Interview: Neville Staple

Speaking from his home in Coventry, Neville Staple is battling a very sore throat, having picked up a cold whilst performing at two outdoor festivals over the weekend. Being the British summer, of course it rained, but Staple played anyway, determined as ever to give his audience a quality show. It’s a workman-like attitude that has helped to sustain the Jamaican-born singer through a 44-year career, both as a solo artist and with 2-Tone ska pioneers The Specials.

“I didn’t think I was going to be in bands, all I was doing was DJing. What they call rap now,” remembers Staple of getting his start ‘toasting’ – the Jamaican style of rhythmical singing – over records as a teenager. Having moved to Britain at the age of five, the vocalist credits joining The Specials and having their first single, Gangsters, become a top ten hit with keeping him out of trouble.

“You gotta remember I’m straight off the street, meaning I didn’t go to college, I wasn’t on no higher education,” says Staple. “So when that happened it was like ‘this is beautiful, I used to see it on TV, now I’m doing it.’ It was a great feeling, still is now. I was 17.”

The band got a big leg up when Joe Strummer personally selected them as a support act on The Clash On Parole UK tour of 1978. Besides the massive exposure this afforded the young group, The Specials were also briefly taken on by The Clash’s svengali manager, Bernie Rhodes. This union didn’t last long, with Staple’s line ‘Bernie Rhodes knows don’t argue’ at the start of Gangsters appearing to comment on the relationship.

“He was quite strict and we weren’t used to it at the time. He was used to it ‘cos he’d been in it a long time,” says Staple. “That’s what ya gotta do – Bernie Rhodes knows, so don’t argue. So that’s where that came from.”

The Specials went on to have several charting singles including Rudy, A Message To You, Too Much Too Young and Ghost Town, but folded shortly after Staple, singer Terry Hall and guitarist Lynval Golding left to form Fun Boy Three in 1981.

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The resurgence of ska in the ‘90s caused renewed interest in The Specials’ legacy, with the American ‘third wave’ acts blending the genre with fast pop punk. Staple consequently moved to the US, where he was revered as a hero to a new generation of bands. “No Doubt, Rancid, Hepcat, I lived in LA for nine years and they all used to support me,” he says. “It was very fast – too fast – but I used to play with it ‘cos I was young and fitter. That’s their own interpretation of ska, which is fine ‘cos every country’s got their own interpretation. Which is good, that means the word is passing around, it’ll always be there.”

Interest was so high that eventually The Specials reformed in 2008 and have continued to tour ever since, a situation that Staple says was enjoyable for the first two years before old tensions arose. “There’s that camp, that camp and that camp. You can’t run a band like that,” he says. “One thinks he’s higher than the rest of ‘em, next one’s the next one down, then there was me and Roddy (Radiation, guitar) who was like scum of the earth. We were from the streets and we didn’t like people saying ‘oh you gotta do this, you gotta do that’, especially one person. And it started to not get enjoyable, you need to enjoy what you’re doing. I got a good earning being in the band, but pointless isn’t it? Staying in just to make money and not enjoying myself? C’mon.”

The press release announcing Staple’s departure in 2013 cited health issues, referring to a 2011 car crash and a subsequent series of strokes that affected his movements on stage. However, Staple says this was untrue. “I got sacked,” he states definitively. “That’s just what they say, ‘oh the door’s open for Neville any time’, of course it wasn’t. I used to jump around off speakers, off monitors, that’s how I got bad knees over the years. So basically it was that [and] I had a four car pile up, that didn’t help. I’m alright, it just took a little bit of time to get over my illness of my knee.”

Although he still maintains relations with Radiation, who left The Specials in 2014, and their former leader, songwriter, producer and keyboardist, Jerry Dammers, who was never invited to be part of the reunion, Staple has no time for the rest of the group. “The rest don’t talk to me, I don’t talk to them [and] I’m not losing sleep over it. But fair enough, let them do what they’re doing, good luck to them,” he says.

The Neville Staple Band

Despite The Specials’ claims that his health was restrictive, Staple has remained highly active with his own act, the Neville Staple Band. “The energy’s not the same, I’m old for God’s sake,” he laughs, “I don’t jump around, [but] I’ve always been an entertainer. The energy’s still there.”

In 2014 Staple released Ska Crazy, an album that revisited ska and reggae classics along with new material. After years of playing a basically identical set list of songs, each delivered exactly as they were recorded in the late ‘70s, the 61-year old is enjoying the freedom of being able to vary his live shows.

“If the crowd’s into it we let them sing a verse [and] we keep going,” he says. “It’s like a party thing. It’s not like: three and a half minutes, finished. Next song. Three and a half minutes, finished. We get the crowd involved.”

Arriving to tour the country next week, Staple is grateful that his music continues to appeal across different generations of fans. “The parents bring their kids [and] they’ve grown up listening to their mother’s and father’s music,” he says. “They look on YouTube and they see Gangsters or Ghost Town and when I go over [to Australia] they wanna hear that. And what better than one of The Specials coming and doing those classics, if I say so meself.”

Published in Beat Magazine & The Brag on 20/07/2016.

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