Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Classic Album Review: The Specials – Specials (1979)

A true classic the Ska genre, The Specials’ self-titled debut album is a must-have for any serious fan of the ‘Two Tone’ scene, any Eighties retro freak, or indeed, for any keen student of the recent social history of multicultural Britain.

The end of the Seventies in the UK was a period of much political upheaval and social unrest, with an unprecedented number of race riots and a generally disorientated populace about to embark on a decade of gruelling Thatcher rule. Whether or not The Specials deliberately set about sound-tracking the widespread collective disaffection of those bleak days is perhaps a moot point, the album has subsequently gone on to become both representative and synonymous with that period of British history. Call it a right time and place thing.
Given the multiracial make-up of the seven-strong Specials, not to mention much of the album’s subject matter – politics, the establishment, violence, identity, and race – it could even be argued that this is a release of major cultural, political, and social significance. Not only is it the sound of young Britain on the very cusp of major change, it is the sound of urban Coventry and of the suburban Midlands, and just as likely the sound of hundreds upon thousands of lost communities and decaying inner city housing estates everywhere.

Either that, or it’s just a damned good dance record.

Heavily informed by the rich archives of Desmond Dekker, Prince Buster, and the like, Messrs Dammers, Hall and co pretty much had their unique party/protest groove sussed right from the start; combining the working class energy and DIY ethos of Punk, with the freshly imported vibrant new sounds of old Jamaica, mixing it together with a little bit of social commentary, throwing in the odd pinch of anger, before stomping and stirring vigorously, and heating thoroughly to well beyond boiling point.

That, give or take the odd ingredient, was roughly the recipe for a serious Ska/Rude Boy revival in the late Seventies/early Eighties, the so-called second wave, and despite the scene’s relative brevity (the seminal ‘Two Tone’ label floundered badly in the Eighties after initially providing the breakthrough vehicle for not only The Specials, but also Madness, The Beat, and many others), the hybrid sounds of Jamaican dancehall and English street remain surprisingly fresh and just as relevant coming up for 35-odd years later.

" ... don't call me Ska-face"
All of the best Specials tracks can be found on this one, with the exception of ‘Ghost Town’ (released a couple of years down the line), and one or two other key numbers from the darker and rather more eclectic follow-up album, More Specials.

Key tracks include: ‘Message To You Rudy’, ‘Concrete Jungle’, ‘Monkey Man’, ‘Too Much Too Young’, ‘Gangsters’ (the successful lead single), and ‘You’re Wondering Now’, but more generally there’s not really a bad track on the debut.

A staple of the immediate post-punk years, the band imploded some three or four years later, branching off into the more commercially flavoured Fun Boy Three (including lead vocalist Terry Hall) and the politically motivated and equally socially conscious Special AKA (featuring Jerry Dammers).

Here's 'Gangsters'


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