published: 29 /
'Original Rude Boy' Neville Staple talks to Andrew Twambley about his new single 'Lockdown', his long musical career and his burning desire to reconnect with fans.
When the name Neville Staple is mentioned, folks of a certain maturity tend to think of The Specials and Fun Boy Three and in particular two outstanding videos, being 'Ghost Town' and 'Lunatics.' But Dr. Staple is more than that; much more. A brief scan of his book “Original Rude Boy” will reveal his origins in deepest Jamaica, followed by immigration to The Midlands, where he faced the choice of two distinct roads: rude boy or bad boyThankfully he chose the former, encouraged by friend and mentor, Pete Waterman, who, thankfully, did not decide to partner Neville up with Kylie! Not only has he been keeping the ska scene alive with The Neville Staple Band but he is also focused on charity and the fight against knife crime. Unlike some of his contemporaries, he has not been idle during lockdown but has continued to produce relevant music. Luckily for us we managed to catch up with him for a chat……
PB: Let’s kick off with lockdown. I know it’s a bit of a leading question, but how have you been filling your time? You have, of course, recorded a new and brilliant single. It must have been tough with band members all over the place and delivery men banging on your door every ten minutes.
NS: To be honest, the 'Covid-19' pandemic has had a devastating impact on the music industry as a whole and we have been campaigning for the Government to take a serious look at the issues, or risk losing a huge part of the music and arts industry forever. So many venues and festivals have really struggled. All the venue staff, security firms, sound and lighting techs and even booking agencies have been hit badly. And we ourselves have lost over a year's worth of tour work (about 78 shows and appearances at the last count), with still no real confidence as to when it might all get back to normal.
So, for us, we have been busy writing new material, new video productions, new collaborations and a lot of work with rescheduling tours and gigs to new dates and dealing with flights and hotel refunds. We are now writing new songs for our next album and some other special vinyl and other song projects (like the 'Lockdown' single) plus doing videos, interviews and special recordings (including many private ones) to people in isolation or sick and doing other creative work. We liaise with our band and contacts via online band group chats and send files to and fro. This month will be our first live get-together since the lockdown started where we will rehearse and do some video work. Sugary and I are now doing more soundtracks and film productions too, plus running some charity and promotional projects with organisations that we are patrons or ambassadors to, including Cefovid and the 2Tone Village.
PB: The ‘Lockdown’ single has an air of ‘Ghost Town’ both in its broad mood and in its pace. Did you realise this when you were producing it?
NS: The song was going to be a very upbeat, jump-around song that Sugary wrote, but we then both thought that at a time like this, perhaps the song was too happy. And we felt the same pains as everyone else during the lockdown, so decided the song should have a more atmospheric street sound, mixed with a rebel reggae sound, just like the vibes in 'Ghost Town', with the ska tip to give it edge. I wanted to get the same vibes that I had back when we did 'Ghost Town', when we all felt a national sense of hopelessness at the life around us and with us. So yes, I did realise the similarities. We pretty much wanted it that way, which is why we worked on the music we had previously produced with Steve Armstrong again, as we knew it was the perfect piece and just needed adjustments to the arrangements. We have had brilliant reviews for the song. It speaks of how different people are feeling when they have to stay in their yard and try and stick to lockdown rules. Many people just follow, others just can’t take it!
PB: Let me take you way back in time--you were born and raised in Manchester, Jamaica in the mid-50s. From your recollection how different was Manchester, Jamaica to Manchester, UK?
NS: Very different from an environmental point of view. We lived in a shack house in the Christiana Mountains in Manchester. From the time I could walk, I carried water and Irish potatoes and yams for my family, tended the goats, did cleaning duties all day.
When I was old enough for school, I did all this before getting dressed for the long walk across rough terrain to school, then more duties as I reached home. I was quite shocked when I came to the UK before aged six and saw how easy most of the UK children spent their day and how food, water, clothing and pretty things were taken for granted. But the main thing that made me feel at home was the music. In Jamaica we had sound systems that kept people joyful. They danced and sang by the house of joy speakers and would be dressed to impress, even when they were broke. I brought this rudeness from Jamaica to England and built my own sound system just like my uncles and forefathers did. I dressed the way they did, the way my father did. Sharp! Music connects people and removes boundaries is so true! The UK people embraced the Jamaican sounds and so it was in my blood to make my career from something so natural to me, when I saw how the English people had taken to the Jamaican sound.
When I made my name and had enough money, I went back to Manchester to find my mother and siblings and I built my mother a proper house. I also brought her to England for some time, but she fretted for the mountains, the clean air, fresh fruits and home. My wife, Sugary, and I go back to Jamaica every year and spend time with a lot of the Jamaican performers (who Sugary flys to the UK for her Skamouth Festival, as well as family and friends.
PB: I believe your first step into a serious involvement with music was as a roadie for the Coventry Automatics (later the Specials) but were you not also doing a bit of “toasting” round the clubs in the Midlands?
NS: Before the Specials I was already an entertainer. I had already been toasting and singing lyrics with my cousin's 'Messenger' Sound System from my early teens, then later with my own Jah Baddis Sound System. I won dance competitions with Pete Waterman OBE (he was a local music guru and DJ then, before he later created Stock, Aitken and Waterman and I performed with the Ray King Soul Band. So, I was always going to have a life in music, one way or another. On top of this, my regular crew of friends included Charley Anderson (The Selecter), Ray King and other musicians and influencers.
Later on, my first involvement with The Specials was when they were still called The Coventry Automatics. I became good friends with Jerry Dammers at our local youth club in Coventry, where I used to play sets on my Jah Baddis Sound System and rehearse my vocals. I went on to do the roadie stuff for Jerry, including technical stuff, cable set ups and the mixing desk, etc. This was before Terry Hall and John Bradbury joined us. Tim Stickland was the lead singer and Silverton was the drummer. Ray King and Neol Davies played a massive part in the creation of what went on to become The Specials, that you all know and love.
It was at a big gig supporting The Clash, where Jerry and others were so impressed with my singing and toasting from the mixer desk, which had the crowd on high spirits, that he called me on to the stage to perform my lyrics there. I never looked back. In fact, the whole band never looked back, because soon after that we went on to bigger and better things. I was apparently the missing link. They said "If you're going to do rude boy music, then you need a real original rude boy to give it the real original flavour and style." I love that! And now I am Doctor Rude Boy! [Proud smile].
PB: In your biography, ‘Original Rude Boy’ you pay great respect to Pete Waterman. You credit him with turning you from bad boy to rude boy--just how “bad” were you?
NS: Are you trying to get me arrested by the cold case team! Let’s just say I liked to duck and dive, take a few things that were there to be taken, do a bit of fighting and a little hustling, but I never really hurt anyone from my antics, apart from when fighting someone who deserved it. I was a rude boy surviving in a survivor’s world, so I had to take care of myself, take care of my crew, not take any shit and grab at opportunities. Thankfully, I mostly chose to take the more legit opportunities, especially after a bit of time in the Scrubs and borstal.
Opportunities included the dancing championships with Pete Waterman, who believed in me and gave me another artistic outlet. Pete and I went back a long way and he even got involved with our management during the early stages of The Specials. Having spoken to Pete many times over the years, we reckon I would have probably had a solo career elsewhere if I had not become a member of the Specials. And there was Ray King, who says he saw something great in me and took me into the fold of his shows, performing with Ray or covering shows for him. He also set up the Hollyhead Youth Club with us, which Charley, Trevor Evans and I set up, decorated and cleaned. It was a few years later that Jerry decided to do one or two rehearsals there. He was pretty cool and didn’t mind that a bunch of resident Jamaicans had set up the place. But the rest of the band guys had never been there until that rehearsal. They came from a different World.
PB: You ran into The Clash and their manager Bernie Rhodes in the early days; please clear this up--the opening line from one of the greatest songs of all time (which you co-wrote), ‘Gangsters', goes, “Bernie Rhodes knows, Don’t argue…”. Was that about his authoritarian presence or was it really about the size of his conk?
NS: You’re such a joker! I can’t mention his conk here! But yes, it was big! So, it was 2-fold. It was both. Just don’t tell him! LOL. The whole of the lyrics was partly about his management style, plus the music industry corruption and dodgy dealings as a whole!
PB: So there you are, one day a roadie and the next supporting The Clash. Can life get any better?
NS: I have always loved life. I loved my time in The Specials and all the music set ups I have had since. The fans are what makes me tick. They are what makes you who you are, not the fame or the fortune. Just the appreciation and love they give. So yes, life has got better and better since then and right up until now. I have had my lows and been through heavy times but have always come through and, on top of all my super music awards over the years, I was so proud to be awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Music last year. I am now a Doctor with a super band and an amazing wife! Yeah, life always gets better and better.
And by the way, I loved the Clash and I got on so well with all of them. Paul was my buddy. I must catch up with him soon. Yeah, a really great bunch of guys to hang out with.
PB: When I was a boy the only Jamaican music I came across was the likes of Ken Booth and Desmond Decker, which were too westernised for me. Then in ‘76/’77 I started following The Clash around. The music they played before gigs included artists such as Delroy Wilson, Dennis Alcapone, and Dillinger ('Cocaine in My Brain’). How did those particular artists shape you?
NS: These are all great friends of mine and Sugary. In fact Sugary introduced me to Dennis and Ken, then later we worked with Delroy’s Estate on one of the Rude Rebel’s album tracks. He was brilliant! Desmond and Ken were very commercial but were an inspiration to so many black kids in the UK back then, as it was so rare to see black people on TV, let alone them having hit songs that the mainstream loved. But there they were strutting their stuff on Top of the Pops and other shows. Was so cool at the time.
For my sound system I was more drawn to U-Roy, I-Roy, Derrick Morgan, Prince Buster and Stranger Cole, as well as all the other productions by Bunny Lee and Coxone. Dennis is highly respected and a friend and Dillenger was super cool! You started in a good place my friend.
PB: After The Specials and after Fun Boy Three, you formed The Neville Staple Band, which originally included Mick Jones and Rat Scabies. That must have been a riot?
NS: I have always had a solo career of some kind and my most recent ‘From The Specials’ Band (formerly the Neville Staple Band) but we changed our name to mark the 40th Anniversary Shows last year when the other Specials refused to do a reunion tour for the fans, so we did shows with Jerry Dammers, Roddy Byers, Neol Davies (Selecter), plus some mod and punk friends, including Secret Affair, The Undertones, Toyah Wilcox & Gary Shail (Quadrophenia).
My current band actually celebrates its 16-year anniversary this year. I have also always done DJ shows too, ever since my sounds system days. In the 1990’s I had Neville Staple and the Hitmen and had a big US career, living in LA and touring all over, plus doing soundtracks for films. Later, I had Special Beat, Today’s Specials, The Specials MkII (Today’s Specials) and The Specials Mk3, doing reunion albums and tours with 3 of my Specials band mates (Horace, Lynval and Roddy), plus Aitch from Selecter on drums. There were so many collaborations too with the Legends of 2Tone and others. I have never not had a solo career or other collaborations going on. Rat and Mick are great guys and we had a lot of fun times. I can’t remember all of it, so I know it must have been great!!
Now I have Sugary up front with me on vocals, Joe Atkinson on both keys and piano, Sledge Armstrong on bass, Matty Bane on drums, Billy Shinbone on guitar, Drew Stansall on saxophone and Peter Johnson on trombone. We have regular deps too. These guys are the best. True and loyal friends too. When we are on the road, we have so much fun. And even the fans say they can see the chemistry and friendship when we perform. We love it!
PB: I know that you have personally been touched by the horrors of knife crime. Tell me about your campaign to raise people’s awareness of its devastating effects.
NS: Losing my grandson to knife crime was a really devastating time for us. My daughter, Melanie, lost her only child, and nothing can change the heartbreak, that he is never going to be in our lives again. So, we spent a lot of time talking to young people in colleges, schools and in young offender centres. Sugary says to them, “If you don’t feel safe enough to go to that place without carrying a knife, then don’t go to that place!” Like me, she comes from the streets and grew up in East London, and had her share of troubles and survival. We share our stories and try to show them that there are better ways to deal with things, but stabbings have become so normal now. Only Brexit and now Covid spends so much time in the news, next to knife crime. Fuckery cuts in youth and communities services, has not helped either. It’s like being back in the 70’s and 80’s, but worse!
Last year, to coincide with the talks and awareness campaigns, we wrote a song called ‘Put Away Your Knives’, sampled with Dandy Livingstone. The song speaks direct to the people out there killing each other, sending out a message to young people to fix up before it’s too late. It is a protest song. It is a song to say enough now. Enough! Someone has to say it like it is. Stop running around with knives, stop killing each other. Think of your future. One day you could become a dad yourself. Who the hell are your kids going to look up to? It has gone too far! Everyone needs to step on it. My wife, Sugary, says, every parent, every school, every auntie, uncle, grandparent, politician, neighbour and local organisations, need to step up and get involved. If everyone took a stand and said ENOUGH NOW, ENOUGH, and did their bit to make a change, no matter how small, in their own community or family, we could win this. We could stop at least one more child or young person from dying. Don’t just wait for it to happen to you or near you. Stamp it out before it does. People are left devastated, with too many parents and grandparents burying their babies. We are really passionate about change.
PB: It is quite clear from seeing you on stage and from the media that Sugary is a big part of everything Staple. How has she crafted your life?
NS: Sugary is amazing and is so talented and capable. She manages me, performs and writes with me and just takes care of everything. In fact, I’d like to add, that you will see me say 'we' a lot in my interviews, but after all the years of my own writing and artistic material being taken from me or given to someone else's name, I am really passionate about ensuring those who do great things are recognised, and much of what I do comes from ideas and a lot of hard work from Sugary. She has been and still is the brains behind my achievements over the last decade. She is the mover and shaker, but I'm the one who gets most of the credit. She works so hard to make things happen and keeps everything running. She has academic qualifications, including a business degree but says common sense and ambition drives her more than a study certificate. She also does other writing and acting work for TV and films. The fans love her. Her time, love and loyalty to me makes me wish I had met her much earlier in my life. She calmed me down and gave me a reason to stop, take a breath and then live good. Yeah, we’re a great connection of rudeness and creativity together. I love her to bits!
PB: I think that it’s been generally accepted that live music will not make a comeback till 2021. What have you got planned for the new world?
NS: We will be doing much of the above, as well as putting out the new album (in the very near future hopefully, once we can get more time in the recording studios, with the whole band, plus we have a special song, video and TV releases about to go out in Germany, Mexico and Venezuela (which will hopefully be available in the UK soon after), and one of Sugary's songs and one of our joint songs will be featured on new feature films. We have also been sketching out a potential follow up book or documentary to my 'Original Rude Boy' autobiography, so will probably do more with that in 2021 too.
The biggest thing that we are all wishing for, for the future, is a return to our live shows. This is what I do best, this is what I pretty much live for from a career point of view. I love performing, I love our fans and I love our music. I also love touring with Sugary and my awesome band. They all mean the World to me and their professionalism, their loyalty and their friendship is the best I have ever experienced in any band through the years. With Sugary performing upfront with me, plus managing us all, and a super band backing me, I need nothing else but the venues to be open and ready for us. Fingers crossed for a better year for everyone. And you, my friend, are invited to come and enjoy a show with us, as soon as it can happen! Watch www.fromthespecials.com for when shows return.
PB: Thank you.
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