The Specials, the renowned ska band that formed in Coventry, England, nearly four decades ago, finally got together again to record demos last November, after years of gathering material and ideas. According to founding member and guitarist Lynval Golding, it was drummer John “Brad” Bradbury’s idea to do a new tour with new material. But the following month, in December 2015, Bradbury passed away at the age of 62.
Golding says he’s still got the first demos of those songs, some of which were written by Bradbury, that they’d been working on — but he and Bradbury were very close, and the situation is still so emotional that he can't even listen to those songs.
“We did everything together,” Golding says. “He was like my right arm, and I was like his right arm.”
Bradbury, who replaced Silverton Hutchinson early on in the band’s career, first recording on the song "Gangsters," helped create the Specials' sound. “Brad came in, and he changed everything,” Golding says. “He created that rhythm, that beat. If you listen to the way he played, nobody has played like Brad. That’s why we made sure that when we get anyone to stand in we don’t want anyone to copy Brad. It’s impossible.”
Golding says they want Gary Powell, drummer of the Libertines, to be himself while on the current tour through the U.S. and U.K. The lineup also includes original members Terry Hall and Horace Panter, as well as keyboardist Nikolaj Trop Larsen, lead guitarist Steve Cradock (who’s also in Ocean Colour Scene) and a horn section. The lineup has undergone changes over the decades, beginning with co-founding keyboardist Jerry Dammers, who founded 2 Tone Records in 1979 and hasn't worked with the band in nearly two decades. Original lead guitarist Roddy Byers left the Specials in 2014 to concentrate on his band the Skabilly Rebels, and singer Neville Staples left to focus on his solo career.
“This tour is all about Brad,” Golding said before starting the U.S. tour. “We’re going to give 100 percent every night. After the tour finishes, we’ll see where we go from there. The only thing I got in my mind is to play these songs for Brad.”
But before Golding, who’s been living near Seattle in recent years, committed to the tour, he actually considered quitting the band. Then he remembered that Bradbury had wanted the band to do this tour.
“We were going to make new music and do this tour,” Golding says. “We were going to give you new music. I thought, ‘I can’t do it.’ But I waited and I talked to Terry. Terry is wonderful. Horace is a wonderful partner. Those two guys…. Me, Terry, Horace and Brad run this band — the four that did everything. The three of us talked. I said, ‘I don’t know if I can carry on.’ But this is what Brad wanted. He wanted this tour. Let’s do this tour for Brad. Just do it for him. I thought, ‘All right, yes. I will.’”
Although the Specials, whose last record of original material was 1998’s Guilty 'til Proved Innocent, had been working on new songs, actually releasing a new album under the Specials' name is another issue.
“We’re going through a situation where, legally, we’re going through a problem because we can’t release any music under our name, the Specials, without clearing certain issues that we’ve got right now,” Golding said. “I don’t want to go into it. So that is the reason why we have not released any new music. We’re still writing. We’ve still got material that we’re putting together, but we can’t officially release anything as the Specials until all legal issues [are resolved]. And you know what it’s like. This could go on for years. It’s been going on for the last seven years.”
While it might be a while before a new Specials album is released, Golding is releasing his very first solo recording with the Austin-based reggae group Contra Coup on September 28, the same day the Specials perform at the Ogden Theatre. Golding injects a reggae vibe into two different mixes of the Clash’s “Know Your Rights,” a song he says is as important today as when it was originally released on Combat Rock in 1982, and it's a very appropriate song for what's happening these days politically in the United States and England. The record was also a way to pay tribute to Clash frontman Joe Strummer.
“If it wasn’t for Joe Strummer, I probably wouldn’t be here talking to you today,” Golding says. “Joe Strummer was the one who gave the Specials the break.”
Strummer had seen the Specials, who were known as Special AKA at the time, and invited the band on the Clash on Parole Tour in the U.K. in 1978, helping expose the Specials to a wider fan base. And taking the Specials on tour with the Clash made sense, as the Specials were infusing their brand of ska and rocksteady with punk energy. It also brought different cultures together.
“When the band got together, I was the first member of the band with Jerry,” Golding says. “Obviously, there’s a black guy and there’s a white guy who come from totally different backgrounds. I was born in Jamaica and raised in Coventry. Multi-racial — so the two of us put that together. Because if you look at the musical background, where does the influence of the music come from? I was the one who brought that reggae sound into the band. It’s literally like putting two different cultures together.
“Working in a multi-racial band, at times we had to fight through racism," he continues. "Fight through the National Front. Fight through the British movement. It was pretty hard, because there was a divide in England. And we as a band tried to pull people together, and music is a very powerful thing. It did pull people together.”
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While the Specials have endured a number of lineup changes and splits over the past four decades, the band is still pulling people together with its music, delving into hits like “Ghost Town,” “Gangsters” and their version of Dandy Livingstone’s “A Message to You, Rudy,” and deeper cuts while honoring Bradbury's life.
“We’re always going to be emotional on the stage when we don’t see Brad there,” Golding says. “I just hope that I’m strong enough. But he’s giving me strength. His memory. I look at him every day. I got his photograph, and every day I look at him. And I see him and think, ‘Why did he have to go?’ ...Very painful. Everything has got to be absolutely right, because we’re celebrating Brad’s creation, what he created for this band. An amazing drummer, he was.”
The Specials, with the Far East, 8 p.m., Wednesday, September 28, Ogden Theatre, 303-832-1874.