Paul Morley talks to ex-Specials singer Jerry Dammers

From founding the Specials to forming a orchestra to pay tribute to the late Sun Ra, Jerry Dammers has never shied from embracing creative chaos, says Paul Morley

The extravagantly furtive cultural conceptualist Jerry Dammers has created a fantastic work of art by forming what is essentially a grandiose tribute act, a serio-absurd personal impression of someone and something else. An eccentric English pop legend from the tough, broken city of Coventry and the open minded label of 2-Tone, responsible for two extremely valuable pieces of pop protest who then slid off into a kind of self-induced exile, Dammers avoided being turned into some kind of sweet, charming and docile national treasure pretty much by not being too visible for at least two decades. To some extent, while in exile, while keeping himself to himself in whatever way he chose, he established a more interesting sort of mystique for himself, rubbing away those parts of him that threatened to turn him into a sentimentalised faded celebrity.

There are those who yearn for a Specials reunion in much the same way there are those who crave a new concert by the original Smiths or the original Stone Roses – a chance to ceremonially revive a youth that was surely never meant to disappear, especially in a world where you could now grow old still clinging to the principles, hair and costumes of pop culture. The enlightened, questing sensibility that in the first place contributed to the fresh kind of music and image that fans are now so desperate to revive is by the very nature of its originality not going to be interested in repeating old patterns. For the shy, dandy, the wry, smart Dammers, the early 21st century equivalent of creating the Specials as a many bodied, many minded retro-futurist combination of obscure styles, private passions, politicised zeal, adolescent frustration, stubborn loyalties and idiosyncratic enthusiasm is to form an immense tribute band, because any reformed Specials would only ultimately be a kind of tribute band, even if it contained all the original members. It would be a betrayal of a special energy, a sorry parody, as ultimately all such come backs tend to be.

Dammers doesn't directly form a Specials tribute group, or even a tribute group dedicated to honouring a rock or pop or ska or blues or Britpop band. He forms a tribute band to the spirit that caused him to form a group such as the Specials. As the ultimate music lover, a lover of music as a ritualistic means of creating an out of body experience, of changing your circumstances, altering the parameters and textures of your immediate environment, positively affecting your mental state, he commits himself to forming a tribute band to the very idea of music as a way of inventing new selves and new realities. At a time when much popular music seems itself to be a resourceful but obedient tribute to previous stars, genres, eras, groups, sounds, a collating of taste, a montage of preferences and addictions dressed up in appropriate costume – 30 years after the Specials raided pop history for a sound and image that could operate as a combination of conscientious entertainment and emotional idealism inside Thatcher's disruptive Britain – Dammers plays along with the contemporary tendency to use playful self-conscious nostalgia to blunt the unsettling force of accelerating social and technological change. He does this by paying tribute to a musician, an illusion, a psycho-poet, a peace panther, a tempestuous intellectual, an ostentatious Dada preacher who used music to break free not just of the restrictions he faced as a black man in racist America in the heart of the 20th century but to break free of space, time and logic itself.

He forms an impossible seeming tribute band, the most unlikely tribute band you can imagine, something that seems the equivalent of creating a musical tribute to the wind, the rain, the sun itself. He builds, like it is some kind of ark saving him from the flood of music drowning the world in song and dance, a tribute to the most melodramatic, elusive, unclassifiable, soothsaying, mental, philosophical, meta-academic, pseudo-religious, chaotic, satirical, theoretical, uncontrollable, ghostly musician of the 20th century, whose music happened to be jazz, for want of a better term, who was in the first pre-60s stage of his unearthly adventures a quixotic underestimated swing contemporary of Duke Ellington and Charlie Mingus and in the second stage a furiously prolific, deliberately zany, meta-self-aware, moving and shaking contemporary of the post-1960 Mileses, Ornettes and Coltranes who stretched jazz beyond jazz and suggested that music itself could be stretched beyond music.

Jerry pays, he prays, tribute to a musician who was forecasting, dreaming of, predicting, anticipating styles, sounds and genres – some have come true, some are still fiction, some are on the verge of emerging – since the 1940s... immersed in his ever changing ever rearranging music, which was released and unreleased, in an order and an amount that suggested he was determined to lay a path between here and infinity, are hints, suggestions, clues to all sorts and genres of black, rock, jazz and pop music that turned up years after he had first imagined it, so that he becomes a space age link between Duke Ellington and Public Enemy, between Cab Calloway and Madlib, between Stockhausen and Michael Jackson, between Aime Cesare and Prince... playing out a personal history of jazz as it shook itself out of itself, from ragtime to swing, bebop to free, and also preparing the way for P-funk, electronic music, acid rock, rave, hip hop ...
Jerry, a ghost himself, a figment of our imagination, says heal me, be me, feel me, love me, show me, guide me, play me, shock me Sun Ra. Sun Ra said my name is Sun Ra, he said he came from Saturn, because white America treated him like an alien, like a creature from outer space, so he became one, but the kind of creature dressed as a golden emperor from a version of his home planet conceived by Cecil B Demille, Salvador Dali and Haile Selassie, an anarcho-emperor of the fantastic, who made it to the moon before America or Russia, because the moon was nowhere near as far out as he could really go. He used his music, and the personality of the man who could make such music, as his vessel, as the way he could conquer outer space, which is just the imagination given shape and dimension. He not only plotted a wildly subversive creative escape from the chains placed around him by mean, weak, earthbound bigots but he become a sort of superhero saving himself and others from the appalling and often vicious consequences of narrow minds.

Jerry, the recluse who loves people, the discreetly exuberant 80s pop star, the maker of dissident anthems and biting hymns of regret, has used Sun Ra to help him create a new version of reality, Sun Ra the magnificent, who invented so many versions of himself so that he could become invisible, beyond the reach of enemies and cynics, opponents and haters. Elsewhere, more and more people can do what Dammers does as musician, disc jockey, music enthusiast, as person with a celebrity history – construct their own personal reality by wearing their likes, dislikes, preferences and attitudes in sort of public view, become an active part of a spreading entertainment landscape that threatens to take over reality itself. Jerry responds, a little ridiculously, a little courageously, by stretching the idea of reality beyond this new reality, by exhibiting his expertise as fabulously as he can, by putting together a big band, an orchestra of loyal minds built in the image of Sun Ra's sturdy, battling, never settling Arkestra – the art ark, the sonic shield, the conscience raising orchestra, the ultimate tribal momentum.

Jerry responds, as someone who believes in music as a magic spell, as a force for good, as an act of faith, as a solution to all forms of repression, as someone in dismay at the way music is treated as a mere decorative consumer product, by going to Church, the Church of Sun Ra, where music is a means of delivery from suffering, from corruption. Jerry responds – now that more and more people, as professional consumers and user generators, can impress themselves more explicitly on reality - by accepting that to really make an impact, you have to make truly extreme, dramatic gestures. You don't just write a blog, appear on a reality show, share your playlists, mash one thing with another, comment on a YouTube video or a newspaper article, auction off your possessions, catalogue photographs of yourself, communicate your daily moves in constantly updated detail. Everyone does some of that. That's just the new way of getting dressed, by putting on some sort of covering that displays your taste, your opinions, the details of your life. Instead, you form a tribute group to the mighty intergalactic mystery of Sun Ra. That's different, that's difference, that's pushing at the limits of reality and rearranging it rather than confirming its shape, and letting it settle into place.

Dammers shambles towards me at Showing Off HQ, looking like he's just beamed in from some futuristic version of the 17th century, a meek, mild monster, a rattled pop genius repairing himself by possessing the self-possession of Sun Ra, by allowing himself to be possessed by the God of self-invention, by surrendering to the musician who profoundly, stubbornly, nuttily explored and examined the very idea of the transformative power of sound and the hallucinatory possibilities of entertainment. The distinctive gap in his teeth is defiantly unrepaired, so that his grin, and the laughter that often comes next, has a lovely, lively demented edge.

Before we film our interview, he tells me how when the Specials first landed in America, full of passionate belief that their way of singing, dancing and dressing would storm the land, sure that their combination of ska, protest and pop was just what the nation needed, suited, booted and juiced for action, they were picked up at the airport by a limousine sent by their record label. The driver took one look at this small boisterous crowd of loud mouthed young men in shiny tight mod suits, shirts, ties, hats, cropped hair, wide eyed and bouncing off the sidewalks in delight at arriving in the new world, and asked one of the people who'd collected the group if they were all on day release from a mental hospital.

After we talk, Jerry mentions that the Arkestra, still performing after Sun Ra's death in 1993, still keeping the flame alight, will gather together and chant to their lord and master "Ra, Ra, Ra, Ra, Ra...." I ask if his group chant "Jerry, Jerry, Jerry" before their shows. He admits, alas, no, but does confess that there is something of the cult, something a bit zen sensible shot through with shifty new age nonsense, surrounding the reality, myth and memory of Sun Ra. As he leaves, he says to me that if he ever gets stuck inside the cult, that I must come and get him, and pluck him away from the movement. He's only half joking. Sun Ra, for all the funny business, was one hell of a serious force and is probably paying attention to Jerry's moving, crackpot tribute from his floating glass throne on Saturn.


Paul Morley

The GuardianTramp

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