The Specials’ Jerry Dammers wrote ‘Ghost Town’, the quintessential summation of Thatcher-defiled Britain and ‘(Free) Nelson Mandela’, perhaps the most effectual protest song ever. A key member of Red Wedge, the late-’80s, Labour Party supporting musical faction, he nowadays fronts The Spatial AKA Orchestra, mixing ska, Sun Ra and a more discreet political message. Lois Wilson asks the probing questions.
Do you think you can still mix pop with protest successfully?
It’s more difficult nowadays as it can sound very clichéd, you have to find new ways of saying things and new ways of putting across those ideas otherwise it’s just a throwback to the ’60s or the ’80s. We’re slowly exploring that with the orchestra, trying to find new ways of saying things that are convincing. We’re hitting this recession; everyone’s going, “what’s going on?” But when you think of all the money spent on wars… Where’s the money gone? On bombing people.
Your current band, The Spatial AKA Orchestra, seems to take a similar approach to that of The Specials — mixing fun with a political message and doing something completely different.
I see it as a continuation, yes, we used to do a ska song, [The Soul Vendors’] ‘Ringo Rock’ and the best of ska is always jazz over a street rhythm which is what we do. It’s an all-generation band, a 21st century band; we’re trying to have a fresh approach that’s not based on youth or drugs or any of the 20th century concerns. The Specials were a very radical band, they were always moving forward, they were always very progressive, which was part of the problem — some of the band members wanted to stay in the first album forever and I wanted to move on.
Do you look back on your time with Red Wedge fondly?
It was a very funny time. Unbeknown to us moves were already afoot to bring in New Labour, and we weren’t really aware of it. I went to a meeting at the Houses of Parliament with Neil Kinnock; we were discussing leaflets to give out to young people to get them to vote and this idea came up: shouldn’t we explain what the different parties stand for? Give info to young people to help them? I said, you know, explain what socialism is, what the Tories stand for, try and make it educational. This guy suddenly launched into me and said, “it’s not our job to define socialism.” I thought that was exactly what the Labour party’s job was! But it was great fun with the other musicians. There were no egos. At one meeting with the United Nations, who have Laurel leaves as their emblem, Paul Weller goes to me: “I’ve seen that somewhere before”, and I said, “Fred Perry” — he said, “oh yeah!”
You worked with Robert Wyatt and the SWAPO Singers on 1985’s The Wind Of Change (in support of the Namibian liberation movement).
Working with Robert was fantastic, we went in the studio and he sang the song and I was sitting there thinking, after spending years on In The Studio [the long-gestating second Specials album which finally appeared in 1984 under the name The Special AKA] I was like, now we’ll go through it word by word getting it in tune; but wait! We don’t have to, because he’s sung it in tune! It was perfect — we did it in one take. He’s got such a great voice.
I’d love to work with Robert Wyatt again.