Coventry’s Specials spearheaded the British ska revival in 1979, with leader/keyboard player Jerry Dammers also serving as head of 2-Tone, the band’s trendsetting label, which altered pop culture by releasing records by Madness, the Beat, Selecter and Bodysnatchers.
Produced by Elvis Costello, the Specials’ debut LP also boasted the assistance of an elder statesman of bluebeat, trombonist Rico Rodriguez, an original member of Jamaica’s Skatalites. With the double lead vocals of Terry Hall and Neville Staples, guitarists Lynval Golding and Roddy Radiation (né Byers), and an impeccable rhythm section composed of John Bradbury and Sir Horace Gentleman (né Panter), the Specials were widely acclaimed as the most exciting band to emerge in 1979, and their impact continued well into the ’80s.
The Specials contains such classic 2-Tone (as the sound came to be called) numbers as “Doesn’t Make It Alright,” “Too Much Too Young,” “A Message to You Rudy” and (on the American edition) the hit single “Gangsters.” Mixing socially and politically aware lyrics with infectious dance rhythms, The Specials served as a virtual blueprint for many bands to follow. (The 2002 remastered CD adds the videos for “Too Much Too Young” and “Gangsters,” but excludes the latter song from its audio tracks, in keeping with the original UK release.) A few months later, under the full Special A.K.A. handle, the band released a hot 7-inch EP, recorded live in London and Coventry, that includes “The Guns of Navarone” (a Skatalites classic in the previous decade) and a side-long medley of covers dubbed “Skinhead Symphony.”
Unfortunately, their momentum foundered with the release of More Specials. The group abandoned the fresh sound of their debut in favor of a more turgid experimental approach. (More does, however, contain some prime material: “Enjoy Yourself” and, in the US, “Rat Race.”) Rumors of internal strife abounded, and though the Specials managed to release the angry Ghost Town 12-inch — which went straight to number one in riot-torn Britain — the original band soon succumbed to infighting. Hall, Staples and Golding split off to form the Fun Boy Three, and other members drifted off as well. (The 2002 remaster of More Specials adds the videos for “Rat Race” and “Ghost Town.”)
By then it was clear that the Specials name was merely a vehicle for whatever Dammers would do, but it was three reportedly arduous years before he completed the “group”‘s third album, pointedly titled In the Studio. Working with several steady associates (notably vocalists Stan Campbell and ex-Bodysnatcher Rhoda Dakar, in addition to loyal drummer John Bradbury) plus a large pool of sessioneers, Dammers filled the album with disarmingly varied, largely unstylized (nothing you would really call ska) essays on serious political topics (“Racist Friend,” “Free Nelson Mandela,” “Alcohol”) leavened by the lighthearted “(What I Like Most About You Is Your) Girlfriend.” Striking but troubled, the music’s easygoing bounce belies the overweening polemicism. (The 2002 remaster includes the videos for “Free Nelson Mandela” and “Girlfriend.”)
The Peel session, from May 1979, includes live run-throughs of “Gangsters,” “Too Much Too Young,” “Concrete Jungle” and “Monkey Man” by the original band. BBC Sessions adds a dozen later recordings, including four selections from In the Studio, another rendition of the “Skinhead Symphony” and a cover of Frankie Ford’s “Sea Cruise.” The Singles Collection has the three tracks from the Ghost Town EP, two live cuts from the ’80 EP, some non-LP single sides and a lot of redundancy: album tracks that were issued as 45s.
Golding, Byers, Panter and Staples revived the Specials name in the early ’90s, rounding out the new lineup with keyboardist Mark Adams, trombonist Adam Birch and former Selecter drummer Charley H. Bembridge. Touring to great acclaim (with Byers handling Terry Hall’s spot on the mic, in addition to his own duties on guitar), the group built up the momentum for a return to full action…and then dissipated most of it with Today’s Specials, an album of covers. The band brings no imagination, precious little energy and way too many electronically processed beats to such songs as Beckford Bailey’s “Bad Boys,” the Paragons’ “Goodbye Girl,” Slim Smith’s “Time Has Come” and Peter Tosh’s “Maga Dog.” These tunes sound as if they were recorded by the lounge reggae band on a Carnival cruise, not the rude boys from Coventry. The reggae-lite rendition of “Somebody Got Murdered” delivers none of the urgency or fire of the Clash’s original. And it was a misguided idea to cover a Neil Diamond song (“A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You”): “‘Ere now, lads, this bloke turned the trick for the UB’s, so why not for us, eh?” The disc isn’t entirely bad, mainly because its best selections — Toots & the Maytals’ “Pressure Drop,” Desmond Dekker’s “Shanty Town 007,” Ewan MacColl’s “Dirty Old Town,” Bob Marley’s “Hypocrite” and “Simmer Down” — are bulletproof. And the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Take Five” lends itself surprisingly well to a dub-reggae approach. But overall, Today’s Specials is pretty stale.
Still, the album bought the Specials some time, as they continued to tour and play to audiences eager to hear such classics as “Too Much Too Young,” “Man at C&A” and “Ghost Town” one more time. Two years later, with trumpeter Jon Read added to the lineup and a clutch of new originals in the bag, the band recorded Guilty ‘Til Proved Innocent! This disc repairs a lot of the damage done by Today’s Specials, thanks to the songwriting and consistently high energy level. A couple of the tunes (the opener “Tears in My Beer” and “No Big Deal”) are just okay, but “Call Me Names,” “Fearful,” “It’s You,” “Leave It Out,” the bossa nova-flavored “Fantasize,” “Bonediggin'” (riff borrowed from the Munsters theme) and the jovial, uplifting “Stand Up” all are melodic, energetic and memorable. It was a dicey idea, though, to blend in hints of past Specials songs — the “Nite Klub” sound effects that open “Tears in My Beer, ” the “Concrete Jungle”-referencing shout-outs in “Bonediggin’,” the “Ghost Town”-style sirens that drift through “Leave It Out,” re-writing “Monkey Man” as “Running Away” — as those touches merely invite comparison to the original classics. So do the live renditions of “Rat Race,” “Concrete Jungle” and “Gangsters” by the then-current lineup, appended as bonuses to some copies of the CD. (That’s not to say listeners won’t appreciate or enjoy those performances, which are smokin’ hot.) Guilty ‘Til Proved Innocent! will never become a touchstone on the order of The Specials, but, of course, one can count those ska albums on both hands and still have at least enough fingers left over to order a couple of pints.
Golding (soon to be followed by all the non-originals) left the Specials the year after Guilty ‘Til Proved Innocent!. Staples, Byers and Panter drafted a new lineup with founding Selecter guitarist Neol Davies and recorded two more covers albums, with Selecter/Bad Manners producer Roger Lomas at the board. On Skinhead Girl and Conquering Ruler, the Specials Mark III cover many of the highlights from the Trojan Records catalog — the Skatalites’ “El Pussycat Ska,” Eddy Grant’s “Blam Blam Fever,” Peter Tosh’s “Them a Fe’ Get a Beating,” Lloyd & Glen’s “Jezebel” (which appears on both albums, in two very different treatments), Lyn Taitt & the Jets’ “Napoleon Solo,” Derrick Morgan’s “Conquering Ruler,” the Blenders’ “Decimal Currency,” Lee “Scratch” Perry’s “I Am a Madman” and others. With someone’s legacy other than their own to focus on, the musicians are able to enjoy these sessions; the performances on both albums are much more assured than those on Today’s Specials.
Since then, the compilations have just kept coming. Stereo-Typical is by far the most comprehensive, collecting all of the Specials’ single sides and a generous selection of rarities onto three CDs. Even though the set flags in quality on Disc Three, it’s great one-stop shopping. Dawning of a New Era offers something else that collectors will appreciate: a dozen demos recorded by the Coventry Automatics, the Specials’ earliest incarnation. Most of the tunes here would eventually be re-recorded for the Specials’ debut; the disc also includes the rare tunes “Look but Don’t Touch,” “Jaywalker,” “Wake Up” and “Rock & Roll Nightmare.”
The 2006 Best of the Specials combines a well-selected CD with a DVD (in the PAL/Region 0 format) of video clips. The 1999 Best of the Specials, on the other hand, gathers a seemingly random selection of tunes (seriously, ignoring “Ghost Town” but including its B-side “Why?”). The same can be said of Too Much Too Young: The Gold Collection and Greatest Hits. Archive presents 23 tunes (about half of them in live versions) spanning from the group’s earliest days up to the more recent recordings of Trojan covers; generous, and more thoughtfully selected than most compilations, but not a substitute for the original albums. The Very Best of the Specials and Fun Boy Three offers new versions of songs from both bands, re-recorded by Neville Staples and his post-Specials touring band. No other member of either group was involved. Steer clear.
Blue Plate Specials pairs raw early live recordings from the original Specials with earlier, even rawer live tracks from the Coventry Automatics. Ghost Town Live captures a performance by the ’90s version of the band at the Montreux Jazz Festival. As of early 2010, six of the original Specials (Dammers being the lone hold-out) have reunited and hit the road, so more live recordings are sure to hit the market. It’s a safe bet that more reissues will, too.
In 1987, ex-Special Campbell released a bland soul/reggae-flavored commercial solo album. A vocal resemblance to Michael McDonald of the Doobie Brothers is only one of Stan’s problems; his dull originals and underdone cover versions (“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” “Crawfish” and “Strange Fruit”) are the others.