The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

original rude boy tony mcmahon

Ten years ago I co-wrote the biography of Neville Staple – vocalist in The Specials. An entire generation came of age to the sound of that band. So it was a great honour to work with the Original Rude Boy on his life story.

And what a story!

Born in Jamaica and then leaving as a toddler for England. A rough childhood with an authoritarian father and plenty of racism on the streets. Falling into petty crime but also getting involved in the raucous and lively sound system music scene of the 1970s.

I followed his journey through the Coventry sound system scene in the 1970s with his good mates Trevor and Rex. Like many black youth at the time desperate to find a way out of the “ghost town” that was Coventry as it hurtled towards the riots of 1981. Unemployment was rising. Factories were closing. The youth suffered the most.

An accidental encounter with a relatively new band led to Neville joining The Specials. Their style of music was ska, a kind of speeded up reggae that had been fashionable in Jamaica in the 1960s. Next thing Nev was meeting The Clash and The Police as well as touring across the United States. All the time accompanied by his childhood friends Trevor and Rex. The three provided the band with its soul according to one former manager I interviewed.

There was all the hedonism of rock and roll. But also a growing awareness of Britain sinking into crisis at the end of the 70s. Joblessness, riots and murder. The killing of an Asian youth in Coventry would lead Neville Staple and The Specials to put on a gig for unity that brought a city back together.

Original Rude Boy, the life story of Neville Staple, was published in 2009 in hardback and a year later in paperback. Publication coincided with The Specials reforming and gigging across Europe. I went to the Brixton concerts and they were amazing. The energy was electric. And to see Neville Staple bounding across the stage was something else.

Below is a book reading of Original Rude Boy that Neville and Christine Staple did at Somerset House in London back in 2014. Shortly before, Neville had played a gig at the Chelsea football club venue. So I mixed the two events up in this iPhone shot movie. Enjoy!

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