Chris Arnot

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Too much too young

Twenty years ago Coventry was briefly the hottest spot in British pop. As a new musical revisits those high-energy days, Chris Arnot talks to some of the stars of 2-Tone.

Morning is not a good time for those who ply their trade in the music business, and Roddy Radiation was no exception. Twenty years ago he and the rest of the Specials were woken by a phone call to their hotel in America and told that Too Much Too Young had made number one in the UK singles charts. “We just turned over and went back to sleep,” recalls Roddy, now 45, who has reverted to his original surname of Byers.

Byers and the other band members still remember the exhaustion of that endless tour around the States with other groups who recorded on the 2-Tone label, such as Madness and the Selecter. Since forming as the Special AKA in 1977, they had hardly stopped to breathe, and the strain was taking its toll. “We were on the road for five months, putting in high-energy performances at night and travelling huge distances by day in a mobile padded cell,” says bass player Horace Panter. “It destroyed us for a while.”

And there had been too much fighting in the dance halls back home. “Because we were black and white musicians playing together, we were targeted by racists, Sieg Heiling and throwing coins at us,” says Byers. “There were so many people trying to get at us that the temporary stages were in danger of collapsing. I remember a great split opening up in one place.”

By the summer of 1981 the Specials had also split, almost immediately after hitting the number-one slot again. Their haunting masterpiece Ghost Town, sung by the black Neville Staples and the white Terry Hall, was written by Jerry Dammers, the iconoclastic son of the Dean of Bristol Cathedral. Rarely can a single so brilliantly have caught the mood of the times. Brixton and Toxteth were ablaze. Copycat disturbances were going on in run-down estates across the land. And Thatcherism was wreaking havoc in the manufacturing heart of England.

In the years to come there would be endless 2-Tone revivals and cross-fertilisations between one band and another. But nothing could quite match the intensity of the brand of ska music that Dammers forged from seven very disparate musicians and singers. For a brief moment this blend of punk and reggae had even made Coventry the centre of British pop.

Now the city’s Belgrade Theatre is staging Three-Minute Heroes, a new musical play set in the turbulent three years between 1979 and 1981. The writer, the Belgrade’s artistic director, Bob Eaton, has chosen to focus his story on a fictional 2-Tone band who never make it into the charts but worship the Specials and the Selecter from afar. Woven into the plot are real-life incidents, like the benefit gig for the family of Statnam Gill, one of two Asians in the city who were murdered by skinheads in 1981. There’s also a reference to the march organised by the Anti-Nazi League and the Indian Workers’ Association. This brought thousands of Coventry people on to the streets in protest at the thuggery being perpetrated in their midst by people seeking scapegoats for the motor city’s first major dose of mass unemployment in the 20th century.

Not exactly a happy-go-lucky musical, then, but it has its lighter moments. “And at least it has a coherent script,” says Selecter singer Pauline Black, who made one or two suggestions that Eaton has taken on board. She’ll be at the Belgrade for tomorrow’s first night, as will Roddy Byers. Black has had first-hand experience of television drama and the London stage – her portrayal of the jazz singer Billie Holiday won her the Time Out award for best actress in 1990. But since the Selecter were reborn in 1994, she has enjoyed being back on the road. A much easier road, she admits, than it was during the band’s first incarnation. “An old skinhead came up to me after one of our gigs recently and apologised for the behaviour of his mates at the Hammersmith Palais 20 years ago,” she muses. “I think the first 10 rows were either gobbing or screaming Sieg Heil.”

The Selecter’s original songwriter and lead guitarist, Neol Davies, remembers being “outraged” on behalf of his fellow performers and sickened when he heard that his black friend, Lynval Golding of the Specials, had been beaten up by skinheads outside London’s Moonlight Club in 1980. “The anti-racist stance that 2-Tone took was very important to me,” says Davies, whose six fellow band members were all black. “Neol was our token white,” grins Black.

Like the Specials, the Selecter were a mixture of former students and those who had grown up in Coventry. Davies was a local boy, brought up with neighbours who were Irish, Polish, Ukranian, Indian and West Indian. When we meet, he and Panter have just finished a set for the blues section of the Coventry jazz festival. Two years ago, they got together with Anthony Harty, formerly of the Style Council. Their band, Box of Blues, has been well received on the circuit, but they are still struggling to find a distributor for their maiden CD.

The original Selecter split in 1982, one year after the Specials, having formed in the same year – 1977. Not long afterwards, fellow Coventrian Pete Waterman began using his production skills to turn “artists” with a fraction of the creativity of Dammers or Davies into stars and himself into a multi-millionaire. Waterman’s former Coventry record shop, the Soul Hole, gets a mention in Eaton’s play because he was part of the local scene in those days.

Roddy Byers remembers being woken one morning in 1977 or 1978 by Dammers and Waterman. “We’re going to London to make a demo tape,” they told him, and he was bundled, bleary-eyed, into the van. “We did a song called Dawn of a New Era in some place in Berwick Street,” recalls Byers. “But nothing came of it – and we didn’t get paid either.”

It was another occasion when Roddy Radiation wished he could have carried on sleeping. Little did he know that the dawn of 2-Tone was only a short time away. Two bands from Coventry would scatter a few rays of light during a dark period of British history. When they finally got out of bed, they were prepared to stand up and be counted against orchestrated racism. As Eaton says: “What better riposte to the crap put out at that time by the National Front and the British Movement than to see black and white young people bouncing around the stage together?”

• Three-Minute Heroes is at the Belgrade, Coventry (024-7655 3055), till September 30.

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