STOP YOUR MESSIN’ AROUND – Neville And Christine Sugary Staple On 40 Years Of 2Tone, Knife Crime and The Specials’ New Album

For those old enough to remember, culturally and politically 1979 was shaping up to be a pretty grim and demoralising year.

In February Sid Vicious had overdosed, choking to death on his own vomit, while charged with the second degree murder of his girlfriend Nancy Spungen.

Then in May, Margaret Thatcher swept to power with a divisive brand of politics which many agree created a breeding ground for social unrest and racial tension.

Those tensions would boil over into a summer of riots in Brixton and Toxteth in 1981 as black youths vented their anger at perceived police harassment.

It is against this backdrop that a group of like-minded musicians began to coalesce around a label whose whole ethos ran counter to the prevailing mood of racial disharmony.

Unfashionable Coventry became home to 2Tone Records, founded by The SpecialsJerry Dammers and run initially by a 14-strong board featuring the seven members of his band and label mates The Selecter – the septet who’d joined them on their first release.

2Tone’s fusion of Jamaican ska and bluebeat with the aggression and political consciousness of punk proved an intoxicating mix and the label achieved instant success.

Kids, who a few months before might have been putting a safety pin through their nose or donning a fishtail parka with a target on the back, were now raiding second hand stores for skinny suits, loafers and pork pie hats.

Such was 2Tone’s domination that one edition of Top of The Pops on 8 November 1979 featured three of their acts – Madness, joining The Specials and The Selecter in what felt like a mini revolution.

The Beat and The Bodysnatchers would follow them into the charts and the 2Tone tours of ’79 and ’80 – modelled on Motown Revue shows – received a riotous reception.

With its iconic black and white logo, 2Tone was longer just a label but a genre. The lunatics had well and truly taken over the asylum.

It couldn’t last of course, these things never do.

Madness jumped ship to Stiff Records and the relationship between 2Tone’s board members began to fracture.

Riven by disputes over business decisions and musical direction, The Specials imploded spectacularly – splitting just as they were about to hit No1 with Ghost Town – a song which crystallised the simmering discontent in Britain’s inner cities.

But while the label may be gone, the music lives on, with new generations discovering ska, just as the likes of Suggs and Dammers had uncovered the music of Jamaican artists like Prince BusterDesmond Decker and Byron Lee and the Dragonaires.

The Specials’ original toaster and vocalist Neville Staple – a 2Tone board member – played a major role in turning the Midlands into a ska mecca through his Jah Baddis and Messenger sound systems.

Still active with his own band, Neville along with wife Christine ‘Sugary’ Staple, his co-singer and manager, is at the heart of 40th anniversary celebrations of the 2Tone label.

There’s a special exhibition at the Coventry Museum of Music and shows and tours galore featuring a mixture of ska revivalists and first wave acts such as The Skatalites.

Dammers will be joining in for some shows but sadly a full reunion of The Specials will not be happening.

In a wide ranging interview with Matt Catchpole, Neville and Sugary explain the enduring appeal of ska and bluebeat, the rise and fall of 2Tone and the bitterness that still festers between Neville and some of his former bandmates.

They outline their battle against knife crime, prompted by terrible personal tragedy, and give their verdict on the new Specials’ album Encore – featuring original members Terry HallHorace Panter and Lynval Golding.

ENJOY YOURSELF – Sugary and Neville toasting up a storm

Two Tone Records is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, what can you remember about the early days of setting up the label?

Neville: I remember not thinking about any of the real stuff like signing the right documents, protecting my own works and writing. I also remember how cool we were about the phenomenon we were creating. It just didn’t sink in. We were lugging about all over the country and over to France in a shabby old van, just doing our thing like most musicians of that time. Jerry kept the clever stuff in check (‘scuse the pun!!) while I got busy entertaining the crowds up front, toasting, singing, stomping and climbing!

Are you planning any special events and shows to celebrate?

Neville: Yes, we have already done some 40th Anniversary Shows in London and in Rotherham, with loads more to come. The shows include my Neville Staple Band, Roddy Radiation and his Skabilly Rebels Band, plus we have former members of The Beat, Dexy’s Midnight Runners and General Public who make up the Beat Goes Bang band. Drew Stansall (ex Specials Sax player) also comes along and some of the Summer and Autumn shows will include Jerry Dammers, so there’s a lot of original 2Toners in the house for these shows and they are going down really well.

CHECKERED HISTORY – 2Tone Label artwork featuring the Walt Jabasco logo designed by Jerry Dammers from a photo of The Wailers’ Peter Tosh

Sugary you’ve spearheaded the twice-yearly Skamouth weekenders, which feature some of the Ska, Mod and Bluebeat originators – are you planning anything special for 2019?

Sugary: Oh yes! We love the Skamouth Weekenders. They’re run like festivals but with a super mates-on-holiday feel to it among the crowds. We will be doing a big celebration of 40 years of 2Tone and its roots this year, with the Neville Staple Band, Rhoda Dakar, Derrick Morgan, Eric ‘Monty Morris’, Doreen Schafer and The Skatalites with Lester Sterling, Keith and Tex, Rudy Mills, Bad Manners and some surprise guests as always. We fly in the original legends to the UK, who will not only perform on stage, but will then hang around for the weekend, have breakfast chats, signing sessions and lots of fun stuff. It makes it such a stomp for the fans. We also have plans for a 40th Anniversary of Quadrophenia coming up at Skamouth this year, with a lot of the original cast joining us.

How important was 2Tone for you as a young singer and Ska fan Sugary?

Sugary: I was someone who was coming up to my teens when 2Tone hit the music scene, it was spot on for me. The late ’70s and the early ’80s had seen so much unrest in the UK, so 2Tone music gave us a way to rebel against the system, against racism, against the establishment, against the gang from the next estate, in a slightly more subtle way than punk did (which I also loved). It also had a tidy and clever image and sound to go with it. It was a perfect mix of ska, reggae and punk and a perfect mix of attitudes and representations for us kids, who were going nowhere and had no voice. It became our voice!

Tell me about the 2Tone Village in Coventry which you curate?

Neville: Sugary is a patron of the 2Tone Village and helps to keep the high-level spotlight on the place by bringing her legendary Skamouth artists and others to come along for events and plaque unveilings. They love to honour the people behind the music, especially the legends. I am patron of the Coventry Music Museum there and have been part of some top exhibitions, including one about my life and career last year, which mirrored stories and details from my book, Original Rude Boy. Now I am part of a 40th Anniversary of 2Tone exhibition that runs all this year and into 2020. We both give our exclusive merchandise to the shop there for selling and do a lot of meet and greet, fund-raising, plus signing and photos with fans, who come from all over to meet us both.

Sugary: It’s a super place to visit, with the super music museum, the 2Tone Corner clothing, footwear and official 2Tone and band merchandise shop, the Hall of Fame Memorabilia gifts, sports, and music shop, which has loads of signed framed pics, albums, signed autobiographies, mugs, keyrings, patches and lots of gift ideas. Then you have the 2Tone Café, the Simmer Down Caribbean Restaurant and finally Knights Bar & Venue, where they put on all types of events and gigs in there. Great little hubbub with food, drinks and shopping. Perfect!

Neville was it always the Specials plan to their your own label?

Neville: No. It was more of the case that the record companies were not offering the right assurances. If you’re clever enough to have business sense, then doing your own thing independently was the right thing to do. I even created, registered and established my Shack Records label a few years later, with the inspiration from the 2Tone label and Jerry.

Was it true that the label was basically run from a couple of office drawers in Jerry’s flat?

Haha! Yeah, more or less. But Jerry was no idiot! He was a very clever business man.

There’s some great footage of The Specials playing literally surrounded by their audience on stage – was that inclusiveness very important to the band?

Yeah, we wanted to share the space. It was about unity, it was about being heard, so let’s all be heard together and while we are at it, enjoy ourselves.

Did the fusion of punk and ska happen naturally, or was it a conscious decision to marry those elements together?

Neville: That was definitely Jerry’s idea. Most people thought he was nuts! Pete Waterman could see the success it would go on to make, but many others didn’t. When I first heard an early rehearsal at our local youth club and met and became friends with Jerry, before Brad {drummer John Bradbury} or Terry joined, I was intrigued and really liked what I heard. I knew the songs already, because most of our Specials songs are either covers or sampled adaptations of old ska, bluebeat or rocksteady tunes that I had grown up with, but with a punky rock backing to make the songs more British. As we developed more covers, adaptations and even written work, we still needed to keep some authentic sounds in there, which is why as well as singing lead on most of the songs, with or without Terry, I also did some Jamaican toasting (chatting lyrics and vibes), like I did on my Jah Baddis and Messenger sound systems.

2TONE TRIUMVIRATE – Pauline Black and Suggs with Neville (Walt stayed on the bus)

Bands on the label had massive hits almost immediately – did it feel like a revolution, like you were riding a wave?

Neville: At the time it was all a bit of a whirlwind to be honest. One minute we were buying second hand suits in Coventry, or sleeping on dodgy floors in Camden and on top of equipment in the back of the van, then the next minute were were in top hotels, performing on Top of the Pops, travelling the world and enjoying the success. You didn’t really have time to think about it. In fact you think about these things more when they stop for a while or change.

How about the business side of it all? Did that get in the way of the music?

Sugary: (Laughs) Neville signed a few things in the early days and basically gave away the rights to his own writing, without even knowing it. He has also always had a manager, agents and representatives, some great and some not. When he ran his own labels, he paid for the right staff to do the right things, so it worked. But in relation to your question, I guess it would be a yes, just like for most musicians. Business, administration, legal issues, tax issues and so on, all cause mayhem for musicians.

Was it a source of arguments within the group?

Neville: Yes. And it still is. Which is why The Specials and all the other 2Tone Bands are all split up and just mostly doing their own thing. I hate big egos and people who think they are better than others, or who do see their colleagues as equals. Man, I am so lucky to have the Neville Staple Band guys & rude girl backing me, plus Sugary managing things along with my agent Pip at Midnight Mango. We really look out for each other, big time. We have a laugh too and really do get on like a bunch of mates. And most importantly, we do it because we love it. My label Cleopatra Records are brilliant too, so with them, great PR and top publishing companies looking out for us, it’s a super bunch. It was a very different story with the {Specials} reunions. Arguments became a way of life and {there was a} general lack of compassion or understanding for each other.

MAGNIFICENT SEVEN – The original Specials line-up

Suggs has described meeting the Specials in The Hope and Anchor for the first time and watching the show as an epiphany – were you surprised that there were people in London doing a similar thing to what you were doing in Coventry?

Neville: No not really. The Coventry and Midlands bands seemed to make a point of having mixed black and white bands, as a show of unity against ugly racism at the time. We also kept a very Jamaican feel to the sound with a rebel attitude (like punk and rebel reggae). Madness always had a more popular and fun music feel, which is probably why they went on to become a successful pop band after their very short stint on 2Tone Records. I salute that they are still very much intact as a band and the guys work hard too.

What would you say are your Top Five 2Tone singles?

Sugary: We have debated and then chosen our favourite five together, although we both agree that some of our top favourite Specials tracks (like tracks from the Guilty Til Proven Innocent album) are awesome, but were not released 2Tone Label:

  1. A Message To You Rudy
  2. Do Nothing
  3. Stereotype Extended
  4. Ghost Town
  5. You’re Wondering Now

There’s been lots of talk about fights over the recording of the 2nd album More Specials – how do you feel about that record now?

Neville: I think Jerry had ideas to go somewhere else with the music that many of us didn’t want to go to, or at least not yet. We wanted to stay on the punky ska wave, and it seemed too early to switch to something so different, so quickly. Jerry had things in mind, but some of us wanted to do other things and also to be a little bit more in charge of our own destinies and ideas, so we split. More Specials wasn’t a bad album to be honest. There was some good stuff on there.

Sugary: I liked most of the More Specials album. The best songs on there were definitely Do Nothing and Hey Little Rich Girl, plus I love the extended mix of Stereotype (I love Neville’s fun dub toasting along to it. He also does a blinding stoner dub version of Do Nothing on his Rude Boy Returns album), which is the best ever version.

SPECIAL BREW – Neville and Sugary keep the 2Tone flame burning

Ghost Town was a comment on inner-city frustration and violence in the late ‘70s and early ’80s – frustrations which seem to be on the rise again. Your own grandson Fidel was a tragic victim of knife crime and you have spoken out many times against violence. What do you think authorities and communities need to be doing to try and deal with this problem?

Neville: I can’t believe we are still dealing with the same issues but much worse now. I know about street violence and have lived it. Sugary lived through it too in London growing up in a rough East London area. We had knife crimes among young people, but it was so very rare and to be honest, it was never as young as it is now.

Sugary: Communities seem to have broken down. And yes, the Government needs to seriously look at this problem as a matter of urgency, but we must also remember our place as parents. I know so many people who have no ideas where their young family members go once they step outside the house. They don’t know who they are with or what they may have in their pockets. These same people will be shocked and stressed if they find out their child has been hurt or has done some hurting with a lethal weapon, but yet they had never done anything to combat the issue. I say that all parents, grandparents, uncles, aunties, friends and cousins must look out for the young people in your lives. Talk to them, inspire them, help them – they may need help to get out of being the person who carries a knife or does other bad shit they don’t want to do, but may have been groomed into doing. Discuss these issues with them so they can build up trust in telling you stuff. Don’t assume it is someone else’s problem. Don’t assume it is a black on black issues. All of those things are myths. It is happening everywhere with all kinds of young people. Males and females. Get your phone out of your hand for an hour a day and check out all of the above before its too late for you. And while you are at it, try giving your local MP’s a nudge about local youth.

The now 3-piece Specials have a new album out. What did you think of it? Any plans to hook up with them again on tour?

Sugary: What album?? (winks)

Neville: The album sounds a bit like they have tried to follow the music of the more unusual tracks we did on More Specials, but I don’t really know to be honest. I know a lot of fans hate it and a lot like it. Some will buy it just to ensure they have it in their collection. Some will buy into it because it’s The Specials. I will be diplomatic and say that it is not what I was expecting, after trying to get the guys to do a new album for so long after our last reunion in 2009. I have always been part of writing new material during all our Specials reunions over the years and we have done some cracking upbeat stomping ska songs, if I say so myself! (Laughs). I think I was expecting something more up tempo, strong and with a 2Tone / ska feel, instead of this very laid back, not quite reggae, definitely not ska, mostly ballad or talking offering. I suppose as they are using the Specials name, which carries a lot of responsibility, I wanted it to have more oomph and be more clever, more street. But as long they are okay with it.

I really can’t see any touring happening, after they refused an olive branch and my offer to do a full and proper reunion for the fans this year, then insulted me, Jerry and Roddy publicly, then insulted my wife on the phone, who has shown nothing but respect – until they turned on me and the guys. I can’t deal with that kind of crap. I’m happier doing what I have always done with enjoying the music, the fans, the message and the vibes. I also don’t like using bargain bucket or devious ways to get my music noticed or charted, so will just stay as I am thanks.

TOO MUCH TO YOUNG? – Neville with Jerry Dammers and Terry Hall

Jerry has studiously avoided the recent Specials reunions – but you’ve worked with him fairly recently haven’t you?

Yeah, several times including with his Spatial AKA Orchestra. Sugary has worked with Jerry a fair bit too and they chat regularly. In relation to the reunions, that’s not for me to comment on really, apart from to say, there is much more that goes on behind the scenes than you or the fans will ever understand! There has been some real nasty business go on that I am not permitted to mention. Some people will never be properly happy because chipping away at something to make their ego and importance bigger, gets to you in the end I’m sure. Trying to control a joint iconic band and moulding it into something that looks more like one man and his backing band, is f**ked up! So JD did the right thing in staying away from that. I should have too! Sugary talks to Jerry even more than I do. My wife Sugary is great at being supportive and a good listener.

Did either of you imagine they’d still be this interest in the Specials and 2Tone 40 years on?

Neville: I have been performing, writing, touring across the world, producing, collaborating and promoting all things 2Tone for all of 40 years, so for me it has never stopped. So ut does not seem strange or surprising at all that there is still interest. Even when I had a massive nine-year career in the US, taking the 2Town sounds from the LA Coast across the US, Mexico and South America in the 1990’s, then back to Japan and the Far East, the interest just increased over and over again. We have done several Specials reunions over the years and I have put out a lot of new music too. Across the UK, Europe and Internationally, it has never stopped. I guess it is because the music has always been great for stomping and dancing to. The lyrics have always been either fun or rebellious and people can feel that the songs are all about them. Even our newest albums Rude Rebels and Return of Judge Roughneck have been snapped up by long term fans as well as a lot of young people too. 2Tone will live on!

A PIZZA THE ACTION – The Specials tuck in

Sugary: There is a whole new breed of young fans now, who understand the new and old lyrics, because they are still all relatable. But more importantly, all the original 2Toners are now middle aged and mostly have more time or dosh to get out and get involved all over again and relive their youth, so they come to our shows and buy the records too. Many bring their grown-up kids along and they get hooked on it too. It’s more than just a fashion.

I believe you’re in the studio again at the moment. What are you working on?

Neville: Sugary and I have been really pleased with the great reviews of our Rude Rebels album. We wrote all the songs on the album together, except for When I Call Your Name, which we agreed to cover for our great friend Stranger Cole. He loves our version. Sugary and I write all our material together and we are currently, working on two new singles. The first one is sampled from Rudy, A Message to You (in collaboration with Dandy Livingstone) and is all about the current knife crime wave hitting the UK among the young people. It’s called Put Away Your Knives.The song raises awareness, sends out a message to young people to fix up, plus supports the charitable work of Victim Support. The second song is a fun 2Tone Ska song about selfless people who work hard every day, mostly to make other people’s lives better, not necessarily their own. This song came from the great Charlie Organaire coming up with a song idea, about Sugary. He came to her Skamouth Weekender with Prince Buster’s kids and was amazed at how hard Sugary worked behind the scenes, to ensure everything ran smoothly and everyone was looked after properly. Sugary and I loved the idea and so starting writing and recording, with the Neville Staple Band to create Working Hard Every Day.

  • For more about The Neville Staple band including upcoming shows and new releases visit the Original Rude Boy website here.
  • The next Skamouth weekender takes place from 25-29 April at Vauxhall Holiday Park, Great Yarmouth. Information and tickets here.

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