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The Specials

+ {The Special A.K.A.} + {Special Beat}

Spearheading the British ska revival craze in the late 70s (when punk-rock had dissipated into several factions), The SPECIALS embraced a multi-racial melting-pot motif that embodied more than just their black-and-white-checked 2-Tone label logos. Fronted by the cool but terse suede-head Terry Hall and his Jamaican-born “fun boy” chums Neville Staple and Lynval Golding (the latter also on rhythm guitar), it was actually main songwriter/keyboardist Jerry Dammers that held all the elements together; the authentic period-piece pork-pie hats, the mohair suits, the Ben Sherman shirts and loafers; some part-time-punks-turned-rude boys could now at least get a job… interview!
The fact that most members of the group had been part of the reggae/ska ethos that had infiltrated the new wave/punk movement in ‘77/’78 as The Coventry Automatics (named after their city origins), probably helped their cause; it duly broke the combo through to a disgruntled generation left hopeless and desolate when Maggie Thatcher and the Tories came into power in May ‘79. So, armed with only their smart suits and several swinging songs of teenage pregnancies/marriages, moody magistrates and life on the dole, The SPECIALS – Hall, Staple, Golding and Dammers, plus guitarist Roddy “Radiation” Byers, bassist Sir Horace Gentleman (born Stephen Panter) and drummer John Bradbury (a replacement for Silverton Hutchinson) – were ready to rock the dancehalls of the UK.
After a brief spell under the wing of manager Bernie Rhodes, from which JOE STRUMMER offered The SPECIAL A.K.A. (as they were then known) a support slot on The CLASH’s “On Parole” tour, Dammers formed the seminal 2-Tone imprint in 1979; inspired as much by the Rock Against Racism movement. Twinning their debut single, `Gangsters’ – a re-wiring of PRINCE BUSTER’s `Al Capone’ dirge – alongside an eponymous instrumental by fellow ska revivalists The SELECTER, the song climbed to No.6 that summer.
With its unmistakable rude boy logo and now linked to Chrysalis Records – in the space of only a few months – the aforementioned label became the hippest name-drop in Britain as “Nutty Boys” MADNESS made their Top 20 debut with `The Prince’, and The SELECTER made theirs with `On My Radio’. On the back of 2-Tone’s fourth hit and The SPECIALS’ second – the double-A-side of `A Message To You Rudy’ (penned by DANDY LIVINGSTONE) and `Nite Klub’ (featuring backing vox by CHRISSIE HYNDE) – the triumvirate of said 2-Tone combos would tour Britain; even universities from Norwich to Stirling.
The addition of eighth member Rico Rodriguez (a mellow 45-year-old Rastafarian trombonist) had not went unnoticed on both the single and the tour, and his presence, along with Dick Cuthell on horns, was a feature on their debut LP, unleashed into the Top 5 that winter; ironically charting on the same day as the now Stiff-endorsed “One Step Beyond” set by MADNESS. Produced by new wave attraction ELVIS COSTELLO, the eponymous SPECIALS {*10} set blew a breath of fresh air through the ashes of the punk scene and heralded one of the most exciting periods in British music since the SEX PISTOLS’ “Bollocks” album a few years back.
Although no `Gangsters’ aboard its grooves, the almost party-live-in-your-living-room feel of the 14 tracks were the band’s forte, while their choice of covers captured the mood and times perfectly; namely the re-arranged `Do The Dog’ (RUFUS THOMAS), `Too Hot’ (PRINCE BUSTER), `Monkey Man’ (TOOTS & THE MAYTALS) and `You’re Wondering Now’ (Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd). Interspersed between Roddy’s smash-and-grab `Concrete Jungle’, the group’s bitchy `Blank Expression’ (and the similar `It’s Up To You’), Jerry’s inner city vignettes, `Doesn’t Make It Alright’, `(Dawning Of A) New Era’ and the “judge-mental” moral message of `Stupid Marriage’, delivered more than just a bitter brew of cynicism and disdain. The stand-out piece for many was `Too Much Too Young’, a 6-minute stomp railing against teenage pregnancies, and showcasing perfectly the compelling mash-up of reggae, ska, punk and pop, which became synonymous with the group.
A frenetic 2-minute re-vamp of the pro-contraception song duly formed part of `The Special A.K.A. Live! EP’, a BBC-banned chart-topper the following January that also highlighted out-take ska-period covers; namely The SKATALITES hit of Dimitri Tiomkin’s `Guns Of Navarone’, The PIONEERS’ `Long Shot Kick De Bucket’, HARRY J ALL STARS’ `The Liquidator’ and SYMARIP’s cosmically-titled `Skinhead Moonstomp’ (c/o DERRICK MORGAN).
1980 saw two further Top 10 hits with `Rat Race’ (a double-A paired with the equally-exclusive `Rude Boys Outa Jail’) and the similarly-formatted `Stereotype’ (the AA flip of lounge-loopy `International Jet Set’); the latter 45 soon-to-be lifted from Top 5 sophomore set, MORE SPECIALS {*8}. Bookended by Sigman & Magidson’s nostalgia nugget, `Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think)’ and its GO-GO’S-enhanced “reprise”, the septet mooted a myriad of musical directions. From their mariachi-tinged `Holiday Fortnight’ and the northern soul `Sock It To ‘Em J.B.’, to their apocalyptic `Man At C&A’ and the doo wop-ish `Hey, Little Rich Girl’ (sax solo courtesy of Lee Thompson of MADNESS), The SPECIALS proved they were no one trick pony. Completed by their sixth Top 10 hit on the trot, `Do Nothing’ (paired with a reading of DYLAN’s `Maggie Farm’ – dedicated to Thatcher!), even the dead-pan Terry Hall looked to be grinning from ear to ear.
The group’s defining moment, however, came during the long hot summer of ‘81, courtesy of the eerily evocative `Ghost Town’, the track’s plea of “why must the youth fight among themselves?” echoing against a backdrop of race-related inner city rioting in both Brixton and Liverpool. Though the song was easily the best No.1 single released that year (possibly ever!?), The SPECIALS splintered soon afterwards; Hall, Staple and Golding forming The FUN BOY THREE, while Roddy Radiation formed The Tearjerkers (for lone single, `Desire’); RICO had already continued his solo sojourn with two sets (`That Man Is Forward’ and `Jama Rico’).
Dammers and Bradbury re-adopted The SPECIAL A.K.A. moniker (enlisting bassist Nicky Summers, guitarist John Shipley and cornetist Dick Cuthell), initially to highlight associate BODYSNATCHERS vocalist Rhoda (Dakar) on the disturbingly-raw anti-rape statement, `The Boiler’.
From late ’81 to the summer of ’83, the more enterprising FUN BOY THREE looked to be “Taking Over The Asylum” as `Tunnel Of Love’ and `Our Lips Are Sealed’ assumed their places in the Top 10. And when The SPECIAL A.K.A. lost ground chart-wise with the politically-open `War Crimes (The Crime Remains The Same)’ and `Rascist Friend’ (double-A: `Bright Lights’), the ever-changing ensemble were edged out; Summers joined The BELLE STARS, replaced briefly by a returning Panter, before he turned to GENERAL PUBLIC. A long list of cohorts had come and gone, but in vocalists Dakar and newbie Stan Campbell (Edgio Newton had left after their previous flop), plus bassist Gary McManus, alongside Dammers, Shipley, Bradbury, Cuthell and 2/3 of vocal trio Afrodiziak (Caron Wheeler and Claudia Fontaine), The SPECIAL AKA precipitated the right message on the Top 10 comeback, `(Free) Nelson Mandela’. Almost gospel-like in its intensity and funky as hell to boot, it was an incredibly inspiring, heartfelt plea to the apartheid South African government to liberate the imprisoned ANC leader. The rest was history as they say.
Three months on, their bank-busting Top 40 parent album IN THE STUDIO WITH THE SPECIAL AKA (1984) {*6} wasn’t so motivating or successful, running over the same ground – recent A’s and B’s – with the exception of the horn-infested minor hit-to-be `What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend’ and the hauntingly-hoodoo `Housebound’.
Dammers duly split the band, putting his creative talent into political activism. In 1985, he turned up on the “Starvation” ska/reggae charity project, while Artists Against Apartheid followed in 1986; he also played a major role in organising the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday concert at Wembley Stadium in 1988.
“Toasting” mediocrity and collaborative shenanigans, the Dammers-less and be-damned SPECIAL BEAT, cherry-picked from The SPECIALS (Bradbury, Golding and Staples) and one from The BEAT (Ranking Roger) on a LIVE (1992) {*5} set. Employing Anthony “Finny” Finn (vocals), Sean Flowerdew (keyboards), Anthony Harty (guitar), Wayne Lothian (bass), Jason Votier (trumpet), and others including Eli Thompson (trumpet), Brian Clark (alto sax) and ex-BEAT’s Saxa (tenor sax), ska’s memory lane was in for a conveyor-belt of a time by way of big hitters from both the bands.
In October ’93, The SPECIALS (mainly Staple, Panter, Golding and Byers) were credited on the DESMOND DEKKER album `King Of Kings’. With the subsequent addition of Mark Adams (keyboards), Adam Birch (trombone, horns), Aitch Hyatt (drums, vocals), and featuring a backing vocal from Sheena Staple (Nev’s daughter) and DJ Kendell Smith, TODAY’S SPECIALS {*3} was served up in 1996, with only a minor hit take of BOB MARLEY’s `Hypocrite’ of any lasting interest. Without Dammers (who retired from live work after developing tinnitus) and solo artist TERRY HALL, it meant the project lacked credibility; examples, an embarrassing version of EWAN MacCOLL’s `Dirty Old Town’ and a cheeky MONKEES song `A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You’.
Sounding like BAD MANNERS and MADNESS rolled into one 2-Tone ball of confusion, The SPECIALS stood to be judged on 1998’s GUILTY ‘TIL PROVED INNOCENT {*4} and the jury was out on some other bits and pieces. Reformations were all the rage, so one couldn’t exactly blame them for cashing in.
And then out of the blue, on a European tour in 2011, finally, the reunion was complete when Hall, Staple, Golding, Panter, Radiation and Bradbury (but obviously no Dammers!), presented some great shows. The Chrysalis-endorsed double-disc, MORE… OR LESS: THE SPECIALS LIVE (2012) {*6}, documented mostly everything from their halcyon days; `Gangsters’ the sole Special AKA cut.
Though The SPECIALS recorded a relatively small body of work, they remain one of the most influential and pivotal post-punk bands; Dammers, meanwhile, was given the South African Companions silver award (aka the OR Tambo) in 2014 for his involvement and participation in the anti-apartheid movement. Sadly, the passing of trombone legend Rico Rodriguez, MBE, on 4 September 2015, after a brief illness, was probably not surprising given his age (80). A good innings all round. Another to pass on to ska heaven was John Bradbury, who died toward the end of the year, aged 62.
No one ever imagined that The SPECIALS re-incarnation would release another fresh studio album; let alone one that would gate-crash the top of the charts. However, that’s exactly what occurred in the second month of 2019, when ENCORE {*8} – with a companion bonus CD of greatest bits live – shot to No.1. The astute acquisition of guitarist Steve Cradock (from OCEAN COLOUR SCENE and PAUL WELLER), keyboardist Nikolaj Torp Larsen and drummer Kendrick Rowe (in place of Gary Powell), added another dynamic dimension to the ska group, a group that saw further augmentation from trombone/tuba player Tim Smart and trombonist Paul Mendelssohn. Near to 40 years since their debut instigated a “dance party” all across the nation, The SPECIALS now sourced EDDY GRANT’s `Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys’, The Valentines’ `Blam Blam Fever’ and FUN BOY THREE fave `The Lunatics’. Better still were the thought-provoking “Boiler”-ish `10 Commandments’ (Saffiyah Khan filling the shoes of Rhoda Dakar), the funk-driven ghetto-blaster `B.L.M.’ (aka “Black Lives Matter”) and the “Ghost Town”-esque `Vote For Me’.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Jan2016-Jun2019

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