Page last updated at 12:34 GMT, Thursday, 25 February 2010

The Specials star Jerry Dammers returns

By Ian Youngs
Music reporter, BBC News

Jerry Dammers may be revered for leading ska legends The Specials, but after a devastating dispute with his former bandmates, he is trying to forget them and make a fresh start.

Jerry Dammers
Jerry Dammers has been out of the musical limelight since the mid-1980s

Of all the band feuds in all the world, the fall-out between Dammers and his ex-cohorts has to be one of the worst.

He is doing this interview to talk about a new project - a cosmic tribute to free jazz explorer Sun Ra, which he is taking on the road next month.

It will be his first full tour for at least 25 years, and his re-emergence from the musical wilderness will have his followers hanging out the bunting.

But the excitement is tempered with regret that Dammers was not part of The Specials 30th anniversary tour last year - and that their bust-up was so bitter that he will clearly never play with them again.

When Dammers staggers into his management office, carrying a stack of files under his arm, he apologises for his lateness and explains that he was up all night working on the musical scores for his new, 18-strong band.

The interview not yet under way, I tentatively ask how he feels talking about The Specials.

He says he is too angry to discuss their reunion, and does not think it would do any good to say what he really thinks.

The Specials
The Specials, with Dammers (right), were big between 1979-81

But an off-the-record rant ensues in which he makes those thoughts all too clear.

Concluding that he "can't do this", Dammers walks out of the office.

He re-emerges after a few minutes. I should have been told not to ask about The Specials, it transpires. He makes a few calls to his PR, and to rescue the interview, we resolve not to discuss The Specials again.

Despite this, he cannot stop himself from making a couple of barbed comments when we finally get onto the topic of his new project.

"Sun Ra has always been, for musicians, the ultimate in creativity and out-there-ness," he says, his mood suddenly lightened as he explains why his new show is dedicated to the jazz pioneer, who died in 1993.

"He holds a special place as a cult maverick who is willing to really experiment and mix up all styles of music.

Jerry Dammers' Spatial AKA Orchestra. Photo by J Yarde
Dammers' Spatial AKA Orchestra is a musical and visual tribute to Sun Ra

"It was looking backwards to ancient music but also forwards to very futuristic, space-age music and that's what I find fascinating.

"He claims he was abducted by an alien and was taken to Saturn and taught about music and sent back to earth to teach us humans about music, and I think that's a great manifesto for a band."

Dammers and his Spatial AKA Orchestra first played their show to rave reviews at the Barbican in London last March, but this tour is taking it to the rest of the country.

The troupe of musicians includes two Mercury Prize nominees, Zoe Rahman and Denys Baptiste, sax icon Larry Stabbins and award-winning flautist Finn Peters.

Dammers' progressive urges - wanting to tackle new, challenging styles; wanting to change a winning formula - were among the reasons why The Specials broke up in the first place, and are among the reasons why he did not join the reunion.

He wanted to make a new album, rather than rehashing old glories. Another sticking point was whether they would play in their home town of Coventry.

The reunited Specials at NME Awards
Six of the seven original Specials have been on a reunion tour

As it happens, Dammers' Spatial AKA Orchestra start their tour in that city on 4 March. Was that a deliberate choice?

"That's the way the cards fell," Dammers replies.

"We're not talking about The Specials - but it's nice for me because I was actually kicked out of the reunion finally because I wanted to play in Coventry."

After the original Specials split up (in a Top of the Pops dressing room in 1981), Dammers carried on as The Special AKA before dedicating himself to running the British arm of Artists Against Apartheid.

He wrote the song Free Nelson Mandela, which was a hit in 1984, put together the 1986 anti-apartheid concert on Clapham Common, London, which attracted 250,000 fans, and worked on the Nelson Mandela birthday concert at Wembley Stadium in 1988.

And after that, he largely retreated from live music in favour of being a DJ and running nightclubs.

We're carrying on the real struggle from The Specials, which was a creative struggle as well - it was supposed to be progressive musically

Much of his current band's sound has come from his DJing and record collecting days, he says.

"I once had a club in Piccadilly where we played this kind of music, and it was also a chess club. We had some very good chess players. The idea was to get peoples' brains working, stimulating them with good music and chess."

Like The Specials, who soundtracked the recession and racial strife of the late 1970s and early 80s, this band also has "political elements", Dammers explains.

"It's quite subtle but I like to think it's genuine and we're carrying on the real struggle from The Specials, which was a creative struggle as well," he says.

"It was supposed to be progressive musically. It was supposed to move forward. I grew up with the Beatles so my idea was that if you're lucky enough to reach a certain successful point, you should use that to try and be creative like The Beatles did, rather than just trying to repeat it over and over again and cash in on it."

Dammers' mouth opens wide in mock horror at breaking his self-imposed ban on referring to his old bandmates.

"You know what I'm saying?"



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SEE ALSO
The Specials tour turns back time
23 Apr 09 |  Entertainment
Re-formed Specials start on album
18 Jan 09 |  Coventry/Warwickshire
The Specials set to return home
17 Dec 08 |  Coventry/Warwickshire
Mandela joins stars at London gig
28 Jun 08 |  Entertainment

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