All you punks and all you teds
National Front and natty dreads
Mods, rockers, hippies and skinheads
Keep on fighting ’til you’re dead (Do The Dog)
I won’t dance in a club like this
All the girls are slags
And the beer tastes just like piss (Nite Klub)
You want a perfect slice of urban Britain circa 1979?* Try The Specials, a perfect time capsule and the thrilling embodiment of their record label 2 Tone. Their sound was a perfect mash-up of ska, pop, rock and punk, as though they seized whatever weapons were to hand to make their point as forcefully as possible. Madness were the pop geniuses that dominated the charts who we all loved as kids but its the darkness and paranoia that lurks around the edges of The Specials that I find myself returning to.
Check out the front cover, the colour scheme, the name of the record label, get the message? looking the way the Specials did in 1979 was a political act in and of itself. It shouldn’t have been of course, but that was the whole point, it was:
What you gonna do, when morons come for you?
They won’t go away, they want the whole world painted grey
The Specials burst straight out of Coventry at the same time as Madness did in London and The Beat in Birmingham**, braving skinheads, general disdain, violence and the tribalism that was rampant amongst all the youth cultures in the UK at the time. I like to think that if I hadn’t been 7 years old at the time I’d have signed up, grabbed a pork pie hat and danced wildly down the front. When I was in school I used to work as a waiter in a pub and the chef there, Martin a really nice, cool but damaged man who’d been a punk at the time told me that seeing The Beat, The Specials and Madness play on the same bill in a club in Llanelli was the single greatest night of his life^* and that the best and punkiest of the three had been the Specials.
The Specials, produced by a chap by the name of Elvis Costello, is an energetic chunk of life, ripped raw and bleeding from the world and displayed for your aural delectation, flaws and all. Costello’s production comes in for a bit of stick in a lot of write-ups but I think he did a very credible job, he captures the band in the heat of the action; so who cares if the levels bounce up and down a bit from time to time?
It all kicks off with a cover of an old ska classic ‘A Message To You Rudy’, possibly to show the world their ska credentials. I’ll declare a bias right here and now, I was brought up on ska, the original stuff, you can occasionally still spot me in a Trojan Records T-shirt and it still is one of my favourite types of music, no-one has ever invented anything better to dance to. It’s a great, slow version too showing that you don’t always have to turn on the afterburners to open an LP effectively. This then slams straight into ‘Do The Dog’ a stroppy, surly number with its’ Phil-Spector-Girl-Group-But-Much-Cheaper echoing beat. By the time we hit the 60’s inflected pop ska of ‘It’s Up To You’ all resistance has been put to the sword – this is such a great song too, basically saying take or leave our music (but you’d be much cooler loving us):
Looks like a case of the blind leading the deaf to me
You must be bored out of your pants
Take it or leave it we’ll carry on regardless
If you don’t like it you don’t have to dance
As opening 1-2-3 it stands up there with anything I own, or am likely to ever own. Word up!
I’ll spare you the full-on tediositynessisms of a track-by track dissection of The Specials but very honourable mentions go to the following gems; ‘Nite Klub’ with all its’ spiky spite and Chrissie Hynde on backing vocals; ‘Little Bitch’ with its wonderful 1 -2 structure and general sense of hurtling towards oblivion; the claustrophobia and paranoia of ‘Concrete Jungle’ (‘I’m walking home tonight / I only walk where there’s lots of lights’) and the play-it-too-fast ‘Too Hot’.
I’ve always loved Terry Hall’s voice, he whines, wheedles, proclaims and snarks brilliantly, always a provocative and interesting presence and an artist who is still putting really interesting, culturally diverse music out today. What I didn’t really appreciate, until about 13 minutes ago, is that ignoring the few compositions credited to the band as a whole, the bulk of the original songwriting is entirely down to Jerry Dammers keyboard player and 2 Tone founder. I’d have guessed that Hall had more input in all honesty. Needless to say the playing is excellent throughout, the guitarists both splendidly named, Lynval Golding and Roddy Radiation particularly stand out here.
But, Columbo-style I’ve left the clinchers ’til last in this review, two indisputable shots of genius. First up, ‘Too Much Too Young’ a coruscating, very danceable and rather withering attack on a former girlfriend who has lost her youth to motherhood that pulls off the unique trick of being both nasty and compassionate about the same person, simultaneously; that tune, once heard is never forgotten. My favourite song on The Specials though is ‘Doesn’t Make It Alright’, a heartfelt plea for tolerance and racial understanding sung by Terry Hall with the voice of an angel. This one moves me. More to the point it’s got a great tune amidst all the polemic, something a lot of groups at the time forgot the necessity of.
Just because you’re nobody
It doesn’t mean that you’re no good
Just because there’s a reason
It doesn’t mean it’s understood
Great though it is, The Specials ain’t flawless. No-one needed the live cover of Toots’ Monkey Man’ and I can live without the daft ‘Stupid Marriage’, as well as their occasional lurch towards spite and casual sexism. But round it all up, tot up the good vs. the bad and you have a hard-hitting classic on your hands – a classic very much of its time.
PS: Two years further down the line The Specials, on the verge of splitting released easily the best British song of the 80’s, ‘Ghost Town’. I don’t need any excuse to hear it again (and again and again and again …):
*with rapidly rising unemployment, squalor, inhumane concrete housing schemes, racial violence, strong-arm police tactics under a nakedly fascistic prime minister – who wouldn’t want a slice of that? especially as 37 years later we’ve now learned the lessons of the past and all pulled together as a society to solve all those problems.
**good candidates for most-underrated British band of the 80’s, their debut LP I Just Can’t Stop It was a mighty, mighty achievement as I’ll get around to telling you properly in about 2020.
^*this from a man who was actually in the audience when the Ramones recorded It’s Alive.