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


Anonymous said...

Just an FYI, "Too Experienced" was written and originally performed by Bob Andy, one of the greatest Jamaican songwriters.

Andrew Martin said...

thanks for all the information on rhoda and the bodysnatchers. i am flipping out over the MP3 of the live gig.

Wilthomer said...

Cool interview! Back in the day (early 80's) I had a mad crush on Rhoda, it was interesting to hear the early" version of "The Boiler" as well.

Anthony J. Langford said...

Great interview - very informative. Cheers.