As guitarist for Coventry ska legends The Specials, [formerly known as The Coventry Automatics] Roddy Byers penned some of the group’s most enduring hits, including ‘Concrete Jungle’, ‘Rat Race’ and ‘Hey Little Rich Girl’. Since the band’s initial split [there have been a few reunions along the way], Byers has gone on to form skabilly outfits The Bonediggers and The Tearjerkers and currently fronts The Skabilly Rebels [in which he is known as Roddy ‘Radiation’ a nickname given him by his brother]. With a hefty 22-date Specials reunion tour set to kick off in September, Jack Prescott caught up with the ‘Father of ska punk’ for a few words. Mel injected her tuppence worth to the latter part of the interview, having had a special interest, seeing the band back in their early days. Welcome to the rebellious rockin’ world of Roddy ‘Radiation’ Byers.
JACK: Comparing the social unrest of the late-seventies/early-eighties with today, would you agree that great music is often created in times when people’s backs are up against the wall?
RODDY: Yes I guess the worst of times can bring out the best in people sometimes. It’s weird how it all seems like back when we were playing in the 80s.
JACK: Does it embarrass you to be called the father of ska punk?
RODDY: No, not really. When I started playing this stuff one reviewer said my guitar playing was incongruous. Most music been done before so all that’s left is to mix things up i.e. like my bands stuff (The Skabilly Rebels) which play a mixture of rockabilly ska and punk.
JACK: Are there any current bands that impress you and would like to tour with?
RODDY: I tend to listen to old music mostly - always have.
JACK: Do you get the chance to get out and see much live music nowadays?
RODDY: Not really, unless they are supporting the bands I play with.
JACK: If you could play guitar in any band, past or present, with whom would it be?
RODDY: I once said I would have liked Mick Jones’ job in The Clash.
JACK: How does the thrill of when you first started playing live shows compare to what I assume is the more professional operation it is now?
RODDY: It’s still a thrill; the not knowing how things will go and how the crowd will react. The Specials operation is professional nowadays which is good and bad as you lose contact with the fans at bigger gigs.
JACK: Do you feel the internet and the availability of free music is a good thing? Would you have been partial to some illegal downloading were it available to you as a kid?
RODDY: The internet has brought everyone closer together. Free music? Well, I used to record stuff off the radio onto a reel to reel tape recorder when I was a young teen. But I like vinyl and CDs best. You can’t beat something solid with a picture of the artist on it and lyrics or info, in my opinion.
JACK: Is skabilly as well received in mainland Europe as it is in the UK or is the melding together of two sounds a particularly British thing to do?
RODDY: Ska and rock ‘n roll audiences are merging more nowadays - skinheads like Johnny Cash and rockers experiment with off-beats more now.
JACK: Have you ever had the chance to meet any of your heroes – Keith Richards or Bowie, for example – and have they lived up to your expectations?
RODDY: I’ve met both Keef and David Bowie and thank heavens they’re both very nice!
JACK: What other projects do you have on the go at the moment?
RODDY: Well I’ve been writing and recording at home recently and trying new songs out with my band. It’s going to be a very busy year as The Specials are touring Europe and the U.K. in the fall. Hopefully we can tour the States early next year after Australia and Japan.
JACK: At what stage are preparations for The Specials European tour?
RODDY: Well we had a couple of rehearsals a month or so ago; they tell me we will do intensive rehearsals a couple of weeks before the tour.
MEL: Pardon the pun but I guess I’ve just got to ask - what makes you so special?
RODDY: Well the name The Specials was supposed to be a Micky take as we weren’t special just unusual. A lot of American vocal groups had names like The Four Tops, The Supremes etc etc. As for me, well I suppose a rock n’ roll punk in a Ska/Mod group was, and is different, apparently Elvis Costello told our band leader to sack me when he was producing our first album as he didn’t hear my style fitting in. But we weren’t trying to revive 60,s Ska, but take it in other directions by mixing punk lyrics with all kinds of musical styles and recently I’ve been called the Godfather of Ska/punk!!
MEL: What other interests besides making music do you have?
RODDY: I’m an American civil war buff, I visited Gettysburg last year. I’ve been interested in the War Between the States since I was a child. I collected Civil war bubblegum cards and plastic soldiers and me and my brother had Yankee uniforms my dad bought us which we would wear all the time.
MEL: Whats your impression of Americans as a whole, have you visited or toured many places in the USA?
RODDY: I’ve toured the States about ten times over the past thirty odd years, I like it but the racism and their lack of knowledge of the world outside America I find very annoying. As too seeing much in the States we seldom get chance to see much apart from Airports, Hotels and whatever is in between the gig and the hotel. But I’ve wandered around New Orleans and a few other places when we occasionally have a day off.
MEL: What do you think of the Burlesque scene - it seems to go hand in hand with the old style rock n‘roll and I suspect your partial to the odd pin up tattooed ladies.
RODDY: My band the Skabilly Rebels have played quite a few shows where there were Burlesque dancers on the bill as well. Some of the ladies do look delightful with their tattoos.
MEL: I believe your partial to the odd tattoo yourself, do they have any meanings, where do you get them done?
RODDY: I’ve got three of my own bands logos on my left arm and a chequered band on my right and a Gretsch guitar in flames etc. Most are badly done by bikers in the U.K. and a Leopards head on my back right hand shoulder I had done in Ventura, California at a Hells Angels run place. My first tat I had done in Kings Cross London by a butcher of a tattooist in 1980. Its only recently I’ve found tattooists who are creative. Nowadays they hardly hurt at all.
MEL: Are you a rebel with or without a cause, tell us about it, time to shout it from the rooftops Roddy?
RODDY: I’ve got the word "REBEL" tattooed on my back so I guess that says it all?
MEL: Have you always been Rebellious? And do you think getting older and wiser has calmed you down at all, or do you still enjoy pushing those buttons?
RODDY: Well you can’t change the way you are! It’s not always helpful and I might have done better in my own career if I didn’t bite back so much.
MEL: I saw you way back around “78/”79 in Manchester supporting The Clash - what do you remember most about those times?
RODDY: Well, all The Specials were big Clash fans and we learnt a fair bit from touring with them, it was kinda tough as we were paid very little and didn’t eat or sleep much!
MEL: Was that due to too much partying? What is your overriding memory of Joe Strummer and touring with The Clash apart from the lack of food and sleep and are there any tales you have never spoken about?
RODDY: When you’re in your early twenties the late nights partying don’t bother you too much, recently I get dog tired sometimes. Joe always spoke to all The Specials but I found he always kept a little of himself back, but that was the punk days and we were all trying to be more street than the next punk.
On the last gig of the tour I was going round the dressing rooms looking for beer after The Clash had departed and found a stage shirt screwed up and sodden in the corner, I kept it as a memento of our baptism of fire with the Clash.
MEL: What’s the story behind the blood splattered trouser photo of you on stage?
RODDY: Well I usually pretend to head butt the guitar in ‘Doesn’t Make It Alright’ but occasionally when I’m in a mood or had too much pop I do it for real.
MEL: Is there anything you'd like to achieve in your career before you hang up your guitar and retire into a rebellious pensioner?
RODDY: It would be nice to be known for my own music as well as being one of the guitarists in The Specials.
MEL: Give us just one of your dirty little secrets......as clean or as filthy as you like!
RODDY: Oh dear! Sorry my Mum might read this!
MEL: Ok then, let’s revisit the questions, tell us one guilty pleasure, it could be a song, a band or anything you think your Mum might approve of.
RODDY: Debbie Harry giving me a big kiss back stage at a gig in Long Island U.S.A. which was a pleasant experience for a young man from Coventry!
MEL: Is your Mum your biggest fan?
RODDY: Both my parents supported my musical endeavours, but were worried about what I might get up too in the bad world of rock, n, roll.
MEL: Finally what gets you rolling with laugher? Come on tell us a joke…
RODDY: I love the Marx Brothers and always enjoy a good ‘Carry on’ movie.
MEL: You missed out the joke…or maybe you have a favourite line from a movie you’d like to close the interview with maybe?
RODDY: I’m not very good at telling jokes - line from a movie? "What you rebelling against Johnny? - What have you got?" from ‘The Wild One’ starring Marlon Brando.
Interview with Roddy "Radiation" Byers 27/06/2011 by Jack & Mel
Thanks to the following guys for Photos – credits go to:
Simon Burbage for the bloodied trouser shot http://2-toneforever.blogspot.com
Jason Kane Richardson: http://www.facebook.com/jasonkanerichardson