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Neville Staple: Interview with the Original Rude Boy (Includes interview)

Formed in Coventry in 1977, The Specials became one of Britain’s most revered and respected bands in the short time they were together. Jamaican-born Neville Staple toasted, sang and provided much of the incredible on-stage energy synonymous with the whole 2 Tone movement.

In late 2012, the animated frontman, a natural born entertainer who published his autobiography Original Rude Boy six years ago, left the reformed Specials (six of the original seven members – the architect of 2 Tone Jerry Dammers was the one noticeable absentee – regrouped in 2009) and released a new solo album Ska Crazy in 2014.

“Neville – I’ve never been called ‘Mr.’ for ages!” laughs the down to earth vocalist/MC, who quit the band for the first time in 1981 to form Fun Boy Three with lead singer Terry Hall and guitarist/vocalist Lynval Golding, when I ask over the telephone if I can speak to “Mr. Staple.”

“I’ve been recording the next album, I’ve been doing quite a bit of touring – festivals and stuff like that,” he replies, in answer to a question about his current projects. “So right now I’m working on the album and it’s nearly finished. Hopefully it’ll be out before Christmas.”

Ska Crazy is a collection of self-penned tunes and covers of ska classics, such as “Time Longer Than Rope,” “Hypocrite” and “Johnny Too Bad” – plus a new version of the Fun Boy Three‘s “The Farmyard Connection.”

Will the upcoming LP follow the same concept, ie. originals and covers?

“Yes, but in my own style – everything’s done in my own style,” insists the star in his relaxed tones, that could perhaps best be described as “Coventrian with a hint of Jamaican.” “Basically, I’ve done some new songs and songs that I grew up with and liked… It will be quite different from the first one.”

Going into more detail regarding Ska Crazy, Neville notes, “It just came because, like I said, I had these songs that I was gonna do before, and there’s a couple of my own ones. ‘Roadblock,’ that’s about the kids running around Coventry carrying knives and drugs…

“If you see the video for that, this young boy – about 20 – approached me and said, ‘Nev, I love that song because it’s what I’m feeling now.’ He said, ‘Do you mind if I make a video?’ So I said, ‘It’s gonna cost you.’

“He says, ‘No, my mum left me some bereavement money.’ I said, ‘Are you sure?’ and he says, ‘Yeah, I want to do it,’ so he made a video – and I love that track.”

As mentioned previously, the singer/songwriter, still a proud resident of Coventry, walked away from The Specials at the end of 2012 (guitarist Roddy Radiation left in 2014 and the pair have since performed together). What does he like about being out on his own?

“I tell you what, there’s no back-biting, there’s no ‘I’m bigger than you’ because with my band, I said to them from day one, ‘Never mind about me being in The Specials, this is how I’ve always been with everybody.’ I’m the one who goes out and talks to the fans, the people on my road… When they notice me, I stop and talk to them.”

So Neville doesn’t miss being in the group most associated with the UK ska revival of the late 1970s, a group that continues to tour the world with four of its original members? “No, my band’s a lot better – we get on a lot better. It’s friendlier. The weight’s taken off your shoulders; you don’t have to walk and look behind you…

“When I do my shows, if we’re doing ‘A Message to You Rudy,’ for example, and we reach the end of it, I’ll say to my trombone player, ‘Give the people another swallow – they deserve it’ and we carry on. When he finishes his solo, I’ll say ‘Come on everybody, sing with me!’ Then the horn player comes in and finishes the song.

“We get the people involved. We don’t do it like how The Specials do it, the reformed Specials. I’m the entertainer in the band, to be honest with you. I talk, I run about, I get excited… That’s just me.”

At the time of his departure from these true legends of popular music, the official reason given was that it was due to issues concerning his health. However, it would appear things aren’t always as they seem:

“The health problem, that’s just a cover up,” proclaims the ska-punk pioneer, who shared a stage with Jerry Dammers and his Spatial AKA Orchestra “a few months back,” revealing the truth behind the split.

“If it was that much of a problem, why am I doing my own shows? Have you seen how many gigs I’m doing?! I don’t jump around so much. Well I’m getting old – I’m 60 now, aren’t I?”

Problems with his knees, exacerbated by a serious car crash four years ago, mean that Staple is not quite the whirling dynamo of old when doing his thing live, though his towering presence and charisma remain intact – and the gigs keep on coming. “I don’t know if you’ve seen my gig list,” he states, “but I’m all over the place, right up until I go away in December.”

It seems a number of British bands from that golden era of the late 1970s, early 1980s have now split into separate touring factions. I’m thinking mainly of UB40 and The Selector, as well as The Specials, and as Neville included “Johnny Too Bad” on his album – a song made famous in the UK by UB40 – I wondered what he made of it all.

“Well, Specials again, isn’t it? Specials, Selector, Oasis – it’s everywhere nowadays. More likely, money is what splits bands up, to be honest with you. It’s money or somebody thinks they’re better than the others in the band – or that they should be getting more.

“There’s more than one person in a band, and if I’m in The Specials and I’m getting the crowd going, it’s not because I’m trying to big myself up – I’m trying to big the band up. I’m making it different from how it was last time and getting the crowd more involved.

“If I’m doing something up front, I don’t want somebody thinking, ‘Oh, he’s taking the limelight.’ When I play with my band, I’ll say, ‘On bass, come up front’ and the bass player comes up front because it’s not just me, is it? The guitarist will come up front and the keyboard player will do a solo, and I’ll say, ‘Give him a hand!’ That’s entertaining.”

“Yeah, it was all right for the first two tours,” remarks the active collaborator, who has worked with numerous artists over the years, including the Dub Pistols, Desmond Dekker, Pauline Black and Ranking Roger, commenting on his old band’s 2009 reunion.

“Then after that certain people started getting too big-headed. I’m not into music for that. That’s what split The Specials up before, too many arguments and the same thing again.”

For more on Neville Staple, visit his official website.

For more on The Specials, go to theirs.

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