Sometimes an album is more than just a collection of tracks and a tabulation of sold units. Sometimes, it’s a cultural event. The Specials’ self-titled debut album in 1979 was not only a bracing response to racial turbulence, urban violence, and economic disparity in ’70s Britain, but the catalyst for an entire youth movement, 2 Tone, and a musical genre, the ska revival (or what we simply recognize as “ska” today).
The Specials dwelled in paradox and complexity, a grey area conjured by the blending of the group’s trademark black and white checkerboard design. They sang of social ills, individual dread, and anxiety in infectiously danceable songs kept aloft by an unmistakable lightness. It was grim realism made buoyant by an upbeat, all bleakness and bounce — lyrical snapshots of desperate lives.
The album doesn’t so much announce itself as slide the listener into it, opening with a laid-back harmonica vamp and then a bright Caribbean drum clatter and the languid, dead-cool trombone of the late Rico Rodriguez (who died last September). The song, “A Message to You, Rudy”, had been originally recorded in 1967 by Jamaican singer Dandy Livingstone (as “Rudy, a Message to You”, with Rodriguez also on the original). It’s an opening salvo that lands the listener straight into the crosscurrents of Jamaican and English interchange, initiated in 1948 by the arrival of hundreds of immigrants to England on the SS Empire Windrush.
They had answered the call for a labor force to rebuild post-war Britain, and beyond establishing the sometimes discomfiting cohabitation of races, this immigration began a steady seep of West Indian elements into the culture. At a musical level, it would lead to the Mods and later the early skinheads spinning original ska records and incorporating elements of rude-boy fashion in the ’60s and early ’70s.
This is the cultural thread that winds itself like a determined river toward the Specials’ groundbreaking debut LP, on which the group of working-class white and black men repurposed and reworked an old genre, ska, for a public conditioned to punk, while presenting to the world an unmistakable image of unity and miscegenation.
As an introduction to The Specials (1979), “A Message to You, Rudy” is a bracing statement, going for West Indian brass and syncopation instead of punk guitars and warning the quintessential “Rudy” (or rude boy) against the dangers of street life. The listener has entered a world of miscegenation and reinvention: the singer out front, Terry Hall, is white and rail-thin, a very young man with close-cropped hair and a face that appears to never emote or smile. The black and white members of the band sport trilby hats and slim suits with pant hems at flood-water height, white socks visible; others wear braces (suspenders) and Fred Perry polos. It’s the type of English subcultural dandyism that the Mods had adopted during an earlier era, a subversion of class constraints through style.
In fact, the ska revival kicked to life by the Specials blended previous subcultural styles in their own Cuisinart, becoming an amalgam of early ’60s Kingston, Jamaica, and Mod and Skinhead fashion — both of which had also drawn upon Jamaican rude-boy style. This one album established a new iconography of design, style, and music: a prototype and imprint for others to take forward. The Specials, wrote late American critic Robert Palmer in the New York Times in 1981, “were the initial shock troops” of the ska movement (“‘The Pop Life’: From British Racial Strife, Rock”). This album was the Doc Martens boot against the door.
By following the classic “Message to You, Rudy” with their own driving ska-punk anthem “Do the Dog”, the Specials established, in the first two tracks, the push-and-pull of their artistry, which moved between reverence for the old and something firmly planted in their own milieu, as the opening lines of “Do the Dog” attest: “All you punks and all you teds / National Front and natty dreads / Mods, rockers, hippies, and skinheads / Keep on fighting till you’re dead”.
The song not only distances itself from punk movement, which had already crested and was in decline, but from all subcultural aggression and empty platitudes. Where football hooligans had been a breeding ground for racist thuggery — including National Front neo-nazis, racist skinheads, and Oi! Punks — in “Concrete Jungle” the Specials turn the football chant toward their own purpose, until Terry Hall starts singing out all of the dread and anxiety of the streets: “I’m going out tonight / I don’t know if I’ll be alright / And everyone wants to hurt me … / I can’t dress just the way I want / I’m being chased by the National Front”.
Essentially, the story of the Specials’ landmark debut is the story of multiracial Britain. Young black, white, and Asian fans (many of the latter from India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan) found a common rallying point around the band and its 2 Tone movement, which author Heather Augustyn deemed the first truly “multiracial youth culture in the Western world” (SKA: The Rhythm of Liberation). The Specials is also the flashpoint and ground zero for what we now popularly celebrate as ska music in the United States, Europe, and the UK.
he group established both a sound and a style on their first LP: the symbolic miscegenation of the black-and-white checked pattern, the unmistakable sense of dress, the skanking Jamaican rhythms (chunking guitar on the offbeat) merged with punk energy. There was also the indelible image of the band itself, a mixed group of white, working-class English lads and black men of Jamaican descent, all of whom rose out of the post-industrial fug of Coventry, a city in England’s West Midlands, a region previously known more for the dark sludgy metal of Black Sabbath. If London was the capital of punk, then Coventry, a Detroit-like city known for automobile manufacturing, was the ska epicenter for a time.
The first wave of ska had originated in Jamaica and peaked in popularity there in the early ’60s, becoming the direct ancestor to rocksteady and the more popular reggae before petering out. The records that followed West Indian immigration to England caught on with Mods and later Mods’ more aggressive and more defiantly working-class offshoot, Skinheads, in the late ’60s.
It was the repurposing of ska in England in the late ’70s, however, that forced it into mainstream consciousness. From this launching point, ska would continue across the Atlantic Ocean in the ’80s and ’90s, initiating a third-wave of groups fusing rock and ska: No Doubt, Sublime, Fishbone, the Toasters, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Operation Ivy. The Specials’ first LP not only became the catalyst, but as part of the group’s conditions with Chrysalis Records for that album, Specials leader Jerry Dammers started his own 2 Tone record imprint, bringing to the world other ska groups in their wake: Madness, the English Beat, and the Selecter (the latter of whom were fronted by the first woman ska icon, Pauline Black).
Had it not been for the Specials, ska would have likely remained, as Heather Augustyn puts it, “little more than an underground ebb and flow of social activity” (SKA: The Rhythm of Liberation). Like punk, the UK ska revival spearheaded by the Specials was a reaction to the bleak circumstances in England at the time. Margaret Thatcher became prime minister in early 1979, leading a country with a bruised national psyche, one fraught with joblessness, spiking inflation, an energy crisis, civil unrest, riots, and the ugliness of racial conflict.
The National Front, an extreme right-wing political party that railed against non-white immigration and multiculturalism, had peaked in popularity by the mid-’70s and racist groups were in the ascendant. “[P]eople are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture,” Thatcher mused during a Granada TV interview during her campaign in 1978, in an unfortunate comment that gave credence to the xenophobic climate. “The British character has done … so much throughout the world that if there is any fear that it might be swamped, people are going to react and be rather hostile to those coming in.”
This is the type of antipathetic dogma that spurred the Specials to life. “We were working as a black and white unit,” Neville Staples, the Specials’ Jamaican-born toaster and vocalist recalled to Rolling Stone in 2011. “At the time there was a lot of racism happening. So we just thought, ‘Well, we went to school with black and white guys. Instead of fighting and calling people names, let’s work together.’ So we combined black music with punk. We just mixed the two cultures” (“100 Best Albums of the Eighties”).
The Specials debut LP was direct in its response. For example, in the track “Doesn’t Make It All Right”, in which Terry Hall sings, “Just because you’re a black boy / Just because you’re a white / It doesn’t mean you’ve got to hate him / Doesn’t mean you got to fight”/ The message was unadorned, flat, and immediate; the music was rousing.
The band’s live shows also became statements of unity, with the audience invited on stage toward the end in order to break down the separation between rising pop band and audience. The band and equipment would become lost in a mass of pogoing and skanking humanity, the stage heaving under the weight.
Jon Dennis, an early Specials fan from London, recalled that in the late ’70s his neighborhood had witnessed “a riot when the National Front attempted to march. There were coaches full of far-right thugs parked outside my house. My adopted sisters are black, and so for my family the NF represented an existential threat.”
It wasn’t just organized racism that he feared: “Racism was rife among my predominantly white classmates,” he reflected. “I was glad of any ally, and the Specials defined themselves against the far right. … The name of their label, 2 Tone, and its chequered design (still associated with ska) is an assertion of black and white unity” (The Guardian, 23 October 2014).
The Specials’ recording career essentially lasted two years, from 1979 to 1981, with hit singles and two full albums to their credit. (The second was poorly received and not cohesive.) Their debut, produced by Elvis Costello, remains their singular, defining imprint upon cultural consciousness, both in England, where they topped the charts, and in the United States, where they often seemed too arcane, subcultural, and distinctly English for American palates — but where they nonetheless became a ska catalyst.
The BBC’s Chris Jones says of the album, “To understand the impact of this spearhead of the ska revival on early Thatcherite Britain you have to imagine something so left field and yet so apt occurring today. It was as if Depression-era dustbowl ballads suddenly became hip again in this era of global economic meltdown” (BBC Music, “The Specials: Review”, 2008).
So imagine the album not as it is now, seen through the retrospective lens of all that it inspired and came after it, but as it was upon arrival: In the United States in 1979, sentimental rock bands like REO Speedwagon and Styx held sway on the Billboard charts, along with disco figureheads Donna Summer and the Bee Gees. In the UK, a new wave of artists like the Police and Costello were making inroads, and punk, now waning, still smoldered. But soft rock from artists such as Dr. Hook and Cliff Richard still also topped the charts and trailed out of radios from Brighton to Sunderland.
Staking Out Their Own Ground
The Specials landed in this landscape as their own insular universe, with no reference points to the music around them, a universe lorded over by the symbolic 2 Tone logo “Walt Jabsco”, a drawing of a skanking (dancing) man in trim suit, skinny tie, and pork-pie hat. (Walt had been modeled after images of Wailers guitarist Peter Tosh from 1964, when he and bandmate Bob Marley were still churning out ska in short hair and smart suits.)
The Specials staked out their own ground for their own movement. “I don’t like pontificating about cultural identity in Thatcher’s Britain, but the Specials took the spirit of the time and turned it from negative, apathetic, and nihilistic to positive,” bassist Horace Panter remembered in his 2007 memoir, Ska’d for Life. “They made people dance and think at the same time. Just like the blues … sing about your worries and your feelings and turn them into celebration.”
Youth in England had shown an affinity for black music since the late ’50s, when the earliest Mods fell under the spell of jazz artists such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Later, Mods would turn to American soul and R&B. Likewise, many British Invasion groups assimilated American blues, while the Beatles showed an affinity for Motown in their early years.
When young English musicians formed their own groups, their ranks were homogenous, from the blues-influenced Yarbirds, Animals, and Rolling Stones to Mod figureheads the Small Faces, the Kinks, and the Who. The Specials possessed mixed membership and sound, as the Jamaican patois of toaster Neville Staple intermingled with Terry Hall’s high haunting new-wave cries. (In America, Booker T & the MGs, the Stax Records house band, famous for their instrumental “Green Onions”, a Mod favorite, had similar miscegenation in the ’60s, as of course did many jazz groups.)
Panter also points out how consciously they took up their cause: “The Specials and the 2 Tone ‘movement’ became more than just pop music. We were actually out to change things: seven very different people guided by one person’s vision” (Ska’d for Life)
The source of that singular vision was Jerry Dammers, the founder, chief songwriter, keyboard player, and impresario of 2 Tone Records, a label he ran out of his decidedly unlavish home in Coventry. Dammers was the slight, white son of a radical clergyman with a trademark absent-toothed grin usually reserved for hockey players. Over the decades, and after the Specials’ demise, Dammers remained a restless and burning visionary in the spirit of Brian Wilson or Syd Barrett, straying far from the limelight and plying away at his own eccentric and eclectic vision, one that has found him for most of the ’00s leading a 25-musician ensemble decked out in robes and Egyptian masks that pays tribute to Sun Ra and experimental jazz.
Having been a Mod and then a Skinhead in his formative years, Dammers never quite cottoned to the punk movement. “I saw punk as a piss-take of rock music, as rock music committing suicide, but I couldn’t believe people took it as a serious musical genre,” he told The Guardian in March 2002. “It seemed to be a bit more healthy to have an integrated kind of British music” (“Ska for the Madding Crowd”).
He had played in the band the Coventry Automatics with fellow art-college student Horace Panter, eventual bassist for the Specials, and they opened for the Clash, a group that would continually show an affinity for reggae and dub. The idea for the Specials came to Dammers when he was playing a concert and witnessed the support act having their set ransacked and singer attacked by violent Skinheads.
For his cause, he recruited Jamaican-born Neville Staple, the co-frontman whose toasting (patois-laden chanting and interjecting) would become yin to singer Terry Hall’s yang. Neville had left Jamaica as a child and soon established a juvenile crime sheet, living a rudeboy existence on the Coventry Streets. His stage hyping and entertainer’s instincts provided a compelling counter to Terry Hall’s often dour and upright stage presence.
Rhythm guitarist Lynval Golding was the other Jamaican-born member, providing another case of synergistic twinning with lead guitarist Roddy Radiation, who had rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll roots. Another white member from Coventry, John Bradbury (who died in late December), rounded out the unit on drums, while the older Rico Rodriguez, a ska trombonist who had played on many original records, became an auxiliary member during their two-year run.
The synergy and alchemy of this combination is evident during their April 1980, performance on Saturday Night Live, during their first visit to the States. The band, who had refused a limo trip to the studio on principle, offered a tight, speedy, and masterful performance of their first single, “Gangsters”.
Abstracted from their England canvas, their sound and image was singular and outlandish for American audiences — even impenetrable. Like the Jam’s update on the Mods, it simply didn’t easily translate to American tastes or understanding, which gave it esoteric resonance.
On the cusp of junior high school, and living in the mountains of upstate New York at the time, I will never forget how fascinatingly strange it all was, and I never came back from that fascination, becoming a ska and Specials devotee for life. (Now in my 40s and knowing so much more about where it all came from, I am relieved to find that in many ways it retains much of its strangeness and paradox for me.)
In slim ties and crisp, skinny suits — Staple in beige, with wraparound sunglasses, and Hall in striking blue — the Specials ripped through the song and, when done, jogged immediately offstage, ignoring applause. They entertained without pandering, and seemed both street-hard and fashionable.
Staple, Hall, and Golding pogoed and skanked around the stage, and Radiation occasionally crept forward, crouched over his guitar, legs braced and ripping off rock leads against the Caribbean bounce. Dammers, positioned stage right and out front, like a mad Svengali, alternately bent over the keyboard and fired his body straight up into the air. There seemed a tightness and collusion among that front line — white, black, white, black, white — that resisted anything outside of it: a world on its own terms.
Everything about the Specials that was arcane to American tastes appealed to me and so many other young people in the States. It could never resonate in a universal way, like punk with its diffuse aggression and broadly anarchical gestures. It was more discerning.
By that time, the group had enjoyed five top ten singles in England, but they had reached the apex of their bright, clear arc. The Specials remains the definitive document of the band, a movement, and a genre. It’s a bric a brac: patois chatter introducing songs, bouncing ska infused with rock guitar, Hall’s hollow wail underpinned by Staple’s chanted exhortations.
The Specials exited in 1981 with the paranoid beauty and layered complexity of their final single, “Ghost Town”, which melded soaring unemployment, riots, continued unrest, and anti-Thatcherism into a hypnotic four minutes. It was Dammers’ parting masterpiece and his distillation of the social and economic landscape during the band’s existence.
Unemployment had risen from 1.5 to 2.5 million during that year and spiked to 82 percent among ethnic minorities. Rioting broke out in Brixton in April, and in the Specials’ own Coventry, Samtam Gill, a teenager, was killed in a racist attack, spurring street fights between racist Skinheads and ethnic minorities.
The Specials scheduled a concert for racial unity in Coventry for the day of “Ghost Town”’s release. With the National Front scheduling a march on the same day and anxieties about violence at a peak, the gig had a modest turnout. On July 10th, another Brixton riot lit a fuse throughout the country, as multiple cities reported similar incidents.
The following day, “Ghost Town” reached number one in England. Weary, spooky, off-tune horns drift and an organ drones a sinewy undercurrent: “Why must the youth fight against themselves? / Government leaving the youth on the shelf / This place is coming like a ghost town / No job to be found in this country / Can’t go on no more, the people getting angry”.
Similarly, whatever had held the Specials together had evaporated. Personal acrimony trumped their trademark unity. The comparatively cheap spectacle of a Top of the Pops appearance marked the end, and the sound went underground — for now. But the die was cast and a genre was born, only to be reborn in wave after wave of ska, with The Specials serving as script, source, and inspiration.
Starting in 2009, a reunited Specials embarked on successful tours. Like the Beach Boys without Brian Wilson, the original members continued without Dammers in the fold. In contemporary light, the final track of the 1979 LP, the sweetly ceremonial “You’re Wondering Now”, becomes even more resonant — and simply prescient: “Curtain has fallen, now you’re on your own / I won’t return, forever you will wait”.