It’s six years since Neville Staple was last bounding around the Millennium Square stage in a pinstripe waistcoat and trilby hat with the then newly reformed Specials.
The regrouping of 2 Tone’s guiding lights for the first time since the early 80s was not without controversy – as it happened without founder Jerry Dammers – but for the thousands gathered there under leaden skies the show proved that one of Britain’s finest live bands had lost none of their potency in the intervening decades.
For Staple, the reunion with Terry Hall, Lynval Golding, John Bradbury, Horace Panter and Roddy Radiation was to be relatively short-lived but, as he prepares to return to Leeds with his own band, he can appreciate what it meant to the fans.
“It was great for the first three years,” he says of the reunion, but quickly points out his own band “used to play to just as big a crowd” as the ska legends attracted in May 2009.
“It was great for the fans to see some of us together again but I was only there for two or three years and then I left to go back to my own band.”
On his decision to quit The Specials in 2012, the toaster and singer explains: “I’d had enough of it, to be honest with you. My band I thought were a much better band compared to how it was then.”
Now 60, he concedes he’d also had health problems. “I had a car accident – a big, major one – it’s given me knee problems so that’s why I don’t jump around any more like I used to. I’ve got a little bit of illness going about – well, I’m not young any more, am I?”
Last year, Staple dedicated his solo album Ska Crazy! to his old friend Dammers.
“Even though the rest [of The Specials] wouldn’t talk to him, I was still in contact with him,” he says, explaining “it all stems back” from the band’s formative days in Coventry. “And it seemed to have carried on so I didn’t want to get involved with [the feud between the band and Dammers] so I left and went back to my band.”
Ska Crazy! included a selection of cover versions of ska and reggae classics by the likes of Prince Buster and Max Romeo. They’re artists, he says, that he “used to play at sound systems in Rugby [where he grew up], at the Benn Hall and house parties”.
In his youth – when he was learning to toast “from my cousin Alvin who had a sound system called The Messenger” – he saw the likes of Desmond Dekker and Jimmy Cliff play in Rugby. “The Benn Hall used to put on some good reggae acts,” he remembers.
The video for his own song Roadblock was shot on the twilight streets of Coventry. Staple says he still finds himself addressing the same sort of social issues as The Specials sang about – famously in songs such as Ghost Town – 35 years ago.
“It’s the same, honestly. It’s probably getting worse out on the streets now. The guy who shot the video is a young kid whose mum died and he wanted to use the money to shoot that video because he said the subject affected them as being kids now.
“I said, ‘Are you sure you want to use the money your mum left you in her will?’ He said yes, because he liked what the song was saying.”
Few bands now seem willing to tackle working class problems, he acknowledges. “That’s the way it is nowdays – you’re either up there or down there, there’s hardly any in-between.” New artists from Coventry, such as his wife, Sugary Staple (whose recent EP he produced), Rooted ’n’ Booted and Barb’d Wire, “nobody mentions”.
For now, though, the Original Rudeboy – as he titled his memoir – is still much going strong. He looks back on his youth – which included a spell in borstal – with a chuckle.
“Down the rec I was hiding my scooter from my dad at the age of 14. Yeah, I did live a colourful life.”
Music was always a key part of his life, he says. “I always used to be where music was when it was records in the day and my type of what you might have called singing – but it wasn’t singing, it was DJ-ing, like U-Roy, I-Roy, Big Youth, because I grew up listening to those guys so I’d try to emulate them.”
He’s most proud of bringing Jamaican music “to the people who didn’t know it”.
“The way we brought it was mixing Jamaican music with the English style, which was actually punk at the time. Now most people are into ska, they listen to all the people that we talked about that they might not have listened to before. That’s pretty good, I like that.”
Being an entertainer is, he says, “what I am”.
“I’ve got the musicians around me, I entertain,” he smiles.
Neville Staple plays at Leeds Ska, Mod and Punk Festival in Millennium Square, Leeds on Saturday, July 25. For details visit http://www.leeds.gov.uk/Events/Pages/leeds-ska-mod-and-punk-festival.aspx