Jerry Dammers: An Appreciation

Why was Jerry Dammers such a significant figure in the punk and new wave movement?

“Jerry Dammers’ role in UK music was hugely significant. Raising awareness. Politically. Socially. And more importantly, he used his position to try and effect change… This sets him apart from the majority of musicians who dabbled in this area.”

He spent his life playing ska, or music based on it. He didn’t really come from a blank canvas. He didn’t set out to destroy all that came before him. On the contrary, he was influenced by certain musical precedent.

But he is a significant figure. Definitely. No argument.

Why? Firstly, the band he founded, The Specials, were significant on their own. For their music. For their multi-ethnic and culturally diverse line-up.

He created a legendary record label. Which itself went on to become a genre. A mainstream one. Not merely a sub-culture. This genre was vital in reviving punk spirit, which in 1979 had sagged somewhat. By doing so, he helped punk move forward.

The use of his role in mainstream music in the UK was also significant. Hugely significant. Raising awareness. Politically. Socially. And more importantly, he used his position to do something. To try and effect change. It wasn’t just about making people happy. Or seeking inspiration for his art. This sets him apart from the majority (not all) of musicians who ‘dabbled’ in this area. The punk characteristics of doing what you want and saying what you want, and making a genuine difference, were alive and kicking in Jerry.

He connected with the public, too.

I haven’t even referred to his song-writing and musicianship. They are a given.

Jerry Dammers. Taken on March 28, 2013. All rights reserved © Flickr/Mistah Tea.

Jerry David Hounsell Dammers was born in Ootacamund, Tamil Nadu, India in May 1955. The family moved to England, and Jerry was raised and schooled in Coventry. His father (Horace) became Dean of Bristol Cathedral. During his formulative years Jerry was a mod, hippie and skinhead. And an activist. He met future Specials founder member, Horace Panter, whilst studying art at Lanchester Polytechnic (later Coventry University). He also became a member of the Cissy Stone Soul band during this period, playing soul and funk to venues across the country.

After meeting at Polytechnic, Jerry (keyboards), Horace (bass) and Lynval Golding (guitar) formed the Coventry Automatics in 1978. They began playing across the Midlands. After eighteen months or so, the hurricane and revolution of punk had weakened. The Pistols had imploded, and The Clash were working with an American producer, and were showing signs of branching out. The basic format of ‘punk rock’ music had already become predictable. It was time for an injection from somewhere. Across the country, punk’s energy was still present in the nation’s youth. And available to be harnessed and utilised. The public were still ‘up for it’, see.

Coventry Automatics.

Terry Hall (vocals), Neville Staples (vocals, percussion), Roddy Radiation (guitar) and John Bradbury (drums) joined the three founding members to complete the line-up. Something was brewing in Coventry. Jerry was at its helm. The band were representative of the city in 1979. Representative of society, too. Exactly what Rock against Racism promoted.

But at odds with the United Kingdom at the time. There were riots in London and other cities, and the National Front was on the rise. Racism in all walks of life prevailed. Tribal tension, involving skinheads, mods, rockers and punks, also was widespread. Into this cauldron, The Coventry Specials, as they were now known, were fully launched. And traditional ska music was the pad they shot from.

“Out of punk came the ska revival. Punks singing bluebeat.” – Simon Armitage, ‘Gig’.

The Specials © Amazon Music.

The band was multi-ethnic. Black and white musicians working together. The band was multi-cultural. Mods. Skinheads. Punks. Rastafarians. Rockabilly Rebels. All could spot kindred spirits in the band’s Rude Boy image. They integrated the factions of youth culture that seemed to be at war across the nation at the time.

“The movement the Specials created was not just about music. The clothes are almost as important” said Terry Hall, quoted in Chris White’s ‘The Specials Too Much Too Young’. “We are not a mod band or skinhead band. The Rude Boy thing is a real mixture.” 

Don Letts and others had been showing that punk had a natural companion in the rebel music of Jamaica; reggae. This was derived from rocksteady, bluebeat and ultimately, ska. Jerry used ska as a basis and quickly added the riotous energy of late 1970s punk rock to its smooth, danceable rhythms. Mix in a very English vocalist in Terry Hall, and a further, more updated, Jamaican touch, in Neville Staples’ voice and toasting. A unique sound followed. The Coventry Specials became the Special AKA, and ultimately, The Specials.

“Jerry Dammers once commented that ‘Ska is just somewhere to start, it’s dead simple, but there are so many variations you can make of it.” – Chris White.

Joe Strummer liked them. The Specials joined The Clash on their ‘On Parole’ tour. They moved to London and Bernie Rhodes managed them briefly, no doubt finding an ally in Jerry for his political and social viewpoints. However, the band soon returned to Coventry. Jerry and his band mates wanted to do things their way and didn’t want to be someone else’s puppet.

The next step secured Jerry as a significant figure in punk and new wave. He formed 2-Tone Records. A masterstroke. With its black and white Rude Boy logo, it was a perfect vehicle for showing the world what Jerry was all about. And DIY to boot – another punk characteristic. Black and white. Rude boys and girls. Integration. Sharp. Original. And respectful to the music’s origin. The debut release in July 1979 was a seven-inch single, Gangsters. Based on Al Capone by Prince Buster, it had all the elements of the band’s live shows in its two minutes forty-seven seconds. It was a combination of ska and punk energy. 2-Tone as a genre was born: “The record blowing a breath of fresh air through the ashes of the punk scene and heralding one of the most exciting periods in British music since the Sex Pistols’ heyday”, wrote Martin C. Strong.

Furthermore, Gangsters was released as a split single. On the other side was The Selecter, by fellow Coventry-based ska revivalists The Selecter. In August the same year another bunch of ska converts, Madness, had their debut released on 2-Tone. The Prince (further homage to Prince Buster!)  came out. The 2-Tone Tour hit the road in October featuring all three bands. The nation had been whacked fully in the face with a punky ska renaissance. The energy that punk had given the nation’s youth was indeed harnessed. And utilised. Punk was given a kick up the arse from an unexpected source. And ska was given a revival courtesy of that same source.

A follow up, A Message To You, Rudy, coincided with the tour. Another ska legend, Rico Rodriguez, the legendary trombonist, graced the track with his smooth touch. It also had social comment. Jerry cemented 2-Tone’s name. The new generation was being given a history lesson. Dressed up metaphorically as well as musically, in modern black and white clothing. The ska baton was being passed on. 2-Tone, the genre, was a natural extension. A Message To You, Rudy was also a Dandy Livingston song. Today, 2-Tone and traditional ska classics sit side by side on many a ska/reggae compilatio – and on many a punk/new wave compilation, incidentally.

The tour also coincided with the release of one of music’s greatest ever debut albums. Containing the excitement of the new sound, The Specials was soaked in social comment. Jerry had no problem tackling real issues. Try teenage pregnancy on Too Much Too Young. Or inner-city violence on Concrete Jungle. He had no issue borrowing a song title from Bob Marley’s Catch a Fire album either. Tribal references in a socialist song? Try Do the Dog.

It struck a chord with the public. Jerry’s lyrics and the punk/ska energy of Too Much Too Young, plus the introduction a further three ska classics to a new generation, were released on a live E.P. The Special AKA EP. It reached number one in the charts. Has there ever been a more exciting chart-topper?

The band continued the punk ‘value for money’ ideal of releasing non-album singles such as Rat Race. Further social comment. A second album (More Specials) followed in September 1980. The band worked in the mainstream with regular Top of the Pops and other television appearances. See, connecting with the public at large works wonders. Especially if you can deliver the goods. The Specials were real. They were not unobtainable icons. The mainstream public liked them and related to what they produced. They were tangible.

Against a backdrop of widespread inner-city riots and never-ending racial tension, plus Margaret Thatcher’s divisive government, Jerry penned the group’s masterpiece, Ghost Town.

‘Why must the youth fight against themselves?
Government leaving the youth on the shelf.’

Never has a song struck such a chord with the nation. If the Too Much Too Young E.P. was the most exciting chart topper ever (my opinion), then Ghost Town was simply, one of the best number ones of all time. A protest song embraced by the nation. Furthermore, it too was released as a seven-inch single only.

It was to prove to be The Specials swansong. The band splintered soon after.

“Though they recorded a relatively small body of work, The Specials remain one of the most influential and pivotal bands of the last twenty years.” – Martin C. Strong. The Essential Rock Discography, 1994.

Jerry didn’t hang about though. Tough lyrical subject matter continued as he revived the Special AKA moniker, releasing hard-hitting singles such as The Boiler and Racist Friend. John Bradbury (drums) alone joined him from the previous band. Rhoda Dakar from the Bodysnatchers also was on board, amongst others.

However, the release of the inspirational, demanding and heartfelt single Free Nelson Mandela in 1984 ranks alongside Jerry’s greatest work. Combining gospel vocals, direct lyrics and an energy that was frankly, incredible, the song also became a kind of swansong. Like Ghost Town three years before. The Special AKA split shortly after, following the release of the accompanying album, In the Studio.

An anti-apartheid campaigner in his youth, Jerry turned his talent to political activism in 1985. He helped form the UK branch of Artists Against Apartheid, with its doctrine being cultural boycotts of South Africa and getting musicians ACTIVELY involved in anti-apartheid campaigns. This was a real extension to his place in the music scene. His involvement was organisational and motivational, not merely writing songs or having campaign slogans on tour. An example of his work was the Nelson Mandela 70th birthday concert at Wembley stadium in 1986. Jerry was a main protagonist of this. His work stretched much further and included the charity re-working of the Pioneers classic Starvation and helping form Red Wedge in 1985. The latter encouraged young people to become engaged in politics.

His anti-apartheid activism even led to Jerry receiving an award from the South African President, Jacob Zuma, in 2014. The Tambo award is one of the highest honours bestowed on an individual on behalf of South Africa. It is also known as the ‘Order of Companions’ and is named after Oliver Tambo, who led the African National Congress (ANC) whilst in exile. Jerry received the award as part of Freedom Week, celebrating the twentieth anniversary of democratic elections in the country. He received it alongside the likes of David Attenborough, Neil Kinnock and Quincy Jones. It recognised their respective roles in freeing South Africa from apartheid. The award also recognised Free Nelson Mandela.

“I never expected anything like this when I wrote the song. It is a fantastic honour and it’s amazing that it is remembered in South Africa. But it’s important to remember that I did what any decent person would do in my position. And it’s nothing compared to the sacrifices the people in South Africa made to fight apartheid.” – Jerry Dammers, 2014.

Jerry also has received an honorary degree from Coventry University for his role in social integration and race relations. He helped form the Love Music Hate Racism organisation in 2002 and remains active as a campaigner.

Jerry continued in music, contributing a solo track to the Absolute Beginners soundtrack (Riot City) and touring with the Spatial AKA Orchestra in 2010. A tribute to the jazz musician Sun Ra, the live show featured the band members in Ancient Egyptian costume. Quite a spectacle. Among the featured musicians was Rico Rodriguez, returning to work with Jerry following his appearance on that early Specials seven inch back in 1979.

Jerry continues to DJ to the present day. His vinyl sets are a joy.

In recent times there has been a return to a divisive political landscape. Racism, sadly, has made a high-profile return. And the Specials are back. Since 2010 the band has toured and now have a new album out. But, without Jerry. Conflicting reports exist whether Jerry refused to get involved, or the other members didn’t extend the invitation to him.

“I wanted to be part of the reunion tour, but my former bandmates cut me out.” – Jerry Dammers.

“I’ve read Jerry’s statement and I just don’t get it.” – Terry Hall.

It is unlikely the truth will ever completely come out. The band’s recent shows have been a triumph, regardless.

Jerry’s role in music and the world at large remains hugely significant. But is he, though, a significant figure in punk rock and new wave?

I think you know the answer. His activism speaks for itself. A difference can be made. The fight needs to go on. Jerry remains at the front-line. Punk should be about making a genuine difference. Otherwise it is as meaningless as any other musical fad. It would be hypocritical not to do this.

He played his part in reviving punk. Otherwise it would have been a brief revolution. A momentary burst. A fad? Jerry helped ensure it had a future and could move forward. Not by making loud distorted muscular music with incomprehensible lyrics. But by harnessing its energy and excitement. The important bit. And blending it with more traditional sounds. Punk rock nights are nothing without ska and reggae. We all know that. And where would those genres be in this country without the DIY label he founded?

Thank you, 2-Tone records.  Thank you, Jerry.

❉ Paul Matts is a writer from Leicester, England. His debut novel ‘Toy Guitars’ is due to be published in 2019, and a further novella, ‘Donny Jackal’ is currently being edited. He previously promoted live shows as 101 Productions and owned The Attik night club from 2001-2007. He was also a songwriter and guitarist in The Incurables. Paul runs a music blog and has recently started a series entitled 101 Significant Figures. This focuses on under-appreciated individuals in the punk and new wave movement. See for more details.

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