The Specials, The Specials, 1979, 2 Tone Records
A Message to You Rudy
Do The Dog
It’s Up to You
Doesn’t Make it Alright
(Dawning of a) New Era
Too Much Too Young
You’re Wondering Now
Happy Valentines Day! Since the closest I get to love is tolerance and respect, I thought I’d cover a band who are all about those things, and since this band’s brand new album is sitting at the top of the UK chart as I write this, there’s no better time to talk about where it all began for The Specials.
The Specials, who you might also know as The Special AKA were formed in 1977 in Coventry in the west midlands. Their style is ska with punk leanings, a Jamaican rocksteady flavour and a social and political message, it eventually became known as Two Tone after the name of their record label. They were very much part of a movement focused outside London amid the high unemployment and violence that plagued Britain’s declining industrial cities at the tail end of the 1970s. They always had a strong anti-racism and anti-violence message. They came to national prominence when they supported The Clash on their 1978 UK tour. Their eponymous debut album is considered the defining record of the UK ska scene.
1979 was the year Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister off the back of the “Winter of Discontent” where high inflation, high unemployment and industrial and public service strikes contributed to a general malaise and belief that the incumbent Labour government was incapable of running the country. The enduring image of this era are those photos of piles of uncollected rubbish in the streets, but it was the inability to find work, or to live off the money you earned if you were able to get a job that caused so much resentment across the country, especially in the north and the midlands. Northern Ireland was still in the grip of “The Troubles”, the IRA’s mainland bombing campaign continued and their was significant racial tension in many cities where work was hard to find. Amidst all this doom and gloom, let’s see what The Specials had to offer:
"A Message to You Rudy" is such a classic tune, I’m already dancing to the harmonica intro before the vocal even starts. It’s so upbeat. "Do The Dog" starts with a very cool echoy drum effect, despite an element of despair in the lyrics (“Keep on fighting ‘til you’re dead”) it’s another fun track with a bit more of a punk sensibility. There is some lovely saxophone on "Nite Klub" and the backing vocals (hello, Chrissie Hynde) make it sound a bit like an old school r and b track, there is also a touch of 1950s style rock and roll guitar here. "Doesn’t Make it Alright" is melancholy and delicate. "Concrete Jungle" starts with a football chant and then becomes a rocker about the perils of life as a young man in the city and judging by the UKs current knife crime statistics, it has lost none of its relevance. It’s a great song with lovely guitar work. Too Hot is definitely more of a reggae tune it’s a cover of a Jamaican track. "Monkey Man" is another fun, reggae infused track. "(Dawning of a) New Era" is exactly what you expect a ska song to be, it has all the ska elements and they are put together perfectly, I’m dancing again (OK, I haven’t really stopped). "Stupid Marriage" starts with a comedy monologue. It’s a courtroom drama in a song. Classic "Too Much Too Young", a warning against teenage pregnancy sounds just as fresh today as it has always done, and of course the message remains relevant to Britain in 2019. "Little Bitch" starts like a rock track and then becomes a ska explosion, it’s a highlight for me, with more great guitars and I actually thought I could hear The Strokes for a second here. Closer "You’re Wondering Now" is a gentler reggae track and ends the album on a slightly sadder note.
If you are a fan of ska, you’ll love this album. The mix of 7 covers and 7 original songs seems to have been created by a group of young guys just having a laugh and enjoying each other’s company and it really doesn’t feel dated at all. The relaxed sound of traditional Jamaican ska paired with a little bit of punk anger and a social message is perfectly pitched.
At a time of tense race relations in the UK, The Specials showed that a band with members of different races and backgrounds mixing up their musical heritage could be successful. Perhaps this was a microcosmic template for making Britain a bit better and a bit nicer. Being able to show your frustrations at society’s problems in a way that was less off-putting to the mainstream than the shouty focus of punk was also an important step. The success of their latest release shows that The Specials remain just as relevant today as they did 40 years ago, but that should be no surprise since we're all still angry at the government and each other.