27 MY BLOODY VALENTINE
Isn’t Anything (1988)
Redrawing the noise-rock map to embrace the molten fury of hip hop and the lysergic euphoria of acid house, this goes off like fireworks inside your brain. Kevin Shields’ guitars bend the fabric of space-time, blending soft and hard textures, speed with torpor, and dissonance with dreamlike beauty.
Best track: “No More Sorry”
26 BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD
Buffalo Springfield (1967)
They were doomed to be shortlived. With Stephen Stills and Neil Young jostling for position with Richie Furay, their West Coast collision of folk-rock and country-soul made for a thrillingly diverse experience, leant added intensity by Stills’ and Young’s guitar freakouts. “For What It’s Worth” became Sunset Strip’s protest anthem.
Best track: “For What It’s Worth”
25 THE MOTHERS OF INVENTION
Freak Out! (1966)
Frank Zappa’s Mothers looked like hippie delinquents, but they were fearsomely tight musicians, led by a man whose facetious iconoclasm belied a disciplinarian streak and serious satirical intent. Musical references went all the way from doo-wop to modern classical. A touchstone for the entire rock avant-garde.
Best track: “Trouble Every Day”
24 BIG STAR
#1 Record (1972)
Led by a post-Box Tops Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, the Memphis quartet’s brash, Anglophile pop harked back to the innocence of the British Invasion while gorging on gritty white soul. Streaked with melancholy, “The Ballad Of El Goodo” typified their beauty-into-sadness classicism. Label Ardent had no idea how to market them, resulting in poor sales and inter-band friction.
Best track: “The Ballad Of El Goodo”
23 THE FLYING BURRITO BROTHERS
The Gilded Palace Of Sin (1969)
Too wild for country boys and too hillbilly for rock snobs, ex-Byrds Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman barely registered on the charts with the Burritos. Nowadays, its marriage of redneck C&W, soulful white R’n’B and Nudie-suited psychedelia is regarded as important in its field as The Velvet Underground & Nico.
Best track: “Sin City”
Murmur was pivotal, announcing the arrival of a classic band and inspiring a deluge of alternative rock and Americana that transformed the music industry. R.E.M. sounded old as the hills yet sparklingly fresh, mixing folk and rock traditions and post-punk into a newly-minted language.
Best track: “Perfect Circle”
21 THE SMITHS
The Smiths (1984)
Morrissey’s assertion that The Smiths’ debut was “a complete signal post in the history of popular music” wasn’t too grand. Johnny Marr’s spangled guitar lines and Morrissey’s mordant wit introduced an oddly English kind of romantic fatalism: euphoric one moment, doomed the next.
Best track: “Still Ill”
20 THE SPECIALS
The Specials (1979)
No sooner had Maggie settled in No 10 than the Coventry septet issued this; a Costello-produced manifesto for a generation who’d oppose Thatcher while moonstomping to ’60s ska rhythms. Not just 2-Tone’s best debut, but its defining hour.
Best track: “Doesn’t Make It Alright”
Jerry Dammers recalls the inspirations, tensions and hippie-baiting that went into the touchstone of 2-Tone, The Specials’ eponymous debut album…
As the ’70s ended, The Specials were a bolt of new life from the most unlikely surroundings – Coventry, in the country’s rapidly fading industrial heartland. Their debut album was a cross-cultural epiphany featuring a sharp-suited community of black and white rowdies. Though short-lived, The Specials Mk I were punk’s multi-racial idealism made flesh. In the years ahead, with the draconian government of Margaret Thatcher wielding power, the album would prove a touchstone and rallying point.
On its release in October 1979, the music, a confrontational yet mournful mix of ’60s ska and punk, represented a dynamic surge in the national pop grid. A year later, with the group’s downbeat second album, More Specials, world-weariness crept in. But The Specials’ debut maintained its influence.
The group came together by osmosis, gathering together the remnants of several Coventry punk, soul and reggae outfits. Chief instigator, songwriter, designer and founder of the 2-Tone label was keyboard player Jerry Dammers, he of the gap-toothed look (the result of a childhood accident). The son of a Church of England vicar, Dammers harboured dreams of forming an epoch-defining band dating from the day he saw The Who play “My Generation” on Ready Steady Go! in 1965, age 11.
By the mid-’70s he was delighting in breaking up hippie student parties by commandeering the sound system and playing Prince Buster tunes. A short stint on keyboards in local New Faces winners The Sissy Stone Soul Band came to an end with the coming of punk. “I was more into black music, but with punk it just felt that my generation had found a voice, a way to speak about real things,” he tells Uncut. “It was incredible. All our heroes had sold out and suddenly it all seemed real again.”
Together with bassist ‘Sir’ Horace ‘Gentleman’ Panter and Jamaican-born guitarist Lynval Golding, Dammers formed The Automatics. Deadpan vocalist Terry Hall from The Squad and second guitarist Roddy Radiation from The Wild Boys soon joined the trio. After a mercifully short-lived liaison with then-local DJ Pete Waterman, the group secured a support slot on The Clash’s On Parole Tour.
The breakout from Coventry was encouraging and the emergence of roadie Neville Staples as toaster/dancer/stage invader, an early adherent of the Chas Smash (and, later, Bez) school of sidekick-as-star, a key move. But the sonic blend, which would be immortalised on the album, was still being developed.
“On the Clash tour, we were still a punk-reggae band,” recalls Dammers. “Like on ‘Up To You’ we’d go from punk thrash into half-speed dub reggae. That was sort of working, but we’d hit on the idea of ska as having more energy. The inspiration came from a Birmingham reggae band called Capital Letters; they had this track, ‘Smoking My Ganja’, with a ska beat.”
With Dammers’ flatmate John Bradbury on drums, Golding’s collection of old ska 45s was raided for Dandy Livingstone’s “Rudy, A Message To You”, joining covers of Andy and Joey’s “You’re Wondering Now” and Toots And The Maytals’ “Monkey Man” in the album’s track list. Another ska tune, Lloydie And The Lowbites’ “Birth Control”, inspired Dammers to pen the controversial “Too Much Too Young”.
Now, Rhodes’ business practices (lampooned on debut single “Gangsters”, recorded in January ’79, four months before the album) were found wanting. But, although he was dispatched as manager in favour of Coventry publicist Rick Rogers, Dammers took some of the Clash mastermind’s advice to heart. Specifically, Rhodes had told him the band needed to look like their audience.
“We went back to Coventry and got the whole ska thing together: the look, the label, the whole caboodle,” he explains. “We’d done a gig in Lincoln full of normal kids in baggies, Northern Soul fans who hadn’t really been affected by punk, and by the end we’d won them over – four encores. They’d never heard of us, so we knew something genuine was happening with the live act. It wasn’t like we’d been hyped by the press.”
In the early months of 1979, with “Gangsters” only beginning its nine-month crawl from independently produced limited edition to chart hit, The Specials supported Gang Of Four, The Damned and Sham 69. The odious National Front had made their unwelcome presence felt at some gigs. Dammers recalls being struck by the supercharged atmosphere at Sham 69 gigs.
“It was like Wat Tyler leading the peasants’ revolt: literally a riot,” he says. “The feeling was that the revolution would come from football terraces not university politics.”
Aside from the lyrically explicit and musically tender “Doesn’t Make It Alright”, Dammers maintains originals such as “Blank Expression” and “Dawning Of A New Era” were personal songs about his own, invariably failed, relationships “with political bits added on”. The objective was to put across an unpatronising, anti-racist message to an audience comprising blacks and whites, mods, punks and soul boys.
Not that The Specials preached a united political accord. Roddy Radiation’s “Concrete Jungle”, one of the LP’s signature tunes, declared, “I don’t want to fight for a cause/Don’t want to change the laws”, an outlook at odds with the campaigning zeal espoused by Dammers.
“Everything from left-wing socialism to all-out anarchism, it was all in there,” he declares. “Roddy insisted on singing on that, too, rather than Terry.”
Elvis Costello, an early supporter of the band, was hired to produce the album. Recording took place over three weeks, a month after Thatcher’s election win, at TW studios in Fulham.
“It wasn’t just about capturing the live act,” offers Dammers. “He did eccentric things with the mix, like suddenly making the drums really loud on ‘Do The Dog’. And on ‘Nite Klub’ he got a sound like you were outside a night club.”
Dammers deflects the standard criticism about the ‘thinness’ of Costello’s production. “He didn’t do a reggae mix – he made the bass very trebly, which meant you could hear it on a transistor radio. That worked for us, because in those days most people still had tinny speakers. I loved his idea to put sleigh bells on “Blank Expression”; it gives it a really bleak feel. It’s my favourite track on the album.”
Elsewhere, the sound of raucous desperation holds sway – guitars like sharpening knives, keyboards like breaking bottles, rhythm tracks like distant gunshots and Terry Hall’s sinister Midlands monotone. It’s not surprising to learn that it was all alcohol-fuelled.
“With today’s licensing laws the album wouldn’t have got made; everything had to be done before the pub opened at 5pm,” Dammers laughs. “That was far more important to us than recording the LP. It was good, as there was no time for self-indulgence: we just banged down the tracks. Elvis was too famous to come into the pub – when he did there was a crowd around him. I’d wanted to be a pop star since I was a kid and seeing that was an eye-opener.”
However, Costello did join in the studio party mood. Dammers remembers him falling off his chair at one point and brandishing the master tape of Joe Jackson’s “It’s Different For Girls” – his intention was to re-record the lead vocal using his own voice. The opening bars of the album – “A Message To You Rudy” – unveiled something never previously heard in The Specials’ live show. Counterpointing the band’s punk energy and revamped ska with the baleful wails of the Rico Rodriguez-Dick Cuthell horn section throughout the record was a masterstroke. Rodriguez had, in fact, played on the original.
Says Dammers, “To us, he was the ultimate hero; the fact he was playing with us made the album a million times better. Bringing that history to us was brilliant.”
During the recording, Dammers says the band were well “into a mad session that lasted two years”. Their united front found voice in the belligerent “Monkey Man” and the rallying cries of “Rudy” and “It’s Up To You”. But there was also an underlying feeling of despair, one never far from the surface of late-’70s urban Britain.
By the time it was released in October 1979, the 2 -Tone insurgency was in full effect. The label had produced hit (debut) singles by The Specials, Madness, The Selecter and The Beat. The band’s look captured on the cover – shady operatives from a potent multicultural underground – was replicated around the country.
Dammers admits to being embarrassed by one song, “Little Bitch”, written when he was 15 and displaying a misogynous trait. Even so, The Specials is much more than a period piece: its depictions of one-parent families, urban violence and insistence on multiculturalism as a fact of life make it just as relevant in 2006.
“It was a pretty horrible time… Thatcher was a turning point for Britain,” says Dammers. “But it was great that bands were saying something. I remember meeting John Lydon in New York after Duran Duran came out and started pissing about on yachts. We both just thought that was the end, a return to the same old rock-star crap.”