Where To Start With... The Specials
For a brief period at the end of the 1970s, the most exciting developments on the UK's music scene were happening not in London, Liverpool or Manchester, but a tiny one-bedroom flat in Coventry.
That flat was 51 Albany Road, which was both the home of Jerry Dammers, keyboardist and founding member of The Specials, and the office of 2 Tone Records, the label they founded to release music by their own band and many others that were spearheading the ska and reggae revival spreading across the city and beyond.
To understand the rise of The Specials - and the wider Two Tone movement – it helps to know a little bit about the city from which they came. Coventry had been the epicentre of Britain's car manufacturing industry for most of the 20th century, and by the 1950s, the city had become the UK's 'motor city'. Much like Detroit in the USA during the Motown era - and like other industrial cities in the West Midlands - Coventry attracted its fair share of immigrant labour in the post-war years, with many of the 'Windrush generation' workers gravitating towards the area, bringing their musical traditions with them. For the likes of the young Dammers and others growing up in the city, their arrival meant exposure to the reggae, ska and rocksteady music that would later become the Specials' springboard to success.
By the 1970s, Britain's car manufacturing industry had begun its slide into terminal decline and Coventry's unemployment rate was among the highest in the country. Racial tensions in the area began to rise, spurred on by emerging fascist groups like the National Front, who were keen to pin the blame for their worsening job prospects on the newer arrivals. But for local young white kids like Jerry Dammers, vocalist Terry Hall and guitarist Roddy Byers, the new arrivals and the generation that sprang up in their wake had become neighbours and friends, united by a love of music and under no illusions about where the blame for their predicament truly lay.
Sensing that music could be a way to reconcile those tensions, in 1977, Dammers, along with Jamaican-born guitarist Lynval Golding and bassist Horace Panter, formed a band called the Coventry Automatics, who began performing ska and reggae songs across the city. Terry Hall, drummer John Bradbury, guitarist Roddy Byers and vocalist Neville Staple joined in the following months, the band eventually taking on the name The Specials and writing their own songs that fused the party vibe of ska and reggae with acerbic, politically-themed lyrics.
Amongst the diverse audience of skinheads, rude boys and punks the band attracted to their wild early live shows was one Joe Strummer, who liked what he saw and invited the Specials to open for The Clash on their upcoming tour. That earned the band enough money to cut their first record, 'Gangsters', and press 5,000 copies for a limited self-release. However, that didn't leave enough to record a B-side, so instead the band teamed up with another local ska band The Selecter, releasing a double A-side single that would become the first release on the newly incorporated 2 Tone Records.
After securing financial backing for their label from Chrysalis Records, the band released their eponymous, Elvis Costello-produced debut album, which yielded several chart hits. By the time of follow-up More Specials, major labels were snapping up ska bands all over the country. What had always set the Specials apart however was their biting social commentary, and in 1981 they captured the national mood perfectly with 'Ghost Town', an ode to a decaying country which earned the band their first UK No.1. Despite their success, relationships between band members had by then reached breaking point due to differing musical ideas and a hectic touring schedule, eventually leading Hall, Staple and Golding to split from the rest of the band, forming Fun Boy Three. The remaining members would release one more album in 1984, but that was pretty much it for both the Specials as we knew them and the 2 Tone label, which closed its doors two years later.
While there were one or two sporadic releases over the next couple of decades, they rarely featured anything like the original line-up. But then in 2008 three of the band's original members – Terry Hall, Lynval Golding and Horace Panter – reunited for a series of live shows, and have continued to perform under the Specials banner ever since. A live album was released in 2012, and in 2019 the band released their first album of new material since their original split, Encore, which also became their first ever No.1 album in the UK.
The plan had been to follow the album with another inspired by the music of Jamaica, but after th epandemic interfered with those plans they changed tack and instead have recorded a slection of cover versions, paying tribute to some of the finest protest songs written over the last century by the likes of Leonard Cohen, Frank Zappa, Talking Heads and many more.
Protest Songs 1924-2012 arrives in stores this Friday (October 1) and to celebrate its release we picked out five key tracks from the Specials' storied career so far...
Essentially a reworked version of Prince Buster's mostly instrumental song 'Al Capone', the story behind The Specials' debut single stems from an incident that occurred in a hotel while the band were on tour with The Clash. Another band from England staying in the same hotel had caused damage to one of the rooms, which the hotel manager blamed on the Specials, demanding they pay for the damage and even confiscating one of their guitars as collateral. When the hotel called the police, their manager Bernie Rhodes agreed to pay for the damage, much to the band's disgust.
At the beginning of the track, vocalist Neville Staple can be heard shouting “Bernie Rhodes knows don't argue!”, while the lyrics also reference the incident directly: “Can't interrupt while I'm talking / Or they'll confiscate all your guitars / And catch 22 says if I sing the truth / They won't make me an overnight star.”
'A Message To You, Rudy'
One of several cover versions the Specials released over their brief career, Dandy Livingstone's 1967 rocksteady hit was repurposed by the band in 1979 and became the first single released from the self-titled debut album, released as a double A-side along with their own composition 'Nite Klub' and reaching No. 10 in the UK Singles Chart. Originally written as a rejection of Jamaican gang violence, in the hands of the Specials, the song became an anthem and a cautionary tale for Britain's disaffected youth.
'Too Much Too Young'
Very loosely based on a song called 'Birth Control' by Lloyd Charmers, 'Too Much Too Young' was the lead track on an EP of the same name and became the Specials first chart-topping single in the UK. Broadly speaking, the song is a fairly brutal take on teenage pregnancy, but writer Jerry Dammers once explained that the lyrics were actually written in reference to a brief fling with a woman who was married with a young child, telling the BBC: “Behind all that rage, it's actually quite nice because we both walked away from it for the sake of the kid."
The Specials most well-known hit may have come at a time when the band itself was on the verge of implosion, but its timing in the wider context of the country's economic struggles could hardly have been more perfect. Written in response to what the band had witnessed all over the UK while touring, the song's imagery of closing down clubs and “fighting on the dancefloor” summed up the grim atmosphere across the country as the reality of Margaret Thatcher's vision for the country began to manifest itself in boarded-up shop windows and crumbling factories.
Originally recorded by Hall and Golding's breakaway group Fun Boy Three, 'Lunatics' is a reworked and updated version that appears on their most recent album Encore and and stands as one of the best examples of their idiosyncratic writing style, sounding every but as fresh as it did in 1982.
Protest Songs 1924-2012 is available in hmv stores now - you can also find it here in our online store.