Racism, unemployment, a gulf between classes, street riots, sooooo 1979, right? Well, that was the year The Specials released the imaginatively titled début album ‘The Specials’, and society has drastically changed so much since then, hasn’t it? Their album may not feel like a sign ‘o the times, in part due to jump up numbers such as Monkey Man, but is definitely a reflection of that era’s sense of change, and a finely balanced mixture of optimism and bleak pragmatism.
They’re touring again this year, which is why we’re thrilled at LOTI to be reminding you of the, at times, ramshackle majesty of a band that still sounds relevant, decades on. And yes, we do usually focus on the geetar side of music, but the infectious Ska rhythms, rock riffing, punk energy and stylings put The Specials close to the heart of many music fan with wide, varying taste. Just as they intended. Dust off your monochrome, iron the checkerboard, doff your pork pie hat and skank away.
Terry and Nev on vocals (Hall and Staples), Rico Rodriguez on trumpet, Horace Panter on bass and the rhythmic backbone of John Bradbury revisited 60’s Jamaican Ska (fact: Elvis Costello was on producer duties) and mashed it up with a bit of puck and rock to reflect the concrete inner-cities that were keeping the working classes penned in. A musical revolution was forming. Black and white were mixing, musical styles were merging.
Like The Beatles and Stones before them, the album featured a mix of covers and new songs, weighing more towards the cover side. Monkey Man, A Message to You, Rudy and You’re Wondering Now were covers, while Too Much Too Young and Stupid Marriage drew heavily on existing Ska hits. The opening harmonica of Message to You is optimistic and makes you feel a million miles away from late 1970’s Britain. “…better think of your future” could be cautionary, but sounds celebratory.
Do the Dog and It’s Up to You have a definite American feel, with the guitar pushed to the front, and R&B licks peppering the soundscape. Chrissie Hynde (fact2!) pops up on backing vocals for Nite Klub, giving it an almost gospel feel, albeit a little more woozy, thanks to the horn section. Monkey Man – an ode to bouncers that probably wouldn’t go down well if played in the Berghain queue is short, sweet and transplants their live energy onto record. Dreaming of a New Era ramps up the rpm and makes you wonder: which is best? Slow Specials or fast Special? (We’re undecided).
Hall’s voice is as thin as a catwalk model’s but has the right timbre and inflection to make it unique and personal. The musicianship is on-point, the social commentary may have mixed Jamaica with Britain, but it worked. What next? Ghost Town remains eerie and prescient (boarded up high streets?) and well, the world was better off with Fun Boy 3. Without The Specials, this LOTI writer would have missed an extra musical bond with his parents, or the inspiration to name his son after ‘A Message to you…”.
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