Specials, The, founding fathers of the second wave of ska. Membership: Terry Hall, voc. (b. Coventry, England, March 19, 1959); Jerry Dammers (real name, Gerald Dankin), kybd. (b. India, May 22, 1954); Lynval Golding, gtr. (b. Coventry, England, July 24, 1951); Rodney Radiation (real name Rodney Byer), gtr.; Sir Horace Gentleman (real name, Horace Panter), bs.; Neville Staples, voc, perc.; John Bardbury, drm.
In mid-1970s Britain, while everyone else was playing loud, fast, and angry, the Specials started playing fast, melodic, and smart. They revived a 1960s music popular in Jamaica and among expatriate West Indians in England called ska, and spawned a music that both answered punk and expanded punk’s palette. While the original band only lasted two albums before splintering into the cream of England’s experimental new wave, members continued to record, write, and play Two-Tone Ska into the new millennium. Ultimately, while they never charted in the U.S. Top 40, they influenced bands from the Mighty Mighty Bosstones to Rancid.
The group began playing as the Coventry Automatics, and later called themselves the Special AKA before settling on the Specials. Initially, they split their set between reggae and punk, but found that the two didn’t work well in tandem for them, so fused them together to revive ska. The Clash invited them to open for them on tour, which got the major labels interested. Instead of signing, keyboard player Jerry Dammers started his own label, Two-Tone, in homage to the black-and-white garb their fans wore and, more importantly, on the biracial component of both the band and the audience. Their self-released single “Gangsters” rose to the English Top ten. Then other Two-Tone bands like the Selecter, the Beat, and Madness started making hits, earning the label distribution by Chrysalis.
In 1979 the group released their eponymous, Elvis Costello-produced debut album to considerable praise on both sides of the Atlantic. Mixing ska classics like “Message to You Rudi” and “Monkey Man” to show their roots with their own socially aware tunes like “Concrete Jungle,” “Stupid Marriage,” and “Too Much Too Soon” (released on EP in the U.K.), the band established a new beachhead for the music. Their horn charts, featuring Rico on trombone, stole a page from bands like the Skatalites for pure jazziness.
By the time they recorded their second album, the tension between the pro-ska factions of the band and the pro-pop segment became audible. More Specials featured less ska and more…other stuff. The album began and ended with a ska-ed up version of Herb Maeidson and Carl Sigman’s 1949 chestnut “Enjoy Yourself” and built from there, but nothing was as strong as their debut.
While it was evident that the band and the movement was winding down, they took their label out on tour, recording the Two-Tone gestalt for posterity on film and album as Dance Craze. The band also released an EP featuring the incredibly powerful and spooky “Ghost Town” about the early 1980 race riots in Brixton. It topped the English charts.
Shortly after the Specials’s second album was released in 1980, Hall, Golding, and Staples splintered off to form the avant-pop unit Fun Boys Three. Fun Boys Three released several singles that had middling sales in the U.K., but were startling nonetheless. “The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum” a strange, minimalist dirge, reached the Top 20 in 1982. They duetted with the all-woman trio Bananarama on an old Jimmy Lunceford (via Young James Oliver) tune “It Ain’t What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It)” and had another hit with George Gershwin’s “Summertime.” Their second album, released in 1983, featured “Tunnel of Love” and their version of “Our Lips Are Sealed,” a hit Hall wrote with Jane Weidlin of the Go-Gos, who had already had a hit with it.
Meanwhile, Dammers worked close to three years to finish In the Studio, which was finally released in 1984. With vocalist Stan Campbell from the Selecter filling in nicely, the album had some classic songs, including “What I Like Most about You Is Your Girlfriend,” “Racist Friend,” and the political landmark “Free Nelson Mandela.” However, the album cost so much money to make Dammers wound up in heavy debt. After that, Dammers left the music scene to pursue his political interests.
The 1990s saw various Specials and related bands working on tour and record. Past members of the Specials hooked up with members of another Two-Tone band, the (English) Beat, and toured as the Special Beat, releasing a couple of live albums in the early 1990s. The Specials with Staples, Golding, Panter, and Radiation (now using his given name of Byer), hit the road mid-decade and released Guilty ’Til Proved Innocent, an album of new material in 1998. Two live albums followed.
THE SPECIALS: The Specials (1979); More Specials (1980); In the Studio (1984); Today’s Specials (1996); Concrete Jungle (1998); Guilty ’Til Proved Innocent! (1998); Blue Plate Specials Live (1999); Ghost Town: Live at Montreux Jazz Festival (1999). THE FUN BOY THREE: The Fun Boys Three (1982); Waiting (1983); Old Grey Whistle Test Series (live; 1995); Singles (1995); Fame (1999). SPECIAL BEAT: Live (1992); Live in Japan (1994); Gangsters (live; 1998); Tears of a Clown (live; 1998).