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Top five tunes: The Specials

(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)
Encore (2019)
Protest Songs 1924-2012 (2021)


For other top five lists in this series, click here.

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Tunes

Best tunes of 1993: #19 The Mighty Mighty Bosstones “Someday I suppose”

<< #20    |    #18 >>

I’ve already written on these pages about how I got a job at my small town’s 7-Eleven in the spring of 1993 and how working there was part of the reason why that summer was one of the best of my life. I worked as many shifts as I could that summer and many of them would be of the overnight kind and I often found myself work with either Tori, Heather, or Michelle, the other new employees at store. I always had a blast on these shifts because these three young women were close to me in age and like me, they loved to have a laugh.

It was on one of these midnight shifts that I first heard this song on CFNY, the radio station to which we always had it tuned. It was this swirling, rocking number that mixed horns with racing guitars and a bopping, staccato rhythm and the vocalist rapped and spoke and shouted in a deep and dark voice. It always got my head bouncing and my feet tapping as I counted the bags of chips and packs of gum during our evening inventory counts. The problem was that I always seemed to be away from the radio, serving a customer or in the back, stocking the milk shelves, when the radio announcer came on to supply us with the name of the song and who it was that sung it. It got to the point where it became an ongoing joke: we would dance frantically around the empty store when the song came on and then laugh hysterically when we realized that we once again missed the 5 Ws. It was like the musical version of the Polkaroo*.

Finally, during one night shift right at the end of summer, I came out from the back after changing the syrup for one of the slurpee machines and Michelle excitedly put a slip of paper in my hands with the biggest smile on her face. She had scrawled on the paper in big looping script the words “Someday I suppose. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones.” I knew exactly what the words meant immediately and if I wasn’t so shy and awkward at the time, I would’ve given her a big hug.

Starting pretty much the very next day, the search was on. I went to our town’s only music store and didn’t find anything by the band. A few days later, I joined my parents on a shopping trip to the Oshawa Centre and hit the chain music stores (HMV, Sunrise, and Sam the Record Man) and likewise came up empty. Finally, I planned a solo trip back in to Oshawa to hit some of the independent stores downtown, specifically, the renowned Star Records**, and there found a copy of the Bosstones’ third album, “Don’t know how to party”, on CD. This album, along with Spirit of the West’s “Faithlift”, might have been the two CDs I listened to the most that fall, both for very different moods and reasons.

“Don’t know how to party” is really a misnomer because it really does party and it parties hard, especially track four of twelve. The song that introduced me to the band on all those midnight shifts is still my favourite by the Boston-based octet. “Someday I suppose” riffs hard on the ska punk theme, a pogo with a chainsaw, a plaid suit jacket with the arms ripped off and the tie tied around the head, Rambo-style. It’s an explosion of good vibes, of not giving a shit, of living in the moment and putting off the heavy lifting and the heavy thoughts for later.

“There was a verse
That I was gonna write
I haven’t yet
But there’s still a chance I might
An open book
That I still wanna close
I’ll find the time
Someday I suppose”

The horns, the bassline, Dicky Barrett roaring, and the image of Ben Carr hopping around like a man possessed. It all just makes me smile.

*Those who know, know.

**I’ve already written words about this trip and this particular store when I posted about Primus’s “My name is mud” for this very same list and series.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1993 list, click here.

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Tunes

100 best covers: #75 Madness “Lola”

<< #76    |    #74 >>

Madness were at the forefront of the so-called second wave ska/2-tone movement during the late 70s and early 80s. They quite possibly had the most hits of the lot and made the best go of it through the 80s, surviving until 1986 when they finally called it quits. The original lineup re-formed six years later but mainly as a live outfit, not recording any new material until 1999.

Then, in the early part of the 2000s, after more than two decades in existence, the group decided to refresh things a bit by doing shows that didn’t include any of their hits. Instead, they performed under the name The Dangermen, doing sets of only covers, songs that had inspired them, some of which they would do in their earliest days before any of their hits. In 2005, they put their favourite of these covers to tape, calling the ensuing album “The Dangermen sessions, volume 1”. The album was actually very good and has become one of my favourite by Madness. It captures the same energy and humour that exuded from a lot of their early work and produced many tracks that could have easily appeared on this very list.

The cover of The Kinks’ classic “Lola” is one of the examples on the album of songs that you almost can’t believe weren’t originally conceived as ska songs. It just works so seamlessly. Of course, the original does have that boppy and almost rocksteady rhythm, starting off so innocent like a young man, vocals wide-eyed, his first time in the city, but quickly becoming wild and swanky, a real party tune. Ray Davies’ humorous tale of a young man going home with a transvestite, albeit shocking and fodder for radio bans in some circles in the early 70s, fits almost right in with the subject matter of early songs by the jokesters of Madness.

Where the original alternates between plucking guitars and heavy handed drumming, Madness throws its whole arsenal at it. Horns and keyboards and backbone rumbling bass. Suggs keeps his own vocals even, not pushing the envelope, save for the final verse, where he switches to spoken word for the big reveal, making plain the section of the song that might have been faded out by radio stations on the original.

All in all, it’s a cover I’d be hard-pressed to say is better than the original but one that is great nonetheless.

The cover:

The original:

For the rest of the 100 best covers list, click here.