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.
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”.