1The Specials’ 1979 debut single ‘Gangsters’ is about an incident that happened on tour in France with The Clash when you were fined for the damage in a hotel. But which band had actually caused the destruction?
“Rick Rogers was the manager of The Damned and ended up leaving them to manage us after that incident, so it worked out extremely well for us! The hotel tried to hold my Fender Telecaster – that I’ve used for everything recorded by The Specials and [spin-off band] Fun Boy Three – to ransom until we paid, and I lost my temper and there was a bit of a scuffle.”
2Who joined The Specials at V Festival in 2009 to perform ‘You’re Wondering Now’ and ‘Ghost Town’?
“That was the wonderful and beautiful – God bless her soul – Amy Winehouse.”
“My birthday is on July 24, so every year I celebrate her life and wish she was still with us. ‘Cause she passed away on July 23 , so every year I treasure what a talented young lady she was and how her music will never die. Performing with her was surreal. We had no rehearsal. I didn’t even know she was there until Terry [Hall, lead singer] said: ‘We’d like to introduce our good friend Amy…’ and we were all open-mouthed.”
3Who presented The Specials with their NME Outstanding Contribution to Music Award in 2010?
“He’s a DJ from Jamaica and – oh my God, I’m getting old man! What’s his bloody name? Dennis Alcapone!”
“(Laughs) I’m getting my lifetime achievement awards mixed up! Respect to Damon Albarn! The moment that made me feel really good was when he said to us that we inspired him when he first saw us on Top of the Pops. I replied: ‘What?! Damon, you were born a talented man. You had it all from birth. We couldn’t inspire you – you’re a genius.”
In 2007, you teamed up to play Specials songs with Terry Hall for the first time in 24 years at Glastonbury – during Damon Albarn and Lily Allen’s sets…
“Meeting Lily Allen played a massive part in The Specials reforming, because until then I hadn’t realised we’d influenced such amazing artists. I was a stay-at-home dad taking care of my boy, and it was Lily who inspired me to come back out on the road. It took me years to get the band back together. We were meant to get back together for the 25th anniversary, but we didn’t make it until the 30th. I managed to get everybody back in the band except one – Jerry [Dammers, founding keyboardist].
“After our first meeting back together, I thought: ‘I never want to see these guys again.’ It was so uncomfortable and awful. But I went away and persevered, because if anybody was going to get the band back together it was me. Horace [Panter, bassist] calls me Henry Kissinger, because I’m the diplomatic one in the band. So I achieved it by divide-and-conquer, because I realised group meetings didn’t work. And here we are.”
4At The Specials’ 30th anniversary London gig in 2009, what unusual reason did Terry Hall give for estranged bandmate Jerry Dammers not being there?
“(Laughs) That’s a really hard one! I know Terry has told Jerry that the door is always open for him to return. Whatever Terry said onstage, you can bet it’s a brilliant one-liner!”
WRONG. He quipped that Jerry was appearing “in panto as Scrooge at Bridlington Spa”
“(Raucous laughter) Brilliant! I mean, Jerry looks the part! (Laughs)”
Will Jerry ever rejoin the group or has too much bad blood been exchanged?
“Jerry is so talented. Meeting him was the best thing that happened to me in my life. And Jerry also meeting me was the best thing that happened to him musically. I’m from rural Jamaica and Jerry was born in India and his father was the Dean of Bristol Cathedral, but it was the merging of both our totally different backgrounds that made The Specials musically. I’d like to get to a position [with Dammers] where we can exchange ideas like we have in the past. He’s the one person that I wouldn’t say no to playing music with again. It would be a challenge, because he challenges me all the time and that’s healthy.”
5Members from which three bands appears on The Specials’ 1980 second album ‘More Specials’?
WRONG. You missed the Go-Go’s.
“Of course! They sing on ‘Enjoy Yourself’! That second album was very painful because every day someone would leave the band and then two days later, they would rejoin. It was a very emotional record. Although it didn’t sell as much as our first album, to me it was our breakthrough album – and the one that inspired us to do [2019 comeback album] ‘Encore’. We took our musical direction from that. It established us as more than a party band who did cover versions.”
6What are the B-sides to The Specials’ 1981 single ‘Ghost Town’?
“I try to explain to people that there’s three songs that make up that single. ‘Ghost Town’ is a wonderful piece of music but the song that stands out to me is ‘Why?’ [a plea for racial tolerance that Goulding wrote after he suffered a violent racist attack outside West Hampstead’s Moonlight Club in 1980 that left him hospitalised] because we’re still going through it with the George Floyd murder in America and all the discrimination.”
‘Ghost Town’ – which addresses urban decay and civil unrest – still sounds remarkably relevant 40 years on, which must both hearten and anger you?
“In an ideal world, it should sound dated. We should not still be speaking about it today and it not feel historical. I feel the conversation we were having on that single hasn’t finished. On the track ‘B.L.M.’ from ‘Encore’, I talk about my father being invited to England from Jamaica to rebuild England and his and my experiences of racism, and now decades later to see black England footballers receiving the same kind of abuse after Euro 2020 is incredibly sad. Educating people who are that stupid is very hard – but we’re still trying with our music.”
For a bonus half-point, which dance band covered ‘Ghost Town’ for an NME compilation in 2002?
“Argh! it could have been Tricky?”
WRONG. It’s The Prodigy.
“I should have known that! They did a really good job of making it theirs.”
7What animal appears in the video to Fun Boy Three (the band you formed after you left The Specials with Terry Hall and Neville Staple)’s 1982 collaboration with Bananarama ‘ Ain’t What You Do….’?
“(Laughs) I can’t remember that! Was it a peacock?”
WRONG. A hamster.
“I remember now! That was one of Terry’s crazy ideas! (Laughs) Fun Boy Three was a good break away from The Specials, because we were burnt out and tired and needed a different outlet for our creativity. It was time to recharge our batteries.”
Backstage at Top of the Pops for your Number One-crowning performance of ‘Ghost Town’ in 1981, the three of you announced you were leaving the band and The Specials broke up. Given you were at the height of your success, was any part of you hesitant?
“No, because it was so bad, it was time to have a break. We were overworked. Mentally and physically, we needed to reinvent ourselves, and we needed time off. And what better time to go out than after our biggest record?”
“Working with Bananarama was so much fun and exactly what we needed. We needed that totally different, quirky vibe, and we found it with those three girls. It was one big laugh. Although I remember them drinking me under the table once in Amsterdam! (Laughs)”
8When The Specials played the Fulham Greyhound in 1977, which frontman wanted to sign the band to his record label but “left in a huff”?
“It’s Sir Mick Jagger! (Laughs)”
“I can still picture it now! When we came in, we had to clear the dancefloor so we could watch the band, which was awkward because we’re a people’s band. I nicked the guitar riff for ‘Little Bitch’ off of Keith Richards, so he was right (Laughs). If you’re going to nick something, nick it from the best! When I later met Keith Richards in New York, I was so in awe, I couldn’t talk. He brought me the gift of some guitar picks and complimented our band.”
9Who replaced Madness on the famous 1979 2-Tone tour?
“Whenever Madness were around, it was one big joke. You’d be walking around and someone from the band would pull your trousers down or something. Dexys didn’t come and join the gang, so we’d stare out and grunt at each other from the distance (Laughs). Fists would get tightened!”
10Who guest hosted when The Specials appeared on Saturday Night Live in 1980?
“I know the guy’s face but I can’t remember his name!”
WRONG. It’s American character actor Strother Martin.
“At the time we were on such a bloody high! I’d went from a village in Jamaica to suddenly being at a party with Blondie in Andy Warhol’s penthouse, thinking: how did this happen? Talking of Blondie: one thing I feel really sad about is that they wanted us to be the backing band on their Number One [1980 cover of John Holt’s] ‘The Tide Is High’ and Jerry turned Debbie Harry down and said we shouldn’t do it. I said: ‘Jerry, you’ve ruined everything for me man!’. It’s one of my favourite songs and we were all upset, but he was the leader of the band.”
You recently released a collection of activism cover versions, ‘Protest Songs 1924–2012’. Do you think in the post-COVID tumult, we’re about to enter a golden age of protest songs?
“I hope so, and I think with what we’re going through now, we’ve made the perfect record for the perfect time. I hope young bands will listen to it and see how we have to keep on protesting and trying to move things forward, and that it will inspire this generation to talk about what they’re going through now.”
Which new bands are exciting you at the moment?
“Easy Life, because I know those lads and we have a history – one of their fathers played brass in Fun Boy Three – so I feel we’re passing the baton on to them. I love what they’re doing. We’d like to surprise people by learning one of their songs and getting onstage to perform with them.”
The verdict: 5/10
“For an old git like me, that’s not too bad! (Laughs) I’m pleased with that score.”
– ‘Protest Songs 1924-2012‘ is out now