...probably just about worth buying for the early singles.
For a brief period between 1979 and 1981, The Specials were it. Rude boys who mixed punk polemic with good-time ska rhythms and sharp suits with a witty, (sub)urban realism, this driven, multi-racial septet were, simply, the coolest gang in town. Even if, fittingly, that town was Coventry.
As an introduction to The Specials, ‘Stereo-Typical A’s, B’s And Rarities’ sucks. It’s long-winded (46 tracks, 3CDs), repetitive and of interest, mainly, to the sort of people who probably already own four different versions of ‘Nelson Mandela’.
That said, there’s no definitive introduction to The Specials to recommend, and at least ‘Stereo-Typical…’ contains a comprehensive collection of those crucial, zeitgeist defining, hits; ‘A Message To You Rudy’, ‘Do Nothing’, ‘Rat Race’, ‘Stereotype’.
They were that good at the time, that on ‘Too Much Too Young’, Terry Hall, Britain’s most lugubrious man, could upbraid teenage mums that, instead of having babies, they should be having, erm, fun with him, without everyone – except Terry, of course – pissing themselves.
However, as CD1 shows, too many cooks were spoiling the broth from day one; the obscure gems (Lynval Golding‘s anti-fascist ‘Why?’ for instance) and instrumental live favourites, that still lose a little in translation, outweighed by raucous, half-realised sketches or, say, a forgettably freaky ‘Maggie’s Farm’.
Their albums were never going to be classics, then, but in 1981, they did produce one of pop’s, few, perfect moments, ‘Ghost Town’. An eerie, expansive illustration of lynchpin Jerry Dammers‘ musical ingenuity, it also articulated, perfectly, the simmering tensions of early-’80s Britain. It went to Number One in the week that Brixton, Toxteth and Moss Side were engulfed in riots.
Two months later, Hall, Golding and Neville Staples left to form Fun Boy Three, leaving Dammers, and various helping hands, to carry on as The Special AKA until 1985. For what it was worth, as CDs 2/3 feature little more than so-so instrumentals, different versions, failed experiments and, hopelessly dated, remixes. ‘The Boiler’, a truly harrowing account of an attempted rape, is strange and brave, but really only ‘Nelson Mandela’, that defiant explosion of celebration/ protest, could be called essential.
As fleetingly sublime, if a bit more frustrating, than other Specials compilations, at #16.99, ‘Stereo-Typical’ is probably just about worth buying for the early singles.