Sunday, July 31, 2016

Neville Staple Godfather of Ska

“I buggered my knees up, jumping off speakers”, Neville told me. Clearly his life of exuberance was finally catching up with him. Mind you I’d still suggest that Neville Staple is probably the most lively and enthusiastic 61 year old you’ll ever meet.

I was lucky enough to catch up with Neville before his band took to the stage in ‘The Basement’ a dark guitar-lined haven for some of Canberra’s best live entertainment. We chatted about both Coventry (where Neville lives) and Wolverhampton!

For the uninitiated Neville Staple is famed for his time with The Specials, but latterly split off to form Fun Boy Three and now sings his own material. If Jerry Dammers was the brains of The Specials, Neville Staple and Terry Hall were the beating hearts.

The Specials were 2-Tone pioneers. They heralded a revival of Ska – joyous music brought to post-war Britain because of Caribbean immigration but mixed it with a twist of punk’s attitude. Along with Madness and the Beat they brought the new enduring sound of 2-Tone.

When 2-Tone arrived in the charts in Britain in the late 70’s and early 80s it was as much a political statement and voice of Britain’s youth as it was a musical movement. In 1981 while Britain’s establishment waved flags for Charles and Dianas wedding, the Specials  – “Ghost Town” topped the charts and told the real story of Britain’s bleak urban decay, racism and social collapse.

Fast forward 35 years, with Britain leaving Europe and Trump spouting racial hatred in the US the music is still as fresh, current and relevant as it ever was.

“The parents play the music to their kids”, Neville told me, “the kids don’t understand it at first, but then they grow to love it”.

Neville Staple has toured Australia no less than six times. “I can’t believe how cold Canberra is though!” he said then laughed and pointed at the tiny heater they had in the corner of the dressing room blowing out warm air. “We had to buy that earlier today from Woolworths!”

Neville’s promiscuity is a legendary thing, but with wife Christine Sugary now singing back-up in the band, he’s less inclined to boast of his conquests. “I’ve got four kids” he told me – “the eldest boy is 48”. It didn’t sink in until I did the maths a bit later (he’s 61 remember!)

And so the show started.

“Let’s all have a party!” Neville told the crowd and party we did. The crowd rolled back the years, forgot the dark and cold outside and the Basement stepped and bounced to the sound. “Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think!” sang the crowd to the six piece band as they played the tightest set you’ll ever see or hear.

Despite his buggered up knees Neville moved easily on stage – the crowd erupting each time a Specials classic struck up.

Neville was fantastic, he regularly chatted to the crowd and each track brought heightened enthusiasm. By the end even the most stilted and reluctant dancers were knee stepping to the infectious 2-tone beat. The encore another appropriate Specials track “You’re Wondering Now”, which signs off with the anthemic “….This is the end!”

Afterwards Neville and he band mingled with the crowd. He no longer drinks alcohol as his knees require frequent injections. “I’ve told them I might go on stage with a stick one day!” he joked.

I asked him who his favourite artist that he has performed with and without hesitation he said; “Amy Winehouse – try and find it on YouTube it’s a classic!” He then thought and added “Ian Dury was great too, and Elvis Costello”.

When he didn’t mention the Specials I asked him if there was a chance of another revival (he last played with them in 2009). He shook his head; “Nah, not really. I just don’t keep in touch with them anymore – we’re all just doing our own things.”

Neville Staple is only on a short Australian tour. I hope he comes back again soon, his music is not only historically significant, but still remains relevant to this day. Neville Staple was and continues to be a major part of 2-Tone that and I’m sure he’ll continue to be so (until his knees give up on him altogether!)

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