The Specials - The Specials/More Specials
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
Next month, Jamaica celebrates the 40th anniversary of its independence from Great Britain. The freedom didn’t, unfortunately, end the nation’s poverty or political corruption but it did increase the national pride, best reflected over the years in one of the world’s richest musical traditions. The year after Jamaica’s independence, the foundation laid by mento bands, the sound systems, and Prince Buster resulted in the formation of the Skatalites and the Wailers, two of the island’s most influential and enduring acts. Around the same time, the formerly self-contained reggae industry began to be exported to London, as well. It’s surprising them that one of the world’s most powerful musical genres has been so poorly adopted by Western bands over the past 40 years. The influence of toasting on hip-hop and ragga vocals in UK garage notwithstanding, rock and reggae has often suffered through a messy relationship. Even more surprising then, is that the premier ska-rock band, the Specials, hailed not from New York City or South London, but Coventry, nestled in the British Midlands.The Specials’ debut album took sing-along ska and rocksteady and translates their passion, energy, and social and political activism to contemporary Britain rather than merely borrow Jamaican rage, a trick the Clash, despite their hopes for a “White Riot”, never managed.
Young England’s fascination with Jamaican music didn’t begin with the Specials. Along with the aforementioned Clash and their reggae-imspired tracks, Public Image Limited, This Heat, the Pop Group, and the Slits all favored either the dubby expanse or staccato rhythms of Jamaican music. (And the Police used a whitewashed version to launch their career.) Specials founder and songwriter/keyboardist Jerry Dammers himself had been a part of a struggling rocksteady-punk group before he—like the Ramones and other year zero groups—found inspiration in a back-to-basics sound: ska.
Dammers formed the Specials in Coventry, and eventually launched the 2-Tone label and a ska/mod revival. His well-dressed, multiracial clan were mod revivalists from the soles of their loafers to the top of their porkpie hats. Dammers’ label design—the black-and-white checkers and the casual cool of the similarly duochromatic “2-Tone Man” named Walt Jabsco—gave the music a potent enough image to create not merely a revival but a movement. Within a year, 2-Tone was releasing records by other contemporary ska groups such as the Beat, Madness, the Selector, and the Bodysnatchers. Inspired by a sunglasses-wearing Peter Tosh on the cover of a mid-1960s Wailers record sleeve, the look solidified the mod connection and served as a brilliant yet ironically accidental symbol of the band’s theme of racial integration.
Little else that the band did was stumbled upon. From Dammers’ designs and manifestos to Terry Hall’s insightful ability to marry progressive politics and well-channeled anger to up-tempo, jerky and staccato rhythms, the Specials rarely put a wrong foot forward in their short career. Crafting the musical equivalents of kitchen-sink realist films such as “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning,” the Specials embodied the dead-end desperation of small-town English life. They also articulated the need for affected youth to feel not just hope but tangible sensations, to feel life rather than simply drift through it. Like fellow revivalists Dexy’s Midnight Runners, the Specials hoped they’d be “far too young and clever” to stare in the mirror at smoke-dried faces and resign themselves to their fates.
Hall, Dammers, and co. weren’t naïve about the consequences of escapism, however, warning in tracks such as “Too Much Too Young” or “A Message to You, Rudi” about abandoning the passion and invincibility of youth and, erm, the need for contraception. Elsewhere, the Specials deftly shifted from private to public matters. “Doesn’t Make it Alright” destroys the belief that hate and racial suspicion is an acceptable weapon for the underclass, and “Concrete Jungle” paints a desperate portrait of the claustrophobia and hopelessness of tenement-block house life.
Like punk in 1976-77, the Specials’ 2-Tone label heralded the sort of immediate sensation that seems to only emerge in the UK. Wisely, like John Lydon had done a couple of years before, they recognized that the movement they virtually single-handedly ushered in was turning down a cul de sac of simple minds and watered-down sounds. So it came as a pleasant surprise when the band successfully turned its back on its ska roots on the second side of its second album.
More Specials does pick up where the debut left off with a rousing cover of Prince Buster’s “Enjoy Yourself.” Elsewhere on its first half are danceable jaunts, the sort of up-tempo music plus bleak worldview equation that became the trademark of UK indie heroes the Smiths. “Man at C&A;” is a Kubruckian look at Armageddon and “Hey, Little Rich Girl” points out what happens to poverty tourists who don’t asked to be bailed out when they see “roaches on the wall.”
On the second side, however, they take their risks. After the band’s success, Dammers became fascinated with incidental music, soundtracks, exotica, dub, and other mood music. The rest of the record incorporates these near-Muzak, spacious soundscapes and in the process the band goes from black humor and bitterness to just plain bleak. Particularly wonderful is the spaghetti western-flavored “Stereotypes,” which somberly skewers the classic lager lout. The Specials’ stereotype wraps himself around a lamp post on a Satruday night over the sort of dinner-party cocktail-jazz that has become the tippling background music of choice in the years since trip hop’s popularity and the exotica revival. It’s a far cry from the bounce of the rest of the band’s work, and the character’s fate seems to be the result of Hall’s warnings going unheeded. The rest of the second half of the album is as spacious and adventurous from the neo-lounge of “Holiday Fortnight” to the plinking keyboards of “International Jet Set.”
Also included in the More Specials package are the videos for “Rat Race,” the single that emerged between the two full-lengths and “Ghost Town.” The latter—a potent and eerie rumination about the disintegration of England’s inner cities—became the band’s swan-song, and reached No. 1 on the UK charts in the same week as police were tear-gassing rioters in London’s Brixton neighborhood and Manchester’s Moss Side, among others. The videos are a nice touch, but including the actual songs on the end of the LP would have been welcome. Sure, this record was created with a clear break and shift in theme—down to a reprise of “Enjoy Yourself”—but the stop and skip buttons exist for a reason. Buying the record and maintaining the feel of the original or listening to just the singles is no trick.
That’s a minor complaint, however. If these records are ever granted their U.S. releases, they’d become essential purchases. As it stands, the originals are still essential post-punk, pre-indie listening.
By: Scott Plagenhoef
Published on: 2003-09-01