Marking Time: The Specials – John Bradbury and Rico Rodriguez

Emma Connolly

Emma Connolly

Emma lives in England. Ace the dog keeps her feet and heart warm while she writes about music and culture.
Emma Connolly

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On 28th December, social media was dominated by the death of Lemmy of Motorhead. On the same day, however, there was another significant loss to the music world. Aged just 62, Coventry native John Bradbury had played drums with 2 Tone band The Specials – through different incarnations of the band – for four decades. The band’s spokesperson stated, “Brad’s drumming was the powerhouse behind the Specials, and it was seen as a key part to the 2 Tone sound.” On September 4th 2015, Emmanuel “Rico” Rodriguez passed away aged 80. The Cuban-Jamaican trombonist was one of the original ska artists. He moved to Britain in 1961 and played on The Specials first LP before becoming an official member of the band.

The inner cities of England at the close of the 1970s were pressure cookers of cultural and social unrest, with high unemployment and racial tensions. As the decade turned, this potential erupted violently. On July 10, 1981, rioting broke out in Brixton, London. Cars were burned, shops looted and petrol bombs hurled at police.

Brixton Riots 1981 - The Metropolitan Police and rioters

Brixton Riots 1981 | Credit: Paul Townsend

On July 11, a new single took the top position in the charts: ‘Ghost Town’ by The Specials. Violence continued to rip throughout the country, with outbreaks reported in over 25 towns. The soundtrack to that summer of unrest was both spectacularly prescient and bleakly optimistic. The Specials, a multiracial band formed in Coventry in 1977, were at the forefront of a new sound – 2 Tone – combining Jamaican ska with punk attitude and mod style. The music of The Specials decried social deprivation and lack of employment while appealing for racial harmony.

The Specials in their original lineup did not last long; even by the time ‘Ghost Town’ was dominating the airwaves, differing interests, opinions and personalities in the band were causing serious fault lines. Changes in the lineup meant that the magic of the fractious but brilliant outfit – which created the first, eponymous LP of 1979 and ‘Ghost Town’ – would never be recaptured.

With the loss of John Bradbury and Rico Rodriguez, an important element of a unique musical and social era has moved from the present into history. The music and its messages remain poignantly relevant.

  • A poster of The Specials taken by legendary rock photographer Chalkie Davies and recently featured in his exhibition ‘The NME Years’ is currently available from the National Museum of Wales
  • Photograph of Brixon Riots 1981 by Paul Townsend,  under License