In ’70s Britain, a mixed-race band from the Midlands emerged in an era of industrial strife and social disorder. They revived music and fashions that were at least two decades’ old, played riotous gigs to rowdy audiences, and had a string of massive Top 10 hits. They were called Showaddywaddy, and nobody mentions them much anymore.
We still talk a lot about The Specials, though, and for good reason. Unlike Showaddywaddy, their revivalism was utterly rooted in the here and now. The band’s frontmen – the fey, oddly camp football hooligan Terry Hall and the growling jailbird Neville Staple – were the very ideology of Rock Against Racism made flesh. Their leader, Jerry Dammers, seemed to have rebuilt Jamaican music from rain-sodden English industrial concrete. His lyrics – kitchen-sink dramas of fighting and fucking, fear and loathing – resonated so strongly with teenagers that few of them thought of it as being in any way “retro”.
The band’s 1979 debut, Specials, includes some pretty faithful cover versions of old Jamaican ska singles. “A Message To You, Rudy” even features Rico Rodriguez, the veteran trombonist who played on Dandy Livingstone’s 1967 original. But, generally, The Specials’ versions blow the genteel originals out of the water, with producer Elvis Costello recording them virtually live and capturing the manic energy of their shows. Dammers’ organs and Lynval Golding’s rhythm guitars bubble and skank in all the correct places, but Horace Panter’s basslines punch hard while Roddy Radiation’s punky guitar snarls and fizzes, all the time kept on a tight leash by Costello (who never much liked his histrionic blues solos).
Often the covers mutate into whole new songs. Prince Buster’s 1965 Blue Beat single “Al Capone” is reworked as the ferociously punky “Gangsters” (a reference to an ugly gun-related episode that happened when Bernie Rhodes took the band to Paris). George Fame’s 1964 version of Rufus Thomas’ “Do The Dog” is completely rewritten by Dammers as a state-of-the-nation address (“All you punks and all you teds/National Front and natty dreads/Mods, rockers, hippies and… skin-heads”). And an obscure Lloyd Charmers single, “Birth Control”, is transformed into “Too Much Too Young”, the bawdy, Benny Hill lyrics replaced by a sense of disgust (“Try wearing a cap!”).
If the debut album was teenage male fear writ large, 1980’s follow-up, More Specials, presents a dread that’s more existential than adolescent. Even the daft opener “Enjoy Yourself”, a Prince Buster-inspired reading of Guy Lombardo’s 1949 big-band anthem, hints at impending nuclear war, as does Terry Hall’s first songwriting credit (“I’m just a man at C&A/and I don’t have a say in the war games that they play”), while the well-upholstered exotica of “International Jet Set” tells of a plane crash that kills the narrator along with the “well-dressed chimpanzees” in business class. But the most interesting development is the sonic shift from monochrome into Technicolor: the complicated, Bach-like chord cycles on “Stereotypes”; Dick Cuthell’s mariachi flugelhorn flourishes; and the Yamaha home organ rhythms – beguine, cha-cha, bossa nova – that came plastered all over Side Two (Dammers saw it as a DIY punk appropriation of Muzak). “Ska was just a launching point,” said Dammers, years later. “I didn’t want us to end up like Bad Manners.”
As the band fractured, Dammers’ studioholic tendencies started to overwhelm proceedings. Smash Hits readers jokingly voted the (newly rechristened) Special AKA as 1983’s “most miserable group” and they weren’t far wrong. “There was a whiff of mental illness in the air,” says vocalist Rhoda Dakar of the joyless, endless sessions for the third album, while bassist Horace Panter says that attending rehearsals was “like going to a funeral every day”.
In The Studio was eventually released in 1984 after three cripplingly expensive years of sessions. Aside from the literally world-changing anthem “Nelson Mandela”, it’s often dismissed as preachy and sanctimonious. A reappraisal is due: “What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend” is a hilariously spiteful slice of lovers rock, sung by Dammers himself in a demented falsetto; “The Lonely Crowd” has that same prowling skank, fronted by Stan Campbell’s keening tenor; while “Alcohol” is a suitably woozy reprise of “Ghost Town”. Even if the didactic lyrics on tracks like “Racist Friend” get on your nerves, CD2 here has dub versions of each song, which suggest that this incarnation of The Specials could well have been Britain’s finest ever reggae band.
This was an era when bands were reluctant to put singles on LPs
for fear of shortchanging loyal fans. As a result there are plenty of stand-alone singles, B-sides and 12” mixes that pack out the second discs of each reissued album, alongside live recordings and radically different Radio 1 sessions.
The Specials package sees “Gangsters” fittingly installed as the intro to CD1, with CD2 featuring live sessions, including the chart-topping “Too Much Too Young” EP. But it’s CD2 of More Specials that’s the pick of the bunch. A version of “Rude Buoys Outa Jail” – taken from a bonus 7” that came with early copies of the LP – mixes Dammers’ boogie-woogie piano with Neville Staple’s extended toasting (although this package curiously omits its flipside, “Braggin’ And Tryin’ Not To Lie”, a track that Roddy describes as “the birth of ska-billy”). And the triumphant three-sided single that closes the More Specials chapter – “Ghost Town”, “Why” and “Friday Night, Saturday Morning” – might still be the finest 7” package in pop history.
All three LPs were re-released 13 years ago, without the abundance of extra tracks, but now seem rather more relevant. What then appeared to document a sealed-in, closed-off aberration in British popular culture has been re-energised by the reunion shows. Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen, Kasabian, Arctic Monkeys, Damon Albarn, Hard-Fi and Jamie T have covered Specials songs, while others – Tricky, Mike Skinner, Hollie Cook and dozens of grime, 2step and garage acts – have drawn explicitly from band’s music. Their gleefully grey take on Jamaica is now an inescapable component of British pop. Unlike dear old Showaddywaddy.
Tell us about your songwriting process? How did you usually write? How did it change as each album went on?
My songs were normally autobiographical or personal political statements of my opinion. Mainly things I wasn’t happy about. Sometimes words came first, sometimes a tune, sometimes both together. With the second album our lives had changed so completely, “International Jet Set” was still autobiographical but I was aware the public probably wouldn’t be able to relate so easily. “Stereotype” and “Pearls Café” were more or less invented characters with elements of different real people.
How much collaboration was there when it came to the writing and arranging?
I was very generous with credits. “Gangsters”, “Blank Expression”, “It’s Up To You”, “Nite Klub”, are sometimes credited to the whole band, but really I wrote those songs. Roddy added guitar licks, Terry contributed one line to “Nite Klub”– “All the girls are slags and the beer tastes just like piss”. I also contributed lyrics to Lynval’s two songs “Do Nothing” and “Why?” and contributed some lyrics to Neville’s toasts on “Stupid Marriage” and “Why?”. I also helped Terry with the music on “Friday Night And Saturday Morning”, all without credit. On “Man At C&A” I wrote the music and Terry and I collaborated on the lyrics. The rest of the credits are more or less as it was.
I was arranger overall but people contributed some bits. Roddy made up most of his guitar lines. His songs were basic punk, Lynval’s very basic reggae. I wrote a lot of the bass lines. “Concrete Jungle”… I think Horace may have contributed the high bits and I wrote the heavy dub bass line, those made the song what it was – jungle 15 years before jungle! As we moved towards the second album my idea was to move from monochrome to Technicolor, sonically as well. I added plucked piano to “Rat Race”, Ice Rink Strings to “Do Nothing”. I think it would be fair to say that the more arranged the songs became, the more resistance I encountered from Roddy and Lynval. Roddy didn’t like the ironic “shoo-bee-doos” on “Hey little Rich Girl”. Lynval thought the horns on “Ghost Town” sounded “wrong! wrong! wrong!”
Did you write specifically for Terry or Neville to sing?
I was aware that Terry and Neville were the lead singers, I wrote some of “Ghost Town” and some of my contributions to Neville’s toasts in patois, and I intended him to sing those bits, but I didn’t tailor any of my lyrics or what I wanted to say specifically to any singer . In fact, a lot of my songs were written or part written before the band was formed , or before Terry and Neville joined. (“Nite Klub”, “Doesn’t Make It Alright”, “Blank Expression”, “Too Much Too Young”, “I Can’t Stand It”, “Little Bitch” – written when I was 15 !) “Pearls Café” and “Man At C&A” were new lyrics to tunes I’d written before the band.
How “live” was the first album?
It was more or less recorded with everyone playing at once, then some vocals redone and maybe some brass done as overdubs. On the second album, we started moving towards recording Roddy’s guitar and my additional keyboard parts separately as overdubs, even the drums where I used the cheesy home organ rhythm machines and arpeggiators. I thought that was quite a “punk” idea, but Roddy didn’t really see it that way. I was getting more interested in the sonic possibilities of the studio.
On the second album, it sounds like you’ve been picking up influences from lots of different sources…
I went out of my way to listen to anything that had been regarded as rubbish in the rock world, muzak, exotica, it was quite groundbreaking, everyone from electro pop to 2 Tone were trying to consign rock music to the dustbin of history at that time.
With In The Studio, was The Special AKA actually a “band” or was it more a collection of hired hands?
No, it was intended to be a proper band, and the few sessions we did for TV or radio actually sounded quite good. It’s a shame everyone had left before we attempted a gig.
Did the experience of the last album put you off recording for a while?
I ended up on my own, imprisoned in the record contract, with
a large debt to the record company, so there was no real point involving anybody else in doing any more recording until they released me from the contract.
How did you meet the son of ANC President Oliver Tambo?
After I wrote “Free Nelson Mandela”, Dali Tambo approached me to organise the British Artists Against Apartheid. I couldn’t really record for the reasons I explained above, so I did four years hard work unpaid in an office! During that time an agent of Apartheid walked in the ANC office in Paris and shot Dulcie September dead so I wouldn’t describe it as fun times, exactly. There was creativity, of course, in approaching artists like The Smiths and New Order for the series of concerts, and putting the bill together for the massive concert on Clapham Common with Gil Scott-Heron, Hugh Masekela, Peter Gabriel, Paul Weller, Big Audio Dynamite and more. That attracted 200,000 people. Then I secured the commitment of Simple Minds, and Dire Straits followed, which got the Mandela 70th Birthday concert at Wembley off the ground. My musical creativity was put on hold, apart from playing “Free Nelson Mandela” at Clapham, and then at Wembley, which was broadcast to millions around the world, then again when Mandela came and spoke. Those were the proudest days of my life.
INTERVIEW: JOHN LEWIS