The Specials perform at Riot Fest and throughout the U.S. despite challenges
When the Specials closed their set of ska classics at Chicago’s Riot Fest on Friday, September 16, as part of their U.S. tour, thousands of skanking fans were surprised to hear the typically gloomy and expressionless vocalist Terry Hall make an impassioned plea. “I know that we’ve made a mess of things in our country, but I ask you for one favor. Please don’t vote for Donald Trump,” Hall said to the crowd whose response indicated he was likely preaching to the choir.
It’s no wonder that Hall would urge fans to keep Trump from office, considering many of the Specials’ lyrics are anti-racist and reflect on the band’s own run-ins with racist individuals and organizations during the height of their popularity. Included in their set was a meaningful performance of the song “Why?,” which was written by rhythm guitarist Lynval Golding in 1980 after he was attacked outside the Hampstead Moonlight Club. Golding was walking down the road with two white girls when a group of racist thugs beat him up so badly that he broke multiple ribs. Golding, determined not to let the criminals affect him or his band’s success, endured injections of painkillers in order to perform the next day at the famous Montreaux Jazz Festival. He was attacked again in 1982 in Coventry City Centre, stabbed several times in the neck by racist criminals. He nearly died as the knife came close to Golding’s jugular vein and he was hospitalized, in intensive care for days. “Why did you try to hurt me? / I got to know / Did you really want to kill me / Tell me why, tell me why, tell me why / Why do we have to fight? / Why must we fight? / I have to defend myself / From attack last night / I know I am Black / You know you are White / I’m proud of my Black skin / And you are proud of your White…” state the lyrics whose meaning is just as relevant today as it was thirty-six years ago.
And though a Trump-led America could likely usher in the end of the world, it wouldn’t be the first calamity for the band who has struggled with racist attacks that have left band members unable to tour, and the band has had to deal with the recent death of their long-time drummer John “Brad” Bradbury. Still, the show goes on, with a new drummer, sans Neville Staple, and a set list full of their classics including their opener, “Ghost Town,” “Nite Klub,” “A Message to You,” “Monkey Man,” “Concrete Jungle,” and “Gangsters,” which paid tribute to Prince Buster who recently died. Hall made note of Prince Buster’s death likely due to the impact that Prince Buster had on their music, most notably in the song “Gangsters” which samples Prince Buster’s “Al Capone,” though their cover of Prince Buster’s cover, “Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think),” appeared on the set list but had to be cut from performance due to time, ironically.
Though the passing of Prince Buster has left a hole in the ska community, the death of the Specials’ own drummer has had an undeniable impact on the band itself who has had to find a replacement to continue touring. John “Brad” Bradbury died unexpectedly on December 28, 2015, and according to the band’s own website, Bradbury’s drumming “was the powerhouse behind the Specials and it was seen as a key part to the Two Tone sound. He was much respected in the world of drumming and his style of reggae and ska was seen as genuinely ground breaking when the Specials first hit the charts in 1979. He was an integral part of the Specials reforming in 2008 and toured with them extensively up to the present day.” At Riot Fest in Chicago, and throughout their tours in the U.S. and U.K, the Specials have turned to Gary Powell of the Libertines to provide rhythm for the band. “It is with deepest gratitude that I state what an honour it is to be asked to perform for the Specials in their upcoming U.S. and U.K. tour dates. John (Brad) Bradbury was a unique performer and his style and ability was definitely one of the defining factors that helped to create the Specials sound, and it is with great humility that I will be doing these tours and carrying on his legacy,” said Powell on the Specials’ website.
Also missing from the original lineup was vocalist Neville Staple whose verbal attack by a racist in Chicago left him unable to perform in the U.S., though he also left the band officially in 2013. On April 8, 1998, while on tour to promote Guilty ’Til Proved Innocent! at the Metro in Chicago, Staple was arrested for battery against another band’s lead singer who, according to Robert Preston (lead singer of the Cupcakes) told Staple where to put his equipment and Staple argued with him over it. Staple then hit Preston over the head with a bar stool, sending Preston to the hospital. According to Staple, Preston called Staple a nigger. But rather than explain the racist comment to a judge, Staple chose not to show up for his court appearance and he never returned to Chicago since there was a warrant out for his arrest. Even though he continued to live in the U.S. for a number of years after the arrest, today, back in England, he has been denied a visa to the U.S. unless he goes to Chicago to settle the warrant. He chose not to return to the U.S. so he has not appeared to tour in the U.S. in recent years, including the performance at Riot Fest. Lynval Golding, who frequently skanked and energized the crowd with Neville Staple in the early years, carried on the energy quite well sans Staple.
Lead guitarist Roddy “Radiation” Byers was also gone from the lineup during this tour after leaving the band in 2014 to focus on his own bands and solo work. In an interview on September 23, 2016, Byers admitted that he hasn’t talked much about it since he left. “It’s been about three years since I quit Terry Hall’s Specials. Neville Staple quit the year before me. I’m very surprised Lynval and Horace [Panter, on bass] carried on after John Bradbury, the Specials’ drummer, died early this year. I left because I felt my punk/rock-and-roll guitar was being subdued, and after singing my song ‘Concrete Jungle’ for three years since the reunion in 2009, Terry decided he would sing the lead vocal. I could go on with a long list of moans, but why bother! As far as Terry is concerned, he is the Specials, even though Jerry Dammers wrote the majority of songs. I wrote a few also. It’s sad that a band that preached unity could not even get along together.”
And of course, missing from the lineup since the 1980s, as Byers alludes to, was the group’s founder, founder of the Two Tone label, and illustrator of the iconic Walt Jabsco logo, Jerry Dammers. The toothless wonder has chosen not to reconnect with his original band since they initially broke up in the mid-1980s and instead has pursued other musical collaborations, including his Spatial A.K.A. Orchestra, an eighteen-piece outfit playing everything from Sun Ra to Martin Denny to Duke Ellington. Dammers has contended in articles in The Guardian and The Independent that he was excluded from the reunion in 2009 and told that he was “not required for the band,” which other members have ultimately denied. Byers says they all simply could not agree with Dammers on the musical direction of the band.
Never a part of the re-configured lineup, but still missed in spirit, was guest trombonist Rico Rodriguez who appeared on a number of recordings with the Specials and died last year at the age of eighty. Rico gave the Specials an authentic connection to Jamaica. Trained at Alpha Boys School and groomed in the Wareika Hills, Rico punctuated the music with his horn and his presence was still felt on stage despite his absence.
The number of original members of the Specials missing from the stage during their U.S. tour may be greater than the number appearing onstage, but at the end of the performance, when members of the audience are invited up to dance alongside the band in their characteristic move to break the barrier between musician and fan, the significance is understood. The Specials are meant for dancing. The Specials are meant to represent all people coming together as one. The Specials are a good time and by all indications, they achieved this purpose during their hour-long set at Riot Fest. Terry Hall, Lynval Golding, and Horace Panter came to the U.S. to prove that the show must go on, and in a political climate that seeks to divide, the Two Tone message of love and unity was never so powerful.
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