Mike Atkinson

Interview: John Bradbury, The Specials

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on July 1, 2011

A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in the Nottingham Post.

You’ll be playing some fairly large venues on your second reunion tour, which starts in October.  How do they compare to the venues you were playing the first time round?

These venues weren’t available in the late Seventies and early Eighties.  We’ve got the chance to play to more people, but putting less strain on the vocalists – rather than doing four or five nights on the trot, like we did in Brixton on the first tour in 2009.  It’s a pretty demanding set, and Terry Hall’s voice has improved in my opinion, but it can take its toll.  So the bigger venues ain’t a bad idea. 

Do you lose something when you scale the show up?

We’ve got such a phenomenal, passionate fanbase, that it translates perfectly.  We’ve done lots of festivals over the past couple of years, but if you really want to see The Specials, then I like to think the indoor venues are the best.  Football stadiums, stuff like that: they’re not really us.

I’ll tell you what I genuinely miss.  In the old days, we used to have our stage invasions.  We never really had a barrier between us and the fans – and I don’t just mean a physical barrier.  We belong to our fans, and they feel very much a part of what we do.  So I miss stage invasions.  But they’re totally not on anymore.  You can’t do it because of the health and safety factor.  And there are good reasons for it.

I saw you play the Sports Hall at Nottingham University in 1980.  There was a massive stage invasion, and you carried on playing well beyond the official encore time.  They even turned the house lights up.  But you carried on playing for about another half an hour.  It was as if the band and the audience were locked into a battle: who was going to drop from exhaustion first?

We used to do about six encores.  So roughly another quarter of the set used to take place as encores.  But how can you possibly leave a crowd like that?  The toughest thing is to stop playing, I find.  OK, we’re a bit older – but we haven’t lost any energy.  To be honest, I think the audience might even get tired before we do, these days. 

There was a knife-edge atmosphere to that 1980 gig.  A lot of people were having a lot of fun, but there was also an air of suppressed violence.  You felt that the whole thing could have tipped over at any minute, either within the audience or within the band.  Was that typical?

In a lot of cases, it was.  We had a bit of a reputation amongst one or two of the extreme parties in this country; the National Front was one of them.  They basically used to follow us about.  Dealing with these people was one of Terry’s fortes.  He was able to deal with it, and Neville (Staple) as well. You’d start off by feeling that sort of vibe, then towards the end of the night, they’d have been frozen out of the building.  So at the end of the night, it was a beautiful feeling.  But yes, there was a tension.  We were targeted by these extremists, and they wanted to disrupt.

Nowadays, our audience has mellowed in a lot of respects.  What really hit me on the first tour was the passion.  You had these massive guys coming up, virtually with tears in their eyes, going “I’ve waited 27 years for this!”

I’ll give you an example.  My wife is diminutive; she’s about five foot tall.  She was down in the audience at Brixton, dancing away, and there were about half a dozen of these huge skinhead guys – lovely guys – who all linked arms and formed a circle round her, so she could dance.  The camaraderie was fantastic.

When you decide to go to one of these shows, you’re motivated to a large extent by nostalgia.  But then the show puts you back in touch with the person you once were.  You’re reliving the emotions, and you realise that you’re still, in some ways, the same person.  That can be quite emotionally overwhelming.

It’s good though, isn’t it?  I get that feeling when I’m on stage.  The weird thing is – and I hate to say this – but I’m a bit of a fan of the band, in a way.  My son films some of the shows, and the hairs stand up on the back of my neck when I look at them.  There’s still something very special about the band, if you’ll excuse the pun. 

Ghost Town was at Number One exactly thirty years ago.  What do you remember about recording it?

It was recorded up in the Midlands, in Leamington.  It was towards the end of things for The Specials.  We were overworked and stressed, and I think you can almost feel that in the track.  Well, I can; perhaps the listener can’t.  But I knew that things were getting close to the end in the recording stages of Ghost Town.  There was a strained atmosphere.  But then again, there was a strained atmosphere in a lot of the work we did, because we were striving to do our best.  After Ghost Town, Jerry Dammers and I carried on with The Special AKA, and some of the rest of the guys decided that it was time to move on. 

Ghost Town getting to Number One wasn’t like most pop singles getting to Number One, because it accidentally soundtracked the inner city riots of the summer of 1981.  Did that change the way you felt about it being top of the charts?  Or were you all still going “Wa-hey, we made it, we’re top of the world”?

I wasn’t overly impressed by it being Number One.  But I’ll tell you another track that I felt great about being on: Nelson Mandela.  The fact that Nelson Mandela got anywhere was a tribute to the track, but at the same time there was the importance of it heightening awareness of the problem.  I dunno; Ghost Town was a good bit of reportage, about what was going on around the inner cities…

…but  Nelson Mandela actually changed things, whereas Ghost Town reflected things?

That’s a good way of putting it.  I think that heightening awareness does change things, and lyrics in popular music don’t do that too often.  So we felt that it was important, more than we felt that it should be top of the pops.  But we’re in the thirtieth anniversary of Ghost Town this year, and nothing’s bloody changed out there, as far as I’m concerned.

This time, hopefully, we’re making a bit more of Ghost Town in the live performance.  I can’t go into too much detail, but we are celebrating, if that’s the right word, the fact that it’s gone through thirty years.  We’ve got something in mind, in production terms, which will be really nice to hear and see.  But I can’t tell you what, because it would just let the cat out of the bag. 

Is this a purely gigging project now, or has there been any talk of you getting back in the studio?

A few of us have talked about it.  If the truth be known, I don’t see any harm in a project coming out of this.  I wouldn’t like to say we’d ever try to produce stuff like the original Specials material.  I don’t think we can do that anymore.  But we’ve got one big asset, and that is our sound – and that’s not going to stop, let’s put it that way.  We did a thing with MIA recently, on Jools Holland.  It gave (some of) us a chance to stretch our legs a bit, with our rhythm sound.  So we might be carrying a bit of a project on, but we’re not sure yet.  Let’s get this tour out of the way first.

And in terms of the gigs, is this it?  Or are you going to take a leaf out of Madness’s book and go on and on?

You never know what’s round the corner, but I don’t think we’ll be touring like this again.  This will probably be the last tour we do.  I think it’s pretty obvious why.  However, there are some younger people out there, who perhaps could do with a band like The Specials occasionally.  So if we’re called upon, who knows?  I mean, we can still do it.  There’s a few years left in the old dogs.

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