Punk was theater well before Green Day hit Broadway. Spotty teens in London dressed like warriors and put on a show while yelling for revolution. Growing up in Central Illinois, a third of a world away and a few years after the punk explosion, those guitars of rebellion were everything to me. I was avidly buying new wave, garage rock, ska, and synth pop records with money saved from my after-school job while schooling myself on Bolan, Bowie, Bonzos, and beyond, but the punks—the Sex Pistols, the Clash, Gang of Four—held the promise. Not just, I thought, of regime overthrow, but of a life beyond the prairie, of someday living in London or New York City or—well, nowhere else, just those two.
That era brought with it both the brainiacs and lonely hearts that have populated every generation of pop, and the aliens and robots that seemed uniquely our own. There were cross-dressers and race baiters and rockabilly revivalists. And then there was ska. The second wave, to be specific: 1960s Jamaican music rehashed and revived for youth finding out that in the wake of punk, nothing had changed.
The Big Four were the only ones we heard much about in middle America: the poppy English Beat, the bonkers Madness, the street-smart Selecter, and the top of the heap, the Specials. If the Specials don’t deserve all the credit for spearheading the British ska revival—for bringing the hyped-up reggae beat from the Jamaican neighborhoods of London and fusing it with the politics and energy of punk—then bandleader Jerry Dammers at least does for putting it on the map. Indie from the get-go, Dammers created the 2-Tone label for the band’s first single, giving the second-wave ska bands a name and an aesthetic, a checkered banner that signified blacks and whites living peacefully side by side.
The Specials sang about racism, plain and simple. “Just because you’re a black boy / Just because you’re a white / It doesn’t mean you’ve got to hate him / It doesn’t mean you’ve got to fight” proclaimed the ever-dour Terry Hall on their self-titled first album. I appreciated the message at the time, but it wasn’t incendiary enough, it wasn’t exciting. As it turns out, however, that’s what gave them their lasting impact, even if they couldn’t last themselves. A lyric like “If you have a racist friend / Now is the time for your friendship to end,” from In the Studio, the third record, seemed quaint to me. Now it seems profound in its simplicity. It doesn’t need to be clever because at a time when mixed-race bands were still uncommon (as they still are today), they were saying something important. And with a groove.
The Specials’s 1979 debut was a rush of adrenaline with a backbeat. It kicked off with a reheating of a 1967 Dandy Livingstone song. Somehow that got past me, despite being a compulsive packaging and label reader; in fact, about a third of the album was covers. All I knew of Jamaican music was Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. The Specials lived in a different world. As much as I liked the record, I felt alienated. They were well dressed, concerned, and terribly British. They were cooler than me, off in the prairie.
After that record, I was lost. Membership changed; beats slowed and started to sound loungey. There were sometimes women singing, women I wasn’t sure were in the band (such details were important). The new songs were just depressing. “The Boiler,” sung by Bodysnatchers front woman Rhoda Dakar, was an explicit and emotional re-telling of a rape. It was—and remains—more than I could endure. Needless to say, “War Crimes,” by the rechristened Special AKA, wasn’t much cheerier. The Specials were never a happy band. Hall was the sullen face of the group and second singer Neville Staple seemed angry. But the music was peppy and at least in the beginning they were going out with their mates. “Is this the in place to be? / What am I doing here? / Watching the girls go by? / Spending money on beer,” they sang on the first record—maybe not fun but I could imagine being there with them. By the 1981 12” single “Ghost Town,” people were fighting on the dance floor, and on the flip, the band made going out on Friday night and coming home Saturday morning sound as boring and routine as an office job. By 1984’s In the Studio, the reconfigured band (with mastermind Dammers as the sole holdover member) was bemoaning alcohol as a villain, a predator. Things had gotten positively bleak in the Specials camp and, while intrigued, I was keener on the new group that Hall, Staple, and Lynval Golding formed, the lighter (if still dark) Fun Boy Three.
Jerry Dammers’s best known song has been sung by countless mobs, few of whom likely knew he wrote it. “Free Nelson Mandela,” from In the Studio, became a chant at anti-Apartheid rallies around the world. After the release of that album, Dammers left music, devoting himself to anti-Apartheid work. The Specials continued without him, releasing five more solid ska records, even if there’s little about them that would pin them as the band they once were. But those three albums—now getting the deluxe, double-CD reissue treatment—pack a powerful wallop, a real-world wallop. They might have been a bit much for an Illinois boy to handle, but they’ve come to mean the world to me in adulthood.
Dammers has been making music again in recent years, although he seems to have little interest in re-entering the music industry. His Spatial AKA Arkestra mixes big band takes on Specials songs with Sun Ra tunes and shows that Dammers is still a masterful arranger—not to mention that his anti-racist concerns have expanded to interplanetary harmony. The Specials have continued to tour with varying degrees of original membership (but without Dammers) and have made a couple trips to New York. I saw them for the first time in 2010. It was a fun and exciting show, but it was a nostalgia act. Other bands of the era also evoke warmly nostalgic feelings. But the Specials of the first three records, the band that knew that having fun wasn’t enough—I still want to tell people to listen to them. And to listen hard.
KURT GOTTSCHALK writes fiction and about music for various publications, hosts the Miniature Minotaurs show on WFMU, and struggles with a variety of stringed instruments.