support slot on the Toots and the Maytals tour but by October 1980 the band had played their last gig at Camden’s Music Machine in London. The band cited ‘musical differences’ for their decline with some wanting to take a more political stance while others wanted to follow a more pop orientated career.

After the band broke up, Rhoda went on to guest with The Specials, both live and on the "More Specials" record. She released "The Boiler" as a single in 1982. Credited to Rhoda & The Special AKA, the song was a haunting tale of date rape that was played regularly by John Peel, but ignored by daytime BBC. Despite the nature of the single, it still managed to reach number 35 in the charts which was a significant accomplishment. A later incarnation of Special AKA recorded the "In The Studio" album, from which came the acclaimed 1984 Top Ten single "Free Nelson Mandela" that really woke up the World to the problems occurring in South Africa at the time.

Since then she has performed with a variety of artists. More recently she has partnered with Nick Welsh (Bad Manners, The Selecter) and performed an acoustic set for the 3 Men + Black '25 years of 2 Tone' tour a few years back. Lately they are playing together regularly as an acoustic duo, or with Nick’s band, Skaville UK. Rhoda's first solo album 'Cleaning In Another Woman's Kitchen' was released in November 2007.

Rhoda was kind enough to take time to answer my interview questions. Enjoy!

What was it like growing up in London in the 60's and 70's? Did you grow up listening to ska and reggae music?
It was, what it was. I don't have anything to compare it with. I lived in a poor part of a huge city. London is an amazing place. The underground (tube) system means you can go far and wide and find your way round quite easily. It's something my son does now with his friends. So I explored. I didn't limit myself to my neighbourhood. Most of my friends lived out in Essex, over 15 miles away, but still on the tube network. In U.S. terms, it may not seem far. But the West End, the centre of the city, is only 3 or 4 miles away and Camden Town, with its famous markets, is 6 miles.

I grew up in Brixton, near the Ram Jam club, so I did hear ska, but only remember 'My Boy Lollipop'. There was music on the streets with lots of record shops blasting out tunes of various sorts. Where I lived I heard more 'High Life' - Nigerian pop music of the time. I'm still a big fan of that sound, but I hear more Zouk these days, from the francophone African countries. Then there was skinhead reggae, which I really liked, especially Desmond Dekker, and had a few singles. But I was only a little kid. Reggae was all around, out there, but I was into David Bowie, Roxy Music, Alice Cooper, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and the New York Dolls, whom I went to see when they played in London in November '73. Glam rock and disco, baby! I listened to Bob Marley, but I didn't really 'rediscover' reggae until Don Letts was good enough to share his collection at The Roxy, London's first punk club.

When did you discover that you could sing?
My dad had been a singer, so there was always singing of some sort in our house. I went to religious schools, so I sang hymns every day at school. I also did dance lessons and we performed to friends and family and in old people's clubs. So I sang all the time, but never thought I was anything special. The first time I had any sense of that, was when I auditioned at my youth theatre for the part of The Singer in The Caucasian Chalk Circle (Bertolt Brecht). Two of us shared the part, as Mike could also play guitar, and we performed at The Old Vic, which was fab.

Is it true that Nicky Summers saw you dancing at a Selecter show and asked if you could sing? What were the early Bodysnatchers rehearsals/shows like?
No. I had gone to see Sta-Prest, which my friend June Miles-Kingston's (Mo-dettes, Fun Boy 3, Communards) brothers, Bobby (Tenpole Tudor) and Ray, were in. I was chatting to Shane MacGowan and she asked him to introduce us. She did then ask me if I could sing and wanted to be in a band. The early rehearsals were enthusiastic. We weren't good, but unbelievably confident. My mate Paul Cook came down to try and help the drummer play reggae. It was very good of him, but I don't know how much difference it made. What really helped was playing every night on the second 2 Tone tour.

How soon after you joined The Bodysnatchers did you meet Gaz Mayall and start writing 'Let's Do Rocksteady'/'Ruder Than You' with him?
I knew Gaz from when he opened his stall in Kensington Market, long before The Bodysnatchers. He used to have loads of people round to his flat and play brilliant music, his collection was amazing. One day he said The Bodysnatchers needed an anthem, so we wrote 'Ruder Than You' and took it to the band.

What were your first live shows like? Can you share any unusual stories about touring with The Bodysnatchers or any shows that are particularly memorable?
Our first live shows were shambolic. Our only original song was 'The Boiler', strangely enough. But that seemed to convince Jerry and Pauline, who both showed up at our second gig. On tour with The Selecter, we were like school kids. We did apple pie beds and had water fights, it was very funny. We all had water pistols and soaked a journalist who's questions we didn't like. It was all very innocent.

Is it true that Jerry Dammers asked you to become a member of The Specials after The Bodysnatchers split and you were recording vocals with the band on the 'More Specials' LP?
No. I was never a member of The Specials. The vocals on 'More Specials' were done whilst I was still in The Bodysnatchers. I started doing shows with them by accident. I had gone to see them play and Jerry asked me to join them on stage. There was also a forgotten passport incident, when Horace had to fly to Amsterdam whilst everyone else went by ferry. Jerry phoned me and asked if I could meet Horace at the airport to come with him. I was sort of a permanent fixture after that.

What prompted you to write 'The Boiler' with The Bodysnatchers and what was it like to perform it live? What was it like to record the song with The Special AKA?
It came about because I was just talking over a riff in rehearsal. I didn't know about writing songs, but I knew how to improvise - I had originally wanted to act and had worked in the theatre on leaving school. Performing it live was acting, that's all. A friend had been raped a couple of years earlier and I suppose I was thinking of her at the time. Recording it was a very long and drawn out process. It was released a year after it was first recorded. I remember Jerry on the phone to the studio from New York organizing remixes.

(Below are two mixes of 'The Boiler'. The first is a live version performed by The Bodysnatchers at a show in Folkestowe in 1980. The second is the studio version recorded with The Special AKA. It was released as a single and only reached No.35 in the UK charts in 1982. It would have went further, but not surprisingly it suffered from a lack of airplay. Disc jockeys and radio stations were too scared to play this.)

What are your fondest memories of recording The Special AKA 'In The Studio' LP? Do you have a favorite song from the record?
The only thing approaching a fond memory was recording 'Mandela' with Elvis Costello. I'm a huge fan of his and could barely speak to him, I was so starstruck. He was talking about 'Almost Blue', his country album, saying it hadn't been a great success. I love that album and, gushing, told him it had turned me on to country music, but a friend had borrowed it and scratched it. The next day he brought me in a load of albums, including 'Almost Blue'. Once again, I was speechless. My favourite song is 'Night On The Tiles'. I am, of course, immensely proud of 'Mandela'.

Tell me about your solo record 'Cleaning In Another Woman's Kitchen'? What does the title refer to?
I've heard the title explained as everything from slavery to lesbian sex. I prefer the latter. You can make up your own mind. It's almost hard to remember what that felt like, as I've worked on three albums since then. Nick likes recording and he's very good at it - quick and painless. He suggested we go to a friend's studio and put down some of the old favourites we'd been playing acoustically. It went well, so we carried on, recording tracks we had written for the live show. Now we had an album. Just over half the tracks are new. My favourite is 'From Benny Bish To Toothless Anne', because it's about my teenage friends, most of whom are, amazingly, still with us. Nick and I were walking around Glasgow (?) airport when I was talking about them and he said their names were so funny I had to write a song about them. 'Ebb Away' is the best crafted song, I think. And from amongst the old, I like 'Money Worries', the Maytones track which featured in the Jamaican film 'Rockers'. It's a mash-up of styles really, from old ska, to 2 Tone ska, to country, well, Soho's version anyway!

Lately you have been performing with Nick Welsh in Skaville UK. What has the reaction been to the band and your acoustic performances alone with Nick?
Working with Nick is always fab. We have the same sense of humour (almost) and he's very funny. Musically we're into a lot of the same things, so I get all his references and vice versa. This is quite apparent on stage, the rapport really adds to the show. Everyone's known each other for years and worked with each other before, so it's easy. They're great musicians and the reaction has been brilliant. You can read some reviews on Skaville's Myspace.

The acoustic shows are very different. It's not a 'ska party', like Skaville. It's intimate, emotional and stripped bare. Someone said to me the other day, they hadn't ever realised what 'Easy Life' was about until they heard it acoustically. You can watch some videos on my Myspace. We have fun with it as well - humour plays a big part. The most important thing is we love doing it and that's transmitted to the audience.

We've almost finished recording our new album, 'Back To The Garage'. It's rock n roll, drawing inspiration from the garage sounds of the 60s, right through punk to the home recording of the 80s, all honed down and served up via our own musical experiences. We share vocal duties, so it's a little bit him, a little bit me. We'll play one or two of the tracks acoustically on forthcoming gigs, but I can't wait to get out with a band!

Can you tell me a bit about recording the track 'On The Town' with Madness for their new album? Rumor is that it may be the first single. Will you be performing with them at Madstock?
Chris rang me a couple of weeks before their Norton Folgate shows at Hackney Empire. He said Mike had a song to which he thought my voice would be suited and would I be up for having a go. So they sent me a demo and the lyrics to see what I thought. Various conversations followed and it was finally decided I would record the track and perform it at the shows in Hackney. That's what happened, except for the third show, when I was away with Skaville and a girl called Amber sang instead. I also appeared with them at the recent O2 gig in Greenwich, London, just before Christmas. As to whether it will be a single or not, I really couldn't say - you'd have to ask them. The version with me singing will be included in the box set, I'm told. Madstock is too far off to know what or who will be on!

Here is video of Rhoda performing the song 'On The Town' live with Madness

Finally, what's your take on The Specials reunion?
Good luck to them, I'm sure they'll enjoy it immensely! The songs are brilliant and they're great performers. The audience will be amazed, especially those who haven't seen them before.

Here is a BBC story on The Specials and racism in the UK narrated by Pauline Black that includes interview footage with Rhoda:

If you live in the UK, you can see Rhoda perform with the band Skaville UK as well as acoustic version of her own songs with Nick Welsh (from Skaville UK) on guitar. Visit her MySpaceweb site for more info.

Below is a live recording of The Bodysnatchers from a show they played in Folkestone in August of 1980 where they headlined and were supported by Arthur Kay & The Originals.

Here is the set list:

2.Monkey Spanner
3.Watch This
4.Mixed Feelings
5.Mule Jerk
6.Ruder Than You
8.A Little Bit of Soul
9.Happy Times Tune
10.Too Experienced

The Bodysnatchers Live - 8/30/80

Sunday, January 11, 2009

John Mostyn: The Booking Agent Who Set 2-Tone On Its Way & The Manager Behind The Rise Of The Beat

From Ruben Kincaid in the iconic 70's television show The Partridge Family to Mr White (played by Tom Hanks) in the movie "That Thing You Do" the band manager is often portrayed in popular culture as a calm, cool and collected businessman who is savvy and can handle every situation. In real life this is not always the case (see Lou Pearlman who managed the BackStreet Boys and N'Sync or Billy Joel's manager) and some unscrupulous managers have often ended up stealing from their clients. Regardless, the realities of the music business are harsh and unforgiving and without a trustworthy and experienced hand to help guide them, many worthy musical acts have floundered, failed and disappeared.

Such a steady hand was available to Midlands-based 2-Tone bands in 1978-79 in the guise of John Mostyn, a Birmingham-based music booking agent and promoter. Mostyn helped to light the spark that set off the 2-Tone explosion through a meeting with Jerry Dammers of The Specials. Dammers had approached Mostyn for help with selling the first pressing of 1,000 copies of "Gangsters". Mostyn did Dammers one better by booking The Specials and The Selecter on their first national tour of the UK which resulted in Chrysalis Records picking up the 2-Tone label for distribution. In November 1979, the 2-Tone Tour featuring The Specials, Madness - the first 2-Tone signing - and The Selecter kicked off. All three appeared on Top Of The Pops on the same night during that tour and all three had records in the Top 30. 2-Tone became a household name overnight. In many ways, Mostyn was the final piece in the puzzle that set 2-Tone on its course. Based on his connection with Dammers, Mostyn was approached by The Beat to help manage them and guide them toward signing a contract with Arista Records and the release of their first single "Tears Of A Clown" which also shot up the charts. He stayed on as their manager in offices in the Handsworth section of Birmingham through the release of their second LP "Whappen".

How important was Mostyn to the success of The Beat? Ranking Roger recently took part in a speakers series in Birmingham for people interested in the creative arts and related the importance of having Mostyn as a manager to their success. In the beginning, The Beat were attracting a lot of attention from the big record labels who saw the band’s innovative sound as having great potential for commercial success. It was around this time that the band met Mostyn, a person who Roger cited as being one of the most honest people that he has ever encountered. Roger related that Mostyn ardently looked out for the interests of The Beat ensuring that they didn’t get ripped off by the industry’s big boys. This is something for which Roger says he will always be grateful. He believes that The Beat were blessed with the protection and experience that Mostyn had to offer, and firmly believes that The Beat would not have achieved worldwide success without appropriate advice and representation from the outset.

Mostyn's career with The Beat was just the beginning. He was approached by Andy Cox and David Steele of The Beat in 1985 to help manage their new band Fine Young Cannibals who at that time had been turned down by every record label. Via a strategy of a few carefully selected shows and a TV appearance on "The Tube", the band was inundated with offers and signed to London Records. Their first album released in 1985 sold one million copies and their second, released in 1989 sold more copies than any other recording artist in the world that year. Mostyn has also managed The Chameleons, Inner City, The Wonderstuff, Ocean Colour Scene and Alison Moyet.

Mostyn remains a force within the Birmingham arts and music community. In the early nineties Mostyn heard of the proposed demolition of Digbeth Civic Hall and raised the funds from Richard Branson’s private company ‘Voyager’ to turn it into the venue/night club that it is today. When Nelson Mandela visited Birmingham and the City Council needed someone to organise a welcoming concert for him in Symphony Hall at 14 days notice it was John and his team that came to the rescue when other major promoters had said that it couldn’t be done. Mostyn now works with Three Ones Music Ltd which is setting up a new record label and ‘Music of Distinction’ the first contemporary live music agency to operate in the city for decades.

For more information on Mostyn, you can visit his blog.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Exclusive: Interview with Nik Akrylyk About His Days Playing in Hull's Very Own 2-Tone Era Ska Band The Akrylykz

One of the goals of this blog is to draw attention to all the bands and musicians who contributed to the entire output of 2-Tone era music in the UK, US and Canada. 2-Tone was not just a record label, but a philosophy, a world view and a movement. While I love and respect each and every 'traditional' 2-Tone band, there are two bands who fell outside the 2-Tone scene that I have special affection for. One is The Ammonites from Brighton. Their song 'Blue Lagoon' is on par with any of the best music from the 2-Tone era. I was heartened to learn that they had decided to reform and will be playing their first show in nearly 30 years later this month in Hove. The other is The Akrylykz who hailed from Hull, which I have learned is about as far off the beaten path as a city in the UK can be. It was in this city in 1978 that five students attending Hull College of Art and one local lad came together to start a band who had tremendous potential, plenty of ambition, a striking looking and sounding front man and good songs, but who never quite got the breaks, attention or recognition they deserved.

I learned about The Akrylykz around the time that Fine Young Cannibals released their first album in the UK in the mid 80's (I was attending a semester abroad at Essex University in Colchester). I read the UK music press stories with great interest as they explained how Andy Cox and David Steele had tracked Roland Gift down in Hull where he had played in a ska band that had supported The Beat. This bit of news left me intrigued. Later, back home in the U.S., I came across the band's 7" single 'JD' in a used record store and purchased it. I loved hearing Gift's voice on top of great 2-Tone ska and it opened my ears to the fact that there was more great music to discover and listen to beyond The Specials, The Selecter, Madness, The Beat , Steel Pulse, UB40 and Bad Manners.
I recently contacted Nik Akrylyk, who was the band guitarist and co-founder (the rest of the band included: Roland Gift (vox, tenor sax), Steve Pears (vox, tenor sax), Stevie “B” Robottom, (vox, alto sax, keys), Piotr Swiderski (drums) and Michael "Fred" Reynolds (bass)). Nik agreed to conduct an interview with me. In addition to the full interview, I've also included the excellent history of the band that Nik has shared on the band's MySpace web site. The band history plus Nik's very thorough and detailed answers to my interview questions should shed light on this overlooked band.

According to Nik, The Akrylykz formed at Hull College of Art in the fall of 1978 when as a first-year Fine Art student, he was introduced to bassist Fred Reynold’s by Reynold's girlfriend who had previously studied with him in Derby. Both of them had eclectic tastes and had worked in a variety of bands playing various styles including jazz, funk, reggae, and rock; and these were exciting times for the British music scene, as the punk tsunami left a wide open wasteland in its wake. The initial idea was to play punky reggae and new-wave, and on early gigs the band flipped, Clash-like, between rock and reggae songs.

Because the band initially consisted of art students, they originally adopted the name The Acrylic Victims, as a reference to the acrylic paint use in the art school. Later, during a serious session of Polish vodka tasting (thanks to drummer Swiderski’s relatives in Poland) this got changed to the Akrylyk Vyktymz, but soon, in an act of mercy to the growing fan base, this was abbreviated to simply the Akrylykz.

In the local watering hole where the art students recuperated after a hard day slaving over canvas, clay, and crayons, there drank a local lad with dark skin and bleached blond hair with red and green stripes dyed like a rainbow above his left ear. People mockingly called him Guinness, but his real name was Roland Gift, and he was said to play the saxophone. He certainly had character and presence, and he was invited to join the band, and with that the Akrylykz began to expand out of the art school scene. In time Gift took over the front-man duties and the band’s two original singers, the two Steve's - Pears and Robottom (AKA Steve B), concentrated on other things. Pears, who had joined the band as a singer, picked up the tenor sax and proved to be natural born horn blower.

Gift’s father lived in Birmingham and after a trip to visit him one weekend in early ‘79, Roland told the band about a new movement that was beginning to rock the West Midlands: 2-Tone Ska! It was exactly the vibe Nik and Reynolds had been thinking of; the uplifting feel of reggae with the power and excitement of punk. Inspired by this the band’s songs were quickly re-arranged with the reggae songs played double time and the rock songs shifted to the off-beat.

By mid ’79 the band had built up a strong following in Yorkshire and were getting some seriously big gigs supporting the likes of the Specials, the Beat, UB40, the Clash, Bad Manners, Madness, etc. The York based record shop and record company Red Rhino Records took the Akrylykz into the studio and released the products of that session as a double A side 45, 'Spyderman/Smart Boy', on their Double R label. This was later picked up and re-released by Polydor, and a second single on Polydor, 'J.D.' backed with the band’s signature tune, 'Ska’d for Life', was released in 1980. The 'J.D.' session was recorded at Chalk Farm Studios and was engineered by Vic Keary who owned the Trojan Records back-catalogue. That same year the band also recorded five songs with Desmond Dekker for his Stiff Records release Black and Dekker (a title suggested by Nik).

In ’81 the band split because of management (or lack of it) problems and musical differences; Gift had been writing more material and was moving towards Soul but Nik, who had been the main song-writer, was leaning towards Dub. Gift went on to form the Fine Young Cannibals with members of the Beat. Nik set up an independent record company, Vital Records, which released a number of records by local Hull and Humberside bands. The other members of the band went back to their art school studies.

Below is Nik's interview with me. He was kind enough to take quite a bit of time to answer my questions in great detail and provide readers with a thorough and detailed overview of his memories of playing in the band. Enjoy!

What was it like living in Hull and attending art college there in the late 70's?
Hull was a strange place in the 70s and early 80s, not only was it still tying to rebuild from the ravages of WWII during which it had been devastated by the Luftwaffe, but it was also trying to come to terms with the new realities of a moribund fishing fleet (due to falling fish stocks, competition from Russian “factory fleets” and high oil prices) and fewer cargo ships docking because Hull’s docks lacked the deep water facilities to deal with the trend towards containerization. Also, in a sense Hull had always been isolated from rest of the country, because being tucked into a corner on the Humber estuary no one ever passed through, you either went there for a specific reason of you went nowhere near it. Look on a map of the UK, Hull is about half way up the country near the East coast where the river Humber makes a big gash into the land-mass. As a result of this accident of geography Hull is very insular and dare I say it, inbred.

All in all, at that time Hull had the air of a depressed post-industrial city in decline, but unlike many other British cities struggling to recover from the trauma of the war and post-war hardships it didn’t seem to be receiving any treatment for its depression. London, Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester and Sheffield had seen, and been reinvigorated by the swinging 60s and the hard-rocking and punky 70s. Hull, by comparison, was catatonic and barely bothering to breathe. There was very little night life in the city, and what there was tended to be uninteresting and mainstream – i.e. pop/disco nightclubs. That was the environment the Akrylykz found themselves in; a dull, depressed, comatose, bomb-site with docks full of rusting hulks of forgotten fishing fleets, and the kids of unemployed dockers and trawlermen drinking to excess in the pop discos and working men’s clubs before throwing up their guts in the streets after bloody brawls. Hull night-life was not high culture.

Hull Art College had not been my choice of college, I had wanted to go to Exeter or Falmouth down on the South Coast, but had failed to get a place there. Hull however, had a policy of taking the rejects from the popular (and conservative) art schools because they believed they got a more radical intake that way. It was a good policy I believe, there were some great artists in the college, and it was a pretty good place to be – despite the general mood of doom and gloom in the city.

It should be noted however, that not everything about Hull is dark and gloomy, the town has a great history and one of the leading universities in the country. The feather in the city’s cap is, of course, that William Wilberforce the champion of Abolition of the Slave Trade came from there and represented the city in parliament.

When did you decide to start playing music? Was there a defining moment when you decided to play ska?
My first experience of playing music was learning piano at age six, I kept this up until I was allowed, after much complaining, to switch to guitar when I was 13 – piano was too ‘uncool’. At that time, I was just wanted to play blues based rock and pop, and formed my first band at school when I was 14. From very early on I wanted to play music for a living, and that was why I went to art college. That might sound illogical but back in those days music colleges only taught classical music and I wasn’t digging that… art school was the place to meet other creative musicians.

To be honest the first time I consciously played ska was in the Akrylykz, before then I admit that in my naivety I didn’t distinguish between reggae, rocksteady and ska/bluebeat, and saw them all as variations of reggae. Although I had been aware of, and liked early ska songs that charted in the UK (Millie Small’s My Boy Lollipop, Desmond Dekker’s Israelites, 007 Shanty Town and It Mek etc.) it wasn’t until Ken Boothe charted with Everything I Own that I fell in love with reggae and came to see Jamaican music as something significantly different from American rhythm and blues or soul. At the same time I was discovering reggae I was also discovering funk and jazz, and as my mother was a jazz fan I had a head start with that. By the time I was 16 and leaving high school to go to my first art college I was playing fretless and slap-n-pop bass in a jazz fusion band, and tinkering with reggae on the side. But that was in a world before punk…

What was the genesis of The Akrylykz? Who was in the band with you and how did you all meet? What were your initial influences?
When I left school in June 1976 I enrolled on a pre-degree arts foundation course in Derby (in the Midlands), being only 16, I had to do two years on the course while everyone else (who were 18 and above) only did one year. Another student on the course during my first at Derby was a girl called Vicky, she finished at the end of my first year and went off to another college, but another year later when I started at Hull she was there on the course along with her boyfriend Fred Reynolds, who was also a musician. So from pretty much day-one on the course at Hull Fred and I discussed forming a band, we both played bass and guitar and both had eclectic taste having both played jazz, reggae, funk and punk. (It’s interesting to look back with 20/20 hindsight and compare the British and American scenes, in the UK punk vitalised everything, including the jazz scene whereas in the US the jazz scene continued on its merry way towards the banalities of Spiro Gyra and Kenny G’s bland smooth jazz mush.) Though Fred and I both loved jazz and funk, we felt that the zeitgeist called more for reggae and punk, or new-wave as it was by then.

I’ll admit that when punk first hit the UK scene in 1976, I hated it, the fusion band I was playing in at the time was working with such complicated structures, harmonies and time-signatures that I just couldn’t relate to it. And actually, in the summer of 76 when the Sex Pistols were tearing up the rule book I was off at a jazz summer school with some of the top names on the British jazz scene. But by 1977 I was beginning to mellow and warm to the notions of “no rules, no limits” and the DIY ethic which were characteristic of punk. This was partly because I had started listening to free-jazz and despite finding it almost totally inaccessible it triggered a yearning in me to find a purer means of expression free of the straight-jacket of the “jazz” label. Another reason was that the initial thrash of punk had died down and a more creative and nuanced “new-wave” started to come through. And finally, what really did it was dance, once upon a time jazz had been dance music, but what we had been doing in the fusion band was anti-dance, on the surface our songs sounded funky and danceable, but shifting metres and odd line lengths meant anyone actually trying to dance to them became confused and soon gave up. The fact that we did this deliberately was quite perverse. This recognition of the importance of dance was to be an important factor in my development towards reggae, and the Akrylykz move to ska.

Although I had built up a reputation as a hot bassist back in my home town, I was keen to get back to guitar and Fred was happy to play bass, so that was settled. We now had to see who else was available and as we weren’t setting our sight very high the art college was our primary recruitment pool. The two Steve's came aboard first, Steve Pears as lead vocalist (he sings lead on Don’t Stumble Into Love on the MySpace page), he was a big Bruce Springstein fan, Steve Washington on alto sax, keyboards, and vocals (sings vocals on Smart Boy) he was a big Elvis Costello fan. Finding a drummer was a problem (isn’t it always) but in the end we found Piotr Swiderski in the sculpture department who built sculptures out of old railway sleepers (railroad ties), he was a Ramones fans but unfortunately, though being an excellent time keeper, he was limited style-wise. He was great on the punk stuff but found the syncopation needed for reggae very difficult.

We did a number of gigs for art college and private parties with this line up, but eventually we met Roland Gift in a pub called the Polar Bear where we all drank in the evenings, he played tenor sax. In truth he wasn’t a very good sax player, but he had charisma and stage presence by the bucket load, and being a local Hull native he connected us to the local community in a way that would have taken years otherwise. Thanks to Roland’s presence we started getting gigs outside the art school and student scenes in local pubs and clubs, and through this we were able to build up a strong local following and get gigs supporting major bands when they came to town. This in turn led to invitations to play outside the area, including in London.

You played the guitar in the band right? Were you self taught? What were the first songs that you wrote?
Yes, I was the guitarist, main songwriter and arranger, and band leader. When I first started playing guitar I was taught classical and flamenco guitar by a guy who worked for my father. That wasn’t working, so I struck out on my own, since then most of what I’ve learned on guitar has been through self-study with the occasion professional lesson here and there. Though I have had professional lessons in advanced music theory and composition, for which I now have a diploma.

The very first song I wrote was a minor key folky ballad sort of in the vein of Peter Starstedt’s 'Where Do You Go To My Lovely', when I was about 14 and in transition from classic guitar to rock and still greatly influenced by general pop music. At school I had a band which played mostly original material, a lot of it instrumental, then in the jazz fusion band I was writing really complicated modal stuff in odd time signatures like 11/8 and 7/4. The first song (or tune) that I wrote specifically as a ska number was Ska’d For Life which we played as the opening number for all Akrylykz gigs, and often for an encore too.

The band formed slightly ahead of the other 2-Tone bands in the Midlands and London. What prompted the mix of punk and reggae initially and what brought you to ska?
Fred and I formed the Akrylykz in the fall of ’78, so yeah, I guess we did precede some of the 2-Tone ska bands. However, the Specials (or the Coventry Automatics as they were initially called) would certainly have been working before then, but we didn’t know anything about them at the time. Also according to most biographies Madness and Bad Manners both formed in London in 1976 – though I’m not convinced this is totally accurate, at least as far as them playing ska is concerned. The Beat formed around the same time as us, but we definitely predated the Selecter, the Bodysnatchers and the Go-Go’s.

The Clash were a big influence, I suppose, particularly the single White Man in Hammersmith Palais, even though I personally wasn’t a big Clash fan (though I did buy the album London Calling). They showed that punk and reggae could be played on the same stage and even mixed up together. Mind you, Bob Marley had already included a rock guitar sound in his music from the early mid 70s – Al Anderson played some great fuzz-guitar solos for Marley. While Anderson’s solos were more in a heavy rock style that punks usually balked at, they did suggest rock and reggae mixed. The punky-reggae mix I preferred was more the avant-garde stuff like early Scritti-Politti’s Skank Bloc Bologna, which while very rough, unpolished and technically questionable, had lots of potential and linked with the dissonant free-jazz and British jazz-rock bands like Soft Machine I was familiar with.

The thing that got us into the ska movement was, I guess, Gangsters by the Specials. If I remember correctly, Roland brought a copy of Gangsters back with him from a visit to Birmingham to see his dad, this really clicked with us as it was still punky but was more like rocked-up reggae than reggae’d rock. As I said earlier, I was still learning about reggae; I was into Marley, Tosh, Culture and dub, but I saw ska and rocksteady as simply being old or early reggae and saw no reason to label it as a distinct style – as someone today might look at Kraftwork and Tangerine Dream simply as early ambient techno.

Was there a ska scene in Hull when the band first started? Who did you play shows with? Where did you play shows?
There was no ska, or reggae, scene in Hull when we started, nor did we create one, there was a small but pretty lively punk and new-wave scene. And that was really where we found our niche, ska and reggae just set us apart from the mob, but it was among the punks and students that found our following.

Despite the city’s size there weren’t many places to pay in Hull, one of the few venues where we played regularly was a place that had previously been a working men’s club and was called the Wellington Club, or as everyone referred to it, simply the Welly club. The Welly had a punk/new-wave nights on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights in its upstairs ‘lounge’ bar, and could hold around 600 in the downstairs bar where the main stage was. Most of our early gigs were upstairs at the Welly, but our first break came when we supported the Specials on the main stage downstairs. Later we headlined before a packed house on this same main stage.

Other places we played in Hull at that time were the University Students Union, which could hold a couple of thousand head, and the Hull Truck Theatre company theatre, a smaller venue but with a good stage and a top rate lighting rig. We supported the Beat and UB40 at the Uni, and headlined at both the Uni and Hull Truck. The only other place to play really was the Spring Bank Community Centre, where did a number of Rock Against Racism charity gigs. The community centre gigs were low budget, but good fun and meaningful.

The biggest gig we did to a hometown crowd was at the Pavilion in Bridlington supporting the Clash. Bridlington is a holiday resort town 20 or 30 miles up the coast from Hull, so although it was beyond the Hull city limits, a large proportion of the crowd would have been from Hull. After supporting the Specials, the Beat, and the Clash we started the usual touring routine, with gigs in London, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Cardiff, Leeds – basically all around the country, and I can’t even remember them now, they become just a blur after a while except when something notable happen.

Who was the main songwriter for the band and tell me how you approached the song writing process? Who wrote 'JD', 'Spyderman', 'Smart Boy' and 'Ska’d for Life'?
The main songwriter? That’d be me. I wrote the music for Ska’d for Life (instrumental), Smart Boy and Spyderman, Steve Washington wrote the lyrics for Smart Boy, and Roland wrote the lyrics for Spyderman. Roland wrote both the lyrics and the music for J.D., though he did acknowledge that he borrowed both the tune and some of the lyrics from Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers’ 'I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent'. Although I have no evidence for it, I suspect that this “borrowing” may have had something to do with Polydor’s reluctance to do anything with that single – not that another legal controversy would have made any difference to Frankie Lymon’s troubled estate.

At that time the usual way we wrote songs was that I would come up with a riff, a hook and a chord sequence (and sometimes a verse or a chorus of lyrics too) and play it to the band, one of the singers would then take it and write some words. If the band liked it, it went in the set. If they didn’t, it got rewritten or consigned to the dustbin (or if I still liked it, it went into my archive to be reworked at a later date). Unfortunately not all our songs got recorded or written down, and there is at least one, another instrumental I wrote need the end of the band’s life when we were much more accomplished musically, that I regret not keeping any sort of copy on. Oh well.

In time Roland found his voice and started to bring more songs to rehearsals after working them out with Fred the bassist, but he was beginning to move towards the soul sound that he later developed with the Fine Young Cannibals and that started to cause friction, with me particularly. This was primarily because I saw the Akrylykz as my band, and I wasn’t particularly interested in playing soul. Not that I have anything against soul music, on the contrary I love it, but it wasn’t what I wanted to play. Fred and the two Steves also brought ideas to the table from time to time, and there was at least one song in our set written by Steve Pears and Fred.

What were your first live shows the band played like and what was the UK ska scene of the late 70's and early 80's like?
Oh, the first shows were probably quite messy, I don’t really remember, but when we started it was just for fun and the creative exercise, so there was no real sense of needing to be professional, after all we knew pretty much everyone in the audience. Once we started playing outside the art school scene I guess we had to wise up, and raise our game. Then things started getting serious. But they were great times, and as a musician I much preferred the ska scene to the punk scene, while punk had been a adrenaline shot for the music scene as a whole it left a lot to be desired in terms of musicianship. Despite the energy of punk, as a jazzer the incessant downbeat thrash was both limiting and boring, new-wave offered a glimmer of hope for rock music but what I really needed was syncopation. Ska was ideal for me at that time, it had the energy of punk, but the syncopation and harmonic options of the jazz, funk and reggae I loved. In other words, we could play high-energy music without dumbing down the musicianship (personal limitations aside). Listen to some of the musicianship on the 2-Tone ska scene in comparison to the punk era: to my mind two of the best were Fred our bassist (listen to his basslines, pure sweetness!) and Brad the Specials’ drummer (absolute genius, one of the most underrated British drummers of all time but a joy to watch live). And in ska we could have horn sections, and as a jazzer that was important for me, what punk band had a horn section? :-) OK, there were the Rumour and the Blockheads, but they were both post-punk.

Of course the other important factor in the ska scene was the emphasis on racial harmony, punk was important to blow away the cobwebs of the old school rock and roll scene, but ska was important way beyond the simple hedonism of the music business; ska set the scene for a better world of racial integration. Those of us who were in our late teens and early twenties at the time are now coming up to being 50, young people who were rocking against racism back then have raised their own children to reject racism and look beyond a person’s skin colour. I’d like to think that we who were involved in the whole 2-Tone thing, can hold our heads up and say; we changed the world, we set the scene for better social integration of the races. True, not everyone got the message, but we played our part the best we could.

You opened for The Specials, The Beat, UB40, The Clash, Bodysnatchers and The Go-Go's right? Can you share any unusual stories about touring with the band or any shows that are particularly memorable?
We opened for the Specials, the Beat, UB40 and the Clash. The Bodysnatchers, hmmm, perhaps but I’m not sure, and the Go-Go’s no, I’m pretty sure we never supported them.

Oh, it’s a long time ago, memories get hazy you know… but, my overriding memory of the Clash was they were not very nice people, very arrogant and cold. Aloof. They totally snubbed us. Roland may have got a word or two out of them, but the rest of us they completely blanked. To them we were just another unknown band in some forgotten backwater, but considering their branding was as a left-wing “band of the people” we expected more. Just proves ‘expectation is the mother of disappointment’.

The Specials and The Beat on the other hand were very friendly, and we got along with The Beat particularly well (which is how Roland ended up forming the Fine Young Cannibals with their guitarist and bassist a few years later). The Beat wanted us to do a national tour with them, and we were certainly up for it, but back then tours were considered a loss-leader, i.e. you expected to lose money on a tour, but you did them anyway to promote record sales. These economic conditions meant that management companies, tour promoters and record companies were always willing to take on support groups with record company sponsorship to off-set touring costs. Unfortunately some other band came along with the finance to buy their way onto the tour, and despite The Beat wanting us to play, their management company prevailed upon them to accept the financial realities of touring and take the other band. I can’t even remember the other band’s name now, but they weren’t a ska band, just another faceless mod band clone of The Jam. We did still get to do three dates in Scotland with them, but that was it on that tour.

We did a big gig in Birmingham with The Beat in an absolutely massive auditorium. Almost certainly the biggest crowd we played to, I don’t remember how many people where there but it was big. After that gig we were in Birmingham city centre and some of the guys were hungry and went to get fish and chips, I wasn’t hungry so I sat in the van with the roadie and waited. Suddenly Roland dived into the back of the van holding his stomach, and was quickly followed rest of the guys supporting Simon our manager nursing a bloody head. As they were walking to the chip shop, a white van had pulled up along side them and a gang of youths had jumped out with what the band thought were rolled up posters, but were in fact pick-axe handles and baseball bats wrapped in newspaper. Rather than being fans wanting autographs as the band supposed, they were thugs who started beating them up. We spent a few hours at the local hospital getting Simon’s head stitched up, but he never really recovered from the trauma and not long afterwards had a nervous breakdown, which in turn initiated the implosion of the band.

There was always a threat of violence in the post-punk era, particularly because of the British National Party and other right wing fascist groups had high-jacked the skin-head image, including the skin-head allegence to ska. Which is which contradictory, the early skin-head movement of the 60s had grown out of the Mod culture and was mostly black-friendly, indeed you’ll find many black ska musicians of the 60s recalling how the skin-heads would protect them from racial abuse in the UK. One of our first London gigs was with Madness and Bad Manners at the Electric Ballroom in Camden. Madness opened, we played second on the bill, and Bad Manners headlined (I like to boast that Madness supported us that night!). The audience were 90% skin-heads, and Madness and Bad Manners had a lot of skinhead fans, so Roland was probably the only black guy in the place… he got a LOT of racial abuse that night. It was scary. As a Jew I’ve had my share of racial abuse, but that was on a different level, Roland handled the crowd really well but he was shaken, the whole thing was pretty scary.

A better memory was a chance meeting with The Beat in an empty motorway service station at three or four in the morning, they on their way south back to Birmingham after a gig up north, us on our way back north to Hull after a gig in London. An accidental breakfast with friends in the middle of nowhere can only happen when you’re a gigging band on the road.

Tell me about how you met Tony K and signed to Red Rhino Records?
Tony K and Adrian Collins from Red Rhino came to the Specials gig at the Welly Club in Hull (see above) and approached us after the gig. It’s all bit hazy these days, so I don’t remember whether they had heard of us before that gig or not. It could be that they just came to see the Specials and were impressed enough with us to want to sign us, on the other hand I know that Adrian Collins, the number two at Red Rhino, had connections with a guy called Ken Giles who ran a sound rig we frequently hired, so maybe Ken told them about us. We were only the second band to record for their label (the Mekons were the first), as they had only just set it up as an extension of their record shop in York.

Since the dawning of the Internet Age, I had been trying to locate Tony K, particularly since I heard Red Rhino went bust in 1989, but was unable to find him until early last year. Sadly it was too late as he was already seriously ill by then; he passed away in May 08. He got a very good obituary in a national UK newspaper.

Your single 'Spyderman' reached #17 in the pop charts in 1980. What was it like to have a song in the charts?
17? I wish! No, as far as the official UK chart was concerned we didn’t get into the top 40, but all the music papers of the time had their own indie and alternative charts and we got to number one in a couple of those. Which was good, but it would have been nice to get into the real charts.

You signed with Polydor Records but only released two singles. I noticed a few unreleased tracks on your MySpace site. Was an album in the works?
Sadly, no. We certainly had enough material for an album and we didn’t do cover versions (although JD might count I suppose), only original material, so it was a shame we never got to do an album. The unreleased tracks on the site are from demos we recorded at our own expense in a small studio in Hull. When the band finally fell apart we had been recording in a studio near Bath in South West England (Fred the bassist’s home town), which was being funded by our manager who had supposedly recovered from his breakdown. Unfortunately, it turned out that he had completely flipped, after we had already started recording it turned out he didn’t have the money to pay and we had to do a runner from both the hotel where we were staying and the studio. Needless to say, the studio kept the tapes, although I believe the manager did eventually pay them, but by then the band had split and none of us were willing to have anything to do with him or buy the tapes from him, and anyway they were unfinished. If I remember rightly, that was probably the best work we had done (though mostly Roland’s new soul focused songs) and it was certainly the best studio we had ever used – it was one Peter Gabriel had used to record some his early solo stuff before he built his own studio. But there was a lot of friction in the band by then – mostly between me and Roland, and a lot of worry about our manager’s irrational behaviour.

How did the band meet and work with Desmond Dekker on his 1980 comeback album 'Black and Dekker' for Stiff Records? What was it like to work with Dekker?
Now that was a great session, but I have to admit I’m unsure about how we got invited to be on it. It may have come through Red Rhino or through Polydor, but equally, it may have come through a different channel completely. My memory is that we were invited rather than anyone having to pitch for it on our behalf. The album was for Stiff, so I think they wanted to get one of the new-wave ska bands involved and Madness (who were signed to Stiff) were probably too busy by then.

The first time we met Desmond was in the studio for that session. He was a great singer, and for me the best bit was his improvisations at the end of the songs, none of which ever got to be on the released recordings. We recorded about 15 tracks with him (only five of which made it on to the record including 'Israelites', 'It Mek', 'Many Rivers To Cross', 'Work Out' and 'Pickney Gal'), and nearly all of them were extended jams lasting about 10 to 15 minutes. After the three minute song lyrics had been sung he would let rip with scatting and stuff until we all ran out of steam, great fun and a great experience. He had so much more talent than was ever displayed on his singles, he truly was an impressive singer.

Other points of interest on that session was that we recorded at Chalk Farm Studios which was owned by Vic Keary who at that time owned the Trojan Records back catalogue, he also engineered the sessions. Desmond’s brother George who played in the Pioneers also sat in and played piano on our sessions. Chalk Farm Studios was a tiny cramped place, yet managed to squeeze the six of us plus George and Desmond in to record live. At the same time we were recording with Desmond, the Beat were recording their second album, Wha’ppen, across the road at the Roundhouse Studios, a very plush facility with deep pile carpets and lots of polished wood and chrome fittings around the place. The management there were not happy that the Beat kept inviting dirty urchins like us to into the building, ha! Screw ‘em!

I was the one who came up with title Black and Dekker for the album.

Why didn't the band appear on TOTP with Dekker when he performed 'Israelites'? Quite simply, no one asked us to. Desmond mimed anyway (as was usually the case on Top of the Pops), so we would only have been miming too. Few people had much respect for that show, the show we would have liked to have got on was the Old Grey Whistle Test, which was a more serious music program. TOTP was good for exposure to the teenyboppers, but it was on the OGWT where you got credibility.

How and why did the band come to an end in 1981?
It was time I guess, we had our chance and bombed; we were all a bit down after Polydor ditched us, and then the mess with the manager and his nervous breakdown was the final straw. He wasn’t even a professional in the music business, he was like us, just a student who decided to give it a go. If we’d had proper management with business knowledge and industry contacts they might have been able to hold the band together by finding other solutions, and offering us hope, because being dumped by a record company is pretty difficult thing to get over. It’s like being laid-off from a job only more personal because they seem to be saying “your creativity sucks” but in reality they’re saying our returns aren’t big enough in a limited time span.

There were other problems too, like musical direction – as I said before, Roland wanted to move towards soul (which he did with the Fine Young Cannibals) and I wanted to move towards dub and jazz, which I did. Then there was issues of musical ability, Fred was a brilliant bassist, Roland turned out to be a great singer (he worked hard on it to achieve his success), Steve Pears who joined the band as lead singer turned out to be a natural saxophonist, Stevie B and I were competent, but Piotr unfortunately, was severely limited as a drummer. If we’d carried on, we would have had to dump him, and none of us could bring ourselves to do it.

We did have the chance to replace him; after the first couple of days of recording on the Desmond Dekker sessions, he was back in Hull and in the pub with his girlfriend one day when a mirror behind them fell off the wall. He put his hand up to protect himself and his girlfriend and the mirror smashed, sending a shard of glass through his hand. The glass cut some tendons in his hand and he was out of action for about three months. He was therefore unable to continue the Dekker sessions, which ironically was lucky as they were going to send him home anyway because he wasn’t up to the job. Lol Gellor the producer on the Dekker sessions played drums for the remaining tracks we played on. Had we taken advantage of the situation and replaced Piotr we may have saved the band, but the guy was suffering enough already and as we didn’t have any gigs lined up, we had no excuse.

Are you still in touch with any of your old band mates from The Akrylykz?
No, not directly, I did keep in touch with Steve Pears for a while after the band split and used him for sax for a jazz-reggae project a couple of years later, but then I moved to London and lost touch with him. Roland and I were not exactly on speaking terms when the band split, and I never saw Fred again (though I did bump into his girlfriend – who originally introduced us – a couple of times in London, as she lived in the same area as me and was neighbours with some friends of mine).

Stevie B’s brother recently contacted me through the MySpace page and he is still friends with Roland, so I suppose I am almost in contact again with Roland and Stevie B, but I’m not going to push it unless they make it clear they want to be in touch, it is, after all, nearly 30 years ago now. That’s a long time.

Are you still involved in music?
Oh yes. Music is what I exist for!

After the Akrylykz split I set up my own label, Vital Records, and released a number of records under my own name and with other bands, but mostly I produced. The biggest project we did with that label was an album of local Hull bands who had played at the Welly Club, the record was called Mrs. Wilson’s Children after the old woman who owned the club.

In time I formed a new band, called Bushfire, playing jazz-reggae fusion. This band was formed with students from Hull University, but the first line-up of Bushfire ended when our pianist, a genius jazz pianist, was deported back to Swaziland. Unfortunately we never got that line up into the studio, which was a shame because it was one the best bands I ever worked with. The next version of that band was also very interesting but not as jazzy because we lacked personnel with good jazz skills.

Jazz-reggae fusion has been my staple ever since. Though nowadays I call it jazz-dub, as the reggae elements are not always explicit, but the dub aesthetics tend to make an appearance even when I write avant-garde jazz or fusion. I don’t gig very often these days because of my health, but I continue to compose and was in the studio just before Xmas working on some demos and should be back in the studio again in February to record an album.

The ska style that I loved the most was that jazzy instrumental Skatalites groove (of course they were all jazz musicians at heart you know; as Monty Alexander once told me “those guys, they just wanted to play bebop all day, but the studios dem pay fi ska.”), and so I do find myself composing the occasional jazzy ska track from time to time. After 30 odd years, it’s become coded in my DNA.

Below is a short clip of 'Spyderman'

Here is video of Desmond Dekker performing "Israelites" on the BBC's Top of the Pops in 1980 to a backing track by the Akrylykz (who didn't get to be on telly!).

Fi nally, here is a dowload of 'Smart Boy/Spyderman' 7" that was released on Red Rhino Records:

The Akrylykz - Smart Boy/Spyderman

Nik has also posted six songs on the band's MySpace page including three that were never released.