Former Specials vocalist Neville Staple tells Big Issue North why the music he was making in the 1980s is as relevant as ever but he needs to keep moving musically. He plays Band on the Wall, Manchester, 22 January.
When you were making music about unemployment and the disenfranchised with the Specials, did you imagine we’d be in the same boat 30 years on?
To be honest, it felt like that was the way of life. There didn’t seem to be any end to it. It’s been more a case that it was a surprise when things became better, some years after. I actually find it shocking that we’re back there again. It’s been over 35 years since we first hit the charts and every social and political song we did, could still apply today, just as it did then. It’s mad!
Do these issues inform your solo material?
Yes, definitely. My recent album Ska Crazy and my soon to be released follow-up album have songs about political and social issues, so I guess I’m still very aware of the world around me.
As a troubled teenager how did music change your life?
The whole rude boy thing has two meanings to it. Being rude was just as it sounds. You didn’t want to conform, you rebelled and you got into all kinds of trouble. The other meaning was more about the clothes, the music scene and the swagger. I was probably part of both meanings, although veered more to the fashion and music once I grew out of the borstal and fighting scene. I went into touring with my Jah Baddis Sound System, then became friends with Jerry Damners, who originally agreed to let me help out as crew, for the band equipment (before Terry and Brad came along), then realised my Jamaican style with lyrics was the missing flavour to band songs. Being in the Specials kept me out of trouble and gave me a focus, plus I could vent my anger over issues like racism on stage instead of on the street – well, most of the time.
Does music have that same transformative power for kids today?
Back in the early 1980s we had a social and political message – something you don’t really get these days in young people’s music, even though we are in similar times now to the Thatcher Britain we were in then. Having said that, some of the non-mainstream “street” singers are beginning to sing “awareness” lyrics.
You rejoined the Specials for a short time. What was it like going back after working solo?
It was great to be back with most of the guys, although it felt strange leaving Jerry out, due to band politics. As he put it altogether in the first place, it all felt wrong. Plus I have never stopped working, having toured extensively across the world, including the US, Japan, Australia, etc on my own or with various collaborations I put together, so it was hard to go back to such rigid sets, with no live fun and extensions to songs, plus no new material. I guess I’ve always had the energy to keep moving musically, with easy-going rules and lots of fun with the audience.
Do you have any retirement plans?
Not really thought about retirement yet as I have lots of music projects underway, plus a lot more tours booked up over the next couple of years. On top of that (and my new album due for release early 2016), I have continued to do production work for others, including my wife Christine “Sugary” Staple and some local youths too. Then I’ve been doing a lot of DJ work, doing special talks at schools and colleges, as well as some amazing surprise collaborations with other artists. I’ve had a few health issues which mean I can’t crowd-surf, climb or jump about the stage like I used to, but with my beautiful wife helping me, a top notch band backing me and the greatest fans on the scene, who have the best time ever at my shows, I’m far too busy and happy to retire yet!