The son of a soul band trumpeter, Roddy "Radiation" Byers' first instrument was trombone, before he switched to guitar at 13 and began the traditional apprenticeship through the local, Coventry, England, youth club circuit. By 1977, Radiation was a member of the regional punk band the Wild Boys, a group that he remembers as being heavily influenced by Lou Reed and David Bowie.
Radiation joined another local band, the Automatics, in late 1977, after a night out with bandleader Jerry Dammers. "He said that they were going to London the next day to record some demos, and did I want to play guitar at the session? I said 'yes,' got drunk, went home, and forgot all about it -- until they turned up at my house the next morning, banging on the front door while I was still in bed. 'F*ck me! They meant it!'"
The Automatics became the Specials in early 1978; a year later, completely redesigned around a sharp-suited, tightly coiled ska-punk hybrid, the band scored its first hit with "Gangsters," and sent half the Western world 2 Tone crazy. From the outset, however, the bandmembers' own musical tastes were at odds with the Specials' best-known specialties. Among the songs recorded for their eponymous first album was one that Radiation originally wrote for the Wild Boys, "Concrete Jungle," and, as time passed, he became increasingly weary with the ska pigeonhole.
By the end of 1980, the Specials were over. Although the group would theoretically survive into the following summer, and score a forever-memorable U.K. number one with their final single, "Ghost Town," they were a band "in name only," as Radiation puts it. Bandmates Terry Hall, Lynval Golding, and Neville Staples were already scheming their own group, the Fun Boy Three; in early 1981, Radiation followed suit and formed the Tearjerkers with brother Mark Byers and the rhythm section from the Wild Boys. One Big Slim completed the lineup with keyboards and accordion.
The Tearjerkers (no relation to the similarly named Irish band who gigged around the U.K. a year or two previous) delved deep into the soul of Radiation's beloved rockabilly, dramatically melded with the Specials' own ska beat -- skabilly, of course. "I needed an outlet for my many new songs, and enjoyed being my own boss in my own band," Radiation recalled, but it would be 20-plus years before many of these songs appeared, on Radiation's Skabilly Rebel anthology -- although the Tearjerkers remained a major live draw around the U.K. for much of the next five years, the group released no more than one single, "Desire," during 1982. (Radiation originally offered the record to the Specials' own 2 Tone label -- "I asked Jerry at a party about releasing it, and he headbutted a wall.")
The Tearjerkers split in 1987, and Radiation went solo for a couple of years. By 1990, however, he was looking to return to the band format once again, and formed the Bonediggers. Again, however, the live circuit alone sustained them and, by 1994, having already slimmed down into the three-piece Raiders, the end was nigh. Shortly after the band split, however, Radiation was asked to back Desmond Dekker with some of the Specials -- Horace Panter, Golding, and Staples, plus H from the Selecter on drums. A Japanese tour for the revitalized Specials alone followed, and Radiation explained, "no one considered it a longterm project, but following Japan, we were offered some festivals in Europe; the U.S.A. started beckoning and suddenly it was all starting again."
Over the next four years, the Specials toured constantly, and recorded a couple of albums -- the all-covers Today's Specials and the originals-heavy Guilty 'Til Proved Innocent! But the group itself was not built to last, as differences in direction and "the usual petty squabbles" split the band. Even before the Specials broke up, however, Radiation was pushing a new band into action, the Skabilly Rebels. Somewhat confusingly, they are not featured on then album that bears their name.