Into Creative: Interview with Roddy Byers
Roddy “Radiation” Byers played guitar in one of the most important groups to come out of not only the Midlands, but the U.K. in the late 70s, The Specials. Throughout the last 40 years or so, Roddy has also fronted a number of bands, most recently the Skabilly Rebels, which has given him the platform to perform his own songs and showcase his rockabilly, blues and rock’n’roll roots. Roddy took some time out to discuss his music, 2-Tone, life on the road and much more in this exclusive interview with John Welsh for Into Creative.
Covid and the lockdown. How’s it been for you and the family and what have you been doing to keep busy?
I don’t socialise much nowadays unless I’m doing a show so I didn’t notice a change at first. But not being able to hug my family was awful. I’ve been trying to finish a few songs during lockdown on my new Gretsch Broadkaster.
Going back to your youth, what were the bands/artists and influences that inspired you to pick up a guitar and learn to play music?
I started getting into music when I was 12 years old and took guitar up at 13. I loved The Monkees TV show and from there I got into Jimi Hendrix.
How did the “Radiation” nickname come about?
My brother Chris called me Roddy Radiation for a joke when I was into Ziggy Stardust and when punk rock came along I used the moniker as a stage name. I’m stuck with it now!
Can you tell Into Creative how you came to join the Coventry Automatics?
My mate Tim Strickland was the first vocalist in The Coventry Automatics who later became The Specials. I knew Jerry Dammers, the band’s leader/keyboard player and he asked me to play some lead guitar on some tracks they were recording in London. I joined soon afterwards.
The band then changed their name to The Specials on the same night you supported The Clash at Friars Aylesbury in June 1978. How was the name The Specials decided upon and what are your memories of supporting The Clash on the “On Parole” tour?
We had tried several names as there was another group called The Automatics and they had just released a single. I think Jerry came up with The Specials name – we were also known as The Special AKA.
The Clash 1978 On Parole tour was a high point for me as I was a fan. Supporting them every night around the UK was smashing, but it wasn’t an easy ride, very little money, sleeping rough and not eating much.
To some extent, 2-Tone was at its height for a reasonably brief period. Yet within that, The Specials played TOTP, had a number 1 and you toured the UK/USA playing iconic venues such as the Whiskey-A-Go-Go, had Debbie Harry announce you on stage and the likes of Jagger and Bowie were in the crowd to see you. It seems like a rollercoaster of a ride – what were your highlights of the time and thinking back, would you do anything differently?
It lasted maybe three years but it didn’t happen overnight. We played every pub and venue it seemed before Gangsters, our first single got into the charts with help from John Peel’s radio show.
As to things I’d change, I probably shouldn’t have stopped singing in the early days as I sang my song Concrete Jungle on the first album and live too, to start with.
2-Tone has retained its appeal and its influence endures to this day with new bands and new generations getting into it – from your perspective, why do you think that is?
We came along as the first wave of punk was changing. Also, there was a skinhead/mod revival, so with an image change we fitted in. But I was always the rock’n’roller in the band which was unusual at the time for a ska/reggae band. 2 Tone Records, our label created a movement which has become very popular and has been copied all over the world.
You wrote Concrete Jungle and Rat Race – 2 of the hardest hitting Specials songs lyrically. Yet 40 odd years later the themes in those songs (and others) are still prevalent and happening in our society. What’s your take on where we are as a country with so much going on in the world.
I wrote mostly from personal experience and some of my songs The Specials covered. Sadly, the things we sang about like racism and right-wing violence are still around today. Hopefully our message reached a lot of people and changed the way they thought about race and politics.
The MK2 Specials are often skipped over in terms of the band’s history but you recorded and released a number of albums (1993-2001) including King of Kings with Desmond Dekker and toured worldwide during this period. Is that period overlooked and in terms of the records, do you think these stand up in their own right?
Some of The Specials and one of The Selecter reformed in the 1990’s after backing Desmond Dekker on an album.Touring the world again and releasing two albums, as it wasn’t the original line up, the press didn’t give us an easy ride. But I managed to get some of my new songs included on our second album release Guilty Until Proven Innocent. Our songs still covered the same social problems as our earlier albums.
The Specials then reformed in 2008 with the exception of Jerry Dammers. My own recollection of the first UK tour in 2009 was chaotic (in a good way) when you played live on stage. Did you expect the reaction you received on that tour?
Jerry saw the reunion in different way to the rest of the band, and when he said he wouldn’t do it unless we did it his way, we sadly decided to tour without him. We sold out shows all around the world again but egos and power struggles made me leave in 2013 the year after Neville Staple left.
2019 saw the 40th anniversary of 2-Tone. Was it ever on the cards to get back perhaps one last time with The Specials?
I wouldn’t play with them again. I found over time they wanted to subdue the ska/punk rock’n’roll sound which I contributed to, for a more commercial pop sound.
You’ve always been busy with your own bands whether before, during or after your time in The Specials (including Wild Boys, Raiders, Tearjerkers, Bonediggers and Skabilly Rebels). Do you enjoy being at the front of stage, singing and being able to put more of your own personal style and influence to the music?
Yes. I’ve always had my own bands, playing my mixed up style of music, that I’ve termed ‘Skabilly’ for want of a better name. It’s basically what I’ve always done in my bands and The Specials. It’s also nice to sing and play my Specials songs the way I wrote them.
Coming back to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Skabilly Rebels have had to cancel a few gigs. Are you missing playing live and when are you hoping to get back out there to play for your fans and audiences again?
Yes, we had to cancel lots of Skabilly Rebels shows. Hopefully we can rearrange them when this is all over. I also have a Californian tour I was going to do this November which seems doubtful now. I’m also booked to tour Australia in January next year.
It’s also been a difficult time for both artists and venues. One I know you’ve supported in the past is the Coventry Music Museum which is run entirely by volunteers and includes a fantastic 2-Tone exhibition. Can you tell us a little bit about the museum and what it means to you?
Yes, the Coventry Music Museum is a wonderful place and run by wonderful people! I’ve done several solo shows to support the museum and they have my old Vox AC30 amplifier and one of my tonic stage suits on display.
Your current band the Skabilly Rebels have a ska/rockabilly crossover with a punk vibe. In terms of fusing the genres together into music, what’s the process in terms of getting the tunes just right?
Rock’n’Roll/ska/blues and jazz all come from the same roots, so I find it easy to mix these styles in to my songs.
To date the Skabilly Rebels have released an album (Blues Attack) and a couple of EPs – can we expect any new music at some point soon?
I’m hopefully going back into the studio with the Skabillys later this year to record some new songs.
You’ve played on Neville and Sugary Staple’s album Rude Rebels and they returned the favour on your Losing Control EP. How was that experience and thinking of other artists out there, who would you love to collaborate with on record?
Neville Staple and I stay in touch and occasionally record together and both our bands share the same bill on shows regularly. I’ve recorded with lots of ska and reggae bands over the last forty years as it’s nice to meet new people and get new ideas.
Lastly, thinking back to all the gigs you’ve attended, which one stands out the most as really memorable and why?
Well I’ve seen so many bands over the years but David Bowie in 1972 was brilliant! I could go on for several pages, but I’ll leave it there. Many thanks!
All photographs are © Eugene McLaughlin