After learning his craft in local rehearsal spaces in his home town of Coventry and playing in a number of bands, Neol recorded the instrumental ska classic The Selecter which was the first release with Gangsters by The Specials on 2Tone records, the label he co-founded. The independently-released single reached number six in the uk charts and launched the global two tone movement.
Having played most of the instruments on The Selecter himself, it wasn’t until after the single had become a hit that Neol decided to build a band. Recruiting friends Desmond Brown, Charley Anderson, Compton Amanor, Charley ‘H’ Bembridge, Arthur ‘Gaps’ Hendrickson and Pauline Black, The Selector went on to storm the charts with the songs On My Radio, Missing Words, 3 Minute Hero and Too Much Pressure.
How did you get into ska?
I was born in Coventry and was very fortunate to grow up in area where my friends came from all over the world, really. I didn’t anything of it and I’m always grateful for that. People who grow up in their own cultures have great difficulties mixing sometimes but it’s not like that in Coventry, although it’s not perfect it’s always been fairly integrated.
I was intrigued by reggae as soon as I heard it. A drummer I used to play with when we left school around 1969 explained the basics to me and a few years later a guy I grew up with called Silverton who was the drummer in The Automatics before they became The Specials taught me a bit more. We lived in the same street as children and when he got into the drums I got into guitar a few years later. He took me down to this rehearsal space in Coventry where I met everyone I ended up working with over the years – Ray King who’s a great soul singer, ‘H’ The Selector drummer, Desmond Brown the Hammond player, Charlie Anderson the bass player, guitarist Compton Amanor, Lynval Golding who was later in The Specials.
I lived quite close by so I used to take my guitar down, plug it into their amps and jam. It was really Desmond the Hammond player who taught me how to play reggae properly. I kept saying to him ‘Have I got it yet?’ to which the reply was ‘nope’. I asked again ‘Surely that’s it?’, again, ‘nope’. Eventually I got it. We’re talking around 1972-73 time here.
There were a couple of bands that came out of that rehearsal space. We’d do gigs and eventually it led onto meeting Jerry Dammers in 1975 who was in a band with the singer Ray King and I. When the band finished Jerry and I decided we’d work together. I had a good quality tape recorder and we started working on our own material around 1976. Things happened over the next three years that led to two tone, basically.
The need to write songs came into my head in the early 1970s. By that point I could play my guitar quite competently and since I left school I wanted to make my living, somehow, through music.
I thought writing songs would be a great way to create a vehicle for my guitar playing. I was always interested in arrangements and got ideas for drums, bass keyboards – the whole thing really.
It was shortly after I met Jerry Dammers that I thought I had a couple of songs which were pretty good and we both had a creative surge. At the time I started hanging with John Bradbury who I’d know earlier on in the 70s. There was a little idea around 1977 of ‘let’s make a record’. Everyone was making 7” vinyl singles at the time.
I had the tune for The Selecter for quite a while and I also knew producer Roger Lomas for quite a while at that time and we built this little studio in his back garden. We went into that room and recorded – that ended up being The Selecter.
I figured out the drum part to the song which was a very simple rhythm but I’m quite proud of as you don’t hear it a lot – it has a unique flavour to it. I played the bass and guitar and percussion and got someone to play the trombone. We had a great time doing it, there was no money involved, it was just a very creative time.
Shortly after that we recorded some demos – On My Radio, Missing Words and Washed Up And left For Dead. More or less all the songs were written before the band actually formed, I think Three Minute Hero was the only one I wrote later.
The Selecter got to number six in the charts selling over 250,000 copies at a time when record sales, in the UK at least, were at their peak, so we were competing at the very high point of people buying music and we did it from the street. We did it without any leg-up, we didn’t have any connections, we just made some music which we thought was great and then got out and played it. People got interested and it just took off.
It was an amazing feeling to get that first batch of records back from the pressing plant and we rubber stamped them over many evenings, which was great. We made all these individual hand-finished records and to see them sell so quickly and have a reprint and then another reprint and for it to go to number six, I can’t describe the excitement of it.
What capped it off was I used to listen to John Peel on the radio with my wife and he played The Selecter. To hear your own music for the first time on national radio like that was unbelievable. The song finished and John said ‘And that was The Selecter by The Specials’. I went ‘Noooooo!’
I had only posessed a telephone for about 18 months at the time and I got the number for the BBC, dialed up and got put through to John Peel himself and spoke to him between records and explained that The Selecter was by me and told him about the whole two tone idea. He then came back on air and said ‘I’ve just been speaking to Neol Davies’ And he’s explained the whole thing and then played The Gangsters track as well. It felt like it was our evening, he really said how great it was and he sounded so good on the radio. I think that evening was the kick-start for everything. I went to bed thinking ‘Wow! What happened tonight?!’
On My Radio
It only took about ten minutes to write On my Radio. I had the chorus’ guitar riff knocking about for a few weeks. I was intrigued by the odd timing of it, the way it went round in a circle in seven beats instead of eight. Even though it was in an odd time it seemed to work without being awkward as odd time signatures can.
Eventually, out popped the lyric to it. I think I’ve always been quite angry and railed against injustice and hypocrisy. Not many of my songs are love songs although I’m not adverse to writing them. I think most of my songs are comment on the human condition. At the same time I like to leave a good deal open to interpretation, I don’t like a song that’s just a sloganeering ‘This is how it should be everybody’.
I liked the idea of tying the chorus in with a double meaning, it’s commenting on the radio obviously but as it’s coupled with a love story in the verse it makes it into a bit more of a personal thing as well. I hope that’s part of its appeal, that it can mean both things.
Too Much Pressure
I wrote Too Much Pressure at my desk on my last day job, I had an office job at a factory in Coventry. One Friday afternoon I had gone home for lunch and had an argument with my wife, my car had failed its MOT, I was pretty miserable in this job. I went back to work in the afternoon, sat down, started chatting to the girl sat in front of me and I said ‘you know, this is just too much pressure’. Then I thought ‘actually, that’s a pretty good song title’. Within about five minutes I’d got this whole lyric, it was all written in patois as I’d been buying old Pioneers records which had really rubbed off on me. I sang it to the girl in the office and she said ‘Ooh, that’s a bit good, that is!’. It was all true, every line in that song was my life at the time.
Dolla Fe Dolla
Dolla Fe Dolla is a new song I’m very happy with. It’s going to be on a 7” record exclusive to the International Ska Festival. Everybody I’ve played it to really likes it, it’s a song about the current times of financial mess-around and how money just drives everything and again, commenting on hypocrisy – all my favourite subjects!
The way writing usually works for me is finding a groove or a few chords on my guitar and the best times are when that happens and a hook phrase comes too. This is one of those songs where that happened.
I started messing about with a really simple chord change: G, B-flat, back to C and after a few dozen times of doing that I started to sing the main line ‘Dolla, Dolla, fe Dolla, Dollar’, just like I got the hook for On My Radio. There was space for a little melodic hook between the main refrain and so I put a little line ‘Buy Everything’ in between. Straight away I could see it was a great way to split voices – the backing singers doing the main hook and the lead voice singing the phrase in between, which is a thing I like doing, part of my style perhaps. The verse needed a bit of work but I like to keep the groove simple without it sounding too simple and I got a little bit of blues in there with the bassline. It has one of those chord sequences where it’s crucial to get the tempo just right – if it’s too slow or too fast it sounds a bit awkward and we spent a lot of time just getting the rhythm guitar – the off beat -against the main beat to make it really danceable.
Neol Davies co-headlines with Neville Staple of The Specials at The London International Ska Festival on Sunday 6 May at the O2 Academy Islington. New single Dollar Fe Dollar will be released at the event on a limited-edition 7″ vinyl single.