To celebrate the long-awaited return of The Face, we have selected a stand-out story from each year of our extensive archive, from 1980 to 2004.
Remembered by writer Adrian Thrills
“Nick Logan had been speaking to me about this new magazine he wanted to launch that combined music, style, the whole maelstrom of pop culture. We knocked around a few ideas about who’d be good and came up with The Specials. I think the story was just pretty much set up by myself and Chalkie Davies, the photographer. It was literally a couple of phone calls and we were on the tour bus to Paris. In that period, if you’d written about a band – and I’d written about The Specials quite a lot, in the NME – the access you got was unparalleled. You basically lived and travelled on the road as a member of the band. Jerry Dammers pretty much said to me on that trip: ‘You’re just like one of The Specials.’ I would have been 20 at the time. They’d just come back from an American tour and were quite glad to be back in Europe. They did the show in Paris, which turned out to be a fully riotous affair – fighting in the audience! The support act was The Cure. The Specials were the right band for the first cover of The Face because they had the musical credentials, they were a big British band at the time and they also had that distinct style element. You could see from the start that The Face was going to be a success. It flew off the newsstands, certainly. All the ingredients that made The Face such a great publication are all there in that first issue. It was obviously tweaked and it developed over the following years, and it came on leaps and bounds in terms of design, look and coverage. But it was a great moment in British youth culture publishing.”
Adrian Thrills first met The Face’s founder Nick Logan when the latter was editing NME in 1978. Thrills interviewed The Clash for the cover of Logan’s Smash Hits and wrote about The Specials for the first cover of The Face in 1980. He became assistant editor of NME in 1985 and was launch editor of football monthly Goal in 1995. He has been The Daily Mail’s rock and pop critic since 1997
Neville Staples, normally the hyperactive half of The Specials’ two-pronged front-line vocal assault, stands icily cool on the lip of an expansive stage. The Specials are playing the Pavilion Baltard in Paris, headlining day four of the eight-day Europe Rock ‘80 festival and Neville is mad. The set is only one number old and already things are going badly wrong: during support band The Cure’s set, a group of Paris skinheads had hardly helped Anglo-French relations by jumping their British counterparts, a posse of Specials fans from London who retaliated by giving at least as good as they got.
And now the band themselves, still exhausted and jet-lagged from their recently completed American tour, are facing an ignominious ritual that even the more retarded sections of the Anglo rock audience consigned to the vaults back in ‘78 at the latest gobbing.
So, with the closing chords of Dawning Of A New Era still fading away into the parabolic roof structure of the Pavilion, Neville is standing on the edge of the stage, his eyeballs fixed on a group of individuals no more than four rows from the front.
And there’s no mistaking the undiluted anger in the Black Country voice that addresses the rude garçons. “If you’re gonna spit, you can go and stand at the back of the hall. Otherwise, we’ll piss off. It’s up to you…”
At which the band are into the song of the same name. But even as Neville slips into his best I-Roy patter for the toast that signals the end of the song, another hail of gob descends on him. It is too much and Neville decides on the spot that he can take no more.
One athletic leap over the monitors later and the vocalist is down in the pogoing pit sorting out the guy responsible. Unfortunately, it was that sort of show and the bad vibes so untypical of a Specials gig continue right through to the encores. A bunch of London and Coventry rude boys, who had travelled over on the Channel ferry that afternoon, join the band onstage in time-honoured fashion for the closing Skinhead Symphony. The moonstompers are met by a barrage of flying cans and Neville understandably comes close to losing his cool a second time.
Instead, Terry Hall puts the band’s viewpoint in his own bitter, sarcastic style, cutting through all the nonsense with the characteristic no-bullshit honesty that has always been a part of The Specials’ make-up: “A lot of you have been very naughty tonight. You’ve fought, you’ve spat at us and generally shat on us… but we’ve enjoyed ourselves. Goodnight!”
He picks up a crunched can for theatrical effect, balances it momentarily on his bonce and flicks it skywards before slipping away.
Later, in the dressing room, one of the Willesden skins who had been operating the band’s official T-shirt stand before it was overturned in the furore of the violence, gives a less-subtle appraisal, telling the group that they should have left the stage in disgust the moment the first can was aimed at them.
“That lot didn’t deserve you!”
He was right, of course. But that was of little consolation to The Specials, who had come to Paris in the first place for what they had hoped would be something of a break. Unlikely as it may seem from the above, the trip started off as the 2-Tone works outing, a sort of busman’s holiday after the rigours of six month’s constant touring and the wearying US trek.
The entourage had left the 2-Tone London offices the previous afternoon in bright sunshine and high spirits to a pre-recorded cassette soundtrack of Linton Kwesi Johnson, Rico, Tapper Zukie and Desmond Dekker, the latter having just sent 2-Tone a demo tape for consideration!
Each member of the band, road crew and Rick Rodgers’ Trigger management team had been allowed to bring along girlfriends and wives for what should have been a relaxing weekend across the water. Some hope.
As the coach trundled lazily towards Dover and the ferry, legacies from the American tour were abundant: bassman Sir Horace Gentleman put his camerawork on public show, handing round a series of snapshots from the tour; guitarist Roddy Radiation and organist/visionary Jerry Dammers sported chunky Starsky cardigans; Terry Hall wore a Yankee baseball jacket.
The new clobber aside, America also gave the group acute jetlag and a nagging doubt in the back of their minds as to what they were actually achieving in taking punky-reggae to the colonials. As Horace pondered, in reply to the obvious questions about the tour, “I just don’t know how it went really. How do you gauge something like that? What can you say?”
Jerry Dammers, however, was more forthcoming. He hated America, intimating that the gig schedule over there had all but sapped the group of their intoxicating zap onstage by the end of the tour.
“By the time the last few dates came around, we were actually getting to the stage where we weren’t enjoying playing. I’ve never felt like that before. That’s what it does to you. And if you’re not enjoying it, then there isn’t really much point in going on.
“I’m not sure if it would work out, but, in the future, we might just do odd gigs instead of massive tours. A bit like PiL, but not quite as extreme.”
Has the spark finally gone out of it for The Specials, a band who, on the surface, have already achieved everything they set out to do? I doubt if it has come to that. Dammer’s apparent disillusionment is only superficial and surely anyone who has gigged as solidly as The Specials in the past six months is entitled to the odd bout of disinterest as far as live work is concerned.
However, one other nagging doubt does hang uneasily over their shoulders – a feeling of what next? Musically, their contagious hybrid of punk and ska has been pushed more or less to its limits. To paraphrase Linton Kwesi Johnson, the first phase has come to an end and it’s time for the second phase to show.
No-one, thankfully, is more aware of this than the group themselves. Give or take a few new songs – Roddy Radiation’s Rat Race and Lynval Golding’s Rude Boy Outa Jail which should form both sides of the next single – the band have been playing exactly the same set for over a year. And it shows. Their Pavilion gig was a long way from The Specials at their best. The interruptions aside, most of the playing itself was too tense, a result no doubt of all the shattered nerve ends brought on by the constant touring.
But, as Jerry Dammers said as he left the dressing room, the Pavilion gig was also the last time that set would be played.
For the first time since the release of Gangsters, The Specials are taking an enforced break to write new songs and reconsider their position. The new songs are destined for the second album, which is due to be recorded with engineer Dave Jordan, now an integral part of the 2-Tone set-up, in Coventry‘s Horizon studio in May.
It is early days as yet, but there are already a few pointers as to how the band might progress, the most intriguing being Dammers’ passion for muzak-trashy bland wallpaper music, the sort of thing you might hear played in a supermarket or a Chinese restaurant. Indeed, while in Paris, Jerry took time out to go and pick some unlikely sounding LPs from a bargain bin, stuff like Stereo Party For Two, a compilation of cha-cha, rhumba and marimba tunes!
“I think it’s time for the 2-Tone bands to start getting a bit more experimental,” explains the man they call The General.
“Some of it has really started becoming a big cliché. Really, we’ve got to go back and start all over again. It‘s back to square one.”
Jerry has always been the major motivating personality in The Specials, but they have never been a one-man-band by any stretch of the imagination and it could be that the next album will see other members well to the fore in a songwriting capacity. In addition to ‘Rat Race’, for instance, Roddy Radiation is working on a ska-rockabilly fusion while Lynval and Neville are also both working on solo projects.
Then there’s soul man John ‘Brad’ Bradbury. The drummer already has a solo single ready for release in a cover of the old soul standard Sock It To ‘Em JB, originally done on the red Atlantic label in 1966 by Rex Garvin And The Mighty Cravers. Brad recorded his version just before Christmas in a small Streatham studio with the other members of The Specials and trombonist Rico and flugelhorn player Dick Cuthell filling in the various instrumental roles. The single should appear, almost definitely on 2-Tone, under the guise of The JB All Stars.
As far as Brad is concerned the single should help forge a link between what The Specials are doing and the burgeoning grass-roots R&B/soul revival being instigated by bands such as Dexy‘s Midnight Runners, the Q-Tips, Red Beans And Rice and The Step.
“I’ve always been heavily into the soul thing, probably more so than the ska thing but, from the point of view of a drummer, there‘s no difference when it comes down to it. There are a lot of similarities and it is very easy to slip from a ska drum pattern to a soul one. I’d hate to think that the soul thing will miss out again this year. It tries once a year and this could be the year that it makes the breakthrough. The disco thing is still going strong in America but it can’t go on forever. People are going to start wanting more than that, which is where real soul comes in.”
So a soul-punk slant could be an alleyway for 2-Tone to explore?
“Well, the 2-Tone strategy, once the ska thing was established, has always been to diversify and it has always been my personal aim to get soul numbers into the set. Sticking to the same thing could be dangerous for the label. Phase two was always planned as a diversification.”
Brad is also convinced that greater musical diversification could give The Specials the chance to realise one of his long-standing ambitions: an on-the-road musical revue along the lines of the Stax/Volt tours of the ‘60s and, more recently, George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic ‘thang’.
“It would probably be physically possible to put together a two-hour set which would feature a backing band, playing continuously, and then guest vocalists throughout the show, such as Laverne Brown from Red Beans And Rice, Pauline Black from The Selecter and Terry and Neville from The Specials.
“You could change the tempo and feel for each vocalist and mix the ska and soul things and take it all on the road for six weeks. You could cut out the whole idea of a band and support band altogether ‘cause over a period of two hours, you wouId feature elements of a whole load of different bands.”
The idea of a 2-Tone revue could definitely work. But right now, something as harmonious seems a million miles away. The harrowing, ultimately unrewarding experience of the gig over, The Specials travel back into the centre of Paris, giving lifts to as many of their fans as possible in the coach.
Then it is time to go down to the nightclub, the Palace de Paris to be precise. Very “is this the place to go?” indeed. The last time The Specials were in Paris, they played there. This time, I go along with Jerry, Roddy and some of the band’s followers to while away the early hours of the morning.
The place is incredibly posey with a laser show that makes Blue Oyster Cult’s beams look like the fairy lights at the end of Hastings Pier. The music is good though a varied selection from ‘70s soul right on through to 2-Tone. And with drinks a couple of quid a throw, at least the dancing is free.
But I wonder how many of the Parisian trendies realised who they were snubbing as they looked down their noses at the weird character with no front teeth slumped in a corner in a torn Levi jacket. Not many, I’m sure, and yet the same gent just happened to be the composer of the record they were all dancing the night away to.
But Jerry Dammers, if amused to hear the strains of Gangsters in such unlikely circumstances, remains unmoved.
Unmoved, that is, until the DJ, by way of an interlude, puts on an obscure cha-cha record. Jerry jumps up from the corner where he is sitting and whispers in my ear, “This is the sound of the ‘80s.”
Then his features crack up into a massive grin at the absurdity of it all.