IN A NUTSHELL
The Specials formed in Coventry in 1977 and are often typified as a ska revival or two tone band, which probably does them a disservice given their breadth of sound, ambition and importance in pop culture. It’s true that they did latch on to ska and rocksteady very early in their career but from the outset the urgency of punk was also a huge influence. (This can perhaps also be heard in the mix of working class anger, a readiness to tackle social issues and a relatively sophisticated political outlook. The band were energized by Rock Against Racism movement and had close links with The Clash.)
Things happened very quickly for the racially mixed group, with their debut single 'Gangsters' (a reworked cover of Prince Buster’s 'Al Capone') scoring them a top ten hit in the summer of 1979. The band claimed they were caught in a kind of fashion feedback loop with their fans, the various tribes who came to see their gigs, which played an influence on their own style leading, in time, to a unique dress code: a sort of Jamaican rude boy, 60s mod, punk hybrid that also shared its name with their record label, 2 Tone.
The hits came thick and fast with 'A Message To You Rudy', 'Rat Race', 'Do Nothing' and 'Stereotype' hitting the top ten and 'Too Much Too Young' getting to number one. A second album - More Specials - quickly followed the first, showcasing a lot more influences than just ska and rocksteady, while also perhaps revealing disagreements within their ranks over exactly where the group should be headed. These disagreements came to the head when arguably their most ambitious single to date, 'Ghost Town', was at number one and the band split up, backstage after a Top Of The Pops performance in 1981. The Specials have carried on in a few different guises intermittently since then but the newest iteration of the group, around the core of Horace Panter, Terry Hall and Lynval Golding has recently released the excellent Encore album, which shows them once again fighting at full strength.
Recently, I had good reason to nearly choke on my deeply unsatisfying gluten, wheat and oat free breakfast cereal while scrolling through Twitter. My eye had been caught by a provocative story claiming the British charts had gone to hell in a handcart. The journalist, presumably much younger than me and unable to remember how bad the albums charts had been during, say, a random week in 1986 or 1993, set out their stall by lambasting the presence of Busted in the top three. Fair enough. It’s anachronistic at best and a punch in the face of musical decency by Iron Man at worst, when you stop to think about it. Then the writer expressed their dismay at the high placing of the OST for The Greatest Showman to which I can only say: solidarity, it’s hard to even begin to understand the popularity of this badly rendered sonic blancmange. He also poured scorn on the presence of DJ Fredo (who?) and Ian Brown (ouch). So just as this writer and I are about to walk hand in hand off into the sunset unified by our deep accord on all things musical, they have to go and spoil everything.
In this blistering broadside on the apparent failure of the English album charts for the first time since their inception in 1956, one of the prime pieces of evidence presented is that The Specials scored a number one album with Encore. The one line of distaste for this occurrence that the writer can muster runs like this: “The Specials have reunited and are heading off on a major tour, which probably means nothing to you, but accounts for your uncle wiping dust off his pork pie hat again and playing their album on repeat in the car.”
While I have some sympathy for thirty something writers pretending to be twenty something writers so they can impress teenagers with their snark - it’s a skill! Don’t knock it! - I personally feel like we need The Specials now more than ever. Now, I know this is the kind of statement that usually has the youth obsessed poptimist critical majority, choking in anger but I’m not suggesting that there’s an absence of racially mixed groups in the charts, or even that there’s an absence of songs tackling the many problems of 2019 in a socially realist manner. (Although, I pity anyone who fancies pitting Joy As An Act Of Resistance by student rock band Idles against Encore by The Specials. The former seems like lightweight, if well intentioned, posturing to me by comparison, with little first hand experience of any of the things they sing about.)
The reason we need The Specials firing on full power in 2019 is exactly because they appeal to an older listener. The notional uncle who has all but forgotten his youth is the problem this country faces at the moment. It is the notional uncle who is currently drifting into political extremism, egged on by hucksters at the far right and far left; it is the notional uncle who has voted en masse for Brexit; it is the notional uncle, hyped up by talk radio, empowered by blue top tabloids, given justification by fake digital news, once more finding community in hate mongering Facebook groups, who is helping to dismantle the idea of the UK as an equitable society.
I had the pleasure of running into fellow Lush associate and well-preserved well-dressed gentleman of a certain age, John Robb at the weekend and we both admitted to no little amount of nervousness at the proximity of the Brexit deadline on March 29. However, we both feel anger more keenly than nervousness because it’s our own generations and those older than us that have caused this mess. No wonder those younger than us, feel so much antipathy towards us and the boomers. Sure things are changing but simply not fast enough. If there were a second referendum tomorrow, the vote would almost certainly flip, with 54% voting stay and only 46% voting leave. Some of this is due to a change of heart as ever more businesses quit these shores, the amazing work done by some journalists reveals the full extent to which we have been lied to and the reality of how ill-prepared we are becomes unignorable. But some of this change is undeniably down to natural demographic progression. As the older, more conservative elders die off and ever more idealistic young people reach voting age, the political makeup of this country continues to shift in what I have no problem defining as the right direction.
But as regards Brexit, it’s too little, too late. For the massive rifts that have gaped open in this country dividing up communities along strange new lines to ever stand a chance of healing, then we need more people than ever before - especially the middle aged and elderly - to reconnect with the idealism of their youth and to reject extremism and hateful thinking of all stripes. In every village, town or city in the UK are a bunch of notional uncles who have lost their youthful optimism and become embittered and prey to hateful thinking. And it is because of them primarily that we need The Specials and their uncompromising social and political message now more than ever.
FIVE EASY PIECES: WHERE TO START WITH THE SPECIALS
'A Message To You Rudi'
The Specials weren’t an authentic ska band by any stretch of the imagination. They were majority white group of revivalist magpies and had little in common with the groups keeping pace with then currently unfolding trends in Jamaican music, such as Aswad, Steel Pulse Misty In Roots or UB40. The Specials instead looked at their various influences - some already vintage - through the urgent and then current prism of punk but their reverence for the source material won them a certain number of black fans, for whom, presumably, immersion was more important than authenticity. Above and beyond their aptitude for reworking and recontextualising ska for a racially mixed audience (but always knowing when not to distort the framework too much), they had the gold seal of approval from the musicians they worked with. Rico Rodriguez, a Cuban born trombonist was taught by the legendary Don Drummond of the Skatalites and played with Prince Buster among many others be becoming a full time member of The Specials. He also played on both the Dandy Livingstone original ('Rudy, A Message To You') and The Specials version of this solid gold dancefloor classic and was often the voice in interviews stating that their music was ‘the real deal’ when challenged by (often white) journalists.
'Man At C&A'
A rambunctious r&b inflected opener to second album More Specials in the form of 'Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think)' put paid to the idea that their second album would be a replay of the debut. But instead any of the tracks showing an Atlantic soul or 1940s pop influence, it was perhaps the echoing and anxious 'Man At C&A' that revealed they were about to upend popular perceptions of who they were. Interestingly this is Terry Hall’s first outing as a songwriter and the wild mix of dub, bombastic soundtrack music, synthesized drums and nuclear paranoia already suggests that he might be about to bang heads with Jerry Dammers, the group’s then de facto leader, as a creative force in the group wanting to flex his muscles.
The first incarnation of The Specials crashed and burned almost before it really got started. But their 1981 number one single 'Ghost Town' wasn’t so much the elegy at the funeral as it was herald of what could have been had they managed to stay together. Jerry Dammers was conceiving of ever more complex and inventive musical arrangements, their vocal interplay reached a zenith and they had now successfully combined elements from various genres to create something genuinely new. This song essentially shows that the decade could really have been theirs for the taking had they stayed together. Instead the paranoia and deteriorating relationships within the band were simply a reflection the feelings running wild in the country at large. On their tour of the UK in 1980, they were disturbed at the boarded up shops, scenes of poverty and outbreaks of violence they were witnessing everywhere they went. It made an appropriate backdrop for breakdown in relationships in the Specials’ camp. They channelled this inner and outer distress into the making of 'Ghost Town', not realising that the song would itself become the soundtrack to the riots of 1981. While the shock of its newness meant it received tepid reviews on release, by December, it had been crowned single of the year in NME, Melody Maker and Sounds. Not that this meant much to the group. The original line up of The Specials split up while the song was still at number one in the singles charts.
'Free Nelson Mandela (as The Special AKA)'
'Free Nelson Mandela' was notable, among other things, for blowing apart the popular perception of the day of the protest song as a worthy, dour and wordy dirge. Songwriter Jerry Dammers freely admitted that he had only heard of the jailed African National Congress leader the year previous to recording the song in 1984 but this relative naivety probably helped its popularity. This song is not an erudite dissertation, rather a brief persuasive checklist of biographical facts sung, almost as an afterthought, by Stan Campbell, welded to a sunburst of Soweto-style backing vocals with powerhouse Afro funk, calypso and reggae brass. Burying the politics deep within an irresistible party groove helped it to travel far and wide, seeding its message as it went. As well as getting to number 9 in the UK charts, the student union of Wadham College, Oxford passed a motion that every ‘bop’ (that’s an Oxford University student dance to you and I) should end with the track, a tradition which they uphold to this day.
This is clearly a case of unfinished business for Terry Hall and Lynval Golding - after all this is the song they first made famous as members of Fun Boy Three (along with Neville Staple) just months after leaving The Specials. With the uncanny knack they had for capturing the national mood, this version was a hit single just in time for Halloween 1981, just months after the success of 'Ghost Town'. They were lambasting a particular pair of lunatics who were, of course, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. But this version was perhaps, on reflection, a slightly muted affair, especially compared to their second single 'It Ain’t What You Do (It’s The Way That You Do It)' - a dream team collaboration with Bananarama. This slightly dour first outing was probably a reaction to the extreme experience they’d had with Dammers while recording Ghost Town, the trio opted for a stripped back, almost DIY sounding effort, which favoured clattering rhythms, chanting vocals and little else. However the song had originally been intended for The Specials, so it’s satisfying to see the circle finally completed in 2019 with this version included on the Encore album. And just listen to that jazz rock piano played by Nikolaj Torp Larsen, the band’s keyboard player and arranger, playing clear audio dedication to Mike Garson and his outstanding work on David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane, which is in itself a top notch musical pun.
THE SPECIALS IN QUOTES:
“Well, in the end, if you’re talking about each other, all you can offer is love. To respect people, and be kind to people, and hope that they give it back. They sometimes don’t but they sometimes do. But there’s that sense of hope. What else have we got?” Terry Hall
“You could tie our music in with any event of any year we release it… maybe apart from the Winter Olympics. We wouldn’t be so relevant there. But yeah, it just so happens that the country is in turmoil again. Huge turmoil. Bigger than you would want to imagine. I find myself in awe of the mess, nightly listening to politicians giving their opinion and thinking, I don’t necessarily trust any of you, really. It is pretty sad. I grew up aligned to a party, the Labour Party, quite strongly. Until Tony Blair made Noel Gallagher prime minister I knew exactly where I stood.” Terry Hall
John Doran is the co-founder and editor of The Quietus website. He published the acclaimed memoir about alcoholism, habitual drug use and mental illness, Jolly Lad for Strange Attractor in 2015. He recently wrote and presented a documentary on Aphex Twin for BBC Radio 4 and has a series called New Weird Britain, about underground music in the UK, currently in production for the same station, due to air this year.