December 31, 2009

Mod-A-Day: The Specials

In the late 70s The Specials spearheaded the new ska sound of the ere, the two-tone sound. The band's first self-titled album was produced by Elvis Costello and was a tour de force of covers of ska songs, or semi-originals that were largely based on sixties ska. Based on Jamaican ska and northern soul, The Specials spiced up their sound, turning it into a kind of punkified ska. Songs like "Concrete Jungle", "Too Much Too Young", "Dawning of a New Era", and "Little Bitch" fit perfectly with the Britisk punk explosion of the day.

The Specials were as much a cultural force as anything else. They had their own label, 2 Tone Records, that helped to establish a racially diverse, politically progressive cultural movement that included ska lovers, skinheads and mod revivalists. Along with The Beat, Madness and Bad Manners, The Specials drove the ska revival to the top of the UK music charts with seven consecutive top ten singles between 1979 and 1981.

Their second album was more divers than the first. Jerry Dammers directed their sound into wildly new territory for a rock type act. It has a heavy loung feel and incorporates not just ska and soul, but lounge music as well. Gone for the most part was the punk angst that had dominated their first release. It was replaced by synthesized keyboards on "Stereotypes", lilting male/female vocals on "I Can't Stand It", loungy and syncopated rhythms on "International Jet Set", and a much more caribean island feel as on the instrumental "Holiday Fortnight". I'm certain that this album along with Sergio Mendes & Brasil 66's first release are what pushed me into my love affair with lounge music.

The band broke up in 1982. Terry Hall went on to Fun Boy Three, but Jerry Dammers reformed the group as The Special AKA. As always Dammers' timing was perfect, capitalizing on the anti-apartheid movement that was growing world wide their politically inspired album was fairly sucessful in 1984 spawning the top ten single "Free Nelson Mandella". Other members of the band worked with a number of the other two-tone bands, most notably in Special Beat with members of The Beat.

The Specials are back together celebrating 30 years, though sadly without Jerry Dammers. For whatever reason, the rift between he and Terry Hall, and the rest of the band really, doesn't seem to be one that will be mended anytime soon. Still, if the band does make it to Seattle someday you'll find me in the front row.

The Specials -- International Jet Set

The Specials -- Holiday Fortnight

The Specials -- Too Much Too Young