Tribute to John Bradbury of The Specials

From a photo by Adrian Boot, part of Heather Augustyn's personal collection. Terry Hall vocals, John Bradbury drums.

From a photo by Adrian Boot, part of Heather Augustyn’s personal collection. Terry Hall vocals, John Bradbury drums.

It is with sadness that we learn of that John Bradbury, drummer for The Specials, has died. Bradbury joined The Specials just after their first tour when they were still known as the Coventry Automatics and they supported The Clash. Bradbury replaced Silverton Hutchinson who left the band when he decided he didn’t want to play ska and instead wanted to play roots reggae. When Jerry Dammers asked Hutchinson to play differently, Hutchison, who was known to have a temper, packed up his drums and simply left. The rest of the band chose to replace Hutchison with John Bradbury, also known as Brad. Bradbury was a friend of those in the group as well as a housemate to Dammers in 1975.

From a photo by Adrian Book. Part of Heather Augustyn's personal collection. John Bradbury on drums.

From a photo by Adrian Book. Part of Heather Augustyn’s personal collection. John Bradbury on drums.

Back in the 1990s, Neville Staple told me that John Bradbury and all of the members of the band were crucial to the sound of The Specials. He remembers the writing process during those days. “You might have a rough backing track or a rough idea and then you get the rest of the guys, the drummer, you might give him an idea of what the beat is or he’ll probably know anyway. You just click in on it,” he says. Many of the songs were written by various members of the band, but Staple says there was always one leader. “With a band you need somebody who’s like, there’s one. You can’t have four or five people making decisions. At the end of the day, it’s going to come down to one. So Jerry, he started the band and so he had a bit more say and he was doing most of the writing then anyways, but to say he was the leader, well it was his band when it started and then everybody started to get more of their influence in,” Staple says.

Of John Bradbury, Horace Panter wrote on his Facebook page, “It feels very strange to know that I will never work with my ‘other half’ of The Specials’ rhythm section again. Brad jokingly referred to me as ‘the glue’, the man who held it all together, but he was the backbone, the bedrock of the music, and he was responsible for its signature sound, that tightly stretched snare and highly original style that he called ‘attack drumming’. He drew on the drive of Northern Soul but had the jazz influences of ska and the sensuality of reggae. He always played like his life depended on it, always on the money, always in the pocket. To have been able to play music with him has been an absolute privilege and the fact that I’ll miss him is the height of understatement. Thanks Brad, you played great!”

From a photo by Adrian Boot. Part of Heather Augustyn's personal collection. John Bradbury on drums.

From a photo by Adrian Boot. Part of Heather Augustyn’s personal collection. John Bradbury on drums.

After The Specials broke up, Bradbury was a member of The Special A.K.A. and he co-wrote the classic song “Racist Friend” with Jerry Dammers and Dick Cuthell. The song was released in August 1983. The song begins:

If you have a racist friend,
Now is the time, now is the time for your friendship to end.

Be it our sister
Be it your brother
Be it your cousin or your uncle or your lover.

If you have a racist friend,
Now is the time, now is the time for your friendship to end.

Be it your best friend
Or any other
Is it your husband or your father or your mother?

Tell them to change their views
Or change their friends.
Now is the time, now is the time for your friendship to end.

My personal favorite song by The Specials with John Bradbury on drums and Rico Rodriguez on trombone (he also died earlier this year) is Ghost Town. Below is my analysis of this crucial song in an excerpt from my book Ska: The Rhythm of Liberation:

Ghost Town
In early 1981, the Specials met in a small studio in Leamington to record a song that best captured the zeitgeist of the ska revival. “Ghost Town,” a song with an eerie, haunting, discordant sound whose words echoed the violence on the streets, was serendipitously and coincidentally released the same time as massive rioting took place in across the country. The song’s words, “Can’t go on no more, the people getting angry,” prophetically paralleled police randomly stopping and searching people in Operation Swamp, so named because of Thatcher’s comments about people being “afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people of a different culture.” Most of the 943 people that were searched in six days were black. As a result, rioting broke out in Brixton, Coventry, and literally dozens of other towns and neighborhoods. Hundreds of people were arrested and people were murdered in racist attacks. “Ghost Town” was ska music’s version of the Sex Pistols’ no future. It was more than a warning—it was a declaration. The song reached number one on the charts. “Music didn’t cause the riots, of course,” says TV Smith, vocalist for the Adverts in Thompson’s book. “But songs like ‘Ghost Town’ helped make people aware that there really was something wrong with the country, and when you realize something is wrong you want to do something about it.” Lynval Golding opined, “”It’s terrible when you have a song like that and you see that, gradually, it’s all coming true. . . . It’s a bit frightening when you predict something’s gonna happen, it’s always horrible when you actually see it’s coming true.”
In many ways, “Ghost Town” was the end of the ska revival because it threw in the towel. It was the last single the original lineup of the Specials would record together, as members split up to try their hand at other bands, projects, and genres, and the Specials were the seminal ska revival band. But “Ghost Town” also threw in the towel because the aim of the ska revival, the aim of Jerry Dammers, had succeeded, because the West Indian immigrants were no longer sitting down accepting “No dogs, No blacks.” Through the revolution and rioting they were standing up and demanding to be recognized as equal. They were no longer West Indian immigrants—they were British citizens.

Painting by Horace Panter, part of Heather Augustyn's personal collection.

Painting by Horace Panter, part of Heather Augustyn’s personal collection.

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