In advance of his trip to Ireland, Roddy ‘Radiation’ Byers looks back on his early days with The Specials, and tells Ellie O’Byrne about the musical subgenre he invented
HE WAS a punk rocker in a world of mods, skinheads and rude boys. The original guitarist with iconic ska revival band The Specials, Roddy ‘Radiation’ Byers was quite literally instrumental in forming the sound of the band that spearheaded the 2 Tone movement, but in hindsight, he says, he was always an outlier.
“When Elvis Costello produced our first album, one of the first things he said was ‘lose the punk guitarist, he don’t fit in’. He’d been listening to a lot of early Jamaican ska and he just couldn’t hear that punky style guitar in there, so he told the band to get rid of me,” Byers says.
The 2 Tone record label was founded by visionary Specials songwriter and keyboardist Jerry Dammers. It was as much movement as musical scene; for a few heady years in the late 1970s and early ’80s, it seemed like the youthful antidote to Britain’s Thatcher-era social ills of unemployment, austerity and heightened racial tension.
They fused the ska and rude boy culture of British Jamaicans with punk elements that appealed to young white Britons to play music of universal anti-establishment appeal. Other bands like Madness, The Beat and The Selector emerged. There was a master-plan: the idealistic Dammers was going to unite Britain through music.
But despite the message of unity, it was an era, Byers says, of tribalism. All-out mods and rockers warfare based on musical and fashion choices was still influencing youth culture. And the non-conforming Byers was going to get it either way.
“I could never win, because I never fit in with any gang,” the 64-year-old says. “When we supported The Clash in ‘78, me and Jerry went back to the hotel to see if we could get a free beer and a bunch of rockabillies set about us. They looked at me and said, ‘is he a rocker or a punk?’ I had a bootlace tie on, winkle-pickers, and a leather jacket with studs. My hair was in a quiff, but spikey too. They decided I must be a punk, so they beat and kicked me anyway.”
Later, the band adopted their own uniform of tonic suits and pork-pie hats. Even then, Byers introduced a rocker element, with a leather pork-pie and a studded belt, and his custom Les Paul guitar.
The first incarnation of The Specials split in 1981. By 1986 Byers, who only had performers’ credits, and therefore a small share of royalties, on hits like ‘Ghost Town’ and ‘A Message To You Rudy’, was so broke he was forced to sell all but one of his guitars, and returned to work as a painter and decorator to support his young family and pay the mortgage. He had married in 1977, just before joining The Specials.
Since their original incarnation, there have been several Specials line-ups, each lasting a few years. Byers has been involved in three reunions, including an attempt to crack the US market in the 1990s.
But divisions have been rife. Byers and original singer Neville Staple quit the most recent incarnation, formed in 2009, so were unable to ride the wave of this year’s milestone. February’s release of The Specials’ first album in 37 years, Encore, gave the band their first number one album chart success.
“Well, you don’t have to sell quite so many albums nowadays,” Byers says dryly.
While Staple left due to health concerns, Byers quit after creative differences, mostly with singer Terry Hall, who Byers felt was dominating the band’s decision-making. “There was a list as long as my arm of stuff I disagreed with,” he says. “It got to the stage where we were nearly coming to blows. It was making me ill. But that’s been the ongoing 2 Tone war, for the past nearly 40 years.”
The tragically early death of Beat frontman Ranking Roger in March came as a shock to Byers; they met in 1978 and had performed together in the 2Tone Collective alongside Selector singer Pauline Black.
Ranking Roger believed that Brexit Britain’s parallels to Thatcher-era Britain meant that a second ska revival was not only imminent, but necessary. While Byers may have ample reason to feel sceptical about the unifying powers of ska music, he feels the UK’s current political and economic situation is a lot worse than it was when they wrote Ghost Town. “There’s stabbings every other week in Coventry now; Neville’s grandson was killed in a stabbing. There’s poverty, people sleeping on the street and shops closed down.”
Still living near Coventry with his wife of 42 years, with two grandchildren and another on the way, Byers never gave up on his love of playing music. In lulls between Specials reunions, he played in blues bands and formed The Skabilly Rebels.
SKABILLY is his own invention: a fusion of ska and rockabilly. It retains ska’s distinctive beat, while its musical embellishments are decidedly more transatlantic-facing than the 2 Tone sound. Byers argues this is more faithful to original Jamaican ska, which was heavily influenced by Jamaican musicians gaining radio access to American rhythm and blues.
Any Specials regrets? Byers says there is one: not pushing hard enough for one of the songs he’d written to be played on Top Of The Pops. “I often thought, would my life have been different if it had been me miming ‘Concrete Jungle’ on Top of the Pops?”
“Then again, I don’t know if I would have been able to handle it,” he says. “A lot of people don’t. A lot of my best friends are dead from this business. The highs are very high, and the lows are very low.”
Roddy Radiation and the Skabilly Rebels play the Irish International Ska and Reggae Festival in Tramore, Co Waterford from April the 19-21, with a gig each night of the festival in various venues. Info and gig times: www.facebook.com/IrishSkaFest/