(We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming today with a special guest post from our good friend Andrew Rodriguez, who was perhaps inspired to write some words by the recent news of Terry Hall’s death. We will return to our end of the year Best Albums countdown on the morrow. Enjoy.)
I met Todd Burnham in 1986. He was an “Old Boy” from the Boarding School I attended for a few years. In fact he was partially responsible for me being sent there in the first place, our fathers were friends, and Mr B had told my father about how ‘impressed’ he was with the school. What impressed me about Burnham most however, was his style. He was a Rude Boy. And he dressed like nothing I had ever seen. 2 Tone Dr Marten brogues, rolled up jeans, Fred Perry, Stingy Brim and a jacket covered in patches. “What is Ska?” I asked. “It’s early reggae – it’s faster tempo”. I cooly memorised all the names of the bands displayed on his jacket and made a note to seek out what albums I could, when I got to go home. The largest of the patches had a checkerboard theme and said simply ‘THE SPECIALS’.
About a year later I bought my first Specials album, with my allowance. It was called More Specials – their second album, though I didn’t know that at the time. From the first needle drop, I was very much hooked. A danceable mixture of styles and themes, characterised by a sort of (my term) pragmatic moodiness.
They formed around 1977 in Coventry England, from a band called the Coventry Automatics. They were key figures in the “2 Tone movement”, also called “second wave ska”, which was based around the 2 Tone record label (created by Jerry Dammers – their Organist). There were several other notable bands on that label but I won’t discuss them here. If you choose to look further into the Specials (you should), do not be confused by the names. Early on they went by the name “Special AKA”, and variations thereof. That name was also used by the second incarnation of the band, so it can get a bit confusing! With various lineup changes they’ve been an active touring and recording band since reforming after their first real breakup in 1984.
For the purposes of this short entry (no-one is allowed to go over word limits here – we are professionals goddammit!) I’ll skip the details of the band, that is what Wikipedia is for (be sure to donate too they are begging for money). I’m also going to stick to their (best) earliest era, lineup, and albums.
OK! They were just such a striking band. Their dress style was heavily influenced by the early 60s mod scene. Their first album was produced by Elvis Costello, and had a punk feel to it, something you really get in their live recordings. By the second album they slowed the tempo down a bit and the sound was fuller and more produced. More Specials also included outside personnel, including the Sax player from Madness and the singer from the Bodysnatchers – both labelmates on 2 Tone. Their lyrics were substantial, addressing daily life, with some political and social commentary elements thrown in for good measure. They looked cool and sounded even cooler. In keeping with the restrictions placed on me spirit of this blog, I’m now going to introduce you to 5 of my favourite Specials tunes. I hope you enjoy this as much as I do!
“Concrete jungle” (from The Specials, 1979)
Remember I mentioned the punkiness of some of their early stuff? First up is a live version of Concrete Jungle, from their self-titled debut LP. It’s not a cover of the Bob Marley song. The grainy footage is taken from a film called Dance Craze which was a sort of promo for 2 Tone, it and the associated live album are quite good, and feature most of the bands on the label. Both are on Youtube.
“It’s up to you” (from The Specials, 1979)
Now, this is direct from the first album – The Specials. I picked this because it showcases a bit more of their ska/reggae influences. The entire album is worth a spin, it’s hard to select just a few.
“Rat race” (from More Specials, 1980)
Next up we have Coventry’s finest looking very Scholarly, in the video for a tune from their second album (and the one I bought first) More Specials. Rat Race (again not a Bob Marley cover!). Note the slightly moodier tone. Note also, singer Terry Hall and the band don’t look nearly as dated as the 1980 kids in the ‘classroom’ – some looks just don’t go out of style.
“I can’t stand it” (from More Specials, 1980)
Hey – I coined the term “pragmatic moodiness” – so I certainly as EFF can determine this song to be the epitome of it! From More Specials, and a personal favourite, I Can’t Stand It. verbally jousting with Terry Hall is Rhoda Dakar – the singer from the Bodysnatchers.
“Ghost town” (from Ghost town, 1981)
NOW. The final selection, this is from the Ghost Town Ep. It was a single and it went to number 1 in 1981. Shortly thereafter Terry, Neville, and Lynval left the group to form Fun Boy Three. Ghost Town was a 3 song Ep and it is phenomenal. It is more reggae than ska. Since I really can’t make my mind up – you really should check out all three songs, each is very different. Friday Night and Saturday Morning is probably my favourite Specials song of all. But I won’t play it here because I’ve already done a moody song. Why? is also fantastic. But I will take the lazy route and just select the single itself. I drove around town a lot listening to this during the lockdown(s). You might see why it was stuck in my head.
Well that’s a wrap. Thank you for reading. Sadly, the day that I wrote this, I learned (from John) that Terry Hall died. The details are sparse, which generally leads some to speculation. There is no speculation to be found in these pages; merely respect, and appreciation for a fantastic singer and entertainer. Thank you Mr. Hall. You will be missed. On a more positive note I would like to wish the readership a Merry Christmas, and Happy music listening New Year!
A few more stats on The Specials
Years active: 1977–1981, 1982-1984, 1993, 1996–2001, 2008–present
Original band members:
Terry Hall – lead vocals (1977–81, 2008–22)
Lynval Golding – rhythm and lead guitar, vocals (1977–81, 1993, 1994–1998, 2008–present)
Horace Panter – bass guitar (1977–81, 1982, 1993, 1994–1998, 2000-2001, 2008–present)
Jerry Dammers – keyboards, principal songwriter, vocals (1977–81)
Roddy Radiation – lead guitar, vocals (1978–81, 1993, 1996–2001, 2008–14)
Neville Staple – toasting, vocals, percussion (1978–81, 1993, 1996–2001, 2008–12)
John Bradbury – drums (1979–84, 2008–15)
Dick Cuthell – flugelhorn, trumpet (1979–84)
Rico Rodriguez – trombone (1979–81, 1982)
Discography (studio LPs only):
The Specials (1979)
More Specials (1980)
Today’s Specials (1996)
Guilty ’til Proved Innocent! (1998)
Skinhead Girl (2000)
Conquering Ruler (2001)
Protest Songs 1924-2012 (2021)
For other top five lists in this series, click here.