It is a timely thing that I write these words today, on the eve of a definite Specials reunion. I tend to distrust reunions as such: the music produced inevitably disappoints, and one’s idols have very often aged beyond all recognition (witness the shocking pictures of the Buzzcocks these days). However, I acknowledge that it also gives one a chance to hear your heroes again or, for a lot of people, for the first time, and experience the visceral thrill of those days when everything was green, exciting and minty fresh.
In 1978, it seemed as though rock’s biggest revolution since the fifties had retired, contracted Alzheimer’s and stiffed to rigor mortis in a very short space of time. ‘The Pistols are dead, and the Clash have sold out’, I remember hearing a lot at the time. Not merely the fans, but also the music industry, were looking for the next big thing, the Great White Hope that could pull rock up by its bootstraps and give it a good kicking to get it breathing again.
Well, if 77 was the summer of punk, then 79 was the summer of ska. The Special A.K.A. were an offshoot of an early Coventry band called the Automatics, and for a while were best buddies with the Clash: sharing management and billing with them. For one Jerry Dammers, though, this was not enough: thus the 2 Tone label began five years of exciting yet backward-looking music.
Naturally, for every reaction, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The explosion of punk had been countered by a fervent blossoming of the disco genre: and punk in its turn was replaced by ultra-short haircuts and fast-paced ska and blue beat straight out of pre-reggae Jamaica. Gone were the bondage trousers, safety pins and mohicans…in were drainpipes, black and white shiny suits and pork pie hats.
The split 7 inch Gangsters (FF 1979 #7, 1980 #32, and 1981 #57) took its time becoming a top 10 hit: in fact, I remember buying this delicious slab of Prince-Buster-on-speed when Woolies had it as no. 82 in the chart. For the uninitiated, it takes the opening line of Al Capone and adds whopping organ and angular guitar behind a vocal attack on piracy, to create two minutes and fifty seconds of bittersweet magic. You could dance to it without fear of looking stupid: it was and still is hip to the limit. It set in motion a mania for retro that spawned imitators such as the Selecter (who in fact had appeared on the B-side of that single), the Beat and Madness.
By the time Elvis Costello got round to producing their first LP (in a rather minimalist style), the musical panorama of the 80s had received its sorely-needed revitalisation. The stunningly realised cover versions were offset by wickedly mordant originals, such as Too Much Too Young (FF 1979 #36). This last was a belated number one hit as part of an EP, but the original takes its time haranguing the girl who wed and had a family instead of having fun. (Although written by Dammers, it borrows heavily from Lloyd Charmers’ Birth Control.)
However, the moment had seemingly once more come and gone. The second LP ditched the proto-ska that had made them successful and went for dark, brooding sub-reggae that alienated their core audience, despite the classy production, a host of top-notch performers, and a non-LP song (Ghost Town) that defined a moment in time with steely accuracy.
This change of direction did not suit Terry Hall, Lynval Golding and Neville Staple, who left for other poppier projects such as the Fun Boy Three and the Colourfield.
Dammers attempted to steer the band through this downward spiral by adding Stan Campbell and Rhoda Dakar on vocals and changing the name once again to the Special AKA. One more moment in history would be eternally linked with their name as Nelson Mandela (FF 1984 #41) hit the high spots and brought worldwide attention to the fact that during half of rock’s history, South Africa’s future president had been in captivity.
But their first single, The Boiler, had been willfully noncommercial and the In The Studio LP was unfairly and criminally neglected. Dammers dissolved the band and moved into the political arena.
Now we welcome them back to the stage again, and cherish the three nuggets on display here. Diamonds in the rough, indeed.