The Specials: The Specials, More Specials, In The Studio (The Special AKA) (2 Tone Records)
In a General Election year, this reissue of music by Coventry’s The Specials serves as a timely reminder of the power of music. Simon Tucker reviews.
Once punk had torched the country, a new breed of musician was created. Infused by the “anyone can do it” attitude that punk had created, artists (which included film-makers, authors, photographers, and designers) all realised that “it” was there for the taking. No more needing the backing of big business and those in the ivory towers. No more waiting for the patronising pat on the head. The time was NOW and they weren’t going to let anything stand in their way.
Now, history will often refer to the bands that followed the initial explosion as post-punk. This tag would eventually become a genre in itself with bands like Wire, https://louderthanwar.com/why-punk-is-dead-and-hugo-burnham-may-be-right/, P.i.L, and Joy Division all getting lumped under this banner. This, however, is but a small piece in the post-punk ideology. The bands mentioned all seemed to want to take guitar music into the future extolling the virtues of CAN and Kraftwerk to create a music that was angular but sci-fi in approach.
Other bands formed around the time, although influenced by the ethos of punk, decided to go back even further than their 3-chord counterparts as instead of using rock ‘n’ roll as its base (let’s face it, a LOT of what came under the banner of punk was just rehashed 50’s rock, and was actually rather stale and boring) they decided to get to the base matter and use roots music as their base point.
Roots music courses throughout the veins of post-punk Britain. It’s there in the twisted traditional folk of The Pogues. It beats underneath the gypsy soul of Rowland and his Dexy’s. It infuses Adam‘s Burundi pop and of course, it is there in the mutated ska of The Specials.
What these bands did, especially the Specials, is smash together two forms of rebellion music to create a visceral new so whilst ska is what the band become associated with, it is the seething spit of its marriage to punk that made it (and still makes it) an exciting and era defining sound. A sound that can be laid back, bouncy or even groovy, is injected with the venom of anger that those young people in the late 70s – early 80s were feeling.
The Specials (and each individual member is VITAL to what went into making them a great band regardless of what Jerry Dammers still says) touched a generation and are as important to the post-war narrative of British popular culture as Rotten, Strummer and co.
They weren’t the first band to marry Jamaican culture to UK angst (that honor goes to The Slits) and reggae music was a vital ingredient in the punk pot as it was often played at gigs by DJ’s such as Don Letts (Lydon himself would be a huge champion of the genre and utilise many of its sensibilities in certain P.i.L songs) but what the Specials DID do was create an actual sonic and visualisation of multicultural Britain. White and Black united not just on song but actually on stage like a UK Sly And The Family Stone, mirroring their audience for a brief but beautiful moment until the moronic right took the 2-Tone sound and look and tried twisting it to their own moronic agendas.
So now history has rightly given the credit to the band for what they stood for politically, where does that leave the music? Over the course of the six discs on offer here, which includes all three studio albums plus various rarities, instrumentals, Peel sessions, and b-sides you are once again left with the impression that musically the band were concise, tight, progressive, yet accessible with the sugar, indeed, making the medicine go down.
Right from the off, on 79’s debut The Specials the band lay out their manifesto with covers of Toots & the Maytals (Monkey Man) Dandy Livingstone (Rudy, A Message To You now retitled A Message To You, Rudy) and Prince Buster (Too Hot) all using older songs to convey a modern message. Other tracks are re-workings of older tunes with different lyrics with the best case in point being Lloyd Chamber’s Birth Control reworked into the now classic Too Much Too Young.
Many would say later that the fact there are so many covers on the bands’ debut make it weaker in comparison to their following work, but this would be missing the point. I mean, how many covers are on The Beatles or The Stones debut albums???? Didn’t harm them now did it and not once do the covers actually detract from the sheer blood, sweat, and creative energy that imbibes this album.
Produced in raw, upfront fashion by Elvis Costello, The Specials still sounds exciting to this day as every snarl and sardonic intonation by Hall bleeds into your head, and every tip-tap drum snare crack makes it impossible to resist. The remastering also adds clarity and sharpness to the whole LP.
With the debut comes the Too Much Too Young EP which contains classics such as the title track, Guns of Navarone, and Long Shot Kick The Bucket. It is, however, the BBC concert recorded at the Paris Theater in ’79 that is the real treasure here.
Storming in with (Dawning Of A) New Era and fizzing through seminal numbers like Rat Race, Concrete Jungle, and Nite Klub you get a palpable sense of the energy that the band and audience alike embarked on during their live shows.
The sound on these remasters is crystal clear with every nuance audible making it the closest many of us will get to experiencing The Specials in their original form.
The next album, 1980’s More Specials is where the band widen their palette even further with the black and white replaced by rainbow.
With a lot more original material, the band start to include jazz and soul inflections in their sound and employ more collaborators to flesh out their canvas with Belinda Carlisle, Lee Thompson, and Jane Wiedlin all adding to the colorful whole.
Lyrically, More Specials, is even more politically skewed with songs such as Stereotype/Stereotypes, Pt 2. International Jet Set, and Man at C & A, all forcing your vision onto grassroots and global issues.
Sonically, More Specials, is more adventurous than its predecessor and is a more intriguing matter but to compare the two would be to do each a disservice. It’s like comparing Hunky Dory with Low, both entirely different records but ones that can suit a different mood and are equal in their quality.
The only shame about this album is that it signposts what could have been if the band had managed to stay together, but maybe they’d said all they could have as a unit by this time. That was for the band to decide.
Extras for this album come in the guise of singles, b-sides, and rarities, which include the damning Rat Race, an amazing version of Sea Cruise taken from a Peel session and the stone-cold classic Ghost Town single (12″ version) which includes the classics Why? and Friday Night, Saturday Morning.
Ghost Town still, after repeated listens, manages to shock and pack a hefty punch. A damning statement on Thatcher’s Britain, Ghost Town is as relevant now as it was then (unfortunately).
After the band split, with Hall, Staple, and Golding forming Fun Boy Three, Dammers continued in his quest for experimentation and politi-pop with his Special AKA project which used a revolving door of collaborators to create a music that was really quite bold for the time. The twinkle of Bright Lights, the lounge-soul of The Lonely Crowd, the roots vibe of Racist Friend and of course the anthemic Africana of Nelson Mandela.
In The Studio is, looking back, far better than original reviews may have you believe. The sheer diversity on display is breathtaking at times and it is by far the angriest and informed record in the entire catalog. It is in line with many other great, sprawling albums (The White Album, Hail To The Thief) that were originally thought of as weak but now with hindsight you can see there is greatness within its walls.
This remastered version lets you hear with clarity the textures and kaleidoscopic ambition. The twisted lounge-soul of War Crimes (The Crime Remains The Same) the swing jazz of Alcohol, and the off-kilter, avant-pop of Housebound all display an author deep in the throes of artistic ambition and whilst the music is willfully eclectic, lyrically this is Dammers at his most precise and angry as they rail against addiction, racism, illegal warfare, and social injustice and with the aforementioned Nelson Mandela, he not only opened people’s eyes to what was going on in South Africa but he actually managed to create change on a political and personal level. By writing and releasing this song, Dammers proved that music CAN make a difference and CAN create change for the good. Anyone out there who thinks musicians shouldn’t speak out or get involved in politics only need to look at this single for proof that it can indeed be a power for good. A personal account of what this song meant to people was when I saw the Chemical Brothers drop it at the beginning of their set soon after the great man had passed. The crowd went crazy for it and it was a joyous moment proving that the song, its sentiment, and the person it was it about, meant a great deal to people of all shapes and sizes, colors and creeds.
Disc two maintains the quality that has gone before it by containing some amazing Peel session versions of Alcohol, Bright Lights, and Lonely Crowd and it also contains six instrumental versions of album tracks (perfect for the DJ’s out there).
These three albums, and bonus material, are a vital component of our past, present, and future. With the general election fast approaching, and with Britain not that much changed since their original release, the act as tools for thought and wisdom. This was an example of young men and women, black or white, coming together with a common goal. That goal was to educate and provoke people into a reaction or inspiring different thoughts and views.
It’s a shame really that with the world in the state that it is, there are only a few bands out there willing to stick their neck on the line like The Specials did.
Listen to these albums again and think about your life and how you can change it for the better and if you’re not inspired by the current crop of artists and their lack of conviction, play these loud then GO MAKE CHANGE HAPPEN YOURSELF!!!