December 8, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Neville Staple joins The Specials

4 min read
Tony McMahon co-wrote the biography of Neville Staple of The Specials titled Original Rude Boy published by Aurum Press in 2009
original rude boy tony mcmahon

The sensational ska and 2Tone based biography – Original Rude Boy – details that fortuitous day when Neville Staple chanced upon The Specials at the Holyhead Youth Club in Coventry. He was toasting with a sound system combo called Jah Baddis at the time but all that was about to change!

“One day I walked into the Holyhead Youth Club to have a mooch around. The sound system equipment was stored there and I might have been popping in to check on it. As I approached the basement door, I could hear a band rehearsing. The sound was unfamiliar, it wasn’t a combo I’d come across before”.

It was a different line up to what would become the globally renowned pop sensation, The Specials. At that stage, Silverton Hutchinson was on drums. And a guy called Tim Strickland was on vocals – and not Terry Hall. But in charge of the proceedings was Jerry Dammers. He would soon transform the band, then called The Automatics, into The Specials.

Neville Staple at The Specials

Neville didn’t join the band immediately. He did a kind of musical apprenticeship as a roadie alongside his childhood buddies – Rex Griffiths and Trevor Evans. But as the future manager of The Specials, Bernie Rhodes, once said to me – it was Neville who brought a streetwise Jamaican sensibility into the band. Unlike Horace Panter and Lynval Golding, Neville wasn’t a musician in the mainstream sense. He didn’t play the guitar or keyboards. But what he did was ‘toast’ – an early form of rapping perfected on the sound system scene. And not something that could be replicated by sitting an exam.

The Specials succeeded by being a bit of eclectic mix. It meant there was always a degree of tension in the band. But all the elements were required for it to work. Even if that wasn’t always appreciated. It was like a recipe that wasn’t going to taste right unless all the ingredients were included.

From 1976, punk had detonated a bomb under the British pop scene. Suddenly, everything that went before looked complacent or fake. But punk had its own limitations. As Neville once said to me: “How many times can you say fuck off?” It needed to articulate the anger and frustration of young people in more depth. Neville came to realise that ska – a musical genre developed in his native Jamaica – could do that. Jerry Dammers was already on the same page.

“To me, ska made complete sense. There was a lot of resentment around and young people felt abandoned by society. I wasn’t a massively political person. But what ska vocalists had always done was sing about everyday issues in a matter-of-fact manner. Back in Jamaica it was like a musical newspaper.”

And as The Specials veered into ska, they adopted the rudeboy look. The tonic suits and Ben Sherman shirts were donned. Out went the last vestiges of punk attire. As Trevor Evans put it sardonically, “we gave white guys back to their mothers”. Neville, Trevor and Rex brought dressing sharp like a Jamaican rudeboy into The Specials. And I remember the impact at school as white middle class kids in the London suburbs put on pork pie hats and wore Harrington jackets.

Neville bounced on stage during one gig and toasted alongside Terry Hall. And his inclusion into The Specials became a done deal.

Neville Staple and The Specials – thirty years later!

When I came to work on Neville’s biography from 2007 to 2009, his departure from the original Specials had been over 25 years before. But in 2009, The Specials decided to reform. Without Jerry Dammers. A decision that would prove to be controversial and get a mixed reception from fans. Although the reunion gigs were heaving and there was a fantastic energy on stage. The photo below was taken by me backstage at the 02 Academy in Brixton and please forgive the grainy quality of the time. Pixels have increased since then. But a magical moment! For some reason however – Neville was on the other side of the room…

As you can imagine, there was heaps of stuff that never made it into Original Rude Boy. Neville has thought about a sequel or coffee table number to cover all the amazing material left out. If you are truly are a massive Specials geek and would like to see the kind of trivia we couldn’t pack into Original Rude Boy – then how about this – their hotel itinerary for the US tour in 1980.

The Specials US tour

Or how about Neville Staple’s briefcase? It did feature on the back cover of the hardback edition of Original Rude Boy. But here is a close up!

Neville Staple briefcase

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