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Interview: Neville Staple, original frontman of The Specials

“Play to the fans, not for your own ego. If they are loving something, don’t be rigid and stop playing when the original record would end. Give them more”

Written by
Graham Turner

There’s not many people that can claim to have changed popular opinion regarding music, but that’s exactly what Neville Staple and his band, The Specials, did in the UK in the late 70s. Just like The Damned and The Clash successfully shook a generation out of political and social apathy, The Specials were at the forefront of the ska revival that would seek to ease the racial tensions simmering throughout the increasingly divided Thatcher-era Britain. They made their mark by taking the reggae-influenced foundations of traditional ska and infusing it with the energy of punk, creating something that spoke to music lovers then and now.

August 26 sees ‘The Original Rude Boy’ come to Hong Kong for the first time, top of the bill at the city’s preeminent ska and reggae festival, Endless Summer. For many, it’ll be a watershed moment. Nearly 40 years on from when The Specials exploded onto the scene with their self-titled debut, Staple’s passion for ska is palatable, something he explains in no uncertain terms when we catch up with him ahead of his Hong Kong debut…

So, how’s life, Neville?
Pretty cool to be honest, mate. I’m having fun on tour, still enjoying the buzz of the fans and I’m working with a brilliant set of guys, who know me so well. Every show is a bit different and not too rigid. There’s no point playing songs live the way they sound on a CD. We mix it up and go with the crowd. If they’re loving it and jumping and singing along, then let’s go around a couple more times and let them party harder! The fans are brilliant and show us a lot of love. We have new music we’ve been recording for ourselves and are still travelling all across the UK, Europe and internationally with our live show. Yeah, life’s pretty cool right now!

There’s a solid, growing contingent of ska fans here in Hong Kong and some great bands, like The Red Stripes. How does it feel knowing your music and style has likely had a huge hand in ska scenes all across the world?
It’s great to know about the influence we’ve had all over the world. And, the Red Stripes are great guys with a lot of talent. I’m really looking forward to working with them and appreciate them helping to keep the scene alive in this corner of the world.

What do you think it is about ska that makes it so timeless? The best songs of the genre never seem to age, they always sound relevant…
It’s music with attitude and reasoning. It tells you how the world around you is while at the same time it makes you want to jump up and skank. It’s that infectious beat, the chanting chorus lines and the energy. I think our words and our music are just as relevant now as they were before. Hence the longevity.

Your latest album, Return of Judge Roughneck, got rave reviews. Was that a kind of vindication for you? A sign that you’re still at the forefront of modern ska and that there’s still a huge appetite for this kind of music?
I’m really proud of the last album and will be putting out another one later this year. I must say though, it is the fans, definitely the fans, that keeps my musical appetite open. The love they show me gives me adrenaline and ambition. I love what I do and don’t think I will ever stop representing the frontline of modern and traditional ska. I write, I record, I produce, I perform live – that’s my life. The encouragement I get from my wife also keeps me going. She is so good in the studio and with managing me and my band, plus has been involved in brilliant and successful music projects and events herself.

What do you think makes a really good ska show?
Play to the fans, not for your own ego. If they are loving something, don’t be rigid and stop playing when the original record would end. Give them more. Let them join in, have fun and sing and chant along with you. If the venue allows for it, let them come and have a skank on stage or let them meet you afterwards for photos and autographs. I basically think the shows should be about the fans going home happy. If they’ve had a good time, then I’ve had a good time.

Are you excited to come to Hong Kong?
I absolutely can’t wait. Both my wife and I are really excited. There have been a lot of fan messages asking when would we ever come to Hong Kong, so I’m glad the time has arrived.

What can expect when you get here?
We are going to have one big party! When you bring your art to the crowd and you see them singing along, jumping around and enjoying your music and responding to you, it’s like the best drug in the world. We’re going to have a lot of fun and get the crowd bouncing and skanking throughout the set. They will get classic songs from The Specials years, plus some other great ska anthems thrown in too. It’s gonna be loud, it’s gonna be messy and it’s definitely gonna be rude!

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