The Specials - The Specials Music Album Reviews

The Specials - The Specials Music Album Reviews
Each Sunday, Pitchfork takes an in-depth look at a significant album from the past, and any record not in our archives is eligible. Today, we revisit the 1979 debut from the rambunctious and politically charged UK group the Specials, a marquee document of the ska revival.

On November 14, 1940, Germany’s months-long air raid better known as the Coventry Blitz reached a brutal climax, razing over 4,000 homes and killing hundreds in the English city. The Luftwaffe struck overnight, using the light of the full moon to sight their targets and cripple the industrial stronghold. Within hours, one-third of Coventry’s factories were leveled. Great chunks of the Daimler plant, birthplace of the first British car, were reduced to heaps of brick and dust. The once-sturdy town, the automotive hub of the West Midlands, was scattered about in smoking piles by morning. The German code word for the raid borrowed a name from one of Beethoven’s most famous works: Mondscheinsonate, or “Moonlight Sonata.”

After the war, recovery was incremental. Estates emerged on the city’s perimeter and apartment towers rose from the ash. As auto factories were rebuilt, Coventry reclaimed its status as “Britain’s motor city.” Car manufacturing boomed, peaking alongside Detroit in the 1950s and ’60s. Shopping centers and multi-tiered parking garages signaled the rise of post-war leisure. It was a boxy, cinder block vision of the future, but a glimpse forward nonetheless.

And then the city was leveled once more—by a much quieter force, lacking shape and purpose. A nationwide recession crept in, stripping Coventry of its core industry; between 1974 and 1982, local jobs in manufacturing were slashed nearly 50 percent, and the resuscitated city center decayed. Youth gangs roamed the streets, which were often lined with shuttered shop windows. Coventry’s second decline couldn’t be measured in rubble mounds. The debris was invisible and ambient—a sour but fertile soil that sprouted one of England’s most vibrant music scenes.

Unlike Motown, which coincided with Detroit’s economic surge, the Specials and 2 Tone burst from Coventry’s crumbling infrastructure. Christened by bandleader and organist Jerry Dammers, the 2 Tone genre was a bubbling concoction of Jamaican ska and snide, stripped-back punk. By the early 1970s, scores of people had relocated from the West Indies to Britain, many settling in the Midlands city. Some Jamaican-born Coventry residents would throw sound system parties, stacking speakers in great towers and blaring roots and rocksteady into the night. The cross-pollination of effervescent ska rhythms and blue-collar malcontent was inevitable.

Dammers was the son of an Anglican minister, but he devoted his life to a different trinity: the Beatles, the Stones, and the Kinks. He devoured records from Motown and Stax, and started writing songs at the age of 10. As a teenager, Dammers got hooked on radio hits like Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites” and “Liquidator” by the Harry J All Stars. Cobbling together the Specials was a circuitous, multi-year phenomenon. The group was first known as the Automatics, and then the Coventry Automatics, and then the Special AKA, before their shorter, more sensible moniker was adopted. The lineup came together in pieces. At 15, Dammers played drums in his first band, Gristle, which included future Specials lead guitarist Roddy Radiation (née Byers). He met bassist Horace Panter while studying art at Lanchester Polytechnic. The two students shared a love of reggae and mischief. “We used to wreck the hippie parties, play Prince Buster records,” Panter once said of his early antics with Dammers. After college, Dammers played in a cover band, but longed to record his own music, a souped-up fusion of Jamaican pop and British grit.

In 1977, Dammers formed the Automatics with Panter, Jamaican rhythm guitarist Lynval Golding, drummer Silverton Hutchinson (later replaced by John Bradbury), and vocalist Tim Strickland. Strickland was quickly swapped out for a local 17-year-old named Terry Hall, who’d been plucked from a punk band called Squad. The following year, Roddy Radiation joined the fold, as did singer and toaster Neville Staple, a regular at Coventry’s Locarno Ballroom dance hall. These early details—the name changes and personnel revisions—were like the tiny bubbles creeping up the side of the pot before it boils over.

By 1979, Dammers had formed 2 Tone Records, giving a name and aesthetic to the nascent Coventry style. A 2 Tone single could be identified by a stripe of black and white checks stretching across the disc label, and the slim-suited rude boy logo—a nod to an early photograph of Peter Tosh. The Specials reconstructed the look, copping vintage suits from thrift shops and topping them with trim ties and pork pie hats. The name 2 Tone referred to the fabric of 1960s tonic suits, which was woven from two different colored threads for an iridescent effect. The first 2 Tone release was a split 7" from the Specials (then billed as the Special AKA) and fellow Coventrians the Selector. The Specials stamped Side A with “Gangsters,” their interpretation of Prince Buster’s bluebeat instrumental “Al Capone.” The band’s debut single kicked up the tempo of Buster’s original and curdled the mood just enough. “Why must you record my phone calls?/Are you planning a bootleg LP?” Terry Hall sang, his juvenile sneer toughening Dammers’ jaunty organ pulses.

The song was partly inspired by a fiasco the band endured at a nightclub in France. One evening, the landlady of a nearby hotel barged into the group’s dressing room with a couple of hired goons. Her previous lodgers, rowdy London punks the Damned, had trashed their room, and the proprietor demanded that the Specials cover the damages. At one point, she seized Lynval Golding’s Telecaster, sparking the lyric, “Can’t interrupt while I’m talking/Or they’ll confiscate all your guitars.” After a useless appearance from local police, the club owners restored order backstage. Their revenge on the French innkeeper, immortalized in “Gangsters,” was an early victory; the song climbed to No. 6 on the UK charts, and 2 Tone swept the country.

Meanwhile, Elvis Costello spent the summer of ’79 crisscrossing through England on trains, sustained by, as he once put it, “half a bottle of gin and some little blue pills.” Costello had just released Armed Forces, his terrific third album with the Attractions, but he was preparing for a new role on those hazy railway commutes. As the producer of the Specials’ forthcoming self-titled debut, Costello was devising a strategy to capture the kinetic flash of their performances. He trailed them from one seaside town to the next, catching as many live gigs as possible. “My job was to get the band on tape before some more skilled producer got ahold of them and screwed it up completely, by perfecting things that didn’t need perfecting,” Costello recalled in his 2015 memoir, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink. “Jerry [Dammers]’s dogged pursuit of his ideals and the improbable chemistry of the lineup did the rest.”

With the addition of horn players Dick Cuthell and Rico Rodriguez, the Specials had almost enough members to fill a baseball team. Costello jammed them all into TW Studios, a cramped space under a laundromat in West London that smelled of detergent and “drying socks,” as Costello remembers. The ensuing sessions were teeming with pranks, jury-rigged sound effects, and the occasional cameo. Costello, by then an elder statesman of New Wave, was a scrappy, madcap producer. He stomped amps with Doc Martens and beat tin trays with a broom handle to enhance the percussion. Everything reverberated off the studio’s concrete floor, lending the album a spacious, metallic quality, as though it’d been recorded in an industrial warehouse rather than a Fulham hovel. He also enlisted Pretenders leader and ultimate cool girl Chrissie Hynde to track the lusty panting on “Stupid Marriage,” and a brief condemnation of “slags” on “Nite Klub.”

Costello fell victim to the band’s drunken hijinks, but he leveraged it to improve the album. Sure, they laughed at the bespectacled singer when a chair collapsed beneath him early into recording. And yes, Neville Staple shut down a mixing session when he strolled into the studio and shot Costello with a .45 pistol that was, fortunately, loaded with blanks. But like a brave substitute teacher, Costello was unruffled; he embraced their buffoonery, perhaps fueling the fire by supplying the band with plenty of liquor. Gearing up to record the scorching, antisocial “Nite Klub,” Costello was hellbent on replicating the sweaty confines of a concert venue. He stocked up on booze, switched off the lights, and stuffed the studio with the band members and their bawdy friends. In the dark, plied with alcohol, human nature did the rest. The backing track is a drunkard’s symphony on its own, rendered with clinking bottles, strident chitchat, and an urgent demand for refreshment: “Pass that beer! Pass that beer! Pass that beer!”

Done and dusted, The Specials was released in October of ’79. Cruising in the wake of “Gangsters,” it scaled the British charts, landing in the Top 20 and priming the group for their first No. 1 single. “Too Much Too Young” was an unlikely hit, a dubby, downbeat shuffle about wasted youth and unplanned pregnancy. Interpolating Lloyd Charmers’ raunchy 1969 song “Birth Control,” the Specials drowned the piece in dishwater and stale tea. Hall took aim at a young woman, who was “married with a kid” and “chained to the cooker” instead of partying with him. “Ain’t he cute?/No he ain’t,” Hall sneered at her baby. “He’s just another burden on the welfare state.” These totems of domesticity—marriage, procreation—might have been pillars of a hit song 25 years prior, but “Too Much Too Young” was built on their wreckage. That the single reached No. 1 was a testament to England’s dispirited youth. Unemployment was on the rise, and the entire country was heading for a recession. It was an unappealing time to hunker down and have a family.

“Too Much Too Young” was also a bit of a sham. For all of its assumed social commentary, Dammers later admitted that he wrote it out of jealousy. His spiteful, sexist lyrics are an occasional blight on the band’s debut. “Little Bitch” is especially cruel. You could argue that it is a working-class rebuke of rich interlopers peacocking through the underground, until Hall twists the knife: “And you think it’s about time that you died/And I agree, so you decide on suicide/You tried but you never quite carried it off/You only wanted to die in order to show off.” Decades later, after his own suicide attempt, Hall expressed regret over the song. “It felt like a horrible personal attack on someone I didn’t know,” he said. The band eventually dropped it from their live set.

Despite the odd lapse into chauvinism, the Specials denied the uglier schools of punk philosophy. They rejected nihilism and fascist iconography, and took an aggressive stance against racism, often marching into the crowd to eject bigots from their live shows. Stray members of the neo-fascist National Front party would find their way to Specials gigs, sieg-heiling and hurling coins at the group. Hall would heckle the skinheads, and anyone else who rejected the positivity of their music: “We’d like to thank you lot up front who’re dancing and the rest back there—shit to you!” Despite the occasional intruder, Specials’ fans were largely a progressive, rambunctious crew. The band supported left-wing causes like Rock Against Racism, the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament, and the Right to Work March.

“Because we are multiracial, we want to see people live together the same way we work on our music,” Lynval Golding told The New York Times in 1981. “Issues like racism and unemployment can’t be pushed aside.” In the early ’80s, Golding was the victim of two separate racist attacks in London and Coventry. The latter left him nearly dead after the assailant slashed his jugular with a smashed bottle. “I only want to live in peace with people,” Golding told a reporter from his hospital bed. “I didn’t attempt to fight back and I don’t intend to start now.” Three years prior, Dammers penned the anti-racist skank “Doesn’t Make It Alright” in direct response to the hate that was putrefying an extreme sect of British youth. “Just because you’re a Black boy/Just because you’re a white,” Hall sings in his most tender register. “It doesn’t mean you've got to hate him/It doesn’t mean you’ve got to fight.” Today, the words read like a nursery rhyme—a bouquet of good intentions masking the complex stench of reality.

Ultimately, the Specials were necessary idealists. They managed to transcend the doldrums of their hometown, not by fleeing to London or the States, but by enriching the community around them. “The whole idea of the Specials and 2 Tone was to do something for Coventry,” Terry Hall told The Guardian in 1997. Hall attended school in the center of town, and his parents worked blue-collar jobs in the city’s once-booming auto industry. As a child, he felt suffocated by the oppressive, endless concrete, the spiking street violence, the stagnant gray Hell. He frequently asked himself: “How do I get away from Coventry?” For a few electrifying years, Hall and the Specials embraced the battered metropolis and built a refuge all their own.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

Hey, I'm Perera! I will try to give you technology reviews(mobile,gadgets,smart watch & other technology things), Automobiles, News and entertainment for built up your knowledge.
The Specials - The Specials Music Album Reviews The Specials - The Specials Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on April 10, 2022 Rating: 5


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