The single “Rat Race” was a top 5 hit for The Specials in May, 1980. It’s a great tune and I’ve always loved the lyric: “I’ve seen your qualifications, you’ve got a Ph.D. - I’ve got one art O level, it did nothing for me.” Last month I went to Coventry for the first time to give a lecture at the art students there. I was pleased to see that there is now a plaque over the entrance to the college informing visitors that it was at this building that Roddy Byers was inspired to write Rat Race.
In “Ska’d For Life” by Horace Panter (www.panmacmillan.com) The Specials bass player sheds a bit more light on how Roddy's track came about…
“Rod had not exactly shone at school and had spent evenings down the Lanchester Polytechnic (probably when Jerry Dammers or I were down there) drinking the cheap beer and clocking the students. The song, Rod has since told me, is not an anti-student rant, more a song about privilege, how these guys (and girls) would spend three years pissing it up at college, knowing full well that Daddy would get them a good job when they left no matter what. The best thing you could hope for in Coventry working men’s circles was to get a job at “the Jag”, as the Jaguar car factory was called. Rod was railing against the people who bought them.”
When he is not touring with Terry Hall and co, Roddy Byers does a lot of benefit shows for worthy causes. A short time ago I saw Roddy and his band The Skabilly Rebels at a Save The 100 Club benefit night and took these photos. The e-mail interview that follows took place about a week ago.
The Rebel: Are there any great places to eat or go for a walk in Coventry?
Roddy Byers: "Corley Rocks is nice but you have to be careful... I like the Royal Bengal in Earlsdon."
I love your song Concrete Jungle in which you famously sang “I can’t dress just the way I want”. What kind of clothes were you wearing at the time that people took objection to. What was your hear like etc?
“At the time the punk look got you a beating but it wasn’t that much different 5 years before in the Bowie/Roxy days.
Coventry like a lot of English cities doesn’t take kindly to anyone whose different.”
“I must have been 11 when my old man bought me an alarm clock radio which had a tape player on it. Dance Craze was a live album, and every morning I used to wake up to Concrete Jingle or Nite Klub by The Specials. Concrete Jungle was my favourite track: it used to make me jump off my bed and go mad. It had so much energy. The cassette snapped eventually through being played so much, but I’ve still got the cover. And about five years ago I thought I’d buy the CD again. It still sounded amazing. It’s music that feels alive. I’ve never gone through a period of not liking it.”
What were you listening to when you were 11? What music really mattered to you in your teenage years? Did any records change your life?
“11 years.. oh dear... I loved all the English 60s pop stuff but by the age of 12 years I was really into the Monkees. Neville was too. Records that changed my life? Ziggy Stardust, Transformer, The Ramones, New York Dolls, Raw Power.
That’s what I was into pre punk.”
Pauline Black and Amy Winehouse are both big fans of your song Hey Little Rich Girl and have been known to include it in their set when they play live. Are there any of your songs that you’d love to hear by other performers?
"I love to hear other people cover my songs - trouble is not many of them are commercial what ever that means?"
I once read that around the time of Pump It Up, Elvis Costello & The Attractions with support from Richard Hell & The Voidiods (featuring Robert Quine on guitar) and the poet John Cooper Clarke did several shows at the Dominion near Charing Cross but that tickets didn’t sell as well as they had hoped and it only lasted a short run. Fast forward to now and in the same venue The Queen Musical “We Will Rock You” attracts people in their thousands and the show runs and runs. Why do you think this is so?
“I’ve no idea why? I’ve always been into what some people would call cults.”
Nev Staple really raves about Joe Strummer in his autobiography. I’ve read that when you supported them the crowd preferred Suicide to The Specials but that Joe was full of encouragement. Did you get to spend any quality time with him and did you ever think of trying to collaborate with him when both The Clash and The Specials had both split?
“Strummer was always friendly in a distant sort of way. I don’t remember Suicide going down better than the Specials. It would have been nice to work with Joe but I guess he’d had enough of flash lead guitarists after Mick anyway!”
Are there any guitar solos (on other people’s records) that never fail to impress you? Do you have any guitar heroes?
“Any! I could write a book... 2468 Motorway Tom Robinson Band - great solo from Danny Kustow
Guitar heroes here’s a few, Mick Ronson, Keith Richards, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix , Pete Townshend etc etc etc”
The Specials worked with the engineer and producer Dave Jordan. What was he like? Are your memories of him positive – are there any particular ideas he contributed or suggested that helped make those 2 classic Specials albums?
“Dave was a good friend - slightly older than me who had been round the block a few times- worked with the Stones etc..
He did most of the producing on the first album in my opinion.
Was your Chrysalis label mate Debbie Harry beautiful in the flesh? Her co-writer Blondie guitarist Chris Stein said he would have liked to collaborate with The Specials and get Lynval to produce Tide is high. Could that have worked?
“I was told Debbie wanted the Specials to back her on "The Tide is High" but Jerry said no. Yes she was a cracker!"
In the 1990s you got to work with the legendary Desmond Dekker – how well did you get to know him? Do you have a favourite Desmond Dekker record?
“Never got to know Desmond - worse luck! we did the backing music in Coventry and he put his vocal on in London.
I tried to speak to him at the video shoot in London but he seemed elsewhere - maybe he didn’t like us Two Tone whipper snappers hoggin his stage? I love his music and wish he was still with us.”
Do you have a favourite Desmond Dekker record?
“It Mek is the one which stays in my memory for some reason?”
With Jerry “missing in action” how do the Specials make their group decisions? The Specials are going to perform the More Specials album in it’s entirety. You, Horace, Lynval and Nev have all said that they don’t like the majority of the album. Does this mean that Brad and Terry really begged you to do it? Or did you just toss a coin?
“You trying to get me into trouble! It seems to me certain members decide and others have to follow. I think the reason we are doing More Specials this year is cause there’s nothing else in the pot.”
I read in the Specials biog You’re Wondering Now by Paul Williams that after the Specials split you recorded a few tracks with Dick Cuthell in the producer’s chair. How well did you get on with D.C? When was the last time you saw him?
“Dick Cuthell, lovely bloke! great mimic and great brass player!
Dick produced my dodgy demo (The Tearjerkers ) after Dave Jordan let me down, which was kinda funny as Dick hates rock,n,roll!
Saw Dick last at Jerry Dammers’ birthday party in a posh mens club in London. Heard he hasn’t been well?”
The More Specials album came with a free 7 inch single: “Braggin and Trying Not To Lie” which was credited to Roddy Radiation & The Specials. Do you think that song was better or worse track than the instrumental Holiday Fortnight (a track that started out as a song of yours entitled You Can’t Argue With Fate?
“I Don’t do that song anymore. It was about an incident where I hadn’t if you know what I mean?
Holiday Fortnight should be in the Specials set this year, but they don’t seem to want to use the lyrics.”
Nev says that when Terry sacked them from the Fun Boy 3 the record company “threw them a bone” by giving them money to record one single (Sunday’s Best “Pirates on the Airwaves”) with Pauline Black but that it was clear Terry was the one they were interested in. Did Chrysalis records offer you anything? Were there any meetings? Any vague possibilities that they would at least listen to a demo etc?
"Terry was lucky as he was the face, I was given 3 days in the studio to come up with something. Then I was told Chrysalis didn’t want me anymore.”
When Terry was still signed to Chrysalis records and promoting albums by The Colourfield and Terry, Blair and Anoushka he never missed an opportunity to slag off The Specials. There’s a long period in which if you read an interview with him you’ll find quotes like – “I only joined the Specials to get off the dole… Songs like Message To You Rudy embarrass me, I can’t relate to Ghost Town, there was no racism in Coventry until the Specials started singing about it.” Did you ever think along those lines? And were you ever impressed by any of the songs Terry had hits with such as Sense, Thinking of You, and Our Lips Are Sealed?
"Never really listened to Terry’s solo stuff? Doubt he’s ever listened to mine…”
Please read this very short piece by the American poet e e Cummings and tell me what you think about it?
"somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near
your slightest look will easily unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skillfully, mysteriously)her first rose
or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully ,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;
nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the color of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing
(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands"
"Very nice but I prefer Rupert Brooke."
Breathless, we flung us on the windy hill,
Laughed in the sun, and kissed the lovely grass.
You said, "Through glory and ecstasy we pass;
Wind, sun, and earth remain, the birds sing still,
When we are old, are old. . . ." "And when we die
All's over that is ours; and life burns on
Through other lovers, other lips," said I,
---"Heart of my heart, our heaven is now, is won!"
"We are Earth's best, that learnt her lesson here.
Life is our cry. We have kept the faith!" we said;
"We shall go down with unreluctant tread
Rose-crowned into the darkness!" . . . Proud we were,
And laughed, that had such brave true things to say.
---And then you suddenly cried, and turned away.
I saw on your myspace page you like the Marx Brothers. Do you have a favourite Marx brother. How many of their films do you think are good all the way through?
“I love all the Marx bros, apart from the soppy bits where the handsome bloke sings to the love interest.”
Your relationship with Jerry Dammers is quite curious. You’ve said you’d rather burn your guitars than work with him again. You’ve said he was a selfish swine who hurt those closest to him, “a muppet with no front teeth who sits on a pile of money”. Even when he’s doing things like DJing at a fundraiser for the Love Music Hate Racism organisation you respond by comparing him to Ebenezer Scrooge. And yet… when he went on tour you were the only one out of The Specials who went to see him. When the Times asked the band if they missed having him around you were the only one who said you missed hearing his crazy plans. And you also said that when you met him at a funeral of a mutual friend you had a longer chat with him than you’d had with any of the other specials throughout the reunion. There’s a kind of irony that The Specials sing It Doesn’t Make It Alright etc on stage but can’t actually get on themselves -
Can you see a time where you don’t slag him off? What would have to happen in order for you to stop having a go at him?
“I don’t really hate Jerry, but I will never forgive him for the times he put me through hell. When I thought he was my mate.”
In his big Mojo interview Horace Panter says that there was a meeting in Coventry held by Terry, you and Lynval and money was discussed and you all got excited. And then there was another meeting in Oct 2007 in which The Specials tried to meet up and discuss a reunion without Jerry but that he found out about it. Originally they didn’t want him at the Holiday Inn meeting in Kings Cross…
Horace: “Lynval was speaking to Terry's manager and then to myself and Roddy and Neville and Brad, because we had an idea that Jerry would be against it because whenever anybody seemed to say anything there would be a counter from him. In the first instance he wasn't invited into this, and then he got wind of this and we said, 'We're having a meeting,' and he said, 'Well I'll come.'”
Although Jerry did attend that meeting do you think Terry, Lynval, Horace, Brad had all pretty much decided that a full reunion couldn’t work and that they would humour him/go through the motions etc but ultimately wanted Jerry out the picture a.s.a.p?
“I wanted Jerry involved originally but he hadn’t changed and I doubt we would have even got passed the rehearsing stage having Jerry involved.
Like I’ve said before I still have nightmares about this band, have done for 30years.”
When the first tour without Jerry was announced Terry went on the radio saying there was no animosity between Jerry and the other members. And the only reason he wasn’t taking part is that Jerry wanted to do a few big shows and the others wanted to do a big tour. Was Terry being honest when he said there was no animosity? And do you think he was telling the truth when he later said the door would always be open for Jerry if he wanted to join them on the tour?
“Terry has his own way with words.”
You're a regular poster on The Specials fan Forum. Recently you claimed your role in the current line up of the Specials was being “a gun for hire” and that you’re only told things on a “need to know basis”. In one interview you said that what you wanted most out of the reunion was to get your new songs heard. Are you optimistic the Specials will ever get round to recording or performing any of your new songs?
"Well in my humble opinion nothing much has changed we have just swapped one boss for another.
I’d love to try some new songs - recording and live but the majority of the Specials seemed scared for some reason?"
You’ve described your group The Skabilly Rebels as being a “Punk, Ska, Reggae, Mod, R,n,B, Hillbilly, Soul band.” Can you tell me a bit about how long has the current line-up been together and about some of the most enjoyable aspects of being in this band have been so far?
“Well, the present line up has been together about a year I think, and is the best yet!
The most enjoyable thing with this band unlike the Specials is we are constantly trying new songs and changing the old for the better.”
Paul Williams has made some impressive You Tube videos for The Skabilly Rebels.
Lonesome No More: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRKkp0itxY0
Judgement Day: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1fw3c3rDjX0
Lost Weekend: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TPiCaWNn5E8&feature=related
I think all them are very well edited. Do you have a favourite of the three?
“The three recent tracks I’ve recorded are my best yet and Paul is doing the vids. "Fallen Angel" (Based on a Rupert Brooke poem about going up to heaven to complain about a child's death and finding the place empty).
"Heartbreak City" (A song about the breakdown of society, i.e. cops can't handle it without another pay rise.. Soldiers in the bank doorways itching fingers and troubled minds.. Jailer says its getting mighty crowded , Judge says you've gotta find room to spare!
"Sea Cruise" (cover song)”
When will the new Skabilly Rebel CD be available? Will it just be a download or will you make vinayl and CD versions too?
“I hope to get another Skabilly Rebels CD out this year. You can buy it from my website roddyradiation.com”