Neol Davies of The Selecter
by Pete Clemons
As part of last year's 2 tone at 40 celebrations, The Selecter's Neol Davies, gave an incredibly interesting and insightful chat at the Coventry Music Museum. Neol really did reveal some amazing facts as he saw things at the time.
The event began when Neol, who was born in 1952, mentioned that his birth name was actually Leon. He rearranged those same letters to arrive at the name Neol (pronounced Neil).
Neol’s early interest in music was the twangy guitar sounds of The Shadows. And, during 1967, he saw Jimi Hendrix perform at Coventry Theatre. And that moment was very inspiring for him.
A damaged finger forced Neol to change his plectrum style. And that, in itself, may have helped in producing his unique playing style.
Neol's introduction to playing reggae happened during a spell with Chapter 5. Chapter 5 had formed sometime around 1974 or 1975 at the Holyhead youth Centre where Charley Anderson had been a youth worker. The band included Charley on bass, Desmond Brown on Organ, drummer Sylverton Hutchinson and Arthur 'Gaps' Hendrickson guitar and vocals. Chapter 5 continued through till around 1976. And Neol was quick to acknowledge that these early relationships, including that with the group Nite Train – who were led by Ray King and included both Jerry Dammers and himself - were the seeds of the Two Tone movement.
However, depending on who you talk to, there was a lot of inter-changeability between the musicians of these bands before the ‘classic’ 2 Tone line up's settled. And people see things from slightly different angles.
As time went on a number of other bands were either formed at, or were at least associated with, the Lower Holyhead Road centre. These included Pharaohs Kingdom, Earthbound, Nite Train, Hard Top 22 and Transposed Men.
And, of those, the period when Transposed Men would begin to take shape, would prove to be another critical moment for Neol. The band comprised of former Chapter 5 bandmate Desmond Brown on organ, guitarist Kevin Harrison who Neol had known for years, Steve Wynne on bass and drummer John Bradbury (Brad) who Neol once had to persuade to take up the drums and to buy a kit.
The story goes that Brad played 'Watching the Detectives' by Elvis Costello and both he and Neol decided to make a record. Between them they came up with the most wonderful of grooves. Even today, it is such a delight to listen to. The tune was recorded at Roger Lomas's studio using Roger's drum kit and included additional trombone from Barry Jones. It also used the sound of sandpaper. Originally titled 'Kingston Affair' by Selecters this most amazing tune was completed by Christmas 1977. Of course, 'Kingston Affair' would not see light of day until it turned up on the flip side to The Specials debut single 'Gangsters' released during May 1979 and re-titled 'The Selecter'.
The Transposed Men band name had come from a book read by drummer John Bradbury who had been sharing a house with Jerry Dammers at the time. Transposed Men built a set that included tunes like ‘On My Radio’, ‘Missing Words’, ‘Street Feeling’, 'Washed up and Left for Dead' and ‘Out on the Streets’. They would rehearse at Binley Oak and almost signed to Virgin Records during late 1978.
In parallel to this Jerry Dammers had been working up the Coventry Automatics and all the hybrids of them. By now, John Bradbury was building up quite a reputation and Jerry asked Neol if he could borrow Brad. Jerry was desperate for a drummer and Neol immediately realised he was going to lose Brad. And so it was, as Brad took with him the 'swing' that the Transposed Men had. And that crucial part of John's repertoire went, with Brad, to the newly formed Specials.
There appeared to be no animosity in Brad's departure. Yet, strangely, the pair never spoke again. In fact Brad completely blanked Neol on Two Tone tour. And to this day, Neol is totally mystified as to what had happened between them.
Could Neol have been a Special ?. Neol didn't suggest it, as such, but he can be forgiven for thinking that it was indeed a possibility given the circumstances at the time. Neol did caveat his thoughts by conceding that the prospect of him becoming a Special was maybe just have been in his mind and had never even crossed Jerry Dammers thoughts.
However, as The Specials were taking shape, they would rehearse at the Heath Hotel on the Foleshill Road. At the time Neol was attending and taking part in those rehearsals. He attended an awful lot of the sessions.
Neol, who lived close to the Heath Hotel, then discovered that rehearsals were going on behind his back. Initially a guy called Chuck was taking on the guitar parts. Then Neol saw guitarist Lynval Golding turning up and realised that was that, as far as he was concerned.
Again, in those early days of The Specials, Jerry possibly thought he only needed one guitarist in the band. Then Jerry began to realise that he needed a second guitarist. And, after a 'meeting' at the Domino in the city centre, in came Roddy 'Radiation' Byers. Even at that point Jerry could have quite possibly considered Neol.
A possible explanation as to why Neol was never in the frame to join the band was that Jerry maybe recognised that both he and Neol were strong characters and band leaders. And that would have caused problems and they would quite likely to have clashed. All interesting thoughts though.
As far as I can determine, Hard Top 22 formed during 1977 and were a reggae roots group. The band included Charley Anderson, Amos Anderson, Charles 'H' Bembridge, Compton Amanor, Arthur 'Gaps' Hendrickson and Chris Christy.
Having seen the rise of The Specials and realising the potential of The Selecter track were possibly the reasons Neol set about creating a whole new band based around the tune.
Hard Top 22 were experienced, they had recorded four songs at John Rivers studio in Leamington Spa. Charley effectively broke up the band and invited both Neol and Pauline to form The Selecter. Additionally, The Selecter included Charles 'H' Bembridge on drums, Compton Amanor on rhythm guitar, Arthur 'Gaps' Hendrickson and recruited Desmond Brown on organ. Neol brought some great songs with him but, in Charley's words, 'Hard Top 22 made them hotter'.
As The Selecter began to form Neol was lead singer but he never felt fully confident to be a front man. The band were so loud and Neol's voice became inaudible. So Pauline Black was invited to join.
Pauline Black's book exquisitely details the birth of The Selecter. It seems that Lynval Golding was instrumental with introducing Pauline to the band. Initially the entire band, according to Neol, was doubtful that Pauline should be singer. Although Pauline's book gives a slightly different slant. Either way, as Neol acknowledged, how wrong they were as, having Pauline on lead vocal, clearly worked. Pauline's book also mentions her debut gig as being in Worcester during July 1979.
But one thing is certain and that the formation of The Selecter did happen really quickly as Hard Top 22 had headlined a festival at Hearsall Common during April 1979. And Neol's memories of the beginning of The Selecter are similar to that of Pauline's: 'The Selecter band formed June / July 1979 and the first gig included the the full first line up. It was not until the 2 tone tour when The Selecter played dance hall sized gigs. October 1979 saw The Selecter headline at the Lanch supported by The X/Certs.
Up until Selecter formed Charles 'H' Bembridge had been a bass player. Suddenly he decided that he wanted to play drums. And, he became a truly unique drummer. Resentment that The Selecter were playing Neol's songs. And a mixture of all those emotions made it so good and punchy. And, between them, the band members were putting everything into it. 'at times up to eight nights continuous at, two shows per night and six weeks on road'. And, all the time, things were becoming a real issue.
From the outset it seems that there was a lot of tension within The Selecter. Apart from Desmond and Charlie no one really knew Neol. Charlie wanted to steer band in a more roots reggae direction but Neol wanted to take the band down a totally different path. But, as Noel conceded, they were a very good band because of the friction. It brought with it a lot of power and energy.
With Chrysalis Records providing the money for the 2 Tone label Neol was given a budget of one thousand pounds for their debut single 'On My Radio'. Neol also went with Jerry Dammers to get the deal for The Selecter's debut album. The Specials manager, Rick Rogers, had a company – Trigger – that dealt with the albums publicity. But Neol felt that that Trigger pushed the record from a different angle than it should have been.
Neol admitted that his single biggest mistake was not signing for Warner Brothers when the opportunity presented itself. And he holds his hands up to that one. Neol thought that it would have been difficult to manage the whole 2 Tone thing, if The Selecter and The Specials had been on two different labels. As such he put his trust into the 2 Tone umbrella as opposed to that of what the band were capable of. In hindsight he feels that they should have gone out on their own.
The beginning of the end for this version of The Selecter came, just under eighteen months after the band formed, when Desmond Brown left . The Selecter were on the verge of recording their second album 'Celebrate the Bullet'. This was a devastating blow for Neol. Charlie Anderson also left. Charlie has mentioned on social media that he was not happy with the album's title. And during the album's recording, up stepped producer Roger Lomas, to play some of the bass parts. The Selecter played Top of the Pops where they met Ian Dury and that secured the loan of Norman Watt-Roy to help on some Selecter bass lines when the band played live.
Neol may or may not have being considered for The Specials, we might never know, but Jerry Dammers certainly acknowledges Neol’s involvement and contribution at the outset of 2 Tone era. And, it is true to say that, the basement under that Lower Holyhead Road building was the place where the seeds of 2Tone movement were formed and from where history was created.
Finally, Neol mentioned that he was going through old tapes and recordings with the posibillity of these being released in some form or other in time to come.