Why Neville is still very special
Ahead of his gig at the West Belfast Feile on Monday, the frontman from the ’70s band tries to recall his first gig here but, um, it’s all a bit of a blur.
Perhaps it's testament to a mis-spent youth, but for Neville Staple recalling the first time he ever performed in Belfast with The Specials is a bit of a struggle at first.
“I only have very vague memories to be honest,” says the 55-year-old singer in his familiar Midlands drawl.
“Most of my time back then is kind of vague because I was just rolling along on a wave. It's only now that I take things in.”
While rock and roll stars invariably tend to be the ones who hog the limelight when it comes to excessive off-stage behaviour, it's easy to forget that their counterparts in other genres of music can often be just as wild. Staple's biography, Original Rude Boy, which was published last year, is filled with anecdotes and tales of life on the road with one of Britain's biggest bands of the ’70s and ’80s, from fighting with skinhead gangs to bedding numerous groupies and young women.
“You see it was an exciting time for a young kid who would otherwise have been in and out of prison,” says the star.
“It was exciting for me and I was just absorbing everything but not taking anything in, if you know what I mean.”
The book is certainly aptly-titled, as Staple was one of those who cemented the ‘rude boy’ music scene in Britain in the 1970s.
The movement originated in Jamaica where young men began wearing the trademark sharp suits, thin ties and porkpie hats, inspired by American gangster movies and the jazz and soul scene. The look gained a foothold in Britain and, as artists like Staple became more popular, soon permeated the mainstream youth culture.
This time round, Staple's visit to Northern Ireland as part of the West Belfast Feile will not be with The Specials, but at the helm of his own self-titled Neville Staple Band. The group formed in 2004 and is the latest in a number of ventures Staple has been involved in after The Specials break-up in the early ’80s.
These included the upbeat pop act Fun Boy Three, which he formed with Specials bandmates Terry Hall and Lynval Golding, and revival group Special Beat. For Staple there is a unique satisfaction in fronting his own group.
“I enjoy playing with my band more than with The Specials, I really do,” he says.
“Before The Specials reformed I was doing my own thing anyway, so I kind of got used to going to places where they wouldn't go.”
Despite the success of his ventures since then, it is the unique message of The Specials which still resonates with many fans — young and old — today.
As leading lights of the ska and 2 Tone movement, alongside bands like Bad Manners and Madness, the group's message was about bringing a wider appreciation of black music and celebrating Britain's racial and cultural diversity.
“We weren't preaching at anybody,” says Staple. “We were just talking about what we saw around us. People related to it.”
Despite having moved away from his native Jamaica at a young age, he is still very proud of his Carribbean roots, although the recent death of his mother proved a turning point of sorts in his connection with the country.
“We were just getting used to each other,” he says. “I left when I was five and I didn't see her for years until she married my dad over here. I was in America then so I couldn't even come to the bloody wedding!”
Now a father and granddad himself, one might think Staple would be tempted to settle down into cosy domesticity. But the lure of life on the road and the adulation of the fans is still a potent draw for the singer.
“Noooooo!”, he cries when I enquire if he has a ‘significant other’ in his life at present, adding: “I live on my own — I'm used to having stuff my own way.”
The Neville Staple Band are at the Feile Marquee, Bank Square, Belfast on Monday. Tickets are available from www.feilebelfast.com