Judge Roughneck is back and about to lay down the law at a venue near you.
Ska great Neville Staple revived the character, first heard on The Specials‘ Stupid Marriage, for his latest double album The Return of Judge Roughneck.
Now the Jamaican-born vocalist is heading out on the road to promote the record with a backing band featuring his wife Christine ‘Sugary’ Staple.
Arriving in England as a five-year-old, Neville Eugenton Staple, made his name on Coventry’s music scene in the 1970s with his Jah Baddis Sound System.
Starting out as a roadie, the formal Borstal Boy joined The Specials after being invited up on stage by keyboardist and 2Tone Records founder Jerry Dammers.
He would go on to form Fun Boy Three with Terry Hall and Lynval Golding, and later The Special Beat with Ranking Roger from fellow 2Tone band The Beat.
He released an autobiography Original Rude Boy in 2009 and has continued to work tirelessly ever since, working on numerous collaborations and solo albums with The Neville Staple Band.
Matt Catchpole finds the master toaster in ebullient form as he shares his thoughts on life, politics and his extraordinary career.
You’re just about go on tour again – do you enjoy life on the road?
I love it. Touring is the best part of my musical life. I get to perform to the fans who put me where I am and meet many of them too. It’s also great to see the new younger fans who have taken up the ska scene. Life on the road is much easier with my wife Christine there with me. She performs with me, manages me and the band, plus ensures things run smooth. We also have a silly sense of humour and have a lot of fun with the band, who are a great bunch.
Does playing live give you the same thrill as it did in the early days?
Even more so. Back then it was fantastic and so new to me. A Jamaican kid who came to the UK’s Midlands as a little boy, got in trouble as a teen, then turned my life around with my Sound System and then becoming a front man to The Specials and 2Tone music. However, now that I have been in the business for almost 40 years, with an international career in various collaborations and reinventions, I get an even better thrill knowing that I can still make the audiences, jump, stomp, sing along and party with me, all these years on. It’s brilliant!
Do you only play your solo stuff live, or do you play some of your earlier hits with The Specials and Fun Boy Three?
I would get screamed at by the fans if I only did my solo stuff! I love it all, so perform it all. They love it all, so get it all! I do a mixture of songs that I performed with The Specials, as well as some of my own stuff, plus some super ska classics that I grew up with. We change the set two or three times a year but always keep some key Specials songs in there, plus I have some ska versions of the Fun Boy Three hits in the set too.
How do you think your new music differs from your earlier work?
My most recent album Return of Judge Roughneck is more original ska, Bluebeat and reggae based, as opposed to just being 2Tone-style ska, but there are still elements of 2Tone in there too. It’s very different to a lot of The Rude Boy Returns album, but has some similarities to Ska Crazy. There is also another joint album being prepared now for release, with my wife, which is a mix of punk, ska, bluebeat and reggae. This has a lot of 2Tone style songs and we even have a lot of Roddy ‘Radiation’ Byers (ex-The Specials) performing his iconic guitar styles on there, as well as other up and coming Coventry musicians. We’re getting ready to talk to labels now.
Are you still inspired to write about the same subjects?
I still write about everyday issues affecting the people on the street, as well as some fun stuff. I think music is the best way to express yourself and get out your thoughts, feelings and troubles. Singing about the shit, can help to release it (laughs) – see what I done there?, so the fans always relate to it.
Do issues like the Brexit vote worry you, does it remind you of the political and racial divisions you were singing about in the ‘70s and ‘80s?
Yeah, I guess it does. Although like most people, I am actually sick of the word Brexit now. Just decide what you’re gonna do and get on with it please! I used to avoid taking in too much politics, but my wife is a current affairs junkie who follows these things, so I get running commentaries about issues that are affecting the country and the world. She puts things into perspective for me, hence why we do a lot of our writing together about it. We both feel that regardless of Brexit and other voting issues, you will still have politicians making seriously wrong decisions for the everyday people and mostly always picking on those most vulnerable. We both wonder where the rebels have gone and why there aren’t more uprisings. In the ’70s and ’80s there would have been hell to pay.
What do you make of Jeremy Corbyn, do you think he offers a realistic alternative to Theresa May?
I think Jeremy is a pretty, cool guy. He seems much more ‘everyday’ than Mrs May. She appears to be more into the elite things in life, where as he is a bit more in tune with the masses. He could fit in anywhere, like in a bar, at a concert, in a market place and even sat by him on a long plane journey. I’m really not quite sure Theresa May would fit in like that, or even look right in any of those places. She seems very separate from things like that. I think she needs to stand before Judge Roughneck and get some strict court orders from him!
You started out as a roadie with the Specials – how did you first get involved with them and what made you take to the stage that first time?
My first involvement with The Specials was when they were still called The Coventry Automatics. I became good friends with Jerry Dammers at our local youth club in Coventry, where I used to rehearse my toasting and Deejaying skills, for my Jah Baddis Sound System and I initially joined as a roadie. This was before Terry Hall and John Bradbury joined the band. Then later at a gig supporting The Clash, Jerry was so impressed with my toasting skills from the mixing desk that he called me on to the stage to perform. I never looked back. I went on to become a lead vocalist on many songs and some with Terry, as well as still doing a lot of toasting and some writing. Jerry often said that I gave the band the flavour it needed for the authentic Jamaican side to 2Tone’s punked up ska.
Did you improvise your vocals, or was everything carefully worked out between you Terry and Lynval?
We mostly all worked together and threw ideas about, but my toasting parts were mostly random and made up on the spot.
Were you surprised at the success of the early 2Tone bands?
Yeah, I think we all were. One minute we were all hanging out in Jerry’s flat discussing the next gig journey squashed in the back of an old van, sitting amongst the music equipment. Then the next thing we knew, we were jetting off across the world to perform and being carefully delivered to places like the US, Japan, the BBC’s Top of the Pops, or live Saturday TV shows. It took a while to sink in. I think most of us realised how much we had made it, after we split up! We were too busy enjoying it, to notice how big a deal it was.
Was chart success a priority for the band and the label?
No. In fact, I believe we were just happy some of our messages were getting out there. The trouble on the streets, the unrest, the racial tension, the lack of jobs or direction for the youths and lots of other stuff was being felt by us and our mates and families, so it was just really cool to be singing about all that and to have the masses letting off steam with our music. There was a message of unity in there too, which seemed to help a lot of people. All this was more important for us back then. We were not expecting chart success and fancy labels taking us on. Even less expected was the massive fashion wave that took off after we donned our tonic suits, Doc Martens boots, Harrington jackets and trilby style hats; and not forgetting the whole 2Tone black and white chequered clothes, that spread across the nation. It was brilliant, like a cult and really put Coventry on the map.
The Specials split at the height of their success – what was behind that first break-up?
Differences of opinions, some wanting to lead things in one direction, some in another. I guess we were such a mixed bag of personalities, with various skills and talents, we just wanted different things and couldn’t agree enough to stay together. It was probably the wrong move to split, but I for one took the bull by the horns and got stuck in and just kept going. I’ve never stopped. I did various Specials reunions over the years with four to five original members each time. We released various albums together including one with Desmond Dekker. I did the Special Beat with some Specials and Rankin Roger, then I did so many collaborations with lots of artists in the UK and the US, toured the world. I ran my own label, produced and managed artists, did some film work, wrote my biography, stayed in the US working and touring for nine years, came back to the UK. During a later tour I met up with Jerry at one of my shows. We spoke about a full on reunion in 2008. By 2009 it did happen, but unfortunately without Jerry, the 2Tone creator himself. Didn’t seem right, so after three years, I moved on again.
What was the aim with Fun Boy Three – the music seems consciously lighter in approach to The Specials?
The music itself may have been with some of the popular songs, but many people don’t realise that some of our lyrics were just as political and socially dark, sometimes much darker, than The Specials. Check these Fun Boy Three songs out, which I re-released ska versions of recently: Farmyard Connection is about surviving life without a job and unable to go on the dole, so you grow weed to sell, while dodging a corrupt police drug squad. In this case, a squad that takes away the drugs and just drives away (all kept off the records, because no arrests were made and so no evidence registered). The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum was about the ridiculous and evil things politicians do. The song says: ‘Go nuclear, the cowboy told us, but who am I to disagree/ ‘cause when that madman flicks the switch, the nuclear will go for me’. And ‘I’ve seen the faces of starvation, but I cannot see the point/ ‘cause there’s so much food here today, that no one wants to take away.. You should also definitely check out some of the lyrics on the album Waiting. There’s some pretty hard-hitting, sometimes controversial stuff in places. I guess the fun commercial pop songs smoothed over the dirtier songs.
You worked with the newly-reformed Bananarama in Fun Boy Three, how did you get on with them?
They were a great bunch of ladies. We helped to give them a leg up into the world of music and after a few collaborations, they took off. They were cool to work with and became really, good mates and always took on advice, while still having minds and styles of their own. I’d love to work with them again one day.
Who were the bands and artists that inspired you to get into music?
Probably the likes of artists like Desmond Dekker, Stranger Cole and Dandy Livingstone (who ironically, I worked with many, many years later), of course Prince Buster and Derrick Morgan. They were the killer artists for my sound system ventures. I also thought the crazy styles and attitudes in Glam Rock were really daring and cool. T-Rex was one of my more commercial heroes.
Pete Waterman was the resident DJ at the Coventry Locarno when you first started out and went on the briefly manage The Specials – how much of an influence was he when you were starting out?
I was already a bit of a local celebrity with The Messenger and my Jah Baddis Sound Systems ‘toasting and deejaying’ long before the Specials days, and it was around that time that I had my dancing championships with Pete Waterman. He was a great DJ and was often the first to get super original pressings from Jamaica too. He was a great friend then and is still a great friend now. Occasionally he calls on me to do some radio or guest stuff and I will always do it for Pete. He also wrote the foreword to my biography, so I guess he did have some influence in my musical life, taking me to London as his champion dancer was a great start to my ska stomping stage romps too!
You left the re-formed Specials in 2012 – any plans to work with Jerry Dammers, Terry Hall or the others again?
I’m always up for doing collaborations, if it’s something I like and that works equally for all those involved. A lot of Fun Boy Three fans have been asking for a reunion too. Trouble is, three can sometimes be a crowd, we’re definitely not boys anymore and I’m probably the only one who’s still having fun! (laughs). But who knows? I have worked with Jerry on a few projects fairly recently and would love to do more.
Finally, what’s the secret to being a successful toaster?
Don’t overthink it. Run with your gut, let out your feelings while following a musical riddim. Don’t try and rhyme everything, but do have lots of fun.
- The Neville Staple Band tour hits the UK on October 6 with a date at the Audio, Glasgow, and runs till November 11 with a show at the Forum, Kent
- The band will also be performing at the Mod/Ska Christmas Party at London’s 229 on December 9
- For more about The Neville Staple Band visit their website here