The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

As you may know – I co-wrote Neville Staple of The Specials’ biography which was published in paperback this year – Original Rude Boy.┬áThe lead up to publication involved two years of intense but rewarding research interviewing Neville on many occasions but also all those around him throughout his turbulent life. Bit by bit, I was able to piece together and structure this compelling biography.

At the same time that I was writing Original Rude Boy, I was also working on the biography of Coventry black British boxer Errol Christie. His biography, No Place To Hide, and Original Rude Boy were published by Aurum Press/Quarto. What fascinated me was that although both men were of Jamaica heritage, the age gap between them meant they had differing views of their homeland and life in Britain.

WATCH: Neville Staple playing Gangsters!

Neville was born in Jamaica in 1955. He’s a very spiritual person and has a strong affinity to Caribbean culture. As a child, Neville experienced being displaced from the warmth and lushness of Jamaica to the grey cloudiness of Britain in the early 1960s. But he soon embraced Coventry and threw himself headfirst into music.

Errol was born in England in 1963 – Leicester to be exact. Then moved to Coventry. He bridled at the churchgoing habits of his Jamaica parents and their belief in ‘duppies’, malevolent Jamaican spirits. In short, his personal beliefs were far more secular than Neville. And unlike Nev, he didn’t make friends among the city’s skinheads.

Because by the late 1970s when Errol came of age, the skinhead scene had been infiltrated by neo-Nazis and fights between black youth and skins were depressingly frequent. Whereas in Neville’s childhood a few years earlier, older skinheads recognised the music and fashion debt they owed to Jamaica. Not that they weren’t violent and more than capable of being racist on occasion as detailed in one big fight scene in Original Rude Boy. But those attitudes weren’t as embedded and organised as they’d become in the late 1970s.

Both Errol and Neville had very authoritarian Jamaica fathers – kings in their own home. Fearsome dictators who meted out extremely rough justice to their children with no chance of appeal. Errol’s father was an undiagnosed schizophrenic. Neville’s father somehow managed to embed a fork in his head in one family argument.

Nev’s drift into crime was detailed in his biography. As the son of a probation officer, I was enthralled by the stories of his burglaries. Not to condone his past actions but just to get inside the mind of a young housebreaker fifty years ago. However, a couple of reviewers disliked what they mistook to be the glorification of crime. Well, some people are just sitting there waiting to be offended. I’m glad we told it like it was.

When it came to Nev’s music – I wanted to know every last detail about the black sound system scene of the 1970s. Neville had a system called Jah Baddis where he honed his ‘toasting’ skills. That is an early form of what most people would call rapping now. I relied heavily on Neville’s lifelong buddies Trevor Evans and Rex Griffiths to give me huge amounts of information on the sound system. The construction of speakers and turntables using a combination of electronic equipment with household furniture.

And so we came to The Specials. An eclectic mix of people who often rubbed each other up the wrong way but together created something magical on stage – and on vinyl. Most importantly, their line-up was an anti-racist statement in of itself. A declaration that black and white was equal. Their musical style was based on Jamaican ska – which by the late 1970s many black youth regarded as ‘old man’s music’. It had been popular over fifteen years before in the Caribbean. Now it was back.

It had found its time. With industrial decline and high rates of youth unemployment in late 1970s Britain – racism was on the rise. Extreme right wing and neo-Nazi groups blamed black and Asian people for the country’s problems. Street violence was all too common. Worst of all – people were even murdered solely on the basis of the colour of their skin.

On 23 April 1981, Satnam Singh Gill – a 20-year-old Asian youth – was stabbed to death in broad daylight in Coventry. A month later, an anti-racist demonstration was held in protest at this senseless act. Unbelievably, racist skins turned up to jeer the march. And the whole thing descended into a riot. This turned out to be one of many riots across the UK in the summer of 1981 as frustrations over unemployment and racism boiled over. In June 1981, The Specials headlined a gig at the Butts Stadium in Coventry to try and pull the city back together in a firm rejection of hatred and bigotry.

The band released the single ‘Ghost Town’ – a powerful song that detailed the bleak despondency felt by millions of people during the recession of 1979 to 1981. It reached number one in the pop charts and stayed there for three weeks. At exactly the same time, the riots spread from London to Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and from city to city. This was the high point of The Specials. They had captured the national mood. And then they split up.

Neville along with Specials lead vocalist Terry Hall and fellow band member Lynval Golding departed to form Fun Boy Three. After two years of bouncy, happy, bubblegum pop, that folded. After this, Neville returned to his musical roots becoming a mentor to ‘third wave’ ska bands around the world. Today, Neville gigs with his own band and puts on an amazing show!

Some of the stories you can expect to find in Original Rude Boy:

  • Neville’s rough childhood and how he battled through it
  • How he met future Specials roadies Trevor and Rex
  • The amazing sound system scene and his system, Jah Baddis
  • Why Neville ended up doing a stint in borstal
  • When he first met the Coventry Automatics
  • Going on the road with the 2Tone bands
  • Being managed by Bernie Rhodes
  • What it was like hanging out with the legendary Jerry Dammers
  • Why did The Specials split?
  • What he really thought about Fun Boy Three
  • Forming the Neville Staple Band and taking ska on the road
  • The Americans who picked up the 2Tone flame

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