It came as quite a surprise when, at the height of the Specials’ popularity, vocalists Terry Hall and Neville Staples and rhythm guitarist Lynval Golding broke away to form their own self-contained group, making an offbeat LP that spawned two UK hit singles and took a large step towards injecting an African-based influence into the new pop music vocabulary. On The Fun Boy Three, the trio’s imaginative use of various conventional and exotic instruments — though the emphasis is on vocals and percussion — is countered by a pervasively dark, pessimistic feel, more so on the US edition, which places most of the brooding stuff on Side Two. Dick Cuthell (horns) and Bananarama, whom the Fun Boys backed in return, occasionally brighten the proceedings.
Waiting, produced by David Byrne, follows that somber avenue much further, using assorted jazzy styles in minor keys to express cynicism in “The More I See (the Less I Believe),” tell a harrowing tale of molestation on “Well Fancy That!” and explode the mythical side of young romance on “The Tunnel of Love.” The centerpiece of the album, however, is “Our Lips Are Sealed” — the Go-Go’s hit written by Hall and Jane Wiedlin — given a dramatically different reading here, slowed to dirge speed and laden with heavy atmosphere and a resigned feel, yet somehow played with a preternatural lightness. A remarkable track on a phenomenally powerful album.
The ever-restless Hall left the band in ’83 to form another trio, the Colour Field, a move which prompted a concise Fun Boys compilation: nine album selections plus Bananarama’s (featuring FB3) “Really Saying Something” and a lazy version of George Gershwin’s “Summertime.” Hall’s bandmates stuck together as Sunday Best, working with ex-Selecter vocalist Pauline Black.
The Colour Field started slowly, with an eponymous single in 1984, but the trio’s first album a year later was well worth the wait. Virgins and Philistines kicks off brilliantly with the mock-“96 Tears” organ intro to “Can’t Get Enough of You Baby,” itself a fine imitation of Georgie Fame-era beat music. The music mixes its metaphors, from stripped-down Fun Boys rock to samba, folk and jazzy ’60s R&B; Hall’s sharp tongue and the band’s intelligent creativity make each track different. Of special note: a shimmering acoustic version of the Roches’ “Hammond Song” and “Pushing Up Daisies,” a vicious condemnation of celebrity. Drama, beauty, ideas and energy make Virgins and Philistines provocative, stylish and memorable.
The EP — unveiling an expanded four-piece lineup — contains a pair of live cuts (“Pushing Up Daisies” and “Yours Sincerely”) plus four excellent new tracks, including the memorable “Faint Hearts,” an almost psychedelic folk tune, and “Things Could Be Beautiful,” a soulful rocker.
Hall is the only person pictured on the disappointing Deception, a subdued and mechanical-sounding LP that employs a guest drum programmer, a keyboard player and Tears for Fears guitarist Roland Orzabal. Producer Richard Gottehrer misplaces the resonant stylistic variety and energy that previously typified the group, leaving pale jazzy support — occasionally resembling a less constipated Dream Academy — for Hall’s characteristically wispy singing. The material (“Badlands,” “Confession,” Boyce/Hart’s “She”) isn’t bad, but the facile arrangements leave Hall moaning up the wrong tree.
Ultra Modern Nursery Rhymes — the first album by Hall’s new trio with Blair Booth (vocals/keyboards) and Anouchka Groce (guitar/vocals) — drapes his usual lyrical dyspepsia in superficially simple light pop music that’s too subtle for its own good. While several songs recall the Fun Boys’ old partnership with Bananarama (minus the rhythmic intensity), there are fewer echoes of Hall’s subsequent adventures: the faint accents here are Dixieland, swing and Latin. Booth, who shares songwriting and lead vocals, is a versatile, sympathetic collaborator, but the album is a bit down-the-middle dull, lacking any strong stylistic personality. After years of making music neck-deep in atmosphere, Hall isn’t served well by such understatement; as pleasant as these tunes are, none of them has the memorable mettle of his best.