For a band that did so little, and in a very short space of time, it is remarkable that they are held in such high regard; the two-tone ska band that really meant something. Coming off the back of punk, the mixed-race Coventry band were a band deeply embedded in the cultural fabric of the UK for a couple of years; from the release of the Prince Buster-inspired ‘Gangsters’ to the epochal ‘Ghost Town’, which hit number one in the tumultuous summer of ’81, when the country was suffering from high unemployment, racial strife, and extensive rioting. ‘Ghost Town’ was to be the last song that founder members Terry Hall and Lynval Golding, were to be involved with. Immediately after appearing on the Top of the Pops stage to perform that hit, they, along with Neville Staple, told band leader Jerry Dammers that they were leaving, to form Fun Boy Three.
With Hall back on board again 2009, The Specials, let’s be honest, have been milking it for all its worth. However, sooner or later, like any artist worth its salt, they would have to show the world they had something new to offer, if they didn’t want to trip into never-ending retro tours, and nostalgia gigs.
Despite the boy genius Dammers’ non-involvement, the band have managed to come up trumps. Three years in the making, Encore was produced by Hall and Golding, along with the other remaining original member, bassist Horace Panter, and aided by long-time Specials keyboardist Nikolaj Torp Larsen, who also helped with the songwriting. It couldn’t have come at a more prescient time, as the Government endlessly bickers about Brexit, a No Deal situation scarily possible, and the country looking very fragile after nearly a decade of austerity. Nationalism is on the rise, and the country is dividing. In many respects we have been here before, but many of the waters we are currently encountering are uncharted. The Specials know this, and so Encore is more consistently political than their post-punk heyday.
From start to finish, the band have something strong to say, beginning with the totally apt cover of the similarly mixed race The Equals ‘Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys’, a track that made the top ten in 1970. It is a surprise to hear The Specials funk out as it were, staying true to the original sound, as well as its militant content, but which at the time was written in response to the Vietnam war.
Other covers on Encore include an update on Fun Boy Three’s ‘The Lunatics (Have Taken Over the Asylum)’, written with the Reagan administration in mind, Terry Hall now says, “That was written in the Reagan era, where you think that world politics can’t get any worse. But now it is worse… surreal worse.” The band take on the relatively obscure ‘Blam Blam Fever’, a musing on gun control, and originally recorded by Trojan ska band The Valentines back in 1967. Again, it’s still oh-so-relevant, especially with regards to America (where Golding now lives), but also rather worryingly, here in the UK.
Elsewhere, ‘Ten Commandments’ is a stunning and pure ska-dub response to Prince Buster’s ‘Ten Commandments of Man’ (1965), but from a woman’s point of view, and with a finale that incorporates Dawn Penn’s reggae classic ‘No No No’. It’s delivered through the talking voice of Saffiyah Khan, who also wrote the words. She had made the news, as the one squaring up to a member of the EDL, in 2017. At the time, she sported a Specials T-shirt. The band got in touch, whereupon she made her first ever trip to a recording studio, where she delivered a measured, if barely concealed, angry list of problems and woes: rape culture, misogyny, self-worth, and alt-right, “Pseudo-intellectuals on the internet”.
Equally powerful lyrically is ‘B.L.M’ (Black Lives Matter), written by Golding, and also funked up. It’s an abbreviated narrative on his heritage and racism, from the time his father arrived in the UK – at the invitation of the government – on the Windrush, to Golding’s own arrival, as a young teenager, in 1964, and beyond: “The signs keep saying the same thing / ‘No dogs, no Irish, no blacks’… Welcome to England”.
The Specials particularly sound like the band of old on ska-reggae rhythms of ‘Vote For Me’, Hall singing with barely concealed sarcasm: “If you vote for me do you promise / To be upright, decent and honest / To have our best interests at heart?” While ‘Breaking Point’ is all light hearted cabaret-oompah, set to Hall’s lyrics about the increasing intrusion of technology and social media on his life, and the poppy ska jauntiness of ‘Embarrassed By You’ gets straight to the point: “We never fought for freedom, from nasty little brutes like you / To undo the work we do, you bring shame on this country, for true.”
“Love is so much more powerful than hate. Hate is destruction and love is production,” Lynval Golding has recently said. The Specials have love in spades, but are never blinded by it, instead using its powerful force to undermine racism, hate, and negativity in general. The final track, ‘We Sell Hope’, may sound on the surface the work of a snakeoil salesman, but actually contains a simple, yet powerful message, about being good to each other. “Looked all around the world, it’d be a beautiful place to live in.” It’s definitely a better world to have The Specials back, saying something relevant once again, but with love at its heart.