The Specials are one of Britain’s most iconic groups whose hits are still filling dance-floors to this day. This Spring the group’s albums have been given the reissue treatment, all three of their pioneering studio albums re-released, collected together with extensive bonus tracks including all the non-album singles, live concert versions, radio sessions and more; collected together with the blessing of the bands founder and main song-writer Jerry Dammers. Despite having been a big fan of the era, and having always been keen on those classic songs we’ve all heard like ‘Ghost Town’, ‘Too Much Too Young’, ‘Monkey Man’, ‘A Message To You Rudy’ and ‘Nelson Mandela’; I’d never listened through the albums themselves so I was keen to take this opportunity to immerse myself in their catalogue and learn more about the history of the band.
The Specials were formed in the 1970’s, originally known as The Coventry Automatics, the brainchild of keyboard player Jerry Dammers, who hand picked the group to realise his vision of a multi-cultural band who could fuse the two tones of punk and reggae to rock against racism and Thatcherite Britain. Terry Hall’s unique vocals often took centre stage paired with reggae MC vocals from Neville Staple. That same dual approach was taken with the choice of guitarists; Lynval Golding, playing the authentic reggae chops, and Roddy ‘Radiation’ Byers on lead-guitar, adding some punk and classic rock’n’roll to the mix. John Bradbury on drums and Horace Panter on bass were both sensational players whose skills gave The Specials a far more solid groove than many other popular bands at the time.
Their first album ‘Specials’ was produced by Elvis Costello and recorded quickly in the studio to preserve the live energy of the exceptional original seven piece. They even invited a crowd into the live room at times to create a genuine party atmosphere. Appropriately this is most apparent on ‘Nite Klub’ which also features Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders on backing vocals. The record was a huge success spending 45 weeks in the Top 10 of the UK album chart. For this reissue their first single ‘Gangsters’ has been added to the front of the debut album. It’s a perfect example of The Specials sound, written on Joe Strummer’s guitar while The Coventry Automatics were on tour with The Clash. It even references The Clash’s infamous manager Bernie Rhodes, who was involved in the early stages of The Specials career. The album is concise and consistent, full of familiar tracks and that perfectly realised fusion of punk spirit, social consciousness, reggae and ska revivalism. The album features quite a few cover songs, but many of us will be most familiar with The Specials versions found here, especially singles like ‘A Message To You Rudy’ and ‘Monkey Man’. Costello’s production throughout is unfussy, pushing the bass and drums to the fore, emphasising the infectious grooves.
‘Do The Dog’ is a great track early in the album with a sound Blur were really aspiring to recreate at times in their early days, particularly Terry Hall’s high-pitched high-octane vocals, but it’s Neville Staple’s up-front toasting that really makes the track as he exclaims “do the dog, not the donkey” in his thick Jamaican accent, full of attitude. ‘Dawning of a New Era’ is another classic, instantly recognisable, with Hall sounding a little like Howard Devoto from The Buzzcocks at times. ‘Blank Expression’ has a really interesting chord sequence for the verses but it is dressed in artfully authentic ska and reggae chops for the chorus – it’s one of those moments were we get an early look at the playfulness and experimentalism that Dammers would take a lot further later in the bands career. ‘Stupid Marriage’ casts MC Neville Staple as Judge Roughneck; it’s very narrative with a soundtrack-like backing and vocals delivered almost as skits with Terry Hall’s camp, deadpan, rap-like delivery; “naked woman, naked man, where did you get that nice sun tan?”. ‘Too Much Too Young’ is slower than the well known single version, which changes the atmosphere dramatically. It’s not as exciting but you can hear all those lyrics, sharp as daggers, and the production is as clean and clever as it gets on the album. The song is also extended up to six minutes in length, it continues with a dub after a false stop around the two minute mark, featuring some excellent vocal delivery from Terry Hall. According to Dammers he was able to sing quietly for the first time in these studio sessions, giving them the opportunity to explore his emotional range. The album draws to a close with ‘Little Bitch’ which steals the intro to The Rolling Stones ‘Brown Sugar’ before coming in with a double-time disco bass-line and ska chops. It’s one of the more punky moments on the album but it’s still full of rootsy bounciness. The album closes with a mellow cover of ‘You’re Wondering Now’ by ska and reggae pioneer Clement ‘Sir Coxone’ Dodd.
The bonus CD starts with the bands live EP, ‘Too Much Too Young – The Special A.K.A Live!’, released in 1980 as the third single from ‘Specials’. It became the first live song to top the UK singles chart since 1972 and still remains one of only a handful of live songs to ever top the charts. After the EP there’s a live concert recorded by the BBC at The Paris Theatre in December 1979, an appropriate addition for a band who excelled so much in their live shows. They are known to have poured a phenomenal amount of energy into their performances and you can hear it here. It’s interesting how different the band sound with the guitars pushed to the fore as they are in the BBC mix. For me the strongest of these live tracks is the non-album single ‘Rat Race’, which has all the excitement you might expect from a brilliant new song being road tested.
It’s a lovely snapshot of the band in their prime and seems poignant when reading the liner-notes to the second album, ‘More Specials’. The group’s undoing was begun in the live arena when the band were taken to try and break America for six weeks following the success of their début album. It indeed seems like a case of ‘too much too young’ sewing the seeds of discontent as the live show shifted from what had always been an exuberant celebration of their music to more of a demanding chore. It’s amazing then, considering the internal tensions in the group, that ‘More Specials’ is another triumphant album, consistently realising it’s ambitious ideas. Jerry Dammers took over production duties for this second outing and delivered a more polished studio sound. It’s noticeable from the start how much more confident Terry Hall sounds, the keyboards are cleaner and more up front, the guitars are brighter and more bubbly and there are a lot more horns and atmospherics on this record.
The album opens with a cover of ‘Enjoy Yourself’ by Carl Sigman but played in the ska style of the Prince Buster version from 1963. It’s a familiar opening which is soon followed by the atmospheric Halloween-dub of ‘Man At C&A’ with it’s Tanoi shouted warnings of a nuclear attack from Neville Staple. It’s a brilliant sounding track and clearly a precursor to ‘Ghost Town’, the bands most popular single. This track is a co-write between Hall and Dammers and also prominently features Rico Rodriguez – a Jamaican ska and reggae trombone legend, whose contributions throughout this period add plenty of atmosphere and authenticity to this second phase of The Specials output. For this record Dammers clearly wanted to expand the bands palette, taking in different styles they hadn’t attempted before and encouraging the rest of the group to contribute their own original songs. ‘Do Nothing’ is a fantastic reggae number by rhythm guitarist Lynval Golding and Rod Byers brought the aforementioned non-album single ‘Rat Race’, the doo-wap rock’n’roll referencing ‘Little Rich Girl’ and the mariachi sounding instrumental ‘Holiday/Fortnight’.
Dammers song contributions showcase his diversity and eccentricity as a writer, bringing in jazzy exotica and muzak home-keyboards to create a new atmosphere. The kitchen-sink drama of ‘Pearl’s Cafe’ and the Morricone referencing ‘Stereotype’, with it’s demo-button bossa-nova drum beat, are quite a departure from the classic Specials sound but it’s all held together by Hall’s distinct narrative vocal delivery and Dammers witty gritty lyrics. The duet ‘I Can’t Stand It’ doesn’t quite hit the mark for me, I feel like Rhoda Dakar’s voice isn’t put to best use where she can’t quite reach the notes. An understated Hall and over-stretched Dakar do create a strange atmosphere, which contrasts with the jazz-fusion playing on the track, it makes for quite uneasy listening! ‘International Jet Set’ continues fusing strange elements together but this unique piece has more of an effect on me with it’s dub-wise horns and mystery keyboard melodies. However it does overdo it on the jazz wanderings and has some weak moments vocally from Hall. It has a great groove and some brilliant sections, including the extended fadeout as the sound of a rumbling aeroplane fades in accompanied by horrified screams performed by the band. The album ends with a muzak reprise of ‘Enjoy Yourself’ with voices drained of emotion. It feels like Dammers is making a musical statement about the bands transformation from spirited young ska athletes into depressed, entertainment monkeys as the album gets more and more estranged from the blueprint of the bands early sound as it progresses. This could just be an example of art imitating life – or Dammers inner thoughts being captured on tape as the band recorded under pressure from outside and within. His experimental ideas were clearly not popular with the whole group and, by all accounts, this record was a bit of a struggle but it worked and is a really strong collection of songs even if there’s the odd questionable moment.
The bonus disc gathers together singles, live radio sessions and b-sides from this period, starting with the single version of ‘Rat Race’ which is a bit of a forgotten gem. There’s also the single version of ‘International Jet Set’, which eschews the plane crash outro, and a reworked version of ‘Do Nothing’ featuring keyboard strings and some excellent trombone from frequent collaborator Rico Rodriguez, although I feel like the album version might just have it! Amongst other notable tracks on this bonus CD is the live version of ‘Stereotypes’ which sounds radically different with a live drum kit playing a disco shuffle on the hi-hat. Terry Hall’s only solo song-writing credit also appears in the slightly depressing drinkers tale that is ‘Friday Night, Saturday Morning’. It seems strange that the excellent ‘Ghost Town’ is slipped in towards the end of this bonus disc, rather than given more prominence. I can tell by the way ‘Gangsters’ is added to the front of ‘Specials’ that they’ve attempted to keep things in a chronological order when compiling these reissues, but the unfortunate effect is to make ‘Ghost Town’ appear as an after-thought, a curiosity, rather than one of their most famous and popular singles. This full length extended version is a real treat though, a lyrically simple but potent critique of Thatcherite Britain with a dub outro that treats us to some fabulous trombone from Rico.
It was shortly after the studio sessions that yielded ‘Ghost Town’, ‘Friday Night, Saturday Morning’ and ‘Why?’ that Hall, Golding and Staple quit the group to form Fun Boy 3 while Roddy Byers left to tour with his own band The Tearjerkers. Although this second album had been a creative high-point it was all done under great pressure and with plenty of inner tensions. The already exhausted band were been sent out on tour straight after completing the second record and there were plenty of disagreements with Dammers musical vision. I’d argue that these inner debates led to musical output that was greater than the sum of its parts and bolder than any one person’s vision, but you can understand why that might be difficult to sustain over a longer period. For a band that had come together on the stage so harmoniously you could tell things were coming to a close when things stopped being fun and started being hard work out on the road.
With a massively reconfigured line-up Dammers now re-tooled as the Special A.K.A., the moniker that had been used on The Specials first single and their chart-topping live EP. The original band was reduced to three members and, thankfully, the continued collaboration with Rico Rodriguez’ trombone. It didn’t take long for the original bass-player Horace Panter to grow disillusioned with the studio sessions which were dragging on without completed songs, so he also left the band. Dammers himself has said that everything was upside down during these sessions. On the previous albums the band tried songs out live on the road and finished the arrangements before bringing them to the recording studio. Here the studio time was booked and paid for first and everything had to be built up from scratch from a few half-baked ideas and Dammers had to form a band to perform the songs live once the studio sessions were eventually complete. The result does not sound like a Specials album, although there are boatloads of great ideas they don’t quite gel together. For me it’s most obvious in the vocals – there’s nothing wrong with Stan Campbell and Rhoda Dakar as lead vocalists but here they lack the attitude and verve of Terry Hall and Neville Staple or even Roddy Byers and Lynval Golding. As singers they tend to serve the song rather than taking it as a vehicle for their own expression – Dammers excellent lyrics get a bit lost as the emphasis gets placed on the dense musical arrangements which take experiments in style-fusion to new levels with plenty of acid jazz to alienate the casual listener.
Highlights include Jerry Dammers surprisingly androgynous lead vocal on ‘What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend’ and the dub reggae sounds of ‘Racist Friend’. There’s an over-riding sense of claustrophobia and tension on the record that only really lets up on ‘Nelson Mandela’ which sticks out like a sore thumb with it’s unashamedly joyful afro-beat. It’s the one place where Stan Campbell’s soulful lead vocal really sounds like it’s taking charge and it was a huge commercial success and, probably more importantly for Dammers, a powerful political statement which spread awareness about the ANC leaders plight. It’s ironic the most joyful song on the album is about a man in prison half a world away, while the album is seeped in tales about the less obvious prisons of modern life. ‘House Bound’, ‘Lonely Crowd’, ‘Bright Lights’ and ‘Alcohol’ all have this lyrical claustrophobia and create a constrained atmosphere. Ska has been almost completely sidelined on the record for jazz and it’s underrated how much Lynval Golding’s telecaster chops and Horace Panter’s dubby bass playing are missed from the mix. Dammers has attempted to go for a more international sound on the album, with ‘Nelson Mandela’ referencing Africa and ‘War Crimes’ the Middle East, but it’s all a little over-cooked.
The bonus CD, as you might expect, is the weakest of the whole reissue collection, filled out with instrumental mixes. Having said that ‘The Boiler’ – a Rhoda Dakar single which was originally penned with her band mates from The Bodysnatchers but released as a single with backing from the new Special A.K.A. line-up. It’s urban story of rape is probably one of the most challenging singles to reach the UK Top 40, with it’s party mix of funk and exotica combined with Daka’s dark deadpan narrative, make quite a statement. There’s also ‘Jungle Music’ a Special A.K.A. single featuring a rare lead vocal from Rico. It’s full of joyful, playful sounds and might have made a nice counterbalance to the downbeat vibe of In The Studio if it had been included on the LP.
All in all The Specials produced a wealth of fantastic era-defining music and this collection of releases is a worthy investment for any fan who wants to know more about the band. Despite being brought together by the vision of musical mastermind Jerry Dammers the group clearly created one of those magical musical moments in history where their output was far greater than the sum of its parts. I do feel though, having absorbed all of this excellent music and the story behind it over the last couple of weeks, that it’s a real shame Dammers hasn’t been included in the reunited Specials, who are touring with the entire original line-up except for their founder and visionary. Clearly those old problems of working together are still not resolved so many years later and it’s a shame. The new Specials were reformed after Terry Hall’s attempted suicide and diagnosis as a bi-polar sufferer led him to seek out his old band mates to try and recapture those glory days and rebuild those important friendships. Dammers was involved in early rehearsals but has been critical of the groups conservative approach to reviving the old music as if they are carting round a museum piece – he said nostalgia used to be considered a mental illness! Jerry would have liked to have had the original band back in the studio working on new material, updating the old Specials sound with more modern influences. When they started their 60’s ska-revival in the late 70’s and early 80’s they weren’t pursuing something purely authentic, they wanted it to be relevant and fresh. I would imagine taking the band back into the studio might be hard work, there would probably be a lot of arguments about direction and people might even fall out all over again but wouldn’t it be worth it? If they could create another record that’s as full and exciting as More Specials, hell, I’d even settle for another ‘Ghost Town’ but let’s be honest – the rest of them aren’t going to manage it without Dammers! Still at least we still have the music and what great music it was. The Specials reissues are available every where at a pretty reasonable price – go get them!