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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Anthony Hopkins in Westworld

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rock and role: Jamie Bell's character Benjamin Grimm is transformed into 'Thing' in the film adaptation of Marvel Comics' 'Fantastic Four'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Hopkins veered between sycophancy and insult in her new chat show
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
In his role as Hamlet, Benedict Cumberbatch will have to learn, and repeat night after night, around 1,480 lines

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Belgian sexologist Goedele Liekens with pupils at Hollins Technology College in Accrington
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The rapper Drake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The gaffer: Prince Philip and the future Queen in 1947
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Style icons: The Beatles on set in Austria
film
Arts and Entertainment
By Seuss! ‘What Pet Shall I Get?’ hits the bookshops this week
Books
Arts and Entertainment
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima after Enola Gray and her crew dropped the bomb
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Elliott outside his stationery store that houses a Post Office
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Off the wall: the cast of ‘Life in Squares’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Books And it is whizzpopping!

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future