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Concrete Jungle - Ska, Two-Tone & The Specials

19 October 2019

Understanding the self-titled debut by The Specials means understanding that atmosphere in which it was created. The forty-years since its release has not taken any of the genius and the impact of the release, as society and the issues that surround it is still a stark reality. With hope comes the overwhelming proof that music can break down barriers instead of building them. When a country such as it was, and is again divided, rejecting its multicultural society, a reminder is needed to those migrant settlers invested into the life blood of a country when it is crying out to understand itself. Looking directly to the causation and result hits best across the airwaves, the art created to mirror the concrete wastelands, the fear and uncertainty, music is the catalyst, forging of race, after all music transcends. Music can also raise two fingers, in this case they were raised in defiance, used to extinguish the flame on the fuse burning towards that powder keg of a racial tension which engulfed Britain in the mid nineteen-seventies. Feelings needed to be displayed which standard rock music of the day could not convey, or is not built on the foundations of, as songs of perfect love and perfect heartbreak ruled the airwaves, the youth needed to stand up for itself.

That frustrated youth inspired social upheaval found a voice in punk, the dole-queue generation found messiahs, spokesmen and women in a very simplistic, and direct style of music. The voice of Jamaica was already ringing in people’s ears with the popularity of Bob Marley, his powerful lyrics, and very interpretable style influenced even the old guard of rockers such as Eric Clapton to cover his music, so the warm breeze was already starting to blow in Europe’s direction.
The coming sounds known as SKA originated in Jamaica, combining elements of Caribbean-mento and calypso with an injection of American jazz with rhythm and blues, a precursor to reggae and rocksteady. In musical terms it took the sounds that were carried across oceans and melted them into their own approach to music, similar to the birth of rock and roll in the nineteen-fifties America. In turn the Ska format got carried through those immigrants from Jamaica arriving to British shores and joined the mod English Boy. Fusing both inherent styles they created a music wholly unique, perhaps one of the most defining music forms of the twentieth century, and one whose origins are the result of social unrest.

The phrase Two Tone came directly from The Specials keyboard player Jerry Dammers who formed the label with the assistance of Horace Panter and graphic designer John Sims who created the iconic Walt Jabsco logo to represent the two-tone genre. The label along with the name stood for the joining of black and white musicians or people. Bridging and forming a bond in the name of art. It was here The Specials, or The Specials AKA came to the fore. Founded in Coventry in 1977 by the aforementioned Dammers along with vocalist Terry Hall (replacing Tim Strickland), bassist Horace Panter, guitarist Lynval Golding and drummer Silverton Hutchinson. The band started life as the Automatics, then the Coventry Automatics, a year later at the same time as the 1978 Rock Against Racism event and concert the band were finally named The Specials after the extra added members of vocalist Neville Staple and guitarist Roddy Radiation.

It is no coincidence that it took the stand by the fresh punk bands of the day at the Rock Against Racism to finally launch the band in its own right, it was the core of the bands belief, the sight of the 100,000 marching from Trafalgar Square to London’s East End were the final inspiration for Jerry Dammers and the direction this new band would take. The first album, released on October 19, 1979, and simply titled The Specials is a result of nurture, a sound created which took elements from its surroundings, a Velvet Underground And Nico moment, but in The Specials case it was one finest produced records of the seventies. A mix of depression ballads and uplifting beats, harrowing vocals and images licked from the troubled streets. Often unfairly criticized is that production, which at the time was handled by an upcoming Elvis Costello. Already making a name for himself as a recording artist, the smoothness and steady flow of the album was seen at the time to have been a downside. A sound too polished did not suit the punk records of the day, but what the critics failed to realize is this was not just a punk record, this was something far different, an idea which had been attempted before by UK bands and had failed. The added sound from the horn players, Dick Cuthell and Rico Rodrigue let waves of Caribbean bliss slip across the record, distancing it more so from the music of the day but offering an alternative of sorts, a fresh approach, the world needed this, the British public needed it. That public however were well aware of the bands’ brilliance, the first single unleashed “A Message To You, Rudy” reached number-ten(UK) at the same time, their second release from the ep Too Much Too Young hit the number one spot on the UK singles chart.

As the colorful eighties dawned, the checkered black and white of The Specials stood out. Wedged between punk and new wave the fact the band survived is a testament to the public’s embrace of not just the music but the idealism and acceptance of what ‘two-tone’ ultimately stood for. Now, forty-years later we celebrate that album and the impact, which has also the return of The Specials as a working band along with a number one album in Encore. A badly needed reminder on how people of different backgrounds can forge something magnificent as the Brexit machine rolls across the artistic statement created.