‘Specials oi!’ Two eras of music unite beside an ancestral lake

REVIEW: The Neville Staple Band at Camper Calling festival

Rating: ★★★★★

three jamming
Christine Sugary and Neville Staple welcomed a surprise cameo by The Artful Dodger

In the era when Neville Staple pioneered the British ska movement, house, garage and grime were yet to register a snare kick on the musical map.

Coventry’s sound system don was an early influencer shaping two tone, rap and modern reggae styles, driving different cross-Atlantic strands uptempo with The Specials and other bands and collaborations from the late 70s through to the present age of Stormzy and J Hus.

The original rudeboy’s career has spanned the genesis of hip-hop to the current era of social media-propelled grime MCs gathering industry silverware and invites to Buckingham Palace. Staple’s living legend status was demonstrated here when the duo behind the The Artful Dodger, who had played the preceding set, came out in the buffer area beneath the stage to pay homage to the Jamaican-born originator.

The meeting of figureheads – the garage stars are also crowd-pleasing mixologists – continued on stage towards the end of Staple’s set. Spontaneity has brought about many paradigm-shifting moments in reggae – the art of sound system battles is said to originate from rival set-ups playing close to each other in Jamaica – and added vocals from the Dodger’s MC Alistair towards the close begged a longer jam.

Next year, perhaps?

The Specials frontman and his wife, Christine Sugary, who laid down flowing, top rankin’ vocals throughout, had them stomping the grass into submission in all corners of the grounds long before the Dodger’s current line up turned out to show its appreciation.

Central figures amid a steady-firing seven-piece band, the couple led a tumbling ride through their owned, revved-up covers of reggae classics such as The Slickers’ Johnny Too Bad, Toots and the Maytals’ Big Monkey Man and The Wailers’ Simmer Down. Shouts of “roodboy, roodboy” greeted Staple during brief pauses, to which he responded with wide smiles from beneath his black fedora.

staple mic


Sweeping the crowd along through decades of influential music, peak skanking was reached on A Message to You Rudy, a particularly timely song that was recorded by Dandy Livingstone in 1967 but resonates now as much as it did as a Trojan records release.

Jumping on Staple’s cloud, the Dodger’s present frontman MC Alistair came out to pay homage, taking a few turns on the mic from below the stage.

Dressed in trademark grey tonic suit with out-hanging shirt, Staple looked and sounded every inch the dapper don of British-Jamaican music, toggling between singing and toasting, a playful, cajoling metronome at the heart of his band on the Lakeside main stage.

Nuance was no casualty to pace, the veteran pointing to his wedding ring with another grin while Christine, sporting a ‘rude girl’ tank top, surveyed the crowd.

It was left for the relative newcomer to lead an impromptu final salute, with a clubland chant of “Specials oi! Specials oi!” after the band had downed instruments

Another anthem with heightened resonance in present political times was The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum, originally by Staple’s 80s band, Fun Boy Three, displaying the 63-year-old’s hand at a more pop-influenced electronic sound. By the time the eerie opening strains of Ghost Town had lifted over the manicured ancestral grounds and dappled lake, Staple had dispensed with time and place, wrapping up the crowd in his own genre-distilling multi-verse, propelled by unfaltering backing vocals, trombone, harmonica and electric guitar.

The grainy shots of inner-city Britain’s concrete jungle in the song’s original video had been replaced by the lawns of Ragley Hall, but the composition had defied the years.

lake best
The Camper Calling crowd during From the Jam, and revellers during Staple’s set (inset)

Tucking the microphone into his trousers, the evergreen rudeboy noticed MC Alistair waiting eagerly in the wings and invited his fellow frontman on stage.

It was left for the relative newcomer to lead an impromptu final salute, with a clubland chant of “Specials oi! Specials oi!” after the band had downed instruments.

Husband and wife then joined their visitor centre-stage, a scene which might in reggae parlance be called three the hard way. Despite The Specials’ first album having been released in 1979, almost two decades before The Artful Dodger hit the scene, there was no time lag here.

It was a meeting of two musical eras, each with its own story of fragmentation, reinvention and revival, that rounded off one of this festival’s most memorable moments to date.

By Yunzy

Camper Calling – a small  but perfectly-formed family festival


Author: Much Ado Warwickshire

A celebration of old and new in Shakespeare's county. Regular updates on world-renowned and lesser-known attractions with plays, walks and cakes galore.

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