Monday, August 22, 2011

Duff Interview: Roddy "Radiation" Byers of The Skabilly Rebels & The Specials

Roddy "Radiation" Byers is well-known to generations of ska fans as the lead guitarist for The Specials who penned such classics as "Concrete Jungle," "Rat Race," and "Hey Little Rich Girl"--and helped create The Specials' groundbreaking 2 Tone sound with his rockabilly-influenced guitar riffs. In the years since The Specials dissolved, Roddy has been involved in The Specials MK2 in the 90s, as well as a series of rockabilly and ska-billy bands, including The Tearjerkers, The Bonediggers, and his current act, The Skabilly Rebels. (Any fans with turntables wanting to pick up The Skabilly Rebel's latest album "Blues Attack" should head over to Jump Up Records now--they're releasing the vinyl LP version on August 23, 2011.) The Duff Guide to Ska is delighted to present this interview with Roddy, which was conducted on 8/17/11. (Photo credits - top: Stu Rennie; other photos: Julian Hayr.)

The Duff Guide to Ska: For those not familiar with The Skabilly Rebels, how would you describe your sound? In particular, what aspect of your music holds the most appeal to ska fans?

Roddy Byers: Well as the label on the can says "Ska and Rockabilly" with a bit of punk and country, blues, etc.

DGTS: At your Skabilly gigs in the UK and Europe, do you have a good mix of ska and rockabilly fans or does it tend to favor one scene?

RB: It varies, depending on the country and the city, but we usually get a good cross section of skins, mods, punks, and rockers.

DGTS: Do you have any plans for The Skabilly Rebels to tour the US after The Specials’ European and UK dates this fall?

RB: Would love to get my band over the pond, but if that's not possible, I've recently been chatting to Slim Jim Phantom (The Stray Cats) about doing a Ska-Kats kinda thing hopefully next year.

DGTS: Why do you think so many of the ’77 British punk-era musicians (you and Joe Strummer, for instance) ended up exploring 1950s American rock and country music? The whole ethos of punk was to break from everything that came before it in order to create something new—the “No Elvis, Beatles or Rolling Stones” of The Clash’s “1977” manifesto (even if that didn’t end up happening). What’s the attraction?

RB: Well I know Joe and Mick of The Clash were big rock'n'roll fans, but back in the early punk days, we all pretended like we weren't!

But punk, like the early blues, hillbilly, and rock'n'roll, wasn't that far removed, it's all about energy and emotion.

DGTS: Both the ska and rockabilly scenes are often dismissed by critics as mere revivals—limited to hashing out old musical styles. What’s your take on this?

RB: Just about every pop/rock act you can mention started by playing music which had come before, then developed their own style using that influence as a basis to work from.

DGTS: You launched The Tearjerkers back when The Specials were on a break, just before the band broke up in 1981. The band you were in previous to the Coventry Automatics, The Wild Boys, was more into glam and proto-punk. So why were you eager to go in a rockabilly direction at that point? And how was the band received by Specials fans?

RB: I formed the Tearjerkers mainly because a lot of my songs were being rejected by The Specials' leader Jerry Dammers. He was moving in a very different direction from me, mixing jazz and cocktail lounge music, while I was writing tortured rock'n'roll songs.

The Wild Boys were influenced by my love of Iggy Pop and Bowie, Bolan and the New York Dolls. But all my music has always had that early Presley/Gene Vincent vibe going on.

Some Specials fans who are more broadminded seem to enjoy what I do and some who are just into the fashion of ska don't.

DGTS: Back in the early 80s, the popularity of ska and rockabilly in the UK crested about the same time (both scenes forced underground by the rise of the New Romantics)—but why do you think this took place? (In the US at that time, 2 Tone and bands like The Stray Cats and Polecats were considered to be part of New Wave and had stronger staying power.)

RB: I wanted The Stray Cats to support The Specials on our Seaside tour after seeing them at Gaz's Rockin' Blues club in Soho, London. We even had the tee-shirts printed, but as their first single broke big in England, they didn't need the support slot.

DGTS: Your rockabilly guitar licks helped create The Specials’ brilliant signature sound—though I read in Horace Panter’s autobiography that during the recording of The Specials’ debut record, producer Elvis Costello tried to sack you because he didn’t think it fit in with Jamaican ska (kind of ironic coming from a musician who has borrowed from and delved into so many other musical genres). In the years since, has he ever admitted to you how wrong he was?

RB: I just played the only way I knew how at the time on the early Specials recordings--mixing Duane Eddy with Johnny Thunders and the like.

Apparently Costello suggested The Specials fire me as he didn't hear the connection, but since then I've been called the godfather of ska-punk! But we weren't trying to revive 1960s ska, but take it somewhere else.

Elvis supported The Specials recently in Japan and he was very friendly. I commented on how well he looked, but I never mentioned the sacking business.

DGTS: Back in the 90s, Bucket from The Toasters wrote a song called “Chuck Berry,” which was essentially a history of ska that notes how significant and influential Berry’s early rock’n’roll had on the first Jamaican ska musicians (who heard his records via radio stations transmitting from New Orleans). How aware do you think most ska and early rock fans are of this connection?

RB: Chuck Berry has to be one of the greatest songsmiths in the history of popular music.

I've been told that in Jamaica they could pick up the Southern states on the radio and Fats Domino toured there several times, so there is a big connection which has been mostly overlooked.

DGTS: These days, it seems that a lot of people are crediting The Specials with having created the ska-punk genre that became popular in the 1990s. I have to cop to being a bit puzzled by this. I’ve always felt that The Specials captured the fury and energy of late 70s British punk in their attitude and super-charged performances, but that your guitar sound is much more Vince Taylor than Steve Jones or Joe Strummer. I’ve always though of ska-punk of having been more of a late 80s creation from pioneering bands like Operation Ivy, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and The NY Citizens who were heavily influenced by the US hardcore scene. What do you think?

RB: The Clash were an influence on The Specials and Joe Strummer gave us our first break when he asked us to support them on their 1978 U.K. tour.

Me and Terry [Hall] were some of the first punk rockers in Coventry and I traveled to most of the very early punk shows in London before I joined The Specials.

I'm not really up on the U.S. punk scene after 1980. My influences were more the late 70s NYC--The Ramones, Heartbreakers, etc.

DGTS: I’ve read that when you first played some of the Jamaican covers that became a part of The Specials’ set (like “Monkey Man”), you had never heard the originals. So you had no preconceived notions as to how they “should” sound and were freed up to interpret and play the songs in your own fashion. It seems like so much of went right for the band was just The Specials doing things the way they preferred to or simply knew how to do (in true DIY spirit, natch). In other words, the band wasn’t looking for fame—fame found you. Did it seem that way back then?

RB: I may have heard some, but I just played whatever came into my head. I suppose it was a punk D.I.Y. approach?

I think Jerry Dammers had a plan--record label, ska band, movement, but most of us were just out to have fun as you do when you're in your early twenties.

DGTS: Is there a remote chance that The Specials will come back to the US after their fall European and UK tour?

RB: I really don't know. I would love to, but it's not my shout, as we say in England.

DGTS: For the fans in Europe and the UK, what do The Specials have in store for them this time out?

RB: Well, we have included most of the second Specials album for this year's tour and there's a few surprises show-wise.

DGTS: Through all your years performing with The Specials, Tearjerkers, Bonediggers, and Skabilly Rebels, what have been your best and worst experiences up on stage?

RB: Ha, ha! Well, playing an outlaw biker club rally clubhouse tent with the Bonediggers, which was different! And I've played police station social clubs before too.

Life's always full of surprises!

DGTS: What are your thoughts about the UK riots? It seems that David Cameron’s austerity policies (echoing Margaret Thatcher’s) have created some of the frustration and circumstances that led to this social unrest.

RB: I'm not sure what to think. Is it politically motivated or just thugs grabbing what they can? One thing's for sure, things are very similar to 1980 when "Ghost Town" first came out as a single with unemployment and the youth them a getting angry.

DGTS: What are your plans for The Skabilly Rebels for the next year?

RB: Release another CD called Fallen Angel and maybe take the Skabs down under to Australia.


Matt C said...

Great Interview. Roddy's comment about early punks merely pretending to dislike earlier Rick N Roll gave me a good chuckle.

Steve from Moon said...

Thanks, Matt. Fantastic that he admits it was all just posturing...

Polly The Wasp said...

There were a lot of us in the UK pretending not to like RnR at the time.... It was great when Roddy had the temerity to form the Tearjerkers and risk incredibility (which he avoided by just being so good at it).

Joachim said...

Thanks for the interview. Roddy is definitely one who tells it how it is. Still, it's sad to see The Specials go, again.

Steve from Moon said...

Polly and Joachim--thanks for your comments!

Johnnyreggae said...

Nice one Duff!

"Gangsters" wouldn't be half of what it is if not for this guy's guit. Massive record!

Steve from Moon said...

Thanks, Johnny Reggae!

I agree with ya! Roddy deserves even more props for his guitar picking!