Ska wars: Why isn't Jerry Dammers playing on The Specials' sell-out reunion tour next month?

They made a model of me," says Jerry Dammers, picking up a plastic figurine from a shelf beneath his vinyl record collection. It's a miniature Rude Boy, with dark suit, porkpie hat and even the gappy smile that has been Dammers' trademark since he went over the handlebars of his bike as a schoolboy.

That gap grew wider when Dammers, aged 19, lost another molar to a pint glass thrust into his face in a nightclub in Coventry, the city that later inspired him to write "Ghost Town" and "Nite Klub" and other songs that defined the early-1980s and made The Specials one of the most distinctive and important bands in British popular music.

Amid great excitement, a series of concerts billed as "The Specials 30th Anniversary Tour" will take place across Britain, starting next month. The tour is already sold out. But it seems the audience will see nothing of the man who assembled this seven-piece band and forged its genre-defying sound, one that fused the defiant optimism of Jamaican ska with the anger of punk, alongside lyrics that reflected the dearth of opportunity in Britain's decaying industrial cities at the start of the Thatcher years.

Dammers is composing himself ahead of trying to explain why a reunion of the band he had been planning since the age of 10 will – as things stand – involve the six other members of The Specials but not him. He puts down the figurine, commenting that it is "some Carnaby Street tat". Dammers no longer wears the Rude Boy uniform of cropped hair, sharp skinhead-style two-tone tonic suit and shades; he has a clump of beard and long hair pokes out from beneath a Homburg hat. His jacket is tweedy and his blue shirt patterned, his loafers are no longer black but soft and brown.

Dammers may have spawned a youth cult, but he did so from a sense of individuality rather than tribalism. When he goes on stage these days his garb is an outlandish mix of ancient Egyptian and intergalactic traveller. He is leader and keyboard player of the 18-piece Spatial AKA Orchestra, which is inspired by the music of the American free jazz legend Sun Ra, playing what he describes as "21st-century" music.

Dammers' instincts have always been progressive. Yet the legacy of The Specials endures; on the wall of his flat in Brixton, south London, is an ageing poster for "Too Much Too Young", The Specials' first number one hit from 1980. But, at 53, Dammers now fears that the achievements of his younger years are in danger of being written out of history. "Through my teenage years I was writing songs, playing in club bands, but at the back of my mind was the day when I would form my own band. That's why what is happening now is so horrible to me because it's as though my whole youth, my whole life, is being stolen," he says. And what a youth it was, playing early hits such as "Gangsters" and "A Message To You, Rudy" to packed houses. "The whole place would be bouncing up and down in unison; whole buildings used to shake with the excitement at that time," he says. "We played at an old theatre in Southend and holes started appearing in the floor and kids started disappearing into the cellar 12 feet below. It was a miracle no one got seriously hurt at those gigs."

It was never going to be easy to replicate that feeling 30 years on, especially after the group's acrimonious break-up in 1981. After just two albums, singer Terry Hall and backing vocalists Lynval Golding and Neville Staple left to ' form Fun Boy Three. Back then, as now, Dammers was trying to challenge himself musically. "At the beginning of The Specials it was fine, but when it came to the second album I wanted the music to progress, because the first album is all just three-chord tricks. I introduced the muzak and exotica elements, which was radical at the time," he says.

Though he subsequently produced "Ghost Town", the band's masterpiece, his desire to experiment was not welcomed by some of his fellow band members. "I think that's maybe what the band don't like about me," he says now. "My ideas are radical, and hopefully they always will be." But he would still have liked to be part of this reunion. "I know for a fact from the way this thing has been advertised as The Specials' 30th year reunion that a lot of people have bought tickets assuming I was in it, and that it was the complete Specials," he complains. Over the past two years, negotiations have been taking place to bring the band together, a process as fraught as the original break-up. "I think I've been completely reasonable, rational and level-headed throughout this entire thing. I haven't expected anything unreasonable from anybody. I have been treated in the most despicable manner." (For their part, the other members of The Specials state: "To respond would only give credence to [Dammers'] claims. We are far too busy preparing for the sold-out tour to do that.")

A couple of rehearsals took place, though not with all band members present. Dammers was keen to do more than just replicate The Specials' early work: "I had lots of ideas for how to do this in a way that's a bit more interesting, just tweak it to make it more modern and not just a nostalgia knees-up," he says. But the arguments continued as old personal differences surfaced. Dammers was upset by the involvement of some of Hall's friends and advisers, including Simon Jordan, the mobile-phone entrepreneur and chairman of Crystal Palace Football Club. Dammers wanted nothing to do with them.

Dammers began composing some of the early Specials songs on the family piano, developing his musical ideas while studying art at Coventry's Lanchester Polytechnic. He began putting together the band that started out as The Automatics, morphing by a succession of name changes to The Special AKA. "The Specials, I handpicked everyone in it, I put it together and had the vision for the whole thing; it didn't just happen. It was originally set up primarily to perform my songs, although I did encourage everybody else to write songs as much as I possibly could – contrary to what's been said."

He resents the suggestion that he was dictatorial but, as they did in 1981, last summer his fellow Specials stopped working with him again, performing a reunion concert at the Bestival festival on the Isle of Wight in September. Despite the mudbath conditions, Dammers went along to watch. "It sounds like I'm being rude but I was bemused by it and a bit bored because it was so predictable." Asked if he will watch any of the tour, he struggles to find words and sighs, exasperated. "I don't know... well, it's not The Specials, that's a historical fact. I'm always thinking, 'It should have Jerry Dammers in it.'"

As an avowed radical he is disturbed by what he sees as the "extremely conservative" musical approach of his peers and alarmed by their plans to dress in tonic suits made by a company that boasts of the exclusively British origin of its garments. "Is that what The Specials was about? I don't know," he asks rhetorically. They may have had a big skinhead following, but The Specials were a great symbol of racial harmony, and after the first break-up Dammers went on to compose the anti-Apartheid anthem "Free Nelson Mandela".

The Spatial AKA Orchestra perform at London's Barbican centre on 10 March. When he talks about this project, which features Mercury Prize-nominated pianist Zoe Rahman and the acclaimed saxophonists Denys Baptiste and Larry Stabbins, Dammers' mood lightens. "It's just a real honour for me to work with such brilliant musicians," he says. Aside from its remarkable costumes – which liberate the performers from their inhibitions, according to Dammers – the orchestra uses other visual effects including mannequins and video, while mixing funk, ska and jazz with modern British styles such as jungle and dubstep.

Before he finishes talking, Dammers asks me to switch the voice recorder back on to say he still hasn't given up hope of participating in the reunion, even at this late hour. He seems pained that he and Hall have grown so far apart. "Obviously I made loads of mistakes in The Specials. I'm not trying to take all the credit. But Roger Daltrey stuck with Pete Townshend through his development as a human being and I think Terry [Hall] owes me that, given it was my songs that brought him to the attention of the public in the first place."

The other six Specials, he believes, will read this piece. "They will either react against it, or stop and think about what I'm trying to say," he says. "I never give up. Maybe they will have a change of attitude."

The Spatial AKA Orchestra will play the Barbican, London EC2 (020 7638 8891, www.barbican.org.uk), on 10 March

Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London