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The Specials
Chrysalis 1265
Released: December 1979
Chart Peak: 84
Weeks Charted: 21

Lynval GoldingNeville StaplesJerry DammersTerry HallBritish people have given the world plenty of jerky things over the course of history: mercantilism, the white man's burden, Mary Poppins. But perhaps the surest sign that they've stood out in the proverbial noon-day sun too long is the fact that they're perhaps the only people on this earth who will practically kill you for having different musical tastes than they do. Quadrophenia's Mods and Rockers was nothing compared with the pre-nuclear fall out of the National Front vs. Teddy Boys vs. Rude Boys vs. Punks vs. re-hashed Mods vs. Godzilla ward of England today.

One band at the center of this controversy is the Specials -- a group who have made an album of very defined, even ethnic music (ska) whose major lyrical thrust is to confront the factionalism that now rages in England (musically) and the entire world (on every level). So take it that beneath the porkpie hats the Specials are in many ways just a bunch of "C'mon people now, let's get together" youngblooded hippies. But that would be a LABEL and the band goes far beyond this. They work with a subtlety missing from The Clash or Tom Robinson's tales about fill-in-the-blank bashing.

Interestingly, though a song like "Concrete Jungle" is an openly anti-fascist song, a lot of National Front neo-Nazis like the band cuz of their short hair. Kinda reminds me of the 17-year-old KKK member (and Foreigner fan!!) I saw on a local T.V. gawk show, who was given the nod of approval by all the phone-in mothers simply cuz of his Brooks Brothers jacket and John Boy Walton manner.

The Specials' lyrics are not all unification songs, though. "Stupid Marriage" is a great advertisement for contraceptives and "Too Much Too Young" includes this month's Mr. Congeniality award for the line: "I'd like to spread manure in your bed of roses." The sound on the album, captured by producer Elvis Costello, is wonderfully derivative of Nick Lowe's dial twisting. Musically, the album ranges from straight ska ("A Message To You Rudy") to the kind of nauseous pop XTC and The Pretenders do so well ("Gangsters"). A lot of it is as danceable as a B-52's record and on many levels as funny, with Terry Hall singing as though his tongue is miles thick and his saliva is green and sticky.

Most brilliant, though, is the last song, "You're Wondering Now," a lovely hymn of final judgement. Here, Britain has fallen. All love affairs are broken. The ants have taken over the world. What we have left is a big question mark and the strongest blow against factionalism in the known universe: music that allows you to say, "Let's just dance."

- Jim Farber, Creem, 4/80.

Bonus Reviews!

One of the highly touted new English bands to rise out of the U.K's current fascination with the early '60s, this integrated septet plays ska music. Reggae is a derivative of this form so this LP has a reggae feel. However, there's more of the beat of early rock and the politics of reggae are downplayed. Of the 15 songs crammed in, the kinetic "Nite Klub" and "Concrete Rocker" are highlights as they have the raw spirit of a Bill Haley song. Black and white cover is good display and production by Elvis Costello is appropriately spare.

- Billboard, 1980.

It takes longer than you'd figure for their jingles to get across because the sound, especially the vocal sound, is just too thin to make itself felt from the outset (compare their "Monkey Man" to Toots's if you dare). I like their commercial messages, though -- promote racial harmony, use contraceptives. B+

- Robert Christgau, Creem, 5/80.

The Specials' self-titled debut sparked the Two-Tone movement in the late '70s. With well-chosen ska classics and Prince Buster-inspired originals, the band mixed political and social activism and blended punk's intensity with an infectious dance beat. This is essential listening. Produced by Elvis Costello. * * * * *

- Chris Woodstra, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

The Specials is this ska revival group's peak, with party favorites such as "Message to You Rudy," "Monkey Man," "Gangsters" and "Too Much, Too Young." * * * * 1/2

- Lawrence Gabriel, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

You can't help but dance to this definitive debut by the band that spearheaded England's postpunk revival of Jamaican ska; on this fan-skankin'-tastic Elvis Costello-produced disc, Terry Hall and the guys applied a good message and a great rock-steady beat to black-and-white issues during a racially charged time, and every song, from "Message to You Rudy" to the teenage pregnancy rant "Too Much, Too Young" is a classic. * * * *

- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.

Songwriter/keyboardist Jerry Dammers, bassist Sir Horace Gentleman, and guitarist Lynval Golding honed their craft playing a mix of rock and reggae around Conventry, England from 1977 with a variety of personnel and names, including The Jaywalkers, The Hybrids, and The Coventry Automatics. By early 1979, as The Specials or Specials AKA -- a seven-piece adding Terry Hall (vocals), Roddy Radiation (guitar), John "Brad" Bradbury (drums), and Neville Staple (vocals) -- they were fusing the angry intensity of punk with the rhythms of 1960s Jamaican ska music, heard to thrilling effect on debut single "Gangsters."

Adopting an image that referenced the Jamaican rude boys and UK mods that had been ska's original audience, The Specials dressed in tonic suits, button-down shirts, skinny ties, wraparound sunglasses, pork pie hats, and loafers. This striking look was presented in stark monochrome on the cover of their debut LP, released on their own Two Tone Records via Chrysalis.

Reflecting their live set, the album mixed covers -- a feisty version of The Maytals' "Monkey Man," a slow skank through Dandy Livingstone's "A Message To You Rudy" -- with self-penned material that reflected the turbulent times (mass unemployment, the rise of the UK's fascist National Front). "Doesn't Make It Alright" called for racial unity; Roddy Radiation's "Concrete Jungle" tackled inner city violence.

With horns added by veteran ska trombonist Rico Rodriguez and production by Elvis Costello emphasizing The Specials' raw energy, the album entered the UK chart at No. 4 and remained in the Top Forty for 45 weeks.

- Jon Harrington, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.

Further reading on
Super Seventies RockSite!:

The Specials Lyrics

The Specials Videos

Lots of U.K. punkers were fans of Jamaican music in the Seventies, so it made sense that reggae's faster (but previously unpopular) progenitor, ska, would eventually be combined with punk rock. More surprising was that a band would merge them as skillfully as the Specials did. Hailing from Coventry, an industrial city in England's West Midlands, this seven-piece band with multiple vocalists and songwriters spearheaded a revived interest in ska that continues to this day, largely because its debut album (released in England in late 1979 and in America in early 1980) is extraordinarily fine and fully formed. Between leader Jerry Dammers' keyboards, frontman Terry Hall's sneering vocals, the soulful singing of Neville Staples, and the braying horns of sidemen Rico Rodriguez and Duck Cuthell, the Specials embraced so much so well that their debut became an instant U.K. hit and an enduring classic worldwide.

Embodying the name of its self-created U.K. record label 2-Tone, the black-and-white band specialized in contrast, flaunting sharp vintage suits and sharper contemporary commentary, party sounds and rueful sentiments, kinetic remakes of previously obscure ska and reggae oldies (including Dandy Livingstone's "A Message to You Rudy," Prince Buster's "Too Hot" and the Maytals' "Monkey Man"), as well as songwriting intensity by Elvis Costello, The Specials' fourteen tracks veered between racism ("Doesn't Make It Alright"), urban anxiety ("Concrete Jungle"), babies making babies (the BBC-banned but chart-topping "Too Much Too Young"), trendies ("Nite Klub"), free will ("It's Up to You") and more. Although Hall, Staples and guitarist-singer Lynval Golding would soon split to form Fun Boy Three and the others would regroup as the Special A.K.A., this early achievement remains one of New Wave's greatest and most diverse debuts. * * * * 1/2

- Barry Walters, Rolling Stone, 10/6/05.

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