The Specials turned the world of pop music on it's head in the late 1970's, fusing their multi cultural and West Indian tinged rhythms with a punk aesthetic which has endured to this day. One of the key bands of any time and place, their legacy endures, as evidenced by the popularity of their recent reformation. "You're Wondering Now", written by a ska insider and associate of the band, tells their story from it's origins to the present day, and has received warm praise from music fans the world over.
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From Conception to Reunion
By Paul Williams
Cherry Red BooksCopyright © 2009 Paul Williams
All rights reserved.
THE DAWNING OF A NEW ERA
"We don't play Jamaican music ... We play English music."
Jerry Dammers 1980
IF YOU ask anyone to name a city known for its contribution to music the answer will no doubt be London, Liverpool or Manchester. Few would think of the City of Coventry, but the town which nestles in the Midlands of England, better known for the antics of Lady Godiva, World War Two bombings and that enigmatic phrase 'being sent to Coventry', was also, in the Seventies, the birthplace of Britain's last great youth movement, 2Tone. 2Tone grabbed the British music charts by the throat, and for a short and volatile time turned the country into a sea of black and white chequers. The seven young men at the heart of this musical revolution were the Specials, a band whose music and ideals would leave such a legacy that, even today, their momentum is still felt on the on the face of the fickle British music industry. The Specials led the way for other bands that joined the 2Tone movement, such as the Selecter, Madness, the Beat, the Bodysnatchers and the Swinging Cats. Their music gave a voice and cause to disillusioned youth up and down the country, showed them how to stomp on the dancehall floors and shake the dust from the rafters. If you were young at that time and embraced the sounds and styles, you got a real sense of belonging. If you were part of it then you know how it felt. A simple Specials' button badge immediately linked you with total strangers who treated you like part of the club, and that's what 2Tone was – one big club. To be part of it all you needed was a love of the music.
The musical, political and social vision behind 2Tone was the brainchild of just one man: Jeremy David Hounsell Dammers. Jeremy, later to be known as Jerry, made his way into the world on May 22nd 1954 in Ootacamundi in Southern India, son of the Right Reverend Alfred Hounsell Dammers and his wife Brenda. Jerry's father lead an amazing life dedicated to serving others through the church. Born in 1921 in Great Yarmouth, he became known as 'Horace', a name given to him by his teacher after the Roman poet. He was a staunch Labour Party supporter all his life and a Cambridge scholar who, during the war years, became involved in the church and slowly rose through its ranks. He travelled extensively before arriving in Coventry in 1965. Eventually he became the Dean of Bristol where he set up a chapel used for peace and anti-apartheid vigils and supported the city's homeless and other minorities. In 1972, he founded the 'Life-Style Movement' that encouraged people to give up their luxury items, he also wrote several books on the subject of faith. Jerry's father had a profound influence on his son's ideals and beliefs, especially on the anti-racist front.
As a child Dammers had been made to sing in church choirs, something he detested, and as he grew he started to rebel. It became apparent that his strict, respectable upbringing was going to lead to a clash of personalities and that trouble would follow. Jerry was certainly the most unconventional member of his family. His brother went on to become a doctor and his two sisters took up social work. He had been into music at an early age when, much to the amusement of his brothers and sisters, Dammers recorded a tape and sent it to John Lennon! Aged 13, Jerry was forced to take up piano lessons but he soon gave them a wide berth, although in hindsight they were to prove invaluable in his later life. At 15, he became what he later described as a mini-mod, before adopting the hippy look, hair and all. Together with a friend, he escaped the humdrum of reality and fled to a small island off the Irish coast that John Lennon had previously bought for use as a commune for peace-loving dropouts.
"God, it was awful." Jerry later recalled, "They put us to work ploughing the fields and every night we'd be given a bowl of flour and water. The fields were laid out in the letters of the word L-O-V-E. That was when I stopped being a hippy and became a Skinhead."
Aged 15, Dammers gained his trademark missing two front teeth when he went over the handlebars of his bike; he was left with a huge brace and stitches in his face.One night at a youth club in Baginton, a village just outside Coventry, a progressive rock band were playing, albeit terribly, and after they had left the stage, the disco erupted to 'Liquidator' by Harry J's Allstars, an original reggae track. As Dammers watched the few Skinheads in attendance diving around to the tune, something switched in his head: "Once you're hooked on Reggae," he explained, "it becomes a bit of a cause. 'Live Injection' by The Upsetters is probably the most ecstatic dance record ever made. Of course, I thought it had something to do with Skinheads then, I didn't know it was Lee Perry working his African magic across continents – but we were all misled and still are. I might have been stupid but I can remember thinking then, if only the skins weren't, according to the stereotype, kicking the shit out of hippies or immigrants, or each other at football, if only all that energy and anger was directed into something positive and against the system, which brutalised them in the first place. I was very idealistic, some might say bonkers."
Jerry left school at 16 with one art 'O' level to his credit, which scuppered his mother's plans to send him on to university. Instead, he became a student at Nottingham Art School for a year or so before transferring to Lanchester Polytechnic in Coventry. He spent most of his time there making films and cartoons, drinking and getting into youthful trouble. His career of vandalism came to an abrupt end one day when he started to jump up and down on the roof of an occupied car and fell straight through! Luckily, nobody was injured but Dammers collected a £250 fine and the gravity of a court appearance put him back on the straight and narrow. While at college, he made three intricate animated films. One concerned the Fifties boxing match between Rocky Marciano and British champ Don Cockell, another was entitled Disco, which included a reggae soundtrack composed by Jerry and a fellow student from the year above whom he had befriended and whose name was Horace Panter.
"Disco was about two minutes long," said Jerry, "there was a lot of work in all of them and I did all the animation myself. The soundtrack was pretty good and I was really pissed off when I discovered it had been nicked from college."
Jerry's third film was an epic: "It was a mixture of live film and animation set in Seventies Coventry. It started with someone walking down the street and you'd see all these people doing things. Then suddenly it would change to animation. There was a bloke running along, a sort of football hooligan, who throws a brick through a window and in animation, you saw the glass smashing. Then there was this old tramp, a mate of mine really, who falls over and spews over the pavement. The camera zoomed into on the spew and it was all bones and things bubbling away. There was an old woman crossing the street who gets run over. Some of it was full animation, but a lot of it was done with cut-outs, a very tedious business. It was about that time the IRA were going round and at the end a bloke puts a bag under a car and the whole street gets blown to pieces, guts flying everywhere."
Tom and Jerry it certainly wasn't! Dammers eventually got his degree, but dismissed it out of hand: "The actual degree was irrelevant, really; that was just a by-product of what I was really doing which was just using the college facilities to do what I wanted, which was to make cartoons. I hate the idea of degrees and all their connotations of privilege and success. I hate privilege, that's why I never collected my degree from them."
Apart from film, making music was another of Jerry's burgeoning passions. He based his decision to become a musician on two things; one was hearing Graham Parker's number 'Not If It Pleases Me' that made Jerry think that he could do things on his own. The other was when he saw the the Who perform 'My Generation' on TV, although he was taken solely by the music, rather than the band's approach. His own musical preferences included reggae from his Skinhead days and a whole range of bands from the Small Faces to Slade. His first taste of ska came courtesy of his brother: "I borrowed my brother's records all the time. One day I was sitting on the floor sifting through them when I found Prince Busters 'FAB-ulous Hits'. I listened to it and it had a great effect on me. I really took to the record."
After college, Jerry played in a number of bands that weren't really to his satisfaction. Some of them had curious titles including Cissy Stone Soul Band, Peggy Penguin and the Southside Greeks, Ricky Nugent and the Loiterers, and the Lane Travis Country Trio but undoubtedly the best was Gristle. He also had a stint with Ray King. Ray King was a local Coventry legend and it is fair to say that without him the 2Tone phenomenon may have never got off the ground since the majority of 2Tone musicians cut their musical teeth with him. His real name was Vibert Cornwall, and his band, well respected in the local area, was originally called Suzi and The Kingsize Kings. He acquired the stage name Ray King and the band mantle changed to the Ray King Soul Band. Their reputation quickly grew, and they were soon asked to play at the Playboy Club in London. They later recorded an album at that venue and signed to major labels such as Pye and CBS before splitting in the Seventies.
Ray had acquaintances in the town of Gloucester called Lynval Golding, Silverton Hutchinson, Desmond Brown and Charley Bembridge, all of whom later became big players in the 2Tone movement. Ray moved the Gloucester boys over to Coventry and formed another band, with himself on vocals, called Pharaoh's Kingdom. Hutchinson had a friend called Neol Davies who turned up to rehearsals and he brought with him Jerry Dammers. A couple of guys called the Smith brothers also joined up and a new group, Night Train, was formed. Ray King had wanted to play out-and-out ska but Dammers himself was not overly keen to play in this style at that time and left, and not long after Davies followed. Ray King himself carried on in music for a while, then ended up in management and devoting time to helping the local West Indian community.
With the advent of punk Jerry became heavily involved in song writing and took on the persona of Gerald 'The General' Dankey, most of his early compositions at this time being embryonic forms of future Specials tracks. He became well known in the close-knit Coventry music scene and by early 1977 was trying to put together his own band. Dammers joined forces with old friend Neol Davies to record some demos on an old Revox tape recorder in Jerry's living room. They needed to involve other people and so recruited bass player and college acquaintance Horace Panter. Horace was born Stephen Graham Panter on August 30th 1953 in Croydon, and was later adopted and moved to Kettering where his nickname of 'Horace' was given to him by a schoolteacher. He was working as a van driver and playing bass with the soul band Breaker when Jerry went to see them play in Coventry and afterwards asked him to play on a track he had written.
"After the gig I remember Jerry coming up to me," said Panter, "and as he talked he spat saliva over me. He wanted me to help him with some demos so I said okay. After he had gone I wondered what I was letting myself in for!"
In Horace's book Ska'd for Life he said: "I did recall him from college, one of the new boys who were loud and aggressive and didn't seem to give a toss, with his tartan trousers, sideburns and grown-out mod haircut."
Jerry reflected on those times, and added: "We used to wreck the hippie parties, play Prince Buster records. I had this band playing dodgy versions of Desmond Dekker's '007'. We used to gob at each other on stage. I was like a forerunner of punk but I suppose realistically punk was a bit of a musical dead end for me. I went to punk gigs but enjoyed the reggae they played between sets more. I thought the Sex Pistols played boring power rock, though I related to punk's lyrics and anarchic attitude. People felt able to write their own songs and about their own lives. I got thrown out of a local band for wanting to play our own material so it was then that I decided to form my own band."
Horace went along to rehearsals and was introduced to a true form of reggae, which he wasn't used to playing. He eventually mastered the sound and became a fully-fledged member of the group, now going by the name of the Hybrids. The inclusion of Horace as bassist had a bitter taste for one young graduate called Andrew Calcutt. He thought it should have been him taking his place in history but it was not to be: "Straight after my finals I moved to Cambridge to join Jerry and a couple of local graduates, one of them a Coventry kid like us, in forming a band of wannabe rude boys," said Calcutt. "I borrowed the phrase from Jamaican slang via the NME and introduced it at a rehearsal the previous summer, to general hilarity! Except that JD didn't show up as I thought we had agreed. A year or so later I received a phone call asking me to go hear him play at an American airbase, ('Soul Showband' or 'Rock'n'Roll Revival', it could have been either) somewhere in East Anglia. When I couldn't go, I got a message to the effect that if I wanted to join up where we had left off, I'd better get back to Coventry quick because of another good bass player in the offing. The other good bass player was Sir Horace Gentleman, and the off-ing happened to me, not him. Horace and I have a history, though we have only ever exchanged the briefest of pleasantries. He plays bass; so did I. He played bass in a band with Jerry Dammers; so did I (though when we started playing together, Jerry was still 'Jeremy'). I gave Jerry my organ, the cast-off my dad got cheap from the church where he was priest-in-charge."
Calcutt remained a musician and recorded with the band Ersatz, later going on to obtain an MA in Journalism and Society at the University of East London.
Dammers also grabbed the services of Tim Strickland, a gawky youth, on vocals. Strickland couldn't really sing a decent note, a fact which Strickland does not deny. He told writer Andy Clayden's ska and reggae website: "Hey! This was the time of punk mate, anything went! I was with the band for about nine months. Jerry had seen me perform, very badly, but enough to convince him that I was the one, at least for a short time, with a college band called Dave and the Ravers. I was the token punk although I thought I had more of a James Dean fixation! We rehearsed and gigged mainly in a pub called the Heath Hotel and regularly filled the place, which still amazes me! We were good, although I still never saw myself as musical or a pop star. I used to read the lyrics (all Jerry's) off sheets of paper, which I thought was appropriately punk and used to sit on the edge of the stage through the instrumental bits. We did record three or four songs as demos live in the Heath Hotel but I don't know what happened to them. Jerry invited me to rehearse with the band following a meeting on a train. I later worked at the Virgin record shop and as manager employed Brad (John Bradbury), later the drummer with the Specials, as assistant manager."
Strickland moved into band management, later being involved with Terry Hall's mid-Eighties combo the Colour Field and then becoming creative director of the doomed Museum For Popular Music in Sheffield that opened its doors in 1999 and closed in 2000. Also in the fledgling line-up was drummer Silverton Hutchinson who came from Barbados, and who was well known in close circles for his mood swings. He was an expert reggae drummer who had played with Dammers in Pharaoh's Kingdom.
The man who would later give the Specials their essential offbeat ska rhythm, Lynval Fitzgerald Golding, came next. Lynval was born on July 24th 1951, in the Mendez District of St Catherine in Jamaica (a place that until the early Eighties didn't even have electricity). Life changed forever for Lynval when he was 10 years old. His mother sent him and his sisters to Gloucester, England with his aunt who would eventually bring them up. Lynval recalled: "I thought my mother was coming with us. I had no idea my mother was staying behind. When I was going on the ship, I was half way up, looked back, and saw my mother on the dockside crying. I wanted to run back but my aunt was shouting at me, everyone was walking up. For years, I didn't understand why she sent us away from her. Now I can see what an amazing, selfless act it was. It must have been the hardest decision she ever had to make. Sending her children to England because she believed it would benefit us. And she was right. I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you if it wasn't for that woman. I wouldn't have done the Specials or anything else in music. I wouldn't have had any of those opportunities. Can you imagine sending your children thousands of miles away because you knew they'd have a better life away from you? I'm forever grateful to her for the sacrifices she made to give me the life I've had. Before she passed, we had some very special moments that I'll treasure forever. I learnt a lot from her."
Excerpted from The Specials by Paul Williams. Copyright © 2009 Paul Williams. Excerpted by permission of Cherry Red Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
FOREWORD – By Phill Jupitus,
From JA to UK – THE ORIGINS OF SKA,
Part One – THE DAWNING OF A NEW ERA,
The Specials' story from conception to split,
Part Two – MORE SPECIALS,
The story from split to present day,
The Fun Boy Three,
The Special AKA,
THE ROAD TO REUNION,
How the 2009 reunion came about,
A TESTAMENT OF YOUTH,
Testimonies from fans and stars,
THE COMPLETE DISCOGRAPHY,
RARITIES & BOOTLEGS,
COMPREHENSIVE GIG GUIDE,