Seeing The Specials for the very first time was an arresting sight as I recall. This was obviously no boy band; no this was a gang of ‘geezers’ who obviously could turn a tune around. As history would go on to prove, it wouldn’t last for long, but while it did, it, they demanded your attention.
They were giving off sparks whenever on stage or TV as they flew through tunes like ‘Gangsters’, ‘Too Much Too Young’ & ‘Enjoy Yourself.’
Each one of the members had their own individual thing going on. The morose looking singer and front man, his energetic, lively co-vocalist, the rock solid and hard looking drummer, the ‘on his toes’ bass player, the rocker and rude boy on guitars, as well to the gap- toothed ‘erbert on the keyboard bouncing about all over the shop, all contributing that certain something to this multi racial band.
To top it all off, they also cut a dash in ‘dead mans clothes’ with an early 1960s cut, effectively giving off a ‘don’t mess’ stance.
Formed in 1977 from the embers of ‘The Automatics/Coventry Automatics’, they still had a Punk element to them, but one which had been soaked in the sounds of Rock Steady and Ska, by the time I became aware of them. They were at the very forefront of the ‘2 Tone’ movement, with their own record label of the same name that was picking up speed along with the likes of Madness, The Selecter and The Beat along the way.
The tune ‘Gangsters’ brought them to the attention of the nation and they would stay in my consciousness for a few more years to come in various guises, but the purpose of this particular blog is to look at the first Specials album from 1979, which makes it 40 years old this year.
Now that makes me feel old.
So, join me as I sit back in my old rocking chair and we’ll take a sedate look through our youth together.
First up, ‘Message to you Rudy.’ A cover of the Dandy Livingstone original from 1967. At first a gentle harmonica breathes us into a Boys Brigade snare drum opening, as the great Rico then makes his trombone come alive. Vocalists Terry & Neville then relay the warning message to all Rude Boys to ‘stop your messing around.’
All these years later it is still remains a joyous sound and one that instantly gets my head nodding and thoughts of having a skank never far from the mind.
Elvis Costello plotted up in the producer’s chair certainly set up the rest of the album nicely with this belter.
Taking its title from a 1963 single by Rufus Thomas, ‘Do The Dog’ is a fast paced belter which explodes into life when the much missed drummer John Bradbury launches into his kit and leads us into lyrics that are a political comment on all those factions that were active at the time of this album being released.
Neville cuts across to sing with a deadpan delivery that will live long in the memory. Roddy sparkles on this and the whole thing rattles along nicely.
‘Its Up To You’ is the next cab off the rank and this time Lynval slows down the pace of a song which is a collective writing effort by the entire band. I’ve always heard it as a tale of ‘you’ being challenged to do something with your life. Unite & fight, it really is up to…
A total stand-alone classic is the next to emerge as ‘Nite Klub’ grabs you by the throat and refuses to let go. The tale of living for the night and therefore avoiding the dreaded 9-5, it contains some very tidy bass work from Sir Horace against cacophonous background noises. Any song with lyrics such as ‘I won’t dance in a club like this, all the girls are slags, and the beer tastes just like piss’ will live long in the collective memory of those who attended similar venues in their formative years.
The pace drops again for ‘It Doesn’t Make It Alright’ which, although it contains powerful lyrics, and some nice keyboard work from Dammers this is one of the weaker tracks. For me I take the message from it of turn your back on peer pressure and do the right thing. Many movements were vying for our membership back then, but you knew whom to ignore. Some fell for the nationalistic rhetoric being spouted at the time; others simply decided to challenge it.
“You’re going home in a fucking ambulance, cos you’re gonna get your fucking head kicked in…’
The casual violence of the late 70s/early 80s, especially for those of us who went to football regularly around then will get a collective shiver down the spine as the opening refrain from the majestic ‘Concrete Jungle’ pipes up.
It really was a battlefield out there at times and that is captured superbly here. Roddy wigs out as the song motors on towards the end.
‘Glad I got my mates with me….’
The legendary Prince Buster provides the lyrical content of ‘Too Hot’, which relates the tale of the ‘devil may care’ Jamaican Rude Boys versus the collective authoritive forces of the police, army and bosses in general.
The band as the powerful unit they undoubtedly were, is expertly highlighted on ‘Monkey Man.’ Each member has a part to play as they race through this Toots Hibbet classic. I remember seeing them do this on TV and in the sharp/skinny suits that they had on, you could tell this was a mob to be reckoned with.
(Dawning of a) ‘New Era’ is the tale constructed by Jerry Dammers of picking up a girl and then having to get her home, by venturing into what was not your regular manor. I can relate to this very strongly due to once being chased off an estate in Kennington with lumps of bricks raining all around my ears, after escorting a charming young thing home after a very pleasant evening in a local hostelry.
I constantly sympathise with all those found in the wrong ‘ends’ as they call it nowadays. As time forever reminds us, not a lot changes and as this song says at the end ‘this is so boring’ and Amen to that.
‘Where did you get that blank expression on your face’ …Hands up all those who have been in a pub like that. Thought so.
A hopeless, and some what lost generation, are captured in this three minute Christmas song (well, its got jingle bells…) Great interplay guitar work from Roddy and Lynval on show here ably assisted by Horace and Brad in the rhythm section.
‘Wha ya mean oi oi oi? ‘ Hold on very tight here as Judge Roughneck beckons us to ‘Hush Up!’ as Neville dons his judges syrup whilst Terry relates the tale to his worship which revolves around a rude boy smashing up his ex girlfriends flat before finally finding himself snared up in a ‘dead end’ marriage.
‘Naked woman, naked man, Where did you get that nice sun tan? (Take him away!)’
A similar theme provides the backdrop to a standard up next, namely ‘Too Much Too Young’.
Aint he cute….?
There were countless people around my circle at the time this came out who clearly didn’t heed the precise instructions expressed in this slice of pop perfection. The tale of having a kid (too) early, and finding yourself on the 25th floor of a tower block, might sound like some cliché in a working class kitchen sink drama, but sadly it was the reality of a few I knew back then. In truth, one or two made the distance, but the majority failed to last 12 mouths.
A sobering song in many ways…
‘One Two ‘ and we’re off into ‘Little Bitch’ which is very much a Jerry Dammers song. Dark lyrics wrapped up in a rollicking tune, which relates the lives of attention seeking females, who if things didn’t go their way, threatened all sorts of retribution. In reality they ‘only wanted to die to show off’ – A bitter slice from start to finish.
Over the years I’ve heard that ‘You’re Wondering Now’ will be the funeral song of a pal of two and you know what, that makes perfect sense. Lyrics such as ‘Curtain has fallen, now you’re on your own, I won’t return, forever you will wait’ express a melancholy with a wry smile on its face.
So there you have it. An album that going by the tributes I read recently is still very fondly remembered by those who were there the first time around.
The Specials reformed in 1993, and have continued to perform and record with varying line-ups, though none of them involving Dammers.
I saw the current line up at the 100 Club in February last year (2019) on the back of a new album.
Yes I know this is now a line up bereft of a couple of original members for one reason or the other, and that is a shame in many ways for us old romantics, but man it remained a very special occasion.
The Mumper of SE5