The Surreal Life of The Specials, The Pioneers of 2Tone Ska
John Gilhooley

The Surreal Life of The Specials, The Pioneers of 2Tone Ska

In 1980, I was 16 years old and thought The Specials were one of the coolest bands I had ever heard. Don’t get me wrong, there was Bowie, the Clash, Van Halen, Boingo, Prince and Rick James; they were all part of my high school cool bands list. But, The Specials… they were definitely at the top. Thirty-seven years later, I still feel that same way. After all, didn’t we all fall in love with Molly Ringwald in the 80’s? This band was so cool that their music was featured in the 1984 John Hughes film, Sixteen Candles.

The Specials are a ska revival band. To know the band, you need to know the origins of the genre. That being said, ska began in Jamaica in the late ‘50s through early ‘60s. It was a horn heavy melodic response to American R&B that spawned a number of subsequent styles, including rocksteady, dancehall and reggae. The Jamaican roots of ska is known as the 1st wave of ska. The 2nd wave of ska, which took place in the late 70’s into the 80’s, it’s referred to as 2Tone or Mod-Ska. Sonically, the 1st wave ska sound preceded reggae, but many people think that ska evolved from reggae. It’s actually the other way around. One of the pioneers of the ska genre was Jamaican artist, Prince Buster. His influence can be heard not just in this band’s music, but music in general throughout several genres and eras. Another influential band from Jamaica were the Maytals. Given that one of the founding members, Lynval Golding was born and raised in Jamaica until a teen (then moved to England), it should come as no surprise that Prince Buster and the Skatalites music is a foundation and footprint burned into the heart and soul of their signature sound.

As for the band itself, it was formed in Coventry, England in 1977. Along with other 2Tone pioneers like Madness, The Beat, the Selecter, The Bodysnatchers and Bad Manners, these bands were all featured in the 1981 documentary Dance Craze. This film was a groundbreaking music documentary that depicted the Mod-Ska scene, the lifestyle… and the bands that made it happen. Couple that with their retro Men-In-Black-esque suits, Ray Bans along with black and white checkered everything else, a fashion trend was born. Put aside their music, by being themselves, The Specials stood out in a sea of other bands trying to stand out in the fashion-crazed 80’s.

In 1979, they released their seminal, self-titled freshman debut album which was co-produced by Elvis Costello. That album had several original songs and a few covers. That album sprung mega hits like "Concrete Jungle", "Monkey Man" (Toots cover), "Too Much Too Young "(Charmers cover), "Nite Klub", "Little Bitch", and a Dandy Livingston cover entitled "A Message to You, Rudy". Their first single, Gangsters, was released on their own 2Tone label in 1979. It was their calling card that shot them into the mainstream. The band followed up in 1980 with the release of More Specials. There’s also their 1981 single, Ghost Town; this song catapulted the band to critical acclaim. Ghost Town was heralded for addressing urban blight and violence during the Margaret Thatcher era in England. It gave them the dubious distinction of being criticized and targeted for their lyrics, just like the Clash and Sex Pistols; not bad company to be in.

After a brief siesta, the band resurfaced as The Special Aka, and hit the scene in the face with the release of the LIVE EP, that re-featured the cover of Lloyd Charmers song Too Much Too Young. In 1984, they hit it big again with the Anti-Apartheid song simply entitled (Free) Nelson Mandela. Songs like Mandela were a signature piece for the band as it demonstrated their flare for great music while putting out a powerful political message. Don’t forget their Peel Sessions and live albums… all noteworthy.

Like with any family, touring and inter-family issues eventually caught up with the band, and they temporarily disbanded. Over the years, the guys have enjoyed success in other band projects with the likes of the Selecter, the Beat, International Beat, General Public and the Lightning Seeds just to name a few. There’s also the early post-Specials project that took off and blew up. That band being Fun Boy Three. They found success with two mega hits; Our Lips Are Sealed and The Lunatics (Have Taken Over the Asylum). On the backdrop of The Specials legacy, the band remained in the hearts and minds of their loyal fans and musicians alike. Although 2Tone's mainstream commercial success was largely UK-based, it influenced the North American ska punk movement also known as 3rd wave ska. This 3rd wave took place in the mid ‘80s through the ‘90s. The 3rd wave gave birth to such bands as the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Sublime, No Doubt, Rancid, Reel Big Fish, Big D and the Kids Table, Save Ferris and many others. In more recent years, bands like The Interrupters cite Dance Craze 2Tone bands as inspirations.

That’s the thing about bands like The Specials, while others are concerned about how many social media followers they have, or how they look on Instagram, this band remains defiant in expressing their opinions through melodies that inspire. English bands of their era have one thing in common, you never have to guess what they think about when it comes to how governments treat their citizens. I guess Henry Longfellow was right, music is the universal language of mankind. Truth be told, a good band will entertain you on any given night, but only an exceptional band, like The Specials, will inspire you for a lifetime. This band personifies the saying, music is what feelings sound like.

Luckily for their loyal fans, the band played the 2008 Bestival, which was held on the Isle of Wight. They appeared under the name Terry Hall and friends. That gig was supposed to be a one-off show; it turned out to be more than that. As a result of that appearance, the band is still playing. Over the years, the band split from some of their original bandmates. There was also the loss of Rico Rodrigues (Trombonist) as well as founding member and drummer, John “Brad” Bradbury, who died suddenly in December 2015. It was later announced that Gary Powell of The Libertines would be the band’s new drummer. Other changes included the departure of Neville Staples and Roddy Byers; but, a core group remains in place, and they sound just as great as ever. The current incarnation of the band includes Terry Hall (lead vocals), Lynval Golding (rhythm guitar & vocals), Horace Panter (bass), Tim Smart (trombone), Drew Stansall (sax), Nikolaj Torp Larsen (keys), Steve Cradock (lead guitar), Pablo Mandleson (trumpet) and Gary Powell (drums). Collectively this band is as entertaining as ever; they are sharp, galvanizing and their energy simply makes you smile. Their music can be haunting and electrifying at the same time. They are undeniably a musical treasure from the era.

It should also be noted that Hollywood and Madison Avenue have also taken notice of the band’s appeal. Their music has been featured in commercial ad campaigns, TV shows and movies. Most recently, you can catch their music in a Fidelity Investments commercial. Turn on the TV and hear their music in shows like Six Feet Under, and Supernatural. As for feature films, there are several. A few notable movies are Natural Born Killers, Shaun of the Dead and Grosse Point Bank. Seriously, who doesn’t love an ‘80s-themed John Cusack flick that featured music from The Specials?!

With all the success and accolades the band has received, they remain humble and true to their fans. Over time, I’ve been very lucky to have covered this on several occasions. I’ve chatted with them in their dressing room, hung out on their tour bus, and been backstage alongside them. You could call me the proverbial fly on the wall. There are many stories I could tell about this band, but what’s always impressed me over the years is how much they are devoted to their fans. We all have bands or lead singers that have become our heroes over our lifetime. Unfortunately, our heroes don’t always measure to be the deities we thought they were. However, every once in awhile, they do. I’ll tell you one of those stories that hopefully give you a glance into their hearts.

The Specials at Music Tastes Good
The Specials at Music Tastes Good
John Gilhooley

On several occasions, I’ve seen the guys go out of their way to sign autographs and other mementos over and over again. There was one moment that stood out for me; it happened at last year’s inaugural Music Tastes Good Festival [“MTG”] in Long Beach. Luckily, I found myself standing next to the stage entrance right before the guys went on. They were still signing autographs for some people that were in the backstage area. Terry Hall was to my right, in the corner by himself. It looked like he was meditating, getting in that Zen place like most lead singers do right before they step on the stage. That’s when I heard someone politely yell out “excuse me, would you guys please sign this for my friend?”

When I turned around, it was a young man standing alongside a guy in a wheelchair, let’s call him Robert. Anyway, Robert and his friend had an old school record they were hoping to get signed. I thought it was great to see the band sign it without hesitation. As I was looking on, I felt someone brush my shoulder. It was Terri; he passed by me and bent down and put his arm around Robert. I’m not sure what Terri said to Robert, but he had a smile from ear-to-ear as everyone took a photo. I stood there taking this all in. I’ll be honest, sometimes I come across bands that are larger than life, and sometimes, they come off that way. So much so, they often don’t stop for fans. In their defense though, it’s because they’d probably get mobbed. It’s just nice to know that every so often some bands prove to be the exception. By doing so, they become exceptional.

Lots of bands from that era have come and gone, but they remain a force in the music world. Even though it’s been years since their debut, they continue to entertain us. They play everywhere on planet earth, and can be seen at least once a year somewhere in your neck of the woods. When you go to a show, you get to hear original songs, covers and maybe even more covers… like "Pressure Drop" (Maytals cover), "Guns of Navarone" (Skatalites cover), "Johnny Too Bad "(Slickers cover) and, of course, "Redemption Song" (Marley cover). Truthfully, the band had a very short-lived career with the original lineup. Yet, they remain one of the most influential groups in UK music history.

The Specials perform on June 16th at the House of Blues, San Diego and on June 18th at the iconic Hollywood Bowl.

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