The original Rude Boy Neville Staple returns to Australia for a series of dates, playing the Miami Shark Bar on 5 August. The former vocalist for The Specials, Fun Boy Three and most recently the Neville Staple Band still calls it as he sees it and often with the wink of an eye, as Trevor Jackson discovered.
The breakthrough hit for The Specials was Gangsters on which you say at the start of the track “Bernie Rhodes knows don’t argue”. Bernie was The Clash’s manager, but also The Specials’ manager for a while. I’ve always wanted to ask you this – was that line in reference to a particular incident or did you just like making life difficult for him at the time?
Nah, nothing specific. You just couldn’t argue with him. If he said “go to France”, you had to get in the van and go to France, there was no way around it. He was quite strict as a manager.
Did he need to be a strict manager with The Specials?
Not with us, no. We were pretty easy to get along with, but for The Clash, yeah I think he needed to be strict.
Elvis Costello produced The Specials’ debut album, how much of an influence did he have on the band’s sound?
Jerry (Dammers) was with Elvis the whole time during the recording of that album, so it was really just a case of Elvis interpreting what Jerry wanted. It was Jerry’s band, he started it, he wrote most of the songs, he had the whole concept of what he wanted, what the band was about and what the songs were about… political issues. All that type of stuff was Jerry’s idea.
Jerry was a trained musician, but you came from a more colourful background. You were from the street and in fact started out as a roadie for the band. How did you and Jerry get on?
I got on very well with Jerry, even though he went to college and I learnt all I knew from the street. Of course I didn’t live literally on the street, but it was a tough background. Even though we came from very different upbringings I think he saw the rough and ready element in me and that I would fit in with the band. He needed different elements in the band – that’s why he got Terry (Hall) because he was a bit punkish, Brad (John Bradbury) was a northern soul drummer, Lynval (Golding) came from a reggae background – we were all just different aspects of the band and it gelled. I loved it. It got me off the street and even though I was doing crazy things on stage like jumping off the speakers it kept me on the straight and narrow.
Ghost Town, a song that dealt with urban decay, unemployment and violence climbed to the top of the UK charts at a time when riots were breaking out across England under Margaret Thatcher’s government. Unfortunately The Specials were also imploding at that time to the point where it became the swan song for the original line up of the band. At the height of its success, did you have time to reflect on the prescience of the song?
Yeah, you know because I was living it. It was all around us – factories and businesses were closing down and I knew guys who were losing their jobs in the mines and car factories. It was the time of Margaret “Faffer” – that’s the polite version of what we used to call her – she made everything so much worse than it needed to be – it was a nightmare. It wasn’t just the factories and places where people worked that were closing down, it was the places where they used to hang out too, like the clubs. Everything was closing down and nobody had any money. That’s why we sang: “This place is coming like a ghost town, no job to be found, can’t go on no more, people getting angry”.
With black and white members of the band racial harmony was a vital component to the identity of the Specials. The band formed in the 1970’s during a period of extreme economic hardship, along with class and racial discrimination. Given the current conservative climate and the rise of protests to the refugee crisis not only in Britain but many other parts of the world now, do you see parallels between late 70’s Britain and the social landscape in 2016?
Yes, because racist elements like the National Front are gaining momentum again. It was underground in Britain for quite a while, but now it’s rising up again. It’s hard to say why it’s happening again now, it’s always been there, but it has become a very open campaign now.
Does that make ska just as relevant now as it was then?
Definitely, because now when I play live everyone wants to hear those political songs. Not just the older fans, but their kids too because that’s the music they grew up listening to and they identify with that music and what it represents just as their parents do. Of course it’s their parents who have explained to them what these songs are about.
The Specials were at the forefront of what was effectively the second wave of ska after it had originated in Jamaica. In the early 90’s you formed the Special Beat with Ranking Roger and relocated to the US where the third wave of ska was just taking off. Why do you think ska took so long to catch on in the US?
Well you know America is a funny place. The concept of black and white working together as a musical art form at the time when ska was taking off in Britain was foreign to them. It just took longer for them to catch on to the idea of racially integrated band members and music styles.
Don’t you think it’s strange that your vocal style of toasting, which was a forerunner to rap wasn’t really appreciated in the U.S. mainstream until after rap had taken off there?
Yes, I know what you’re saying. You have to realise that rap came from ska because most of the original rap guys were from Jamaica anyway. What’s weird to me is that even when those rap guys go to Jamaica they kind of keep it quiet, they don’t acknowledge those ska roots – god knows why. The rap guys, whose parents or grandparents were Jamaican go back there and build these big houses and live like rock stars, but they only do rap which isn’t part of Jamaica’s culture. All they’re singing about is shaking their butts and taking girls to clubs doing this and doing that, but they’re not singing about the things that matter. It’s nothing to write about, it’s pointless.
You worked with a number of U.S. groups who were embracing ska at that time including Rancid and No Doubt – what do you see as the main difference between ska in the U.S. and what first emerged from Britain in the 70’s? Was it racially or economically motivated for instance, or was it just about the musical form as a genre?
It was really only about the music. As I said before, mainstream America wasn’t really interested in black and white social history like we were. They didn’t really have the class issues in their culture and they didn’t have the economic problems that Britain had in the 70’s.
In the early 90’s members of the Specials, including yourself, reformed to record with ska legend Desmond Dekker. Now you’re often billed as the Original Rude Boy, but Mr. Dekker could also lay claim to that title. Was there any discussion between you over that?
Not just Desmond, any number of ska artists could have laid claim to that, but this was England and I was taking it from a UK perspective – that was my reference. It wasn’t about being a bad boy, although my wife would tell you differently (laughs).
Well the good thing about an autobiography is that there are no secrets…
Absolutely, that’s one good thing about it. Even though she knew me well before we got married there was no point in hiding anything, that’s why I put my autobiography Original Rude Boy out. I don’t want to hide anything, I just want people to know me ‘cause that’s who I am.
The thing about being a rude boy is that my dad came from Jamaica and they used to call him a rude boy – not because he was tough or bad, but because of the way he dressed. It’s all about an attitude and I dress the same way – you’ve got to be sharp, looking smart, looking stoosh. That’s the rude boy culture.
Having taken part in a number of Specials reunion tours over the last decade it was announced in 2013 that you would not be playing with the band again in future due to ill health. Was that a tough time for you?
Don’t get thrown with this ill health crap. The Specials said I left because of ill health, but it’s a load of crap. Do I look ill to you (laughs)? I did have a car crash and I needed a break from touring for a while, but it was just an excuse to get me out of the band. The point is, it was OK for about three years but then it just turned into a dictatorship. I just wanted to get out of there anyway and go back to my own band, which I’d never really left – they’re a great bunch of guys.
After you left the reformed The Specials a couple of years ago you released the album Ska Crazy and dedicated it Jerry Dammers. Jerry hasn’t taken part in any of The Specials reunion tours, does that suggest that at least your relationship with him is still solid?
Yeah, I still see him and when he does his orchestra thing (The Spatial AKA Orchestra) I still play with him. To be honest with ya I’m the only one from The Specials that still gets on with him.
Roadblock from Ska Crazy has a slightly eerie Ghost Town feel to it, this time dealing with street crime and ultimately authority. Are you surprised if not angry that the more things change, the more they stay the same?
Yeah, it’s the same, but the kids now are more ruthless. They just don’t seem to care about anything at all but themselves. At least we were more aware of the big picture. Kids today just don’t seem to have any fear at all – even we have security cameras outside our house.
Neville Staple, the Original Rude Boy, has his house surrounded by CCTV? Does that mean you’re part of the establishment now?
Nah, get out of it (laughs)! You’ve got these young kids now who will give you absolute hell, they think they can do anything – break into houses – anything. You don’t want to get involved in anything violent with them, so it’s best to have everything videoed. At least then you’ve got evidence.
Read more from Trevor Jackson at www.sounddistractions.com
PHOTO CREDIT: Vic May Photography