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roddy byers
coventry automatics  the specials  roddy radiation and the tearjerkers

friars appearances 28/06/78 12/06/80 05/11/82 03/05/13

One of the most important bands at the turn of the decade into 1980 was The Specials. A multi racial band and very charged lyrics saw them identify with a generation. And in Ghost Town, they made one of the defining records of the 1980s. Here we have a chat with guitarist Roddy Byers about The Specials and their reunion.


Roddy Byers on the Specials reunion tour 2009. Photo c Joe Kerrigan/

Hello Roddy and welcome to the Friars Aylesbury website.

Legend has it that your first appearance at Friars, supporting the Clash in June 1978, was the night you changed your name from The Coventry Automatics to The Specials. Do you remember that?

Yes that was the first gig under our new name. Another band had the same name and had recently been signed up to a recording contract.

Why were there in effect the two names of the band with The Specials and the Special AKA?

Yes confusing isn't it? I think Jerry Dammers had wanted the Special A.K.A. but as it was a bit of a mouthful it was shortened to the Specials.

But at different times in our careers it reverted back to the Special A.K.A.

Looking back, how defining was it that you set up the 2 Tone Label?  I mean that in the sense of it defined an era and pretty much defined a sound/movement in a way that Motown did even if some of the bands left the label fairly soon like The Beat.

Two Tone was Jerry Dammers' idea, most of us were just pleased to get a recording contract but Jerry wanted a movement and a label to put like minded bands on. I don't think the idea was for the bands Jerry signed to stay but just to give them a "leg up" so too speak.

I also loved the initial home made feel of it all. I remember buying Gangsters in 1979 in a white sleeve with the title having been inked on with a rubber stamp!

We took turns stamping the labels and covers but I think Horace Panter our bass guitarist did most of them by himself.

That was an impressive roster on the label though – although you had an unusual clause in allowing bands to leave after one single, only The Beat and Madness (I think) took this route. Aside form yourselves, who were, in your opinion the most significant band/artist on the label?

I didn't really have a say in who was signed or I would have probably picked a rockabilly group or punk rock band - which is probably why I didn't get a choice I suppose?

The Specials came together as an anti-racism politically charged band – was this purely a reaction to the time of Thatcher coming into power or you would have gone down this route regardless? To explain that a bit more, I mean this was around the time when Rock Against Racism and anti-fascism and then anti-Thatcher sentiment was high.

Well being a mixed race group and Terry being of Jewish descent we thought we had to make a stand against Fascist groups like the National Front.

And most of us were working class and disliked Thatcher and her Tory policies.

The Specials resonated with so many people not only with the quality music, but lyrically, words were not minced in the likes of Stupid Marriage and Too Much Too Young – people were reacting to you because of the lyrics more than anything else as there a lot of messages there.

Our songs sadly still apply today!  There are are still right wing fascist groups - BNP and the EDL. - "Doesn't Make It Alright" Under age mothers - "Too Much Too Young" Privilege in education - "Rat Race", Mindless violence on the streets - "Concrete Jungle"

Concrete Jungle is one of your songs from before the Specials, you must have been pleased to record that with the band and also becoming one of the principal songwriters with great songs like Rat Race (a personal favourite)

Well it was hard trying to get my songs chosen as Jerry was our leader and also our main song writer, but I was pleased Rat Race, Concrete Jungle and Hey Little Rich Girl were recorded by the band.

How do you feel the Rude Boy image and punk energy and attitude worked together? There really were very few bands like you. Other multi race bands of the time like UB40 and The Selecter in terms of attitude seemed very very behind you irrespective of their social and political leanings. Did you see it that way as they were not really competitors as such?

I was a punk rocker I suppose. When I joined the band I wasn't very keen on wearing Tonic suits at all!  But I think my contribution helped make the Specials different to all the other bands that played ska and rock steady.

Some of the late 70's ska movement were political some weren't, but we were all anti racist and anti Thatcher's government.

I think we mostly got on band wise as we toured together and shared the same tour buses, hotels etc.

THAT single, Ghost Town, is one of the most celebrated records of the 1980s and practically defines a generation. What reaction did you anticipate at the time? And also the fact it is still relevant 30 years later?

I don't think we realised what an era defining record Ghost Town was going to be. Apart from Jerry who said it was going to be the biggest record ever!

After a couple of close calls, you came back to Friars in 1980 for the birthday party gig, one of Britain’s biggest bands selling out the gig in no time. That was an interesting one, I remember Lynval Golding (and possibly a couple of others) jumping in to the crowd and there seemed to be general mayhem! Do you remember the gig?

Apparently. I've read we weren't too well behaved at the 1980 gig... sorry -  I think by then we were all a bit tired and jaded.

I gather that The Specials were asked to back Debbie Harry on The Tide Is High around 1980 but Mr Dammers vetoed the idea – why?

Well so the story goes, but maybe Jerry didn't like the idea of his band becoming backing musicians to what Jerry would class as pop artists.

Why did the Specials stop in 1981 after a catalogue of hit singles and two successful albums? Was there the inter band friction that has been suggested or the strain of trying to break America<. But Ghost Town was a fine way to be remembered.

I wasn't happy with the situation and I know a few others weren't. Jerry's guidance had got us guys where we were but we all felt we could offer more in our own individual styles. The constant touring and the very different personalities finally pulled us apart.

After three of the band went on to form Fun Boy Three, do you feel it was right to carry on irrespective of having a massive hit with Free Nelson Mandela (and bringing the man to most people’s consciousnesses for the first time)? And bringing back the AKA nametag was presumably an attempt to say this is something different to what you are.

Jerry wanted to change the world and he has done to a point - good on him.

You came back to Friars in 1982 with the Tearjerkers. I know you worked with several bands around that time. How did you see your plans for the Tearjerkers and yourself generally at the time? You were gigging a lot round Europe with the Tearjerkers weren’t you?

The Tearjerkers did a U.K. tour supporting Stiff Little Fingers which was great fun, and my new songs which I've labelled "Skabilly" I continue to play up until the present day with my new band the Skabilly Rebels.

There’s been various Specials related projects since the original break up but what sowed the seed to start the “proper” reunion process in 2008? Why then?

Lynval Golding, the Specials other guitarist, had been trying for years to get the original band back together, some of us did in 1994 in what was known as the Specials M.K.2 mainly touring in the U.S.A.  In 2008 everybody agreed to try it again, but Jerry Dammers had different plans for the band so the majority sadly decided to tour without him.

It’s been quoted that the door has been left open for Jerry to return to the fold but that would seem unlikely? It seems he decided against taking part in the reunion rather than you leaving him behind?

I've no idea what plans are afoot for the Specials but I doubt Jerry will be involved which is sad as the Specials was his baby.

Best wishes Roddy and thank you.

Official Specials website

Official Roddy Radiation website

This interview and its content are © 2012 Mike O'Connor/ and may not be used in whole or in part without permission.


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