Jerry Dammers: A ghost from the past
Jerry Dammers created The Specials, stormed the charts, then suddenly stopped recording. Nick Hasted tries to find out why
By Warren Howard
Friday, 20 April 2007
The man who created 2-Tone, Coventry's own Motown, and wrote Britain's most perfect fusing of politics and pop, the single "Ghost Town" by his great band The Specials, has been away a long time. To some, he has seemed like a ghost himself: there and not there, often appearing on various bills as a DJ, but not writing a song that anybody has heard since 1984, and not playing live since 1994.
This vanishing is one of pop's great mysteries. Perhaps only Joe Strummer's late-Eighties disappearance from the scene for a decade compares. Dammers is certainly an equivalent figure: like Strummer, he was a middle-class rebel (Dammers is a clergyman's son) who became the leader of a revolutionary musical movement, but lost his way, and was left behind by the world he helped change.
So when Dammers enters a south London pub to discuss his first new band since The Specials, for a moment it feels unreal, as if some historical character, or long-lost explorer, has suddenly walked into the room. He looks healthy, even comfortable, his trademark missing middle teeth offset by a neatly trimmed beard. His new project, a big band called The Spatial AKA Orchestra (a pun on his old band's final formation, The Special AKA) play their second ever gig, in Devon at the South West Sound festival, next week. As we sit in the pub's back room talking a slow, hot afternoon away, Dammers is clearly nervous at being back in the fray; desperate, too, to stop being defined by The Specials' achievements. If the question of why his songwriting stopped won't go away, his new band, who play tunes by Sun Ra, is his first tentative step back towards such creativity.
Sun Ra, the prolific space-jazz explorer who famously claimed to have gained his musical purpose on a trip to Saturn, seems an unlikely new touchstone for the man who revived ska's simple energy. But, explains Dammers: "When the US government was going to the moon, Sun Ra was saying that, for black people in America, they could still travel through space mentally, without all the expense of rockets. So his ideas were political. We're playing versions of the funkier, groove-based, African end of Sun Ra from the Seventies; hip-hop-influenced, modern versions, very much my arrangements. It's visual and theatrical on stage, too - there are mannequins and masks and helmets. Half the band aren't jazz musicians, they're more reggae or rock. They're the best young musicians in Britain. It's a new kind of jazz band. I don't want them to be compared to Jerry Dammers or The Specials. They're so special themselves."
But the shadows of Dammers' past will always loom large. From 1979 to 1981, his 2-Tone label offered a vision of pop as an inclusive social and racial ideal that has yet to be matched. The seven-piece Specials, with Dammers as keyboardist, main songwriter and mastermind, and Terry Hall and Neville Staple on vocals, were a racially mixed Coventry band who took The Clash's fusion of rock and reggae a step further. They revived Sixties Jamaican ska with an injection of punk energy, and lyrics of current urgency. Their first single, "Gangsters", hit No 6 in the charts in the summer of 1979.
Just as important as the record was its label, 2-Tone. A deal struck by the band's manager Rick Rogers with major label Chrysalis bargained away financial perks in return for total creative control. When 2-Tone's next four singles, by bands including The Beat, Madness and The Selecter, also cracked the Top 10, Dammers' dream of the label as the Midlands' Motown seemed realised. But the other hit bands quickly left 2-Tone, uninterested in Dammers' grand plans for them. His perfectionism, meanwhile, wore down The Specials and himself, as two hit albums and a diverse series of brilliant seven-inch singles, including "A Message to You Rudy" and "Stereotypes", took them through 1980.
Their greatest moment was their last. "Ghost Town" was a spectral, insidiously melodic vision of an urban wasteland, recorded as unemployment and black resentment at police harassment soared. "When it was finished, we knew," Dammers remembers. "It was like, 'How did we do that?' The sound was a very important part of it: the Yamaha home organ, those weird Japanese fake clarinet sounds. I love anything in music that's fake and wrong and weird. I think that's what gave it that haunting feeling."
"Ghost Town" sat at No 1 for three weeks in the hot summer of 1981, soundtracking the major, countrywide urban riots that its atmosphere eerily predicted. "I'd planned a band from the age of 10 that was going to cause a revolution," Dammers recalls. "And when it actually happened, I suppose you're entitled to think, 'Oh my God. Maybe I actually had something to do with it.' It was scary, because I'm not a person who likes violence in any way. But I put the blame on Margaret Thatcher and the Tories. The riots didn't happen because of The Specials, they happened because of the way that Thatcher was treating people. That's the way it's always worked in this country. People are pushed until they snap. And then things change, a little tiny bit."
At their moment of triumph, Hall, Staple and guitarist Lynval Golding split off from the band to form the Fun Boy Three. "We could' have done more after 'Ghost Town', I think, in that way," Dammers believes now. "I don't think we even realised ourselves the extent to which we were popular. How much it meant to people. But it was really difficult by the end to get certain people in the band to cooperate with me. And the Special AKA was worse!" He cackles. "The Special AKA was a nightmare."
Carrying on the band under that name, Dammers began a series of political singles with a harrowing monologue by a rape victim, "The Boiler". It grazed the Top 40, the sort of radical record that could never be released now. "The possibility had already gone when we put it out," Dammers believes. "We paid a price for that, career-wise. But I thought that track was important. I never really considered the career implications of anything. It was a total fluke that The Specials ever got as famous as they did."
Dammers' perfectionism was finally his undoing when The Special AKA's sole album, the aptly named In the Studio (1984), took two ruinously expensive years to complete. "After that, I was what they call 'imprisoned' to the record company for four years," he explains, "because we had such a big debt. So I couldn't get any new musicians involved, because any money would have gone straight to the company. That's when I got involved in Artists Against Apartheid."
The Special AKA's 1984 No 9 smash hit "Nelson Mandela" - Dammers' pop farewell - had paved the way for arguably his greatest achievement. For three years, he went from pop star to full-time, unpaid charity worker, putting together the Artists Against Apartheid concert on Clapham Common in 1986, then helping to organise 1988's globally televised birthday tribute to Mandela at Wembley Stadium. "Before those gigs, Margaret Thatcher was saying Mandela was a terrorist," he says. "Afterwards, she was saying it was her that set him free."
Today, Dammers supports the Love Music Hate Racism charity, but finds the environment depressingly changed. "Most bands nowadays aren't really political," he says. "They're looking after their careers, and for some reason they think getting involved will affect that. God knows why. I was disappointed with Live 8, too. Saying we're just going to raise awareness - that's all right if it's in the music, if the artists are actually committed politically and are putting it in their lyrics. But just having someone on the stage singing about something that's got nothing to do with it, how that's going to raise political awareness I don't know."
Four years of being blocked from recording made something change in Dammers, too. "That's when I stopped making music," he says. "I didn't even play piano during that time, and when I came back and sat down at the keyboard, the way I played before had gone. I'd turned into this abstract noisemaker. You lose the flow of what you're doing if you stop completely. Doing Artists Against Apartheid took its toll."
Tinnitus also put him off further gigging. DJing became his outlet instead. "My DJ stuff has always been ignored," he grumbles. "It's funny. Once, a rock journalist came up to me while I was actually DJing, and said, 'When are you going to do something, Jerry?' 'I'm doing it, as you actually speak to me,'" he recalls replying, teeth clenched.
It seems almost inconceivable, though, that a man once so utterly committed to his own music could have found satisfaction for the last 20 years in playing other people's. In all the time since In the Studio, has he written any songs? "I have tried to write a couple, yes. But I got more into instrumental music. I hate to say it, but I don't really like songs anymore. I might be able to again one day. But the whole idea of a song, I just went off it."
But it only takes a few minutes in Dammers' company for his old political passions to fire up. Does he really no longer need to get such things out in a public way? "There are still things I need to say," he considers. "But it's much, much harder to say 'em now. If you're talking about political stuff, I think there's a real problem with making those statements that we made at that time, without it sounding like a cliché from that era. I think it's one of the surrealists who said, revolutionary art has to be revolutionary in form. Unless you can shock people with the way you say it, they're not going to take any notice. And it just seemed anyway that music had changed. All the best music till recently was instrumental black hip-hop, dancehall and jungle, that I could only play on vinyl."
But is Dammers still trying to find a new pop language he can speak? "You really want me to write some more songs, don't you?" he says, laughing. "I do try. But that punk era created a whole group of people working together, throwing their two-pence worth in to a much larger movement. That's gone. I still try and write songs. It's not all over yet. Probably. Hopefully. But I have to find new ways to say it."
Dammers seems so genuinely enthused about the Spatial AKA Orchestra, and so nervous about the thrill of new creativity at last, might there not be a new record there? "A record? Good grief!" he jokes. "There's always plans of a record. I have made some recordings over the years. Hopefully at some point I can put them in order."
As we sit back, interview over, there still seems to be something missing in Dammers' account of his retirement from the music frontline, 23 years ago: a failure of nerve, perhaps, or a deep exhaustion that he's only now moving past. Or perhaps it's something simpler.
"It's hard to follow 'Ghost Town'," he says, almost to himself. "I won't ever make a record for the sake of it."
The Spatial AKA Orchestra play the South West Sound festival on 27 April (www.southwestsound.org.uk)
SO WHO WAS SUN RA, DAMMERS' LATEST MUSE?
Herman Poole Blount, named after the vaudeville stage magician Black Herman, later became the jazz legend Sun Ra (right). He was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1914; by the time he was 11, he was playing the piano and writing songs, soaking up performances by musicians such as Duke Ellington and Fats Waller before going home to transcribe whole songs from memory. By his mid-teens, Blount had carved his own reputation on the circuit.
However, it was during the mid-1930s, as a student, that Blount etched out his musical destiny. Blount claimed that, in the throes of deep meditation, a bright light had engulfed him and that he was "teleported" to an interplanetary audience on Saturn. "They had one little antenna on each ear," said Blount. "They talked to me. I would speak [through music] and the world would listen."
It was not until reaching Chicago in the 1950s, however, and renaming himself Le Sony'r Ra, that his otherworldly experiences began to stamp their mark on his music. This period spurned the outer-space-themed "cosmic" jazz for which he is best known; post-swing styles such as bebop and modal jazz were fused with an experimentation that became deeper, more pronounced and less decipherable, as Sun Ra and his "Arkestra" moved to New York and then Philadelphia during the 1960s and 1970s.
Ra cemented his reputation as an innovator by being one of the first musicians to employ the electric synthesiser and tape delay systems to achieve his cosmic landscape. His Arkestra continued touring after his death in 1993.
I'll wait for you Sun Ra (Version 1)
I'll wait for you Sun Ra (Version 1)
Where The Pathways Meet
The Big Chill
Journey in Satchidananda