Neville Staple, formerly of The Specials, celebrating 40 years of 2-Tone
Original Rude Boy Neville Staple is bringing his own band to Cambridge. Adrian Peel travelled to his home in Coventry to meet him.
That sharp-suited look, that dancing, that voice, there’s no doubt that Neville Staple brought a strong sense of style, authenticity and immense stage presence to 2-Tone legends, The Specials, who this year celebrated 40 years since the release of their debut single, Gangsters.
Notoriously fractious, the seven-piece band, who blended the popular Jamaican ska sound with the rebellious energy and attitude of punk, split after only two albums in 1981 – but not before their signature song Ghost Town had rocketed to the top of the charts, perfectly capturing the disillusionment of many at the time in the process.
Neville went on to form Fun Boy Three with fellow ex-Specials, Terry Hall and Lynval Golding, and later popped up in Special Beat – a group featuring various musicians from The Specials and The Beat – in the early ’90s.
After a few blinkand-you’ll-miss-it reunions with different members, The Specials – minus founder Jerry Dammers – got back together to the delight of many, including celebrity fans such as Amy Winehouse, in 2009. Neville left the fold in late 2012.
More recently, Neville, 64, received an honorary degree from Arden University in Coventry (henceforth, he will be known as ‘Dr Rude Boy’) for his efforts to defuse racial tension through innovation and music.
He has also dedicated his time to tackling knife crime, working with various groups and youth projects following the fatal stabbing of his 21-year-old grandson in 2018.
At Neville’s home in the suburbs of Coventry, where he lives with his wife, Christine – also known as ‘Sugary’ – there are gold records hanging up and pictures of them both through the years (Sugary is also a performer and part of the Neville Staple Band), on stage and off.
In the spacious kitchen/breakfast room area, Neville was keen to stress that the official reason given for him leaving The Specials second time around – that it was due to ill health – was not in fact the case.
“That wasn’t true, I was fine,” says the Jamaican-born star.
“You look at videos and I’m still on stage. I’ve always been doing it, though I might have stopped jumping off PAs and stuff like that.”
Neville, who published his best-selling autobiography, The Original Rude Boy, in 2009, continues: “I’ve always enjoyed performing, I’ve never not enjoyed it – even when I wasn’t working for a while because I was doing a lot of travelling, back and forth from America. But I’ve always loved it.”
Cambridge fans who come out to see Neville’s band at The Junction this Friday (October 4) can expect to hear a mixture of old songs, new work and some of the frontman’s favourite tunes growing up.
Which of the older songs does he particularly enjoy doing? “A Message to You Rudy, Ghost Town, Too Much Too Young, quite a few to be honest with you,” says Neville, “and there’s some from Special Beat and some from Fun Boy Three.
"My catalogue, if you want to put it that way, is quite big.”
Before 2-Tone, Coventry was probably best known for being bombed to near oblivion by the Germans during the Second World War.
A phenomenally successful movement and record label – who can ever forget the famous black and white check design? – 2-Tone seems just as beloved now as it ever has.
Highly active in the Coventry community, Neville is a patron of the Coventry Music Museum at the 2-Tone Village.
He believes that the genre just gets “better and better” in terms of popularity.
“Loads and loads of kids nowadays follow us and turn up at festivals, because obviously they can’t get into a lot of the venues due to age restrictions,” says Sugary, who reveals that Neville was her ‘pin-up’ when she was younger.
“There are so many kids wanting to meet us. We always have some signed photos, badges and stuff to give out to them.”
The effortlessly cool Neville believes the reason for this is simple: “It’s the type of music, it’s dance music, and when they get into the music, then the lyrics make them realise, ‘Oh, so that’s what they’re singing about’.
"But it’s the music and it’s infectious, it’s really infectious.
"A lot of the music now, I do not understand because there’s no subject matter.
“Back then, the music had a lot of subject matter; it was more danceable, you could understand it, but nowadays I can’t get my head around it.”
Sugary interjects: “Nev’s always saying that it’s either very sexualised or very simplified lyrics, and repetitive.
"But I must say, I think the tide is turning because you now have Grime and that kind of street music, where they are starting to sing about what’s happening around them... and a lot of them are sampling Neville’s early music.”
The couple make an effort to understand what is happening to young people on the country’s streets, including the rise of knife crime and its causes.
Sugary says: “I don’t think there’s any one thing – I think it’s a combination of things.
"I think it’s everything from discipline over the years changing to a point where now even children often have a lot more rights than parents.
“I think policing – community policing in particular – has been reduced.
"Youth services, youth clubs being reduced down and down and down - and I think attitudes as well.
"Nowadays, everyone’s just got their head stuck in a phone or on a screen of some kind, so sometimes the guidance is missing for young people.
“I also think a lot of them are getting tarred with the same brush because there’s some young people out there doing some amazing things.”
Neville adds that the honorary degree was awarded to him partly for all his philanthropic endeavours.
“That was for music and my work in the community,” says Neville, “helping others from my background to show them you can come from a rough background and make something of your life.
"I didn’t expect it, it was a nice surprise.”
The singer has never stopped working, starting his musical career working with Pete Waterman, Ray King, The Coventry Automatics and his Jah Baddis Sound System, before taking to the stage with The Specials as part of the famous 1978 tour with The Clash and Bernie Rhodes.
In 2009 (the same year Neville and Sugary met), The Specials went out on tour to celebrate their 30th anniversary, and tickets sold out within an hour.
The lineup consisted of lead singer Terry Hall, guitarist/vocalist Lynval Golding, guitarist Roddy Byers – aka Roddy Radiation – bass player Horace Panter, drummer John ‘Brad’ Bradbury (who died in 2015) and of course Neville on vocals.
Nikolaj Torp Larsen took over from Jerry Dammers on keyboards.
However, the Original Rude Boy, who still works with Roddy – who quit The Specials in 2014 – from time to time, almost declined to take part.
“The fans who hadn’t seen The Specials, or who had grown up hearing their parents talk about us, wanted it,” says Neville.
“Although it wasn’t all of us, we were still giving them what they wanted, which was brilliant.”
Sugary says: “It was Jerry who first approached Neville about a reunion.
"He came to Neville’s shows and realised, ‘Wow, the fans are still really loving this’.
“So it was him who instigated the reunion, but then by the time several meetings had taken place, suddenly he was sort of pushed out and Nev didn’t like that.
"It took a while to convince Neville to do it without Jerry.
"In the end, they convinced him that the fans would want it and they said they would review getting Jerry back later – but they never did, which is also partly what made him leave.”
The couple are working on a new book, which will explore what happened with The Specials’ 2009 reunion in more detail.
“There was no equal say, and I couldn’t take it,” remembers Neville.
An extensive article on The Specials, to mark their 40th anniversary, appeared in the October issue of Q magazine.
Featuring interviews with Terry, Lynval and Horace – the only original members left in the current lineup – the piece quotes Horace Panter as saying: “If you ask seven different people – six now because Brad’s dead – about their experience of The Specials, they will all give you a different story.”
I mentioned this to Neville, who hadn’t seen the article.
“They’re just covering their backs,” he laughs, “but it’s true though, we’ve all got different stories.
"I wasn’t happy doing the reunion – I wasn’t even happy doing it when we first started because Jerry wasn’t there.”
But Neville says he took to the stage for the fans – including the late Amy Winehouse, who joined The Specials on stage for a few performances.
Neville remembers her with fondness.
“It was brilliant when Amy came on stage with us,” he recalls, signalling to a large framed photograph of himself with the Rehab singer hanging on the wall.
“She was a very great artist. I never thought, ‘Well, she hasn’t got long’ – she always looked like she would be there forever.
"She really drew the fans in, I really enjoyed it when she came on stage.”
The 40th Anniversary of 2-Tone featuring the Neville Staple Band will take place at The Junction (J1) on Friday, October 4.
Roddy Byers’ band, The Skabilly Rebels, are also on the bill.
Doors: 7pm. Tickets: £22.50 in advance.
Box office: 01223 511511