The Day the Specials Kicked Their Doc Martens Boots Against the Door
The ska revival kicked to life by the Specials blended previous subcultural styles in their own Cuisinart: Kingston, Jamaica, Mod, Skinhead and Jamaican rude-boy.
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.