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Harry Pye's Postcard From London

Last week I went to Brighton and back just to see Jerry Dammers' Spatial Orchestra. The train ticket was more expensive than the actual concert but I'm glad I made the effort to go. 

So often I see bands and shows and there are a few good moments but it's nothing special. It's easy to forget how much good music can move you. The Spatial Orchestra's tribute to Sun Ra that I saw in Brighton felt like a real treat. Jerry Dammers works a lot as a DJ now rather than as a musician. If he's on TV these days it's normally to talk about protesting about the racist right wing political party The B.N.P. His orchestra features 18 or so celebrated musicians including Finn Peters on flute, Roger Boujoulaous on vibraphone, Jason Yarde on sax. The night I was there the legendary trombone player Rico Rodriquez was a special guest. It felt a bit like Jerry was DJing but with these hand picked musicians rather than with just records. He seemed happy and was quite witty introducing each piece of music. Each member of the orchestra got to be in the spotlight at one point or other.

Harry Pye, Rowland Smith. Naudi end. Akrüül, lõuend / Enjoy Yourself. Acrylic, canvas, 2009.

At times it reminded me of a Don Martin cartoon in Mad magazine in which the orchestra is introduced or even a strange scene from Walt Disney's Fantasia. It was a packed crowd and they loved it. I noticed the crowd were very mixed, different ages and backgrounds etc which was good. There were a lot of breath taking moments. There was a wild re-working of the Bat Man theme with crazy sax solos. They did a new versions of Jerry's most famous song, Ghost Town which was great - Rico was on good form and got a hero's welcome. After the show the musicians came and played outside and met the crowd. The Sun Ra tunes and chants really stuck in my head. They were all dressed in Egyptian clothes and the idea was they were like travellers going back and forth in time. Somehow it all worked. I was impressed and everything felt very positive – it was a really good night.

 One of the best shows I saw last year was Hugh Masekela's 70th birthday concert at The Barbican that featured the London Symphony Orchestra. Hugh Masekela played a new piece written by Jason Yarde (who is also in Jerry's orchestra). Masekela is a musical legend – a brilliant singer and an amazing flugelhorn player. Tickets for the show were like gold dust but I got in because my lovely and talented friend Helen James was a member of the community choir that Masekela had picked to back him.

Many many years ago when I was about 12 I went with my older sister and her friends to an Artist Against Apartheid concert that took place on Clapham Common. Jerry Dammers was the main organizer and so a lot of his mates like Elvis Costello and Big Audio Dynamite performed. There were a lot of famous stars there like Boy George and Sting performing a few of their hits but it was actually Hugh Masekela (who I'd never heard of then) that I thought stole the show. Apparently there was a video of this Freedom Beat concert - I've never seen it anywhere but I did find one clip of him on you tube...

At the Barbican, Hugh's show ended with a song about Nelson Mandela. He introduced it saying (something like) although Margret Thatcher could have done a lot more to help end Apartheid, many of the people of Britain played a huge part in bringing about a change. He talked about the protesters who demonstrated in Trafalgar Square night after night and he talked quite movingly about forgiveness and the future. The night ended with him singing the African National Anthem. It was so beautiful it was hard not to cry. Like I say, I think we forget how music can be and how much it can achieve.

30 years ago Jerry Dammers and his band The Specials achieved a lot. Jerry set up his own record label which he called 2-Tone and discovered bands such as Madness. All of the groups on 2-Tone records were interested in finding common ground between people of different racial groups and celebrating cultural diversity. It was a fashion craze and a political movement as well as being a great band.

 The Specials lasted from 1979 to 1984 and released around 50 songs, most of which were great.
The music of The Specials was the soundtrack to very difficult times when Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister and there was huge unemployment and a rise in racism. The majority of their songs were protest songs that reflected Jerry's views and feelings. Listening to each album was a bit like reading Jerry's diary.

Brad was the drummer, Dick was on flugle horn, Horace was the bass player, Lynval was on rhythm guitar, Jerry played piano and organ, Nev did backing vocals and toasting, Rico played Trombone, Roddy was on lead guitar and Terry was the lead singer. Their last hit, Free Nelson Mandela featured the vocal skills of Stan Campbell, Rhoda Darker and trio called Afrodisiak.
 There is a more detailed guide to the line-up changes and band history available to view on a website called

Over the last year or so I've become addicted to that website. It's sad really, just one of those things, but I've gone on it far too much and become a parody of myself.

Most people who post on this forum use a fake name which is probably wise. However in some cases, people post so many times to the forum it's not much of a secret who they are anymore. A hefty percentage of site users who are in someway promoting themselves which is fair enough. Some are in ska bands or work as music promoters. Pauline Black uses the forum and she is an award winning singer and actress. And one of the people who goes on the most is "Jet Rink", fans of James Dean will know that this is the name of a character in the film Giant. Jet Rink is the alias of Specials lead guitarist Roddy. "Jet"/Roddy has made over 3,000 posts which works out as at least once a day so he's obviously more addicted than I am.

Sometimes his posts are quite jolly and he'll reveal that Chryssie Hynde of the Pretenders fancied Specials singer Terry or that he once snogged Debbie Harry from Blondie. Often though he'll be moaning that he isn't asked to do more interviews and isn't getting enough attention and sadly on numerous occasions he uses the forum to slag off Jerry Dammers. In the past he's described Jerry as being "a selfish swine" who hurt those he was closest to and "a muppet with no front teeth" who sits on a pile of money. He has also compared Jerry to both the Charles Dickens character Ebenezer Scrooge and Adolf Hitler. In isolation these comments are no big deal but the sheer quantity and repitition of the digs don't do either party any favours.

Jerry  hand picked each member of the band and added Roddy as he wanted a guitarist who could give the band a more punky edge. All of the band had a skinhead haircut apart from Roddy who kept his hair long to hide his ears that stick out. The mod clothes the band wore were a very important part of the whole thing. The group's look was designed by Jerry who would apparently be pissed off when Roddy would refuse and wear his own things. Roddy is a rock and roller who says he hates "all that Hip hop/Rap/funk stuff" and has invented his own genre of music which is, Skabilly. The band's first producer, Elvis Costello, advised Jerry to kick Roddy out of the band but he stuck with him although a few years later Roddy was told by Lynval that Jerry was going to sack him, so he left to form his own band.

During the recording of their classic single Ghost Town it's believed Roddy was so fed up of being told what to do that he kicked a hole in the studio wall. There are other stories about him smashing up cars after concerts and generally being silly. Over the years Roddy has half joked that on stage fights he had with Terry and Jerry were amongst his favorite memories of the band. He has been described as the "loose cannon" of The Specials. Fellow member Nev told one magazine that on occasion he has had  to hold Roddy down and tell him to calm down and reassure him that he is loved and respected.

Because Jerry wrote almost all the songs, when his royalties started being paid the rest of the band (who were paid £75 a week) were furious that he was getting more money than them. Only Horace the bass player didn't have a major problem. To try and ease the situation, Jerry decided to credit the other members of the band for some songs that he had written most of but this didn't work either. The pressures of touring and over work and splitting up with his girlfriend had caused Jerry to have some sort of breakdown. He must have been very difficult to be with and work with in the early 1980's. Roddy says to me, "You were not there and you don't know what he put me and others through." And it's true I'm sure for that 6 month period as the band were splitting up Jerry probably was a terrible drag to be with. That said, I have read the biographies of Nev and Horace who are far more sympathetic and in my opinion Roddy's jealous of Jerry is rather unhealthy (This is only a personal opinion).

Within a few years of the band splitting up, whilst Jerry was organizing the Anti Apartheid concerts I went to, Roddy was working as a painter and decorator in Coventry . Terry had a few hits. He made two albums in the 80s "Waiting" and "Virgins & Philistines" that are both fantastic. He is a great singer and good lyricist and when he works with the right musicians, arrangers and producers the results are gold. The other members of the band concentrated on touring and had less success in the recording studios.

 A year or so ago it was announced that The Specials were reforming. The idea of these guys who had fallen out getting together with a new albums worth of new material seemed incredible. Terry had consistently slagged off the band in the press. He claimed that there was no racism in Coventry until The Specials came along and started singing about it. He said anti violence songs such as It Doesn't Make It Alright had made things worse. He said he now preferred Andrew Lloyd Webber to ska and was embarrassed by old songs The Specials had recorded such as A Message To You Rudy. He also said that he couldn't relate to the political songs like Ghost Town that Jerry had written. Terry's belief was that people should be writing about the smaller things in life like who left a fork in the knife drawer. He had also been incredibly rude about his former band mates Nev and Lynval saying that they contributed nothing and that they were so stupid they hadn't realized the band had actually split. But now things had changed… After the development of some mental health problems Terry was now on medication to stop him doing anything silly. He had found himself a new manager and had also befriended a millionaire businessman called Simon Jordan. Terry had changed his tune and now wanted the band to reform. But whereas in the past The Specials had been Jerry's band the other Specials decided he was now surplus to requirements.
Roddy reacted to the sacking of his former boss with glee.

"I think Jerry should be involved… maybe as part of the road crew?" he joked on the forum.
Fans who made protests along the lines of, "but Jerry was the one with all the ideas who formed the band" made Roddy furious. In his opinion Jerry was wrong to take credit for the forming of the band as they were the only musicians in Coventry and he had no choice etc. When fans praised Jerry, Roddy would get stroppy and reply "We're not worthy". When fans said they wanted Jerry back Roddy would get sarcastic and say things like, "Oh please come back sweet Jeremy." Roddy continued making cutting remarks about Jerry being a middle class hypocrite who was impossible to work with on the website. Terry was taking the piss out of him on stage. "It's good to have a keyboard player who doesn't have a god complex" quipped Terry one night referring to Jerry's look-a-like replacement. And in the press Lynval told journalists that it was in fact himself who brought Ska to The Specials and that Jerry was a dictator who was trying to re-write history.

Last year seemed to be the year that every band under the sun reformed.

There was a feature in NME about all the bands that have reunited this year and been successful – they thought the big event was Blur and The Specials didn't even get mentioned. They talk about all these terrible acts like CUD and Shed 7 who have reformed and now play to larger audiences than they did first time round. The Police made 9 million pounds from one single gig (£120 million in total) whilst Led Zep fans have been paying over £40,000 for one single ticket. Clearly there is a lot of money to be made. Nev wrote in his autobiography that he had reservations about the reunion but at the end of the day it was his pension.

 Jerry said in a press statement that it wasn't a reunion – it was a takeover. And in my opinion he was right.

What was weird is that the band were now pretending it was still 1980. They said in interviews that the fans wanted to hear the songs sounding like they did on record and that life in Britain hadn't changed so why should they. It seemed just plain daft to say things were the same as they were 30 years ago. I began ranting away on the website… "30 years ago Nelson Mandela was in prison and part of the reason he got out is because of The Specials who spread the word about him and wrote protest songs".

Most people on the forum disagreed with me. There argument was that the band sounded just as good without Jerry and that they wanted to reminded of their youth. Not all of the Specials fans shared Jerry's left wing views and many disliked his love of jazz and experimentation.

However there were a dozen or so big Jerry fans on there and one, who called himself Ice Rink was probably more pissed off about the situation than I was. He had so many disputes with other forum users that he was eventually banned. He decided to start his own website (spaceistheplace.co.uk) and his own label (Walt Jabsco recordings).

So many incidents were turned into heated debates on the forum. There was a seriously bad live cd of the band without Jerry came free with The Sunday Times. It cost only £2 but it still felt like a rip off and it was depressing that The Specials were now linked to a newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch. Then the band started getting life time achievement awards. The awards were for being inventive and revolutionary. As they collected the prizes they always failed to mention Jerry. It was as if Ringo Starr was getting an award for writng Strawberry Fields Forever. It all seemed so wrong and my protests continued. Roddy reacted to my complaints with the line, "Well Harry, if you don't like it, you know what you can do…"

He was telling me to fuck off but I actually thought about it and concluded Ice Rink had done the right thing. He'd made his protests and then thrown his own hat into the ring by started up a label.
My situation is that I am an artist rather than a musician or songwriter and I really wanted there to be a 4th Specials album. I decided the right thing to do would be to make my own Specials and make that 4th album myself.

I remembered the sculptor Bruce McLean once telling me that the best thing about being an artist was that you are free to do whatever you want. Morrissey once said that he saw The Smiths as being his painting and that everyday he added a bit more. If his band were a painting why can't my next painting be a band?

Artists of the past have cut off their ear, covered themselves in lard, stayed in bed for a week. So I should be able to form by own Specials and make that 4th album.

Horace, Brad and Lynval said that the fact so many people bought a ticket for the reunion show and that  no one asked for a refund means they were justified in kicking Jerry out of the band. Lynval added, "The Specials are a people's band." The Extra Specials are not a people's band, they are a Harry Pye band. I'm only interested in making a good record so if only 10 people buy it, that won't be a failure.

Sid Vicious was asked if the Sex Pistols made their records for the man in the street and he replied, "No, I've met the man on the street and he was a C**t."
I think this is the right attitude to have.


It's taken me 6 months and I've had a lot of help from my friend Julian Wakeling but I've finally selected the members of my new band The Extra Specials and we've recorded about six demos of songs I've co written. My friend Paul Hamilton is starting a label called Smoking Ant records. Maybe we'll put out a single with him or with Ice Rink's Walt Jabsco records – time will tell.

Elvis Costello started his career in 1977 – the year Elvis Presley died. He called himself Elvis partly as a joke but partly to show that he meant business and had the self belief that he could make records as good as the King's. Without Jerry Dammers the Specials are dead. Long live The Extra Specials!

The Exta Specials are:
Marcus Cope: vocals and percussion
Thom Driver: drums and cello
Mikey Georgeson: Lead vocals
Ritchie Lamie: lead guitar
Amechie Ihenacho: vocals and percussion
Andrew Petrie: bass and keyboards
Gregory Williams: vocals and percussion
Marie Smith: additional lead vocals

As Joe Strummer once said, "The future is unwritten." Maybe the Extra Specials will make a bit of cash and then rebel against me like the old Specials did to poor old Jerry. I guess when that happens I can just go back to painting with acrylics. 

Harry Pye
is a writer, curator and painter who lives and works in London. See also his postcards from London, Sao Paulo and Leeds in previous issues of Epifanio.