How special are The Specials? Ska? I mean it’s a bit of a joke right? Wrong!
The Two Tone Ska of the 1970’s came in peace at a time when all around it were at war with one another. When I say they came in peace, I don’t mean in a hippy dippy ‘looooove Man’ way. More in a ‘We have more in common than what sets us apart’ kind of vibe. The Specials were a mix of street kids defined by their economic back ground, by their distaste for being lied to and united by their fury at the upper tier for taking and taking and taking giving nothing back.
While the only thing that trickled down to the streets of Coventry, Ipswich, Northampton and Glasgow etc looked like piss, smelled like piss, stained like piss the folk at street level were being told it was raining.
The fact that The Specials were a mix of black kids and white kids was ‘special’ but not for the simple short hand reasons one paragraph history lessons like this one would truncate things to. The Specials were the sound of the streets, the north and the south of The UK were united by Rudeboy’s and great dance music. This band could really play. Not the three chords and the truth of punk. This was dance-able. This was moody, complex and like all great moments in pop, it was over too soon.
“There are no rocks at Rockaway beach and all that glitters isn’t gold”
By the mid-eighties Two Tone Ska was over. The bands, the look, the moment had dissipated and the wind changed. It was even clearer still in hindsight how important The Specials were. They united opposites and challenged racism face on, naming names and calling out leaders and individuals alike. They challenged class, they documented the issues of their era and they left behind a set-list as potent as any a rock and roll band could wish for.
If you’re looking for the big hits Too Much Too Young, A Message To You, Rudy, Enjoy Yourself there’s much to bop to. If you’re looking for something more complex there’s Man At C&A or the horrifying The Boiler in the deeper recesses of the back catalog and yet what they didn’t have was a stable run of releases. In 40 years they’ve made less than 8 full albums and many of their more famous tracks are covers. I’ve witnessed two Specials comebacks with my own eyes in the last 20 years but rarely do they lead to much in the way of new music.
“If we vote for you, do you promise to be upright, decent and honest, to have our best interest at heart, you understand why we don’t believe you, you’re way too easy to see through not the best places to start”
So they’re back together of a sort in 2019 (every time the band come back someone from the classic line up is missing, these days it’s Dammers and Staple) with a new album. A really solid new album which advances their sound and manages to sound like the band of old. There’s as much Blockhead funk in the Specials skank on Vote For Me. There’s a bit of The Stranglers and a dash of Clash in their furrowed brow here and now.
The Specials are back this time because the times call for them. All the stuff they rallied against in ’77 through to ’84 is back on the agenda, on the airwaves and in the streets. Now elder statesmen of a culture that takes it’s cues from 60 years of pop history at once. They’ve got political activists wearing their T-Shirts while making headlines, they’ve got the ear of demographics on both sides of the Brexit camps and they have made an album that stands shoulder to shoulder with their best work and the best work of all those bands I mentioned above. I’d prefer it if they were back for a party in a way. It’d be better if this was just a social call. And yet, it is good to know, when the chips are down, they’ll still turn up for a dust up when required because what’s special about The Specials is that they’re always right.
“You’re all so drunk on money and power inside your Ivory tower, teaching us not to be smart, making laws that serve to protect you but we will never forget that you tore our families apart”