Imagine a big name like Elvis Costello offering to produce your first album. That’s what happened when word got out about the Specials, the legendary ska band from Coventry, England that rose to popularity in the late ’70s. That relationship was essential in getting the band’s debut, Specials, perfected and off the ground, but not everyone was that impressed with the producer’s opinions. “Elvis Costello actually told the Specials to sack me, as he thought my rock ‘n’ roll-punk guitar-playing didn’t work with the Specials’ ska music,” says Roddy “Radiation” Byers, the band’s original/former lead guitarist. Thankfully, he didn’t get fired. “Since then I’ve been credited with inventing ska-punk,” Byers laughs.
The late ’70s was one of the most musically exciting times of the last century. Not only did the English seven-piece get their start while punk was in the midst of invention, but mod revivalists were also busy bringing back the enchanting Jamaican ’60s sounds of ska and rocksteady. The combination of the three would come to define the Specials’ own genre-breaking, dance-worthy music that got the attention of both Costello as well as punk pioneers, the Clash. The band, called the Special AKA at that point, were even invited to support the punk rockers on their UK tour, an event Byers says remains a highlight of his career.
Before he’d even joined forces with his fellow Specials, the Clash served as a huge influence on Byers. A fan of the glam rock of David Bowie and Marc Bolan, a teenaged Byers traveled south in 1975 to visit a friend, who was a roadie for the Clash (and later the Sex Pistols). “He told me that I must come down to London and check out these new bands, as they were into similar music as me and dressed like I did,” says Byers, who back then was in a pre-punk band called Wild Boys.
Though Byers would later dress in the mod/rudeboy attire of neat, two-toned suits and porkpie hats with the Specials, it wasn’t really his preference. “Originally, the Specials all had different images, and as there was a mod revival in the late 1970s, our leader Mr. Dammers decided we should adopt that image,” says Byers. “I wasn’t keen and whenever possible would break the dress code on and off stage.”
Byers remembers the mods-versus-rockers fights in Coventry growing up, but it never occurred to him to completely identify with one subculture or the other. (In 1960s Britain, mods — with their tailored suits and love of scooters, amphetamines, and obscure African-American R&B records — were famously opposed to the rockers, who were known for their turned-up jeans, leather jackets, and obsession with rockabilly.) But by the time he was a member of the Specials and the first mod revival was in full swing, Byers was in agreement with Ringo Starr, who, in Hard Days’ Night, said he was neither mod, nor rocker — but a “mocker.”
Byers went on to play with rockabilly bands like the Tearjerkers and the Bonediggers, then in 2009 he found the perfect marriage of ska and rockabilly when he formed the Skabilly Rebels. “They said it couldn’t be done, but both those styles of music come from the same roots,” he says. “It’s just about where you put the off beat.”
These days, Byers is still busy with the Skabilly Rebels, since he has only recently quit the Specials for good. “The recent Specials reunion made money, but we still couldn’t get on together,” he says. “Musically, it still works, but I found working with certain people’s egos was making me very ill, so I quit last year.”
Currently touring solo alongside the Scotch Bonnets, a female-led rocksteady act from Baltimore, Byers performs not only Skabilly Rebels tunes, but his own songs, like “Rat Race,” from his days with the Specials. Meanwhile, the new Skabilly Rebels disc, Fallen Angel, is due out this fall.