When The Specials first came to notice, they were a revelation, and for so many, a phenomenon they were unlikely to ever experience again. Coming off the back of punk, and very integral to that profound movement, the Coventry band were of mixed race, a rare beast in the 70s, and a band seemingly everywhere for a few short and heady years. Initially known as the Coventry Automators, the band came together in time honoured fashion. Jerry Dammers was looking for some help with a music project whilst at Lanchester Polytechnic. Horace Panter was at hand, and in those heady days where, hand-in-hand, the spirit of punk and a DIY ethic was alive and quickly evolving, a band were born, eventually coalescing around the classic line up of Dammers, Panter, Terry Hall, Neville Staple, Lynval Golding, Roddy Radiation, John Bradbury, and horn players Dick Cuthell and Rico Rodriguez.
The band leader Dammers was not only responsible for much of the music, he decided to set up a label, 2-tone – with the backing of Chysalis – which became the vehicle for this new hybrid of music, that fused ska with rocksteady and punk, within a social-political stance. With its simple black and white imagery – reflecting the mixed race of The Specials, as well as other bands who were signed to it such as The Selector, The Beat, as well as Madness.
With this line-up, and in the space of just two years, they created seven consecutive top ten hits, including songs that remain stone cold classics to this day; ‘Gangsters’, ‘A Message to You Rudy’, ‘Too Much Too Young’, and ‘Ghost Town’. In particular, this final track is one of the truly great, and important, pop songs of all-time, released at a time when pop music played a far more important role in people’s lives, especially for young people. It immeasurably helped to foster a sense of identity and subculture. It came around at the same time when unemployment, inner city and industrial decline, and rioting was taking hold in the early years of the Thatcher Government. ‘Ghost Town’ became an instant musical editorial, following on from the Bristol and Brixton riots of 1980, with 35 more riots in the summer of 1981. Dammers has said about the seeds for the song, “You travelled from town to town, and what was happening was terrible. In Liverpool, all the shops were shuttered up, everything was closing down… We could actually see it by touring around. You could see that frustration and anger in the audience. In Glasgow, there were these little old ladies on the streets selling all their household goods, their cups and saucers. It was unbelievable. It was clear that something was very, very wrong. The overall sense I wanted to convey was impending doom. There were weird, diminished chords: certain members of the band resented the song and wanted the simple chords they were used to playing on the first album. It’s hard to explain how powerful it sounded.”
With the band falling to bits, the touring fraught, violence a regular feature of gigs, and the band infighting, essentially revolving around Dammers versus the rest, particularly Terry Hall, The Specials imploded when Hall, Golding and Staple decided to leave just when ‘Ghost Town’ was being played everywhere, eventually forming the successful Fun Boy Three. Dammers continued the band, as The Special AKA, releasing a new album in 1984, before washing his hands of the project for ever more in ’86. Subsequently, various versions of The Specials have sprung up, reunions taken place, and the occasional album released, but always featuring exclusively covers.
When Hall rejoined a reunited band in 2009, The Specials took off again, riding a wave of nostalgia, with the sound of financial systems creaking around the globe, re-awakening old fans, and winning new admirers. The problem was, however, new songs. In their initial heyday, their songs came from a combination of the genius of Dammers, as well as adapting ska and reggae classics. It’s been nearly 40 years since anything original has been released but, finally, a new album is about to see the light of day.
Encore, perhaps unexpectedly for some, delivers on a long-held promise. Centred around original members Terry Hall, Horace Panter, and Lynval Golding, The Specials are firing on all cylinders, their creative sparks rejuvenated, and once again they seem utterly relevant in these post-crash, rising nationalism, and Brexit eras.
There are some surprises along the way; ‘Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys’ is pure vintage funk, and with a strong message for 2019. “People wont be black and white, the world will be half breed,” they sing. ‘B.L.M.’ is a no holds barred spoken word track, also married to classic funk, concerning the story of West Indies immigrants, and Lynval Golding in particular, who was born in Jamaica, and who came over as part of the British Government supported Windrush generation, and the subsequent difficulties of integrating into a hostile environment. There’s also the blatantly political ‘Vote For Me’, more of the classic Specials keyboard and organ, with those ska and rocksteady beats and rhythms at its heart. All through the album there are songs about freedom, living in harmony, and calling out those who wish to do harm, to foster animosity.
The seeds for the album had already been planted by original drummer John Bradbury, who sadly passed away in in 2015. However, early last year the remaining original members, Golding, Panter and Hall, were joined in a London studio with the familiar touring band that have joined them on-stage for the last few years; including Nikolaj Torp Larsen on keyboards, who also helped with much of the songwiting, Ocean Colour Scene and Paul Weller guitarist Steve Craddock, and Kenrick Rowe, the multi-experienced ska/reggae drummer. The resulting album, whilst cheekily incorporating Fun Boy Three’s ‘The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum’, and a re-done sample of The Doors’ ‘Riders on the Storm’, is moody and dark, but underpinned by those slow poppy ska and reggae rhythms, as well as pop, funk, soul, and carnival-esque rhythms.
The Specials were always a band of anti-racists. The problem of racism was still huge back in the late 70s, but the reggae-embracing punk movement, and bands such as The Specials did incalculable amounts for the better. Back then, music really did move mountains. While it is now fragmented, and much more diverse than it’s ever been, The Specials are indeed special, a band for all times.