Neville Staple - From The Specials to headline Gosport Waterfront Festival | Big Interview
It’s been a long journey for Neville Staple – from being born in Jamaica, to emigrating to the UK aged five, a stint in borstal, to being at the forefront of the ska revival and 2-Tone movement with The Specials, enjoying pop stardom with Fun Boy 3 – and not to mention brushes with death, before receiving an honorary doctorate.
But the ‘original rude boy’ is continuing to fly the flag for the music he loves, and will be headlining the Gosport Waterfront Festival on July 31.
And as the legendary frontman tells The Guide, he can’t wait to get back to doing what he does best.
‘I've never been not doing anything for so long!’ he cackles. ‘Since I was 15, I've been on the sound systems, in a band, then after The Specials split I've been working constantly on all sorts of things, and with this band. It's been so, soooo boring.’
There is, however, a new album on the horizon, but Nev’s not sure exactly when.
‘We've been doing a lot of writing, so there's a new album coming out – it will be all-new material. Last time we mixed it up with some covers, but this time it’s going to be all new.
‘Sugary, my wife, she deals with all that, and when it's going to come out. She manages, she's in the band, she does so much!’
The ska revival movement, which Staple helped instigate, has now been around for more than 40 years. The Specials, with its multicultural line-up and lyrics examining society and politics in the late ’70s/early ’80s, tapped into the era’s zeitgeist, racking up hits like A Message to You, Rudy, Too Much Too Young and Ghost Town.
But Neville says they had no idea that this group of bands coming out of the Midlands, including The Selecter and The Beat (as well as Madness in London) would prove to be so influential and enduring.
‘When you're doing it, you're singing and writing about what's happening around you – not's what happening around the world. It was: “This happened in Coventry”.
‘But when you're singing about things like racism, funnily enough, we didn't think what it was like in London... We were just writing it. And then we did interviews, we realised these things were happening everywhere.
‘We didn't expect it to be kicking off still. We didn't go into it saying: “I want this to last forever! I want a number one!” We didn't do it for that – we just did it for the music, singing about what was happening around us.’
Sadly, much of what The Specials sang about remains relevant.
‘Yeah, certain things are still the same – racism, problems with the government, all these social things we were singing about are still happening.
‘Maybe they’re not so in front of your face like it used to be – like The National Front. We used to be on stage and see them sieg heiling and spitting at me, stuff like that.
‘It's more in the background these days, but before it was right up-front. It used to hit you in the face.’
He recalls it being different in Rugby, where he was sent aged five, to live with his father.
‘Where we lived in Rugby, maybe it was on the line, but it was nice and peaceful. Everyone got on, Asian, white, black, whatever nationality. We didn't have people getting beat up on the street because of what colour you were, until I came to Coventry, and then you were really seeing it.
‘To see a mixed band, with all of the political and racist stuff happening at the time, I guess that kicked the National Front in the face, and then they'd come to our gigs.
‘I used to say to them from the stage: “You pay your money to come here and insult me? I don't get it. What are you wasting your money for?”
‘Then we'd get the fans to throw them out of the concert,’ he laughs at the memory.
When we speak, the first ever major exhibition devoted to 2 Tone has just opened, appropriately enough, in Coventry. And it turns out Neville was there the night before, for its opening.
‘It was good. There were a lot of people there who were involved in The Selecter, The Specials, blah, blah. I put a hat in, and some discs for the exhibition.
‘A lot of people are going to go because it was really interesting. Even for me it was interesting – I was thinking, bloody hell, I don't remember that!
‘It's going to be great for new fans who've only heard about it from their parents, and when they come and see this exhibition, they can see what mum and dad were on about!’
Neville first left The Specials in 1982 after being an integral part of their first two, classic albums, with founder and main songwriter Jerry Dammers dissolving the band (by then known as Special AKA) two years later. Neville was involved in a ’90s reunion, and again from 2009 to 2012, this time departing for health reasons – but he has admitted elsewhere that the band had split into two camps with relationships breaking down and he was no longer enjoying it. The band continues to this day, but with only three original members, Lynval Golding, Horace Panter and Terry Hall.
How does he get on with his former bandmates these days?
‘The only relationship I have is with Jerry and Roddy (Radiation, guitarist). There's no interaction with the other three. Fair play, you can't knock it, everybody's got to do what they're going to do.
‘We just get along and do what we're doing, and there's no slagging matches or anything, it's just okay, you're doing that, and we're doing this! Roddy joins me on stage sometimes – he was on tour with us.
‘Jerry does a lot of DJing these days, and he'll do shows with us. He's come on stage, which a lot of people are like: “Woah, Jerry!” Because he doesn't really do anything live these days, apart from the (Spatial AKA) orchestra, which he's stopped now.
‘Everybody says why don't you and Jerry and Roddy and get back together with them? If the other three are doing it, why don't you join them? But we're happy doing what we're doing.’
Neville’s health hasn’t been great recently – he’s suffered three strokes, and has epilepsy following a 2011 car crash. It was an onstage fit that proved the catalyst to his final departure from The Specials.
‘That don't stop me,' he gives a wicked cackle, belying his 66 years. ‘But if you see me, I don't look like my age. I don't know, it's hard to explain, when I'm on stage I get the adrenaline, and...’
But he's not daft enough to deny he has had to slow down from his days of jumping off PA systems and leaping around for Monkey Man.
‘You've got to remember I'm no spring chicken any more!’
But one achievement he’s proud of his 2019 honorary doctorate from Coventry’s Arden University for for his efforts to defuse racial tension through innovation and music
‘It was for my involvement in music – 40 years! And doing stuff around Coventry, helping out young kids, charity stuff, going to talk to kids in prison.’
He became a passionate anti-knife crime campaigner after his grandson, 21, was stabbed to death in 2018.
‘It's getting worse now, it's terrible. A mate of mine, he's got a 15-year-old son, and this 23-year-old's trying to take the kid's shoes. The kid says: “Leave it alone!” So the 23-year-old guy stabbed him 10-11 times, killed him.
‘Even if you're not in to gangs, you could just be walking down the street, and if they want something you've got, if you resist, they'll stab you. For shoes? Come on!’
But through it all, there’s the glint of mischief that earned him his nickname and gave his autobiography its title – The Original Rude Boy.
‘In the old days in Jamaica, there were the bad boys, the ones that was dressed slick, like: “Aah, you dressed rude!” Then my parents would say: “Hey boy, stop being so rude!” when I was being mischievous. My “rude” was telling me to stop messing about!’
Nevilles Staple – From The Specials headlines the Gosport Waterfront Festival in Walpole Park on July 31. The festival runs from July 30-August 1. Tickets £10 a day. Go to gosportwaterfrontfestival.com.
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
You can subscribe here for unlimited access to our online coverage, including Pompey, with 70 per cent fewer adverts for less than 20p a day.