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A natty natter with Roddy Radiation

By R&H poet laureate Owen Jenkins

Posted February 05, 2016
Roody Radiation talks to the Rake & Herald
Skabilly Rebel: Roddy Radiation on stage in Swindon. © Owen Jenkins

Roddy Radiation talks about his time with the Specials, his current band the Skabilly Rebels, David Bowie and the recent death of John Bradbury.

It's a bitterly cold, rainy Saturday evening in January (16/1/16) around 18:30 and the queue is starting to form outside Swindon's Music Entertainment Cultural Arena (MECA) on Regent Circus.

Soon, this art deco dance hall will play host to an evening of rockabilly/ska fusion, brought to the stage by the former lead guitarist and sometimes vocalist of the Specials, the writer of such songs as Rat Race and Concrete Jungle that helped solidify the band's label as 'the narrators of youth culture in England in the 1980s', the one and only Roddy Radiation and his band the Skabilly Rebels.

This show is their first of the New Year, which promises to be a busy time for Roddy.

After a number of UK gigs, he jets off in March to the American West Coast for his first solo US tour.

With over three decades of recording and touring under his belt, this born frontman takes it all in his stride, or at least appears to, with his energetic stage presence, slicked back hair and rock-and-roll playing style.

Consisting of Roddy on vocals and lead guitar, Adrian R Lee on saxophone, Connor O'Connor on bass, Spencer Walker on drums and second guitarist Danny Webb, the Skabilly Rebels clout out a blend of ska beats and rock-and-roll riffs that give the audience plenty to jump about to whether they're here for swinging or skanking.

For a sound that on paper shouldn't add up, the Skabilly Rebels provide the answers to what the crowd seems to be asking.

Fans of both genres are not disappointed: plenty of classics from Roddy's Specials days mixed with the Skabilly Rebels' own repertoire that includes tracks from their 2009 Blues Attack album.

By the end of the evening, there are some pretty tired and sweaty people still hopping and jumping around.

And I know because I am one of them.

Fortunately, though, I wasn't quite so sweaty when I sat down with the band before it all kicked off under the auspices of local support acts the Nomarks and the Erin Bardwell Collective.

Adrian R Lee on sax
Tax the sax: Adrian in action. © Owen Jenkins

For the new fans of the Skabilly Rebels, where is the best place to be able to hear your music and get their hands on the album or new Fallen Angel EP?

Roddy: The website is the best place to download the album.


Danny: You can find us on YouTube as well.

We have loads of stuff on there.

Your song Doldrums is also featured on a compilation album on iTunes, is that true?

Roddy: Yeah, a friend of mine, Steve Hookers, put that together on an album called The Leather Soul Volume One.

Have you guys got any plans to go back into the studio for any new releases this year?

Roddy: Yeah [he says through a mouthful of pre-show crisps and sandwiches], a fair few songs are ready to go.

It's just a matter of rehearsing them and getting in the studio, really.

Danny: You see, that's the thing.

Roddy is still writing new songs.

He is not just relying on the Specials stuff, so just watch this space…

Roddy: And these will be released on the website.

It's kind of catching on with the internet and FaceBook.

I was chatting with someone the other week from Costa Rica who had heard of us via the internet, they really got into it.

How did the Skabilly Rebels come to form? Had you all known each other previously?

Connor: Well, I've only just joined, about two months ago.

Roddy: We are all kind of from the same circle really.

Connor: I've played with Danny before…

Roddy: We all live in the same house, like the Monkees, and the beach is just outside.

All of us sit around in shorts and listen to music.

Danny: We are lucky now, we all have separate beds!

Na, I'm in a different project with Spence.

I've also been working with Connor for the past 10 years.

Then Adrian came back on the scene.

We've all done different projects and we all get on, which is the main thing.

Connor: With all the time spent in the van farting together, we have to really.

Danny: You have to get people you trust and get along with and Germany was our first test.

Connor O'Connor on bass
No farting around: Connor keeps it gastight on bass. © Owen Jenkins

Where in Germany did you perform?

Danny: We played in Dortmund, Hamburg and Berlin.

Spencer: And Copenhagen.

Danny: Which is in Denmark [he laughs].

Roddy: It was a Sailor Jerry-backed tour, so lots of rum.

Danny: That's when we first really found how we all felt about each other.

Rest of the Band: And that Danny loves rum!

What was it that inspired you to create this unique sound by combining the two genres, ska and rockabilly, together?

Roddy: I've always kind of been the rock and roll aspect of the Specials.

The Specials, you know, [Jerry] Dammers picked me because he thought he needed that sound.

It's not the same but, like, when Bob Marley signed to Island Records, Chris Blackwell brought an American black blues player to play with the Wailers to make them more accessible.

In England, it's always been a very reggae/ska thing anyway.

So Dammers got me involved with the Specials to put in a bit of a punk, rock and roll thing, which Elvis Costello didn't like.

He told Dammers and the band to fire me, said I didn't fit in.

He had been listening to a lot of early 60s ska and there wasn't any Johnny Thunders in that.

Danny: What does he know, eh? Elvis who?

Danny Webb on guitar
Forget Costello: Danny's just scrubbed him from his phone. © Owen Jenkins

So when starting this project, was there any difficulty getting the sound that you wanted?

Roddy: The kids aren't the same kind of tribal about it now, where a lot of older people used to only listen to certain styles of music and dress in certain ways.

I know guitarists from Whirlwind and umpteen rockabilly guys who also love ska and listen to reggae and all sorts.

The problem is that there are a lot of Specials fans that like what we do but there are a few diehard skinhead fans and reggae fans that think we are too rock and roll.

It's a mixture really.

The Specials did a mixture of styles.

On paper, it shouldn't have worked but it did, you know, but that's the only thing that is new is by mixing it.

If you go back far enough in time, like a lot of Fats Domino is huge in Jamaica and they used to get a lot of country radio stations from the southern states of America, so a lot of Jamaican artists used to cover country songs, so there has always been that type of crossover.

It's just that we come out so blatantly mixing the styles together that can be a bit of a shock for people but it's always been there.

The Clash were doing reggae and rock-and-roll songs on the same album, London Calling.

Music is about mixing things together.

So, where would you say the majority of your fans come from, the ska or rockabilly scene?

Roddy: I would say the majority of fans are Specials fans because they are interested and like the songs I wrote.

They come to listen to the new songs and liked where they were coming from, which is my take on what I did in the Specials really.

It's crossing over to different kinds of people.

I found that when I was in the southern states and California, the Mexicans really got it, which I thought was strange.

They love the ska and rockabilly.

They were all dancing around.

Danny: What I've noticed as well are a lot of the people who do like us are into country, like Hank Williams and that kind of thing.

They just get it and with the ska as well it makes it more danceable.

Roddy: That's what it's about, really.

It's dance music.

Rock and roll has always been dance music and so was ska.

If you go back far enough, it's all connected – from Fats Domino and every early to late 40s and 50s.

It's that kind of swing thing with the calypso and the mento and African influence – it's all mixing it up.

Basically, anything to shake your booty to.

Having worked with some of the greats, like the Clash, Elvis Costello, Jean-Jacques Burnel of the Stranglers, Jake Burns of Stiff Little Fingers, what were some of the best moments and some of your most surreal experiences?

Roddy: Well, most of them I can't tell you about, but our first Specials major tour was supporting the Clash.

In the 90s, the Specials Mk2 were supporting [David] Bowie and he came in and was really nice and friendly and said it was great to see us again.

Because in 1980 we were playing in New York and Mick Jagger and David Bowie were there and came to see us play, which kind of freaks you out a bit when people you have admired from a teenager actually come to see you play.

Which can be overwhelming sometimes.

You got your name Roddy Radiation from your brother when you were a kid because you were a fan of Ziggy Stardust in the 70s. How much has the late David Bowie influenced your career?

Roddy: Yeah, that's true and I still hate him [he laughs].

I did a cover of Somebody Got Murdered, the Clash song, on the Specials Mk2 album and there is a verse where I switch in to complete David Bowie.

I didn't realise until I heard it back and was, like, "oh dear".

It's like the stuff you listen to as a kid just sticks in the back of your mind and you can't help it coming out sometimes.

Roddy Radiation on guitar and vocals
Ziggy Radiation? Roddy makes his point. © Owen Jenkins

How did you all get into music?

Adrian: I saw Roddy back in 1978, when he was in the band the Automatics, and now I'm playing with him.

I was there from the start, really.

Danny: Well, the usual, really.

I used to listen to my mum and dad's music collection, the Beatles and all of that.

It was like I wasn't content to just sit there and listen: I want to do what they are doing.

So I picked up a guitar and learnt three chords and...

Connor: And now he's learnt four.

Danny: Yeah, I've just mastered the fourth one now, but yeah, the usual, really.

Connor: Much the same.

At school, you get a band together with your mates and you pick up an instrument and have a blast on it and take it from there.

Roddy: It wasn't anything to do with the lifestyle of free booze, girls and parties or anything.

Spencer: I got into the Beatles, really.

Roddy: I've always preferred the Stones!

Spencer: My granddad gave me a record player and I got my first record, which was the Beatles, and I used to just listen and play along to records more than anything, just in my bedroom, and taught myself.

I was brought up with it.

My dad was a musician and he would be off playing, so it was in my blood, really.

In fact, my dad was the driver for the Specials.

He had an old van and he used to do the PA.

Roddy used to stick his chewing gum to the roof – he still hasn't forgiven him.

Well, he did that for two years in the build-up to their first single and then, when the new management took over, they sacked him.

Adrian: Yeah, and to get Roddy back for the chewing gum, he now has to put up with Spencer as the drummer [he laughs].

Spencer: Plus the drummer that worked with Roddy in the Bonediggers, Jim Prial, he used to always be round my house when I was a kid.

So he has known me since I was a right nipper and I used to watch him play.

Then I got to meet Roddy and we got chatting and now I'm playing with him.

Roddy: The country music scene is very incestuous anyway.

It is a small little scene and everyone knows each other and that, you know.

It's consistently changing.

People are always swapping different bands and line-up work and some don't, but, you know, everyone knows each other.

That's the thing.

Spencer Walker on drumss
Chewing gum sticks: While Spencer prefers to hit them. © Owen Jenkins

It is a small world. My mum got to meet you, Roddy, and the rest of the Specials in the early 80s when you played at the Cornwall Coliseum down at Carlyon Bay in St Austell, a town that for contractual obligations to the Rake & Herald I have to state is officially recognised across all dimensions of existence as the centre of the Multiverse. Yeah, St Austell. It's got a brass turd.

Roddy: I remember playing down there a couple of times.

Once with the Specials and again with the Tear Jerkers.

When I played down there with the Tear Jerkers, they introduced us to the crowd and we came on stage to suddenly realise we had all left our guitars down in the dressing room.

So we all had to just walk back off.

We were professionals, you see.

We mentioned earlier the late David Bowie and from one great loss to British music to another, the death of your friend and legendary drummer John Bradbury.

Roddy: I was very shocked.

In fact, I'm still coming to terms with it.

We weren't the closest of buddies but after spending so many years together, it's kind of like loosing your left toe or something.

It's really very sad.

A great drummer [the entire band nod their heads in agreement].

It made us all realise we are getting old now and I've been to a number of funerals over the past couple of years and, you know, life's short.

So you've got to enjoy yourself while you can.

Connor: You are only here once [he fist bumps Danny].

Have you had much contact with your former band mates since?

Roddy: Me and Neville [Staple] keep in touch.

We kind of, like, well, me and Neville split from the [the Specials] two, nearly three years ago.

The band wasn't getting on so well, like.

Terry Hall became the new leader and things went according to him and what he wanted.

Neville and me had our own bands, as you can see, and we just wanted to concentrate on them.

Plus, no one was playing any material and it was, basically, I was the only one writing songs.

Danny: Lynval [Golding] worked on our EP.

Roddy: Yeah, he worked and recorded on our EP recently, on a number of tracks.

Danny: He played on Sweet Revenge.

Well, thank you for the interview, guys, but as this will be going out on the food-fighting-tasticTM Rake & Herald, I've got to ask something about competitive eating. So, if you had to participate in an eating contest, what would your preferred choice of food be?

Danny: Well, I'm a vegetarian, so I guess lettuce.

Connor: Or grass!

Roddy: Southern-fried chicken.

Conner: Burgers.

Spencer: French fries.

Danny: Not grass! It would be Quorn sausages.

Adrian: Curry.

Chief hack's note: Cheers, Owen, and a massively huge Rake & Herald thank you to Roddy, Danny, Connor, Spencer and Adrian! So there you have it, and while your mind floods with thoughts of the Skabilly Rebels ramming as much grub down their gobs in as little time as possible, how about a few tunes to aid the mental digestion?

So now here, embedded on the tune-tastic
Rake & Herald from Roddy's YouTube channel, are a couple of audio-visual hors d'oeuvres from the Skabilly Rebels' aforementioned Blues Attack album, which you can buy here (along with the new Fallen Angel EP and a load of ace T-shirts). Hint, bloody hint.

And while you're about it, make sure you also check out Roddy and the band's website,
FaceBook page and Twitter feed to keep bang up to date on gigs, news and all that kind of malarkey, why dontcha? Oh, and good luck in the States, Roddy. I hear there's plenty of southern-fried chicken out there, sir!

See also Fuck it, posted 7/12/15.

The original version of this article can be found on Owen's Life on Music blog. Cheers muchly for letting us run it here on the Rake & Herald, chief!

Owen Jenkins is an Afghan veteran and serving soldier with the British Army. His poems can be read online here.

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