If you were 12 in 1979, the Specials were easy peasy lemon squeezy the greatest band on the planet. The sort of band you can't quite imagine not existing before. Of course, style over substance is any easy sell in the pop charts, and you have to assume that the vast majority of the millions of catalogue rude boy clones who cat walked the shithole of Britain’s high streets over the following few years were fashion victims of the lowest order (check Stereotypes or Do Nothing for the bands response). The difference being that, perfectly packaged as they were, the Specials were substance wrapped in checkerboard. Who else could mention the Irish Republican Army and the Ulster Defence Association in a dance track? It turns out I, and millions of others, nailed our colours to the right mast at the time, and try as I might I still can't find a single chink in the armour of The Specials legacy.
First, they looked fucking great. If you weren't there, Britain was transformed into a mail order version of The Wailin Wailers album cover almost overnight, though it probably didn't know it at the time. Before the birth of the woeful sports casual, the working class dressed up for the weekend and the easily attainable and striking evocation of mid 60's Jamaica was too irresistible for those who founds punks sartorial alienation just that bit too alienating.
Plus, how many record label designs will ever be a iconic as the fictional Walt Jabsco effortlessly cooling on every two tone label? A generation of trend followers spent the next year desperately trying to look as cool as a cartoon and usually ended up as a poor mans Mickey Pearce from Only Fools And Horses, but their hearts were in the right place.
Secondly they sounded fucking great. Musicians aside, and if you're listening to musicianship you're not hearing a band, that contrast between Terry’s pained self conscious proselytizing and the manic party time antics of Lynval and Neville either side have only ever been equalled by Public Enemys Chuck D and Flava Flav. And never bettered.
It was the music, rather than the look, that pinned my mind back; a lifetime of joyous Ska appreciation began with that first album, and the subsequent realizations that Stupid Marriage was a superior take on Prince Busters various Judge Dread outings, Too Much Too Young was a vastly superior rewrite of the rather childish humour of Lloydie and the Lowbites "Birth Control" and that Enjoy Yourself from album two was first a pop hit in 1949 ! And yet it all sounded so new. And still does.
The most welcome by product of the Specials shaking up the nation was, for me, the steady stream of Bluebeat reissues and rebirth of Buster and Laurel Aitkens careers. And rack your brains for a classier act than using Rico Rodriguez as the Trombone player on A Message to You Rudy, 12 years after he'd weaved his magic on Dandy Livingstone's original version.
Thirdly, they thought fucking great. In an age where teenage girls called Kate or Katie clog up the airwaves with songs about boyfriend trouble, (and that age is always), a number one about birth control seems highly unlikely. And it did then. Add to that, a first tour supporting the Clash, their own label which proportionally was more about others than them, launching Madness, launching The Selector before they even existed, that Two Tone episode of Top Of The Pops, the tour that introduced the non ska wonders of Dexys Midnight Runners to a generation, a faultless and thoughtful back catalogue, opening barely formed minds to racial tolerance, their constant defiance of the ever present National Front and very much under staying their welcome, I defy anyone to find a criticism worth mentioning.
I've often contended in the face of po faced arguments regarding the point of introspective political singer songwriters, that a song never ended a war. Having said that the seeds of a lifetime of questioning the what should be-ness of the situation were probably sowed during a mindless jiggle to Too Much Too Young (which really should be the theme tune to The Jeremy Kyle Show), though even as a kid it the pleas for harmony in 'Why?' seemed a tad needless. How wrong I was.
Sadly the Racism remains, just the colour of the skins has changed. These songs may not have ended a war, but at least they made you decide which side you were on. For that generation, and as a twelve year old a generation lasts about two years, our experience of politics through song had consisted largely of Jimmy Pursey shouting about pubs and football. No one had shown us yet that fear and anger could be so articulate. Of course an earnest 12 year olds opinion of style, politics and musicality aren't to be held too high in the court of public regard and it took me many years to unravel the subtleties and niceties of their sadly too slim output.
At the time Friday Night and Saturday Morning just seemed like a dream existence, rather than the dispiriting experience of far too many small town weekends that were to come . Concrete Jungle far surpasses anything before or since as a cry for help from a council estate, and if they had council estates in Jamaica, that includes Bob Marley’s song of the same name. And I still have no idea what Gangsters is about.
All of the above reasons have the rose tintery natural to a greying and expanding adult, after all every generation has that reason to be alive movement that you just wouldn't understand. True, but how lucky we were to have the perfect template of what a band should bring. Every generation deserves one.
So all the major players somehow dominated the charts over the next few years: Jerry Dammers, (currently missing in action) as much a visionary as just the keyboardist; Terry Hall, a minimalistically enigmatic not trying too hard frontman, Lynval Golding metronomic Rhythm ace and Neville Staples Toaster supreme - the jumping bean co leads, Roddy Radiation, a tragically underrated songwriter and fine rockabilly guitarist, Bluesy bass player Horace Panter, almost the hidden Special and the rock solid rhythm of drummer John Bradbury.
The nitty gritty of the next few years are well told elsewhere, notably Horace's Ska'd For Life and no doubt in Neville’s upcoming autobiography. In brief, seven top ten hits in two year a musically much darker second album, a back breaking tour schedule and all too quickly, no more.
With their expected (but heartbreaking) immaculate timing, the Specials couldn't have picked a more perfect time to split if they'd had a team of strategic scriptwriters to work out the elegance of a perfect Hollywood ending. Their final release was not only the most prescient 45 ever, but also their most musically avant garde. They were no longer merely the greatest ska band around, Imagine Ghost Town being allowed anywhere near the charts today. Not only near the charts but No1. Not only No1, but a chart topper during the punch in the face that was the hideous experience of a Royal Wedding. Ghost Town hit the charts the week before the Toxteth Riots, somehow still journalistically given the tag of Race Riots, as if anyone riots because of their race. Let's face facts, a mixed race riot is a class riot.
The sound and vision of Ghost Town, was not only the perfect backdrop to the despondency facing the youth but also the despondency facing the group (let's not forget " bands don't play no more, too much fighting on the dancefloor").
All of which doomery and gloomery has somehow left the Specials with an undeserved legacy of miserabilsm. Explain that to the millions of 12 year olds who jiggled themselves stupid to Monkey Man. With unexpected but equally immaculate timing the Specials are back in a world that somehow doesn't feel 3 decades removed from the first time.
Yes the mind numbing town centres are now mind numbing retail villages, but recession and depression have hit again, jobless statistics are heavily on the rise and racial intolerance is the boiling pot it was in the late 70's, not the melting pot we had long ago assumed it should be by now. And look around, all those who were skinheads by choice in the early 80's are skinheads by default today.
If you were 12 in 1979, the Specials were easy peasy lemon squeezy the greatest band on the planet. If you're 42 in 2009, nothings changed.
Mark Lamarr, 2009