Wednesday, April 15, 2009
An Illustrated Guide To... The Specials
Back last September the musical man of stone Noel Gallagher decided to make a list for Oasis' blog of his ten favourite bands ever, like a fourteen year old might. Once he'd got his ground rules out of the way - "No solo artists allowed. No female artists allowed. No collectives allowed" - the list was, Bee Gees aside, wearyingly predictable Beatles/Stones/Who/Pistols/La's/Kinks stuff. Plus, the Specials. And that's the position you'd be forgiven for thinking the Specials take up now, with their reunion tour a week away - the token music of black origin in a lad's list of their favourite Mojo bands, the one to show that music you dance to isn't just for girls, just as long as it's something where you have to dress up and look right. That they're Tim Lovejoy's favourite band ever reinforces it.
This, you suspect, is something that passes through Jerry Dammers' mind often, much as the band have taken a unique place in the nation's hearts. As artists like No Doubt and Rancid paid his band lip service, as members showed up doing the songs he oversaw in various permutations, as his experiments in taking their sound in different directions got respectfully passed over by history, he must have sucked a thoughtful tooth at how the implications of the style he'd taken on and wormed into the mainstream and its own subculture using the DIY door opening punk suggested had got lost in transit. With the recent to-ing and fro-ing over this reunion, perhaps it's time to attempt a more dispassionate discourse on what exactly happened here.
Dammers, born in the Tamil area of India in 1955, got into music after seeing the Who perform My Generation on Top Of The Pops and flirted with various youth subcultures in his youth before discovering reggae through skinhead affiliations in the early 1970s. He ended up studying art at what is now Coventry University and joined a local soul band, alongside which he recorded funkier demos with college friends Horace Panter (later known as Sir Horace Gentleman) and Neol Davies. Eventually he formed a full scale band, the Coventry Automatics, with which to see through his reggae and funk-inflected vision with Panter on bass, Davies on drums and friend of a friend guitarist Lynval Golding, plus drummer Silverton Hutchinson and a singer called Tim Strickland who tenure was short. Davies also left early, to be replaced by local musician Roddy 'Radiation' Byers (whom Dammers had unwittingly previously briefly been in a band with), while Byers' friend, the 17 year old singer of punks The Squad, was brought in as frontman.
Five years Dammers' junior and given to bouts of stage fright, Terry Hall had been given his musical awakening by the Sex Pistols and marked himself out as a frontman with his skill at putting down audience troublemakers. Dammers also says he was encouraged to start writing his own material by the Pistols, and both have cited the very essence of Coventry as inspiration. Bombed by the Luftwaffe, it was rebuilt as a paen to post-war architectural principles of tower blocks and endless concrete, which in a way befitted its manufacturing base - the city was targeted due to its high concentration of Allied armaments and munitions factories, and many of its historical buildings were unretainable afterwards. In the 1970s the other power base of the motoring industry was declining rapidly and the city suffered high unemployment and factory closures.
The Coventry Automatics were very much the initial crystallisation of Dammers' vision, recording demos and booking gigs. One early gig at Coventry's soul club the Locarno drew the support of house DJ Pete Waterman, who offered the band some gigs in London and a small amount of studio time, which came to nothing. He also put them into contact with Jamaican emigrant Neville Staple, leader of the in-house dance troupe Neville And The Boys who graduated to becoming the band's roadie. Resisting Waterman's managerial overtures, Dammers instead hooked up with Clash manager Bernie Rhodes. Joe Strummer had seen the band, who at around this time had renamed themselves The Special AKA The Coventry Automatics (and later just The Special AKA), at a gig and became a fan; Dammers' insistence got the band a support slot on the Clash's 1978 On Parole tour alongside Suicide. During a gig at London's Music Machine Staple, in the style of the sound system toasters he loved, plugged himself into the sound desk at a London gig and toasted over the music. Keen on his input Dammers invited him on board, later claiming that, as well as an NF-disrupted gig in Bracknell, this was the making of the Specials concept, finding a path between skinhead culture in the age of the rise of the far right and the Studio One influences. As a result the music began edging away from pure reggae and towards the faster, looser, form of ska, which was starting to come back into fashion after a couple of decades of neglect in the wake of reggae's golden age, and also a nod to the mod revival that was imminent. Original ska was a lot more laid back and far less angry while still as infectiously aimed at the dancing feet, with more percussion and larger horn sections with less utilisation of guitar. To complete the look Dammers suggested the band pick up a unified suit wearing image.
Rhodes booking the band a gig in Paris proved to be another turning point. Rhodes abandoned the band at Dover and most of the band ended up hitching rides as the van provided only fitted two members in. On arrival the hotel management complained the last English band to stay there, The Damned, had smashed the place up and took the band's guitars in damages. The manager of the club managed to get the equipment back with the aid of a gun. The Specials parted ways with Rhodes after that. Drummer Hutchinson also left in protest at the shift into ska and was repalced by Dammers' flatmate John Bradbury.
Dammers got a song out of the incident, as well as experience of other music business sharks, and once the band had scraped £700 for a day's recording together it was that they recorded. Gangsters borrowed from Prince Buster's Al Capone, referenced various stories ("can't interrupt while I'm talking/Or they'll confiscate all your guitars") and sounded like little else, Hall's post-punk monotone delivery contrasted with the insistent skank. John Peel was an instant fan. The B-side, The Selecter, was a 1977 demo recorded by Bradbury and Neol Davies resorted to when the band realised they couldn't finance any further studio time. Most of their money had already gone into pressing the 7" on their own label. Inspired by the punk label DIY ethics which brought about everyone from Rough Trade to New Hormones (the label that released the Buzzcocks' Spiral Scratch EP), Dammers named the label 2 Tone, with its own distinctive black and white checked motif and mascot Walt Jabsco, a rude boy figure based on a photo of Peter Tosh.
Meanwhile the live reputation rapidly flowered, and with the aid of a deal with Chrysalis they took off at speed. They arrived fully formed - a fresh sound by a multiracial collective full of character, politically motivated with a love of music, label and band image in place, live set kinetic. Gangsters hit the top 40 in August 1979 and went on to peak at number 6.
Things moved at lightning speed. Elvis Costello, a big fan who reputedly gave Gangsters its first Radio 1 play, was hired to produce the album and found a band already strained by rapid turnover and egos, Costello attempting to get Byers sacked at one stage. UK based ska and reggae trombonist veteran Rico Rodriguez, who had been in the Skatalites, was brought in and was given The Specials (as they now were) Featuring Rico billing on the next single, a cover of Dandy Livingstone's A Message To You Rudy, which made number ten (Rico had played on the original). The self titled debut album followed in November 1979, entered at number 4 and didn't leave the top 40 until the following May. It even breached the Billboard top 100.
While the album at heart captured the energy of the live show, a technique Costello learnt from the similar whack it down on tape approach of his own producer of the time Nick Lowe, the songs could only have come from products of a specific club scene in a run down inner city. Funny and lively but also paranoid and socially conscious, it captured a moment when people wanted to dance but felt under the cosh of the winter of discontent followed by the early flutterings of Thatcherism. Ideologically as much as musically, it was at once of the zeitgeist and right outside everyone else's. The background knowledge meant they could get away with so many covers and reinterpretations - A Message to You Rudy plus Toots & the Maytals' Monkey Man, the Skatalites' You're Wondering Now, Prince Buster's Too Hot, plus elements of Lloyd Charmers' Birth Control in Too Much Too Young and Rufus Thomas' Can Your Monkey Do The Dog? in Do The Dog - as they seemed to fit seamlessly into this tapestry of street violence, sexual unawakening - Hall once said Too Much Too Young was as much sex education for him as for the audience - and no future.
Dammers' vision was for 2-Tone as an all encompassing byline for kindred spirits, a kind of Midlands Motown. One such fellow traveller was found in London when the Specials played the Hope & Anchor pub in Islington and stayed overnight at the house of the singer from another punk-reared ska band who had made that venue their own; Madness' The Prince was the second release on the label, reaching number 16 in August 1979. That was followed in October by On My Radio by The Selecter, Neol Davies having taken the name of his song and applied it to a group of local reggae musicians plus a singer, Pauline Black, recommended by Lynval Golding. Meanwhile The Beat, a "punky reggae" multiracial outfit (saxophonist Saxa had played with Prince Buster, Laurel Aitken and Desmond Dekker) who were gaining support in Birmingham - John Peel was so taken by them when they played at a gig he was DJing that he arranged to swap his much larger fee for theirs - were picked up on by Dammers and their cover of Tears Of A Clown crept into the top ten at the start of 1980. Both Madness and the Beat left after one single - the latter set up their own 2-Tone styled imprint, Go-Feet - but not after Madness, along with The Selecter, had supported the bosses on the 2-Tone Tour. On November 7th all three appeared on Top Of The Pops; the gigs were chaotic on and off stage. The look meanwhile caught on, a mix of 60s rude boy, mod revival and skinhead culture, some mix of pork pie hat, second hand black suit, tapered trousers, Harrington coat, skinny black tie, Fred Perry/Ben Sherman shirt and Dr Martens.
Disliking how the studio take had captured Too Much Too Young, the band packaged the third length, much quicker live version as part of The Special AKA Live! EP, along with covers of Guns Of Navarone, The Liquidator, Longshot Kick De Bucket and Skinhead Moonstomp, recorded at The Lyceum in London and Tiffanys in Coventry. There was some criticism of their originality, but most discontent was silenced when it spent two weeks of February 1980 at number one. Ironically, it was this very lauded live incarnation that was starting to pull the band apart. Six weeks in America, some supporting the Police, exhausted the band, not least when they were booked for four nights at the LA Whisky-A-Go-Go, two shows a night. And this was while 2-Tone was in operation: an attempt to put out an Elvis Costello single was aborted but The Selecter put out two singles and an album and brought The Bodysnatchers' Let's Do Rock Steady to the label. The next Specials single, a one-off in May 1980, was Rat Race, a Roddy Radiation critique of university hive mentality that reached number 5. By the time they toured seaside resorts in mid-1980 Dammers and Byers were at the end of their respective tethers with each other.
And it was in that frame of mind that the band returned to the studio to record More Specials. Dammers had decided to largely turn his back on the ska-punk explosion and investigate more mournful styles, as well as a growing interest in what would become known as lounge music and easy listening. Elsewhere things veer from dub to fairground organs to exotic jazz, while the lyrical content is actively, fascinatingly fatalistic, dealing with loneliness, ennui, nuclear paranoia, slumming below your status, dead end lives and loves, where even the outwardly chirpy Pearl's Cafe has a chorus which concludes "It's all a load of bollocks/And bollocks to it all". One can only wonder what guests the Go-Gos, who provided backing vocals, Rhoda Dakar of the Bodysnatchers and Lee Thompson of Madness made of it all.
Man At C&A
The album still made number 5, while the singles Stereotype and Do Nothing (credited to Specials Featuring Rico With The Ice Rink String Sounds - oh, Jerry) reached 6 and 4 respectively. Meanwhile the live exultations were getting out of control, and Hall and Dammers were arrested and eventually fined £400 after a riot between audience and bouncers in Cambridge. Dance Craze, a documentary film released in February 1981, documented the live release as well as footage of Madness, The Selecter, The Bodysnatchers, The Beat and non-2-Tone kindred spirits Bad Manners, but nobody involved was really interested, not even Dammers, who'd commissioned it. "What started out as a big party ended up like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" Byers would later comment.
The Specials essentially had one throw of the dice left. Ghost Town was inspired by Dammers seeing urban degredation and closure while on tour and as a reaction to Thatcherite policies towards unemployment in industrialised areas, but hardly anybody was playing ball in the studio, although the B-sides were left to others, Why? by Golding about a racist attack he'd suffered circa Rat Race and Friday Night Saturday Morning Hall's own caustic view of the clubbing process. The result, based on Latin and Eastern scales with filmic horns and dub paranoia, was an almost unique sound, and when Toxteth, Handsworth, Southall and Brixton among others went up in flames literally the week before it hit number one on 11th July 1981, staying three weeks and selling a million, its fate was sealed as the spirit of the moment captured.
Friday Night, Saturday Morning (Ghost Town B-side)
So was the Specials' fate sealed. Booked for Top Of The Pops that week, Staple announced to Dammers that he, Hall and Golding were leaving. The latter later admitted "we couldn't even stay in the same dressing room. We couldn't even look at each other. We stopped communicating. You only realise what a genius Jerry was years later. At the time, we were on a different planet." Byers unsurprisingly followed suit shortly afterwards. 2-Tone meanwhile suffered too, releasing records by Rico Rodriguez and easy listening outfit The Swinging Cats to diminishing returns, as with later signings Leicester soul collective The Apollinaires, Norwich punk-funks The Higsons and Scarborough soul-jazzers The Friday Club.
Dammers attempted to continue with a new line-up as The Special AKA and recorded In The Studio, where he and Bradbury were joined by more local musicians plus singers Stan Campbell and Rhoda Dakar, the latter of whom contributed early 1982 single The Boiler, previously discussed at greater length - Dammers has called it "the only record that was ever made quite deliberately to be listened to once and once only".
It reached number 35, but unsurprisingly despite several attempts of varying commentary status - Jungle Music, Beirut screed War Crimes (The Crime Is Still The Same), Racist Friend, What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend (with Dammers on lead vocal) - the record buyers only trusted them enough for one more top 40 single. It could well be the song that most outlives them, however; Free Nelson Mandela, featuring Elvis Costello and with Golding back on backing vocals alongside the Beat's Ranking Roger and Dave Wakeling and future Soul II Soul singer Caron Wheeler, drew on South African musical traditions and reached number 9 in April 1984, raising a global consciousness that lasted to, and perhaps beyond, his 1990 release.
Shortly afterwards Dammers got more involved in activism than music and Chrysalis pulled the plug on 2-Tone. Dammers helped bring about 1988's Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute, worked for Red Wedge, contributed to the sole album by The Madness and after several years' activism and DJing formed the experimental jazz conglomerate The Spatial AKA Orchestra. Hall, Golding and Staple released two albums as the Fun Boy Three, landing three top ten singles. Hall went on to work through The Colourfield, Vegas, Terry Blair & Anouchka, two solo albums and collaborations with the Dub Pistols and Mushtaq of Fun-Da-Mental. Staple got into management, Golding DJing and production. Panter joined Ranking Roger and Dave Wakeling in General Public. Bradbury formed reggae big band JB's Allstars, which had the honour of 2-Tone's last single. Byers put out singles with The Tearjerkers and The Bonediggers and is currently leading The Skabilly Rebels. Golding, Staple, Byers and Panter reformed as The Specials in the early 90s and recorded a covers album, Today's Specials, followed by three sets of new songs to little notice. Staple, Golding, Panter, Byers and Bradbury have all at one time or another played with Special Beat, a touring covers band with members of, well, The Beat. By some accounts all former parties met up for the first time in 2004; businessman Simon Jordan made a public attempt to bankroll a tour in 2006; Hall and Golding teamed up on stage for the first time since 1983's Fun Boy Three dissolution at the behest of Lily Allen at Glastonbury in 2007. And next week, six of the seven start a reunion tour next week that may well end in new material, although they all say that. The floors had better be reinforced.