The Specials – Guilty Til Proven Innocent – Interview

The Specials

Guilty Til Proven Innocent (Way Cool/MCA)
An interview with Roddy Byers
by Jay Hale and Margo Tiffen
photos by Jay Hale

How has the Warped Tour treated you guys so far?
Really good. The catering’s a bit shit.

That was a problem last year. Why did you decide to do the tour?
I dunno, we did a bit of work with Rancid, we heard they were doing it, and they’re good friends of ours. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

How does it feel to be performing on this tour with all the bands that cite you as an influence?
Occasionally, you get people who come up and say, “Hey man, I’ve got all your records.” Well, so what? We played with the Amazing Crowns recently, and I’ve got all their records. Same with, you know, bands like Reverend Horton Heat. Personally, I’m more into the rockabilly type thing. In the Specials, everyone’s into different kinds of music.

What do you think of the current ska scene?
I like the Suicide Machines from Detroit. There’s a lot of good bands about, and we’ve made a lot of friends – a lot of kids who are learning how to play the music. There are also a lot of marching band brass musicians who’ve not quite got it sussed. You’re not playing jazz, you know? With brass, it takes a lot longer to mature as a musician.

Do you think the Specials lineup you have now gives off the same vibe as the 2Tone-era Specials?
Um… Well, I’ve no complaints. It’s not the original band, but we’ve got as many of the guys who wanted to do it together again. It’s got a lot of the elements of the Specials.

What’s the difference between playing to crowds today as opposed to back then?
We had a lot of trouble with the National Front in our early days. It spoiled a lot of concerts. Touch wood, things have been pretty cool so far. We’ve done gigs in East Berlin where there’ve been right-wing skinheads, but they end up dancing and getting into it without starting too much trouble. It’s hard. Are we’re trying to convert them, or what? It’s a touchy subject.

What’s your opinion of what Jerry Dammers said in the Uncut Magazine interview when he called your new album “dodgy”?
Well, I believe he was talking about Today’s Specials, and I agree with him on that one. Ali Campbell from UB40, it’s on his label through Virgin, and he wanted us to do a Labour of Love-type cover album, which I wasn’t particularly in favor of. I was going to play original material. Our management and record company were all saying, “Try this, it’s going to work,” and I kept saying, “No, it won’t work.” But it was a good experiment. There’s a couple tracks on there I really like. It was nice to be able to do a Clash song, which was my choice – “Somebody Got Murdered.” I enjoyed doing that. It came out more like Big Audio Dynamite than The Clash… So, yeah, that album was a bit of a misdemeanor.

Have you heard Dammers’ opinion of Guilty ‘Til Proved Innocent?
Not yet, but I think he’s probably shitting himself.

Did you read the interview at all?
I read one in an English magazine, but he was mainly on about how clever he was, patting himself on the back a lot. It’s a difficult subject because he and I didn’t get on too well in the old days because I write a lot and he writes a lot. He was a bit of a benign dictator, really. And then he went crazy as well, which didn’t help a lot. He’s a clever guy. But he didn’t want to tour anymore. He hates to tour, and he hates the USA, and he seemed to hate playing for a while. So now he’s a DJ, he plays records.

What about the other guys who aren’t in the band anymore?
Terry Hall had a solo career going pretty well in Europe and England. He didn’t want to do it. I was pleased about that because it gives me a chance to sing. Brad (John Bradbury) was playing with the Selecter at the time we formed, so we got H. Bembridge, the original Selecter drummer. So it’s the same family. I prefer H.’s drumming to Brad’s because H. is more roots rock reggae, whereas Brad was sort of like speedy Motown.

I interviewed Rancid a little while ago, and Tim Armstrong was talking about how much…
What’d they say? What’d they say? It’s not true, I didn’t do that! I’d had too much to drink!

…he was talking about how much he loved the Specials and how much you guys were a huge influence on him.
Eh, it’s a bit embarrassing sometimes. We’ve had guys come up, like… It’s probably like me meeting some, you know, old guy. We did Saturday Night Live in 1981, I think it was, and Keith Richards comes along, and he’s like a guitar hero of mine but I was a punk rocker at the time. I’m not speaking to him, which is not cool. I ignored him totally. But after we played the two songs on the show, he came up to me and put his arm around me and says, “If you keep your head together, kid, you’ll go far.”

That’s awesome.
I lost me fucking head. But it was nice, he was very… you know, he was no pop star. The punk thing was like, “All them guys are dinosaurs.” Even though half those guys, like Mick Jones and all the rest of them, were Keith Richards clones anyway. Which can kill you, apparently.

One of the things Tim said was that you guys were way more punk rock than ska. I think he’s right, to an extent…
In a sense, where we were coming from, the ska thing was just how we tried mixing heavy reggae with punk and it didn’t quite gel. Somehow, we got into the ska thing, and that seemed to fit better with the punk element and the r&b. I dunno. It’s not for me to say, really. It was a long time ago. I listen to a lot of other kinds of music now. I find some of the new punk bands a bit hard on the ear. Probably age, I dunno. I like the original punk bands like The Clash, the Pistols, Stiff Little Fingers.

Have you ever done anything with The Clash?
We toured with them in ’79. That was our first major tour. They treated us really well. We were getting 25 pounds a night, and when they found out, they put it up to 50 pounds. We could just about afford to buy the gas and have a sandwich a day, you know? We were sleeping in the van, we had a tent on the side of the motorway, and all kinds of silly things. They were really good to us, and that showed us the way to go in treatment of support bands. But we tried to go even further, and it got to the point where we were transporting our support bands, giving them money for the day, paying their hotel, and that’s basically why we didn’t make any money. It was a great socialist idea, but we basically all came out of it penniless.

What are your plans after this tour?
I’d like to have a month off, but we’ve got ten days, and then the European Warped – Japan, Australia. I could do with a rest, really.

Where do you live now?
Still in England. Neville and Lynval moved over here. I’m probably too English to live in America.

Has the scene picked up at all in England?
Well, the ska scene is pretty underground. I’ve lived in the same house for 21 years and got the same buddies. I’m in touch with the same people, so I haven’t completely… sold out. No, I wouldn’t say Neville and Lynval have sold out either; for them it’s more a case of trying to get away from the British tax man.