Ska pop band
Relating the band’s genesis to Glenn Burn-Silver of the Boulder Planet nearly twenty years later, Specials bassist Horace Panter explained: “People had had enough of punk. The Sex Pistols were history. The Clash was seduced by the Yankee dollar. There were just too many bad punk acts around.” Brandishing a ska sound and style that harkened back to the early 1960s, The Specials were clearly a product of the 1977 punk explosion in England. The revolution consisted of young music fans rejecting the extended instrumentals and elaborate performances of quintessentially 1970s bands like Led Zeppelin, Yes, and Pink Floyd in favor of stripped-down, three-chord, rough pop tunes, often with a liberal political or social message. “The sound was tied closely to the ideology of our time,” Specials guitarist Lyndval Golding told Billboards Carrie Bell in a 1997 article about the resurgence of ska. “You used your music to get your message across to kids. Music is a vice, but you can use it to educate.”
The group’s influence is seen both by the trail it blazed for other ska bands like Madness, The Selecter, and The English Beat, and by the rankings its first two seminal albums were accorded by music critics—The Specials at number 25 on the New Musical Express’ greatest albums of the 1970s, and More Specials at number 68 on Rolling Stone’s top picks for the 1980s. Bought at the price of a frenetic pace and significant group tension, this success was concentrated in a few short years as The Specials disbanded in 1981 and then reformed with various line-ups off and on through 1997.
The Specials were founded in England’s industrial Coventry and originally called themselves the Automatics. After a dispute with another band of the same name, they changed to The Special AKA the Automatics, which was shortened to The Special AKA—or simply The Specials, as the band was known from 1978 on. The group was led by Jerry Dammers on keyboards, Golding on guitar, and Horace Panter on bass.
In 1978, one of punk rock’s leading figures, Joe Strummer, invited The Specials to open for his band, The Clash, on its “On Parole” tour of the United Kingdom. At that point The Specials were still experimenting with their sound, playing a mix of Clash-like punk songs alternating with much slower reggae, which punk music fans favored for its message of political protest. Finding that the different tempos didn’t work together, the band settled on ska, a Jamaican precursor to reggae popularized in England in the early 1960s by “mods”—young, urban devotees of bands like the Who and the Kinks and their R&B inspirations. “There is a spiritual connection between punk and reggae,” Panter told writer Burn-Silver. “Both were rebel music when they started. That fact that we (the band) all liked reggae and punk helped. We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if there was something that filled the gap?’ It turns out that there was something—ska. Ska was different, and it still had energy and attitude.”
Energy and attitude would be in large supply over the next two whirlwind years of The Specials’ career. Filling out the band’s sound, the founding triumvirate added drummer John Bradbury, guitarist Roddy Byers, and singers Terry Hall and Neville Staples—the latter having been promoted from his duties as a roadie. Trombonist Rico Rodriguez joined in 1979. Displaying characteristic attention to style and control, as well as the do-it-yourself ethic of the punk movement, Dammers hatched the idea of starting the band’s own record label. Like the great record labels behind many previous movements in pop music, such as Chess with Blues and Motown with R&B, Dammers wanted 2-Tone Records to be the sponsor of a ska explosion. And to a great extent it was, signing major names of second-wave ska, like Madness, The Selecter, and The English Beat. The first wave of ska had been sixties Jamaican artists like the Skatalites, Prince Buster, and Desmond Dekker, and the third came in the 1990s with bands like Bim Skala Bim and The Toasters, as well as the
For the Record…
Members include Mark Adams (bandmember, 1994—), keyboards; Adam Birch (bandmember, 1994—), horns; Roddy Byers (founding member), guitar; Lynval Golding (founding member; born July 7, 1952, in Jamaica), guitar; Aitch Hyatt (bandmember, 1994—), drums; Horace Panter (founding member), bass; John Read (bandmember, 1994—), trumpet; Neville Staples (founding member; born April 11, 1956, in Jamaica), vocals, percussion.
Former members include Jerry Dammers (born Gerald Dankin May 22, 1954, in India; bandmember, 1977-81), keyboards; John Bradbury (bandmember, 1979-81), drums; Terry Hall (born March 19, 1959, in Coventry, England; bandmember, 1978-81), vocals; Rico Rodriguez (born October 17, 1934; bandmember, 1979), trombone; Siverton (bandmember, 1977-78), drums.
Group formed in Coventry, England in 1977; invited to open for The Clash on United Kingdom tour, 1978; recorded self-financed single, “Gangsters,” formed 2-Tone Records (distributed by Chrysalis), released first LP, The Specials, and signed The Selector and Madness to 2-Tone, 1979; toured U.S., Japan, and Belgium, saw Special AKA Live EP hit number one on U.K. charts, and released More Specials, 1980; released Dance Craze (movie) and number one U.K. single, “Ghost Town,” then disbanded to form The Special AKA, Fun Boy Three, General Public, and The Special Beat, 1981; partially reformed to release In the Studio and “Nelson Mandela,” 1984; hosted 70th birthday celebration concert for Nelson Mandela, 1988; released The Singles Collection, 1991; reformed (minus Dammers) to release Today’s Specials, 1996; recorded Payback Time released in 1998.
Addresses: Record company —Way Cool Music, P.O. Box 100, Sunset Beach, CA, 90742. Website —Official Specials site: www.waycoolmusic.com/artists/thespe-cials/
ska-influenced No Doubt, Rancid, and Mighty Mighty Bosstones.
The Selecter, in fact, was born as the name given to an instrumental written by Dammers’s friend Noel Davies to occupy the B-side of The Specials’ first single, “Gangsters.” Recorded in early 1979 with borrowed money, the single ended up making it to number six on the U.K. charts. On the basis of this recording and a black and white (two-tone) logo of a stylishly dressed man Dammers had concocted, London label Rough Trade Records pressed 5,000 copies of “Gangsters,” and the American label Chrysalis signed on to distribute the fledgling 2-Tone Records’ releases.
Though lacking regular offices, a staff, or even a phone, 2-Tone was chartered as a corporation with each member of The Specials as a director. By November the first LP, The Specials, produced by Elvis Costello, was on its way to number four on the U.K. charts, followed by its single, “A Message to You Rudy,” which hit number ten. Early the next year Rolling Stone’s Mick Brown reported on the 2-Tone phenomenon saying, “The Specials’ story is one of those remarkable collusions of enterprise, timing and luck that rarely occurs in rock.” And he quoted Panter explaining the group’s motivation: “We’d had so many managers, and prospective managers, so many promises, and it had all fallen through. So we thought if we wanted to get anything done, we were going to have to do it ourselves.”
The Specials began 1980 with a six-week tour of the U.S. and released a live EP, The Special AKA Live, which hit number one in the U.K. Two more top-ten singles were released that year—“Rat Race” and “Stereotype”—bringing to five the number of top-ten U.K. hits and seven the number of 2-Tone songs selling at least 250,000 copies. The group returned to the road in June, touring Japan and Belgium. The end of the year saw another full-length release, More Specials. Though it contained a number of songs in the ska tradition of the first album, like “Do Nothing” and “Man at C&A,” the majority were of a slower, less hectic style that Dammers referred to as “lounge” music.
The following year, 1981, started off on a bad note as Dammers and Hall were fined for inciting violence and using threatening words after a fight broke out at a raucous concert. Soon after, 2-Tone expanded its influence, releasing the movie Dance Craze with an accompanying album featuring the music of The Specials, The Selecter, Madness, and Bad Manners. February 1981 also saw the group release “Ghost Town,” the million-selling single decrying the state of race relations and urban poverty in Britain. The song proved hauntingly prophetic, as race riots broke out in economically depressed areas like Brixton and Liverpool that summer. Guitarist Golding himself was the victim of an attack that left him with 27 stitches. Seeking to quell the disturbances and fearing “Ghost Town” a negative influence, the single was banned by the BBC.
With “Ghost Town” topping sales charts in the country and The Specials at their most popular ever, the group succumbed to the strains of a hectic touring and recording schedule, growing musical differences, and probably also Dammers’ insistence on control. The group disbanded, splintering off into shifting alliances in successive recording projects. Staples, Hall, and Golding formed Fun Boy Three, which recorded two albums, had five hits, and split up in 1993. Panter teamed up with Ranking Roger from the 2-Tone band The English Beat and formed the equally successful General Public, which recorded two albums (Panter only appeared on the first) and scored with hits like “Tenderness” and a cover of Elvis Presley’s song “Suspicious Minds” before evolving into Fine Young Cannibals. The Special Beat was a Specials/English Beat hybrid including Staples, Panter, and Roger, which toured the U.S. and released a live album, Special Beat Live, in 1992. And not to be left out, guitarist Byers formed the short-lived Roddy Radiation and the Tearjerkers, and drummer Bradbury formed the similarly eponymous J.B.’s Allstars.
Dammers, apparently hurt by the defections, continued his musical evolution toward even more benign forms of pop music which he compared to Muzak, resurrecting the old “The Special AKA” moniker to do so. Occasionally joined by Panter, Byers, and Bradbury, this vestige of The Specials released In the Studio: The Special AKA, as well as a few singles from 1982 to 1984—most notably “Free Nelson Mandela.” Dammers also organized a 70th birthday concert celebration in 1988 for the jailed South African leader featuring Dire Straits, Whitney Houston, Stevie Wonder, and others. Dammers involved himself in other causes, too, like the 1985 compilation album, Starvation, benefitting Ethiopian famine relief and featuring The Special AKA, UB40, and General Public. Dammers also oversaw the release of a Specials greatest hits album, The Singles Collection, which entered the U.K. charts at number ten in 1991.
The seeds for a Specials rebirth were sown in 1994 when London-based Trojan Records convinced Panter, Byers, Staples, and Golding to back first-wave ska legend Desmond Dekker on an album that became Kings of Ska by Desmond Dekker and The Specials. The release’s success in Japan led to a tour there, followed by a seven-week stint in the U.S. in the fall, both featuring selections from the group’s old material. This experience energized the members to consider recording another album. “We were asked to put out an album but didn’t have any new material,” Panter told Burn-Silver of the Boulder Planet. “Someone suggested that we do an album of covers. We all sat round and had a big argument…. The Specials were always about bringing disparate influences together, and some of the ideas were pretty wild.” Today’s Specials, released on UB40 singer Ali Campbell’s Kuff Records, included reggae covers like Bob Marley’s “Hypocrite” and Toots and the Maytals’ “Pressure Drop,” as well as jazzman Paul Desmond’s “Take Five,” and pop songs like Neil Diamond’s “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You.” “Pressure Drop” was later included in the 1996 John Cusack film, Grosse Pointe Blank and its soundtrack.
This Dammers-less reunion led to the reformed Specials (joined by former Selecter drummer Aitch Hyatt, keyboardist Mark Adams, trombonist Adam Birch and trumpeter John Read) signing with MCA-distributed Way Cool Music in 1997. Ironically, Specials drummer Bradbury was at the same time playing with a recently reformed Selecter. A brief U.S. tour that summer, as well as some dates in South America, brought the band to the recording studio in the fall, where they began work on Payback Time. Released in early 1998, the band hoped that the record, as well as the current popularity of ska-influenced bands like Mighty Mighty Bosstones and No Doubt, would lead to a resurgence of their popularity. Applauding this revival of ska, Panter nevertheless gave word that he, for one, was prepared to hold it to the high standards of the past. “I have this fear that ska is becoming ‘Revenge of the Nerd’ music,” he told Burn-Silver. “It’s like, ‘Let’s dress silly and do a funny dance.’ The Specials always had a sharp, stylish attitude. I think it is important to always have a certain style, rather than no real style at all.”
The Specials, 2-Tone/Chrysalis, 1979.
The Special AKA Live EP, 2-Tone/Chrysalis, 1980.
More Specials, 2-Tone/Chrysalis, 1980.
(Contributor) Dance Craze (soundtrack), 2-Tone/Chrysalis, 1981.
The Singles Collection, 2-Tone/Chrysalis, 1991
Too Much Too Young Live (recorded in 1979), Receiver, 1992.
Kings of Ska by Desmond Dekker and The Specials, Trojan, 1994.
(Contributor) Grosse Pointe Blank (soundtrack), 1996.
Today’s Specials, Kuff/Virgin, 1996.
Payback Time, Way Cool Music/MCA, 1998.
Billboard, October 18, 1997.
Boulder Planet, July 23, 1997.
Progressive, August 1996, p. 15.
Rolling Stone, March 6, 1980, p. 24; October 2, 1997.
Time, April 7, 1980, p. 75.
Washington Post, May 29, 1996.
Additional information was provided by Way Cool Music publicity materials, 1997.
—John F. Packel