One of the first concerts I ever went to was "Freedom Beat" this mind blowing Artists Against Apartheid extravaganza featuring Boy George, Hugh Masekela, Elvis Costello, Sting, B.A.D, Paul Weller, Sade and many others took place on Clapham Common in 1986. Jerry was one of the main organisers of that show and he went onto help with the huge Nelson Mandela event in Wembley Stadium two years later that was broadcast live to a billion people in over 40 countries . He was also of course the founder of the legendary 2-Tone record label.
It's been an interesting couple of years for Jerry. He's very involved with the Love Music Hate Racism organisation and was one of the headliners at a big festival in Liverpool that honoured the memory of murdered Huyton teenager Anthony Walker. He made his Glastonbury debut performing with reggae star Johnny Clarke and 60's legend Arthur Brown, he appeared on BBC2's Later with Jools Holland, he completed a funsize tour with his Spatial A.K.A Orchestra which won him the best reviews of his career. DJ Gilles Peterson gave Jerry the "John Peel Play More Jazz Award" at his Worldwide Awards ceremony in January. More recently he stood in for Jarvis Cocker and hosted an edition of BBC6's Sunday Service show which he dedicated to the late Gil Scott Heron and put in a special guest appearance at Ray Davies' Meltdown at the Royal Festival Hall. Old friends Dick Cuthell and Rico Rodriguez have collaborated on a new track with him, he’s also been working on a 10 minute masterpiece that will hopefully appear on the poet Anthony Joseph’s next CD, he wants to get his Spatial A.K.A. Orchestra on the road again and Suggs from Madness has started a rumour that in November Jerry will be judging a nobbly knees competition in a Butlins holiday camp (as part of The House of Fun Weekender).
I’ve met Jerry a couple of times over the years. The first time I met him was when I was living in Stockwell and he was Dj-ing in a nearby club where people either danced or played chess. I think this was around October 1997. At the time I was doing a fanzine called Frank Magazine and I persuaded him to fill in a questionnaire…
FRANK MAGAZINE: You're DJ-ing tonight at 'Weird Science' what's going to be the musical highlight? Which one of your platters will really matter?
JERRY: "Zion 10 A.K.A. Congo Natty A.K.A. Rebel MC."
Can you dance better than you can sing?
"Depends on the tune."
What do you love most about the life you lead?
What do you love most about south London?
Were you a little jealous that Tricky worked with Terry Hall on a version of 'Ghost Town' instead of you?
"No, because I've already worked with Terry Hall on a version of 'Ghost Town'. Ha Ha."
Are you now free of Chrysalis Records and able to sign up with anyone you wish?
Who would you most like to see get to number one next year?
"Junior Delgado, Roots Manuva and myself. Although, as Jimmy Saville once said; 'You don't have to be number one in the hit parade to be a number one guy.' "
Finally, what is your message to the readers of FRANK?
"Your secret is safe with me."
Frank had recently been awarded the title “Fanzine of the month” in I-D magazine and had been given some Arts Council money but when I showed a copy of my fanzine to Jerry I got the feeling he was less than impressed. I told him that my friends and I had a launch party whenever a new issue came out and asked if he would consider Dj-ing at a future one. “Sure…” he replied “Where’s it going to be… in a phone box?”
However, about 9 years later our paths crossed again and he did DJ for me as part of a tribute night/art exhibition celebrating the life of John Peel that I’d organized in Shoreditch. As well as playing records Jerry helped with the event by acting as m.c. He introduced Peel's old friend Lol Coxhill to the stage to perform a little jazz improvisation. (Ray Davies says that Coxhill introduced him to the music of Prince Buster which had a big impact on his songwriting. Coxhill has played with everyone from Mike Oldfield to The Damned and once recorded a solo album on Peel's Dandelion record label). Jerry also read out a poem he'd written especially for the night about his respect for John Peel.
The main reason for meeting up again was that a student writing his dissertation on The Specials had asked for a little help with research. Jerry said answering the questions would help him prepair for an interview he was doing later that afternoon for The Independent who are planning a feature about the 30th anniversary of Ghost Town getting to number one.
Me: "Ok Jerry, the tape recorder is being switched on. A young student called Thomas Winrow has e-mailed me a few questions to ask you to help with his essay on The Specials. The first question is: What was special about The Specials and why did they voice the anger of an entire generation?"
Jerry: "What was special about The Specials? (Laughs) Well... above all else, what was special about The Specials was the name (laughs). The story behind how The Specials got their name was that it sounded like a very drunk person trying to say "The Sex Pistols". My masterplan was that we had followed on from The Sex Pistols. There was The Pistols, then The Clash and then The Specials (obvioulsy The Jam were thrown somewhere in there too). But it was supposed to be following on from The Sex Pistols and the name The Specials was supposed to be ironic. We weren't special at all in theory. We were supposed to be mr nobody from nowhere - or anybody from any town. We even sang a song called Nobody Is Special. It was all supposed to be ironic."
And the second part of his question is how come you ended up speaking for an entire generation?
"I don't think you can say we spoke for an entire generation. Ultimately I was speaking for myself but a lot of people related to it. But, a lot of people just liked the music to dance to and a lot of people probably just liked the clothes. I don't think every single person who liked The Specials necessarily agreed with all the lyrics. But I do think it tapped into what was going on and that was certainly the intention."
Do you see most of the songs on the first album as being political?
"Well, I saw myself as a Socialist and I was always angry aout the state of the world and social issues and inequality. On the first album Do The Dog was pretty much a socialist lyric. One theme that I personally picked up on was that I grew up in the 70s during the original skinhead era and I just saw so much fighting amongst working class people. There was football violence and the whole racist thing so The Specials were supposed to be fighting for justice rather than just fighting each other."
(Jerry points me in the direction of painting on the wall that he made whilst at art school. The painting has a slight Edward Burrah feel about it. It's main refernce though is "Liberty Leading The People" by Eugene Delacroix. Amusingly one of the main figures in Jerry's version is wearing football shorts that feature the famous black and white 2- Tone design. I ask him when he painted it and he says he did it in 1974 after seeing a Manchester United football match)
Jerry: "It's quite good innit? It was meant on a satire on the British working classes fighting each other when they could have been fighting the system."
Jerry: "Yes. I don't like the term race riot but it certainly became the soundtrack for that. A lot of people forget the first riot in Brixton was actualy a year before. Some of the ideas for the song such as the line "The people getting angry" was based on that first riot. The riots went national by the time Ghost Town was released so it was very much a reflection of what was happening. We were on the edge of it all. It was very much a black led thing. The original anger was primarily a black thing."
Do you think it's the one song you'd like to be remembered for?
"I think it probably is the best song but I'm proud of What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend too. Obviously it's not political at all but it's universal. I try to avoid being politically narrow. But I think musically Ghost Town is the best but lyrically I'm proud of songs like Girlfriend which are humorous about human relations."
Another question from Thomas: What is The Specials legacy?
Jerry: "I'm never sure what the word legacy actually means. If I knew I could tell you. What is a legacy Harry?" (Laughs)
Me: "I think it means a gift you leave to people after you're gone. What did The Specials leave behind?"
Jerry: "It's easy to be cynical but I think The Specials were part of a process - we weren't alone by any means, but they were part of a process that helped things improve. Racism was very normal in the playground of my school and everywhere else when I was growing up. There's still more to be done but I think things aren't as bad now as they were then. The Specials didn't stop after the Fun Boy Three left. We carried on as The Special A.K.A and did Free Nelson Mandela. That continued the process on a global level. Without wishing to exagurate I do think that song helped considilate and focus things that other people were doing and I think things did change for the better."
What's your favourite Specials lyric?
"I like the line in Stereotypes: Police chase him home through the dark rainy night, Fluorescent jam sandwich with flashing blue light. It's surreal but right."
Do you remember where you were when you came up with it?
"Yes, I was in a pub enjoying a pint. We had a huge crisis deciding whether it should be "He's just a stereotype" or "I'm just a stereotype". We wanted to include ourselves in the song we weren't trying to point the finger."
And what about the song “Why?”? That’s a powerful song but they don’t seem to perform it anymore.
Jerry: “Oooooh. Let's not go there. (Laughs.) Yeah I loved “Why?” “Why?”was great. I didn’t write that one.Ghost Town was about Coventry and it wasn't uncritical. I think the song is saying Ghost Towns are a result of people not appreciating what they have. In Coventry the Triumph Motorbike factory nearly became a worker's Co-Operative and there were other very noble attempts at protecting the position Coventry had but the writing was on the wall, globalisation was coming. Labour was slowly being farmed out to the third world. People couldn't see what Thatcher was doing and so our message was: don't be complacent, even when things are going well they can be taken away at any moment. Terry's song on the other side, Friday Night and Saturday Morning made the point that we're pissing our lives up a wall and Lynval's song Why? made the point divisions and racism would not help anyone. So the three songs do compliment each other very well."
I'm trying to get all The Specials to sign my copy of Do Nothing. Lynval Golding wrote the song. You're credited as arranger on Do Nothing.
"Am I? I forgot about that."
I ask Jerry if he has a message for Tom?
Jerry: "Good luck with it. And I hope I've given you at least a bit of insight. I'll quickly go into the politics of the times a bit. From my perspective Margret Thatcher had this monetarist policy which basically involved shreading huge amounts of pound notes and taking money out of the economy which was designed to counter act inflation but it also had the side effect of closing down half of the British Industry because a lot of nationalised Industry the main motive wasn't the profit of whoever was running it - the wages of all the people working for it were the profit - but to her way of thinking that didn't count. So huge parts of Industry closed down. It's Ironic because she made Napoleon's diss of Britain come true which she wouldn't be pleased about. Napoleon said we're a nation of shopkeepers and Margret Thatcher actually made it come true. Ghost Town was a protest song about that. The sad thing is that riots did actually force them to change some policies. I'm not a fan of violence at all. I think it's sad that it takes riots to make some people re-think. It was the Poll tax riots that finally got rid of Thatcher. It's sad that people have to get pushed to that level before things change."
Me: "The slogan from the poll tax riots ("Can't pay, Won't pay") was quite hard to arque with."
Jerry: "It was just an unbelievable day... they completely lost control of the centre of London. There was total anarchy and the shops were being looted. I don't believe in the glorious revolution. I believe in the rather horrible but sometimes necessary revolution."