The Big Read – The Specials and Saffiyah Khan: “What we said has reached people – and that’s the only important thing”

Celebrating their 40th anniversary and back with a chart-topping third album, 'Encore', The Specials are still pushing the boundaries of social and racial injustice – with a little help from a new recruit. Dan Stubbs meets one of Britain's most iconic bands and collaborator Saffiyah Khan, activist, model and all-round badass, ahead of their major UK tour.

Alert the Men In Black (and white check). There are invaders in Camden: ska invaders. It’s a bright afternoon in February, the first one of the year, and NME has gathered Coventry band The Specials in Camden, the home of North London ‘nutty boys’ Madness. We could have a turf war on our hands: back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the two bands were short-time 2-Tone labelmates and long-time enemies.

“I always liked the bit of rivalry between us and Madness, it always felt quite good,” says Terry Hall, the band’s deadpan, dry-as-a-bone frontman. Given both Madness and The Specials are still going concerns, who’s winning in the long run? “Well, I don’t know,” says Terry, with a smirk. “We got to Number One with ‘Ghost Town’, they got a Number One with a comedy record…”

The Specials NME
Photo Credit: Ben Bentley

Terry’s right to hold up ‘Ghost Town’ as The Specials’ crowning achievement. The 1981 track, and winner of Best Single at that year’s NME Awards, reggae by way of Ennio Morricone via Coventry, is a state-of-the-nation song about Thatcher’s Britain that could equally be written about the urban decay and disenfranchisement that fostered Brexit. “This town is coming like a ghost town,” it goes, “Why must the youth fight against themselves?/Government leaving the youth on the shelf.”

It wasn’t so much a protest song, says Horace Panter, bass player, “It was just us looking at the landscape, not wagging a finger, avoiding a polemic, just making an observation and leaving the audience to make up its own mind.”

Where the song spoke of “too much fighting on the dancefloor”, there was fighting in the dressing room, too. After just two hugely influential albums – 1979’s ‘The Specials’ and 1980’s ‘More Specials’ – the seven-piece band split into warring factions, and would soon collapse. Rumour has it they split up in the green room at the studio when booked to play ‘Ghost Town’. Is that true? “We had a band meeting then, if you could call it a meeting at the time,” says guitarist Lynval Golding.

“I knew I’d split up,” says Terry.

Where founder member Jerry Dammers continued with a splinter group, The Special AKA, Terry, Lynval and Neville Staples formed the more pop-tinged Fun Boy Three. Subsequent years saw numerous side projects, but The Specials regrouped in 1993, 1996 and 2008, since when they’ve been more or less back in action on the touring circuit.

Wikipedia lists no fewer than 31 members who’ve been through the band’s doors in their 40 years together (and not together), but they’ve essentially now got it down to a core of three of the original seven. Are they just the three who can actually get along?

“That wasn’t the idea,” says Terry. “It just so happens that people have dropped off and they want to go and do their own thing. But the three of us sort of do get on and I think, musically, we share a lot, really, and there are certain members who don’t fit into that for whatever reason. But no, it just happened to be, I’d say, the three most talented and attractive members left.”

The Specials NME
Photo Credit: Ben Bentley

And so it is, some 40 years after that first LP, we’ve gathered the core 2019 incarnation of The Specials – Terry, Lynval and Horace, handsome and talented all – to discuss their new album, the drily titled ‘Encore’. But – as on the record – there’s a special guest here, too: activist, model, and vocalist Saffiyah Khan.

You’ll know Saffiyah from an image that went viral in 2017. It pictured Khan, then 18, fronting up to an English Defence League member in Birmingham; he and other EDL protestors had surrounded a hijab-wearing woman who’d called them racists. Facing meathead rage with perfect condescension, it’s a modern version of the Vietnam protester holding up flowers to a gun-toting soldier, except instead of a flower, Khan has a Specials T-shirt and a brilliantly superior smile.

It’s a powerful photo that was quickly seized on, and one which made Saffiyah – UK born, of Pakistani and Bosnian heritage – the face of a Britain we can all be a bit more proud of. It’s a lot of pressure being made to be the face of anti-racism, no? “It has been a lot of pressure but I’ve always made it clear that I don’t speak on behalf of anyone,” says Saffiyah. “If you want to use the picture for a protest or for a good cause then by all means do it but I’ve never claimed to be the face of anything.”

The press have tried though, haven’t they? “I think a lot of liberal media have, yeah, but I did enough to gain the platform and I won’t become a puppet of people who want me to be a certain thing.”

Unsurprisingly, the image soon caught the attention of the band, who reached out to Khan and invited her to a show. “It was a lovely photo because Saffiyah has got this really good smirk, and that just nullified the guy’s argument totally,” says Terry. “It made what he stood for seem pathetic, and that’s often a really good response.”

The Specials NME
Photo Credit: Ben Bentley

For Brummie Saffiyah, The Specials represent not just local West Midlands heroes, and not just a band with principles that ally with her own, but a band who make bloody good music, too.

“I think I came across The Specials in my early teens,” she says. “I remember playing them in my house and my dad burst into my room. He was like, ‘You like this? I grew up with this!’ He used to hang around with a lot of Rastafarians in Wolverhampton and this is the kind of thing they were playing.”

“It’s one of the first bands that I found who kept true to their roots and were openly not grey zone. A lot of bands couldn’t care less who their fans are or what people they attract, but The Specials were always very clear about where they stand and what they stand for. There’s a lot of pride for them in the Midlands.”

When the band came to record their new album, they were toying about with subverting the song ‘Ten Commandments Of Man’ by Prince Buster, and eventually hit on the idea of getting Saffiyah to rewrite its lyrics from her own perspective.

Jamaican artist Buster heavily influenced the British ska revival from which The Specials came; Terry and co referenced his track ‘Al Capone’ in their hit ‘Gangsters’, while Madness took their name from another Prince Buster song.

But ‘Ten Commandments…’ is problematic, to say the least. See commandment five: “Thou shall not provoke me to anger/Or my wrath will descend upon you heavily.” Or commandment eight: “Thou shall not drink, or smoke/Nor use profane language/For those bad habits I will not stand for.”

“People have said it’s tongue-in-cheek, but you know, is it?” ponders Terry. “I don’t find it so, and it’s like, where do you draw the comedy line? It’s sort of like a hidden record but I’m sure if you posted it to The Guardian now they’d find it extremely offensive and wouldn’t take it lightly.”

So Saffiyah wrote a new interpretation that’s very 2019-friendly, and quite hilarious too. “Thou shall not listen to Prince Buster/Or any other man offering kindly advice/In matters of my own conduct/You may call me a feminazi or a femoid/And then see if I give a stinking shit,” it begins.

It’s witty, it’s clever, and it’s annoyed gammony blokes. “The song’s not even directed at anyone – it’s not even ‘Ten Commandments Of I’ in the same way that Prince Buster’s is directed at women,” says Saffiyah, “So the fact that so many middle-aged men are taking it so harshly and think I hate white people and men, that’s pretty hilarious. There are lyrics in the song directed at countries where they would use the way a woman dresses against them in a rape case – that has nothing to do with some white man from middle England.”

The Specials NME
Photo Credit: Ben Bentley

This, you suspect, is quite pleasing to Terry. He tells us that his motivation for being in a band in the first place was “to piss people off.”

The Specials were the product of the very particular crucible they were forged in. A heavy industrial city, Coventry attracted large numbers of immigrants from Asia and the West Indies in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and the social fabric changed rapidly when the various members of The Specials were at school.

On ‘Encore’ track ‘B.L.M.’ (Black Lives Matter), Lynval describes how his father arrived on the Windrush, the ship which gave its name to the generation of Jamaican immigrants who were rendered stateless last year when it emerged the government had destroyed their documentation.

“My sister and I, we both come over in 1964 and we had one passport between both of us, so I am part of that generation,” says Lynval. “You imagine if you get your National Insurance number it’s like your birth certificate, but it’s not, because Theresa May or whoever changed that policy and all those people’s paperwork was destroyed. Not just deleted: destroyed. Just like that whole generation no longer existed anymore.”

In ‘B.L.M.’, Lynval recalls his first experience of being at school in Britain. “I remember the first playtime/A boy shout across at me/’Oi, you black bastard, come ‘ere’/I said, ‘What?’/He said, ‘Come ‘ere, you black bastard’/I still couldn’t believe, I says, ‘What? Are you talking to me? Are you talking to me?’/Boy, welcome to England.”

The Specials NME
Photo Credit: Ben Bentley

Speaking of his own school days in the early ‘70s, Terry remembers waves of immigration, from the West Indies, Uganda and Northern Ireland. “You could feel the resentment breeding [in the community] from day one really, and you’ll find that that’s what happens – like when people come over and take these fictitious ‘jobs’,” he says.

But immigration brought cultural exchange. “Growing up in Coventry was all about football and youth clubs, and the youth clubs were playing [Jamaican] sound systems,” says Terry. When The Specials – first named The Coventry Automatics – were formed, it was a mixed race group interpreting the sound of Jamaican rocksteady and ska, but injecting it with punk bite; Terry had previously been in a punk band, Squad.

The band’s own Jerry Dammers founded a label, 2-Tone, in 1979, and while punk was splintering off into new wave elsewhere in the country, the Midlands had its own multicultural youth movement typified by 2-Tone stablemates The Specials, The Selecter and The Beat.

It wasn’t, of course, plain sailing: gigs were sometimes attended by a racist element of National Front members. “I don’t know how you coped with that,” says Saffiyah, when the subject comes up.

“You just fight against it, really,” Terry replies. “It only sort of happened in the second skinhead revival, maybe around the time we formed or slightly after, where I just felt a lot of skinheads were getting it wrong really, because we were skinheads first time around and it was a white and a West Indian thing – that’s what it was – but it all got a bit Leipzig if you know what I mean.”

“Those skinheads formed their own thing, that ‘oi’ thing, and those horrible oi bands, and I’m not sure what their relationship was with West Indian music at that point, but it was certainly going that way with all that far-right whatever it was. I don’t even know what it’s called. It’s just shit really, whatever it’s called.”

The Specials NME
Photo Credit: Ben Bentley

One of the things that you realise when listening to The Specials of old and to ‘Encore’ is the grimly cyclical – perhaps even stagnant – nature of British life. For National Front, read EDL and Tommy Robinson. For Thatcher’s government, read Theresa May and Boris and Gove’s ongoing shitshow.

A track on ‘Encore’, ‘Vote For Me’, tackles modern politics in the only way that makes any sense: with exasperation: “Your politics bore us to tears,” it says. Following her viral fame, Saffiyah lent her public support to Labour in the last general election, and joined Jeremy Corbyn at a Labour rally in Birmingham in 2017. Now, she’s not so sure. “I did at the time because it seemed like a good decision for the general election,” she says. “Recently, there are some moves they have made that I don’t agree with as much, but I think that’s a very common opinion right now.”

Lynval lives in Seattle, USA, these days, but has been in Britain for a few months on band duties – and escaping Trump. “I’ve come here and I’m looking at the Labour Party and thinking my father is turning in his grave to see what his Labour Party has turned out like. Who’s actually managing the country right now? It’s like no man’s land – everybody is swimming but no one’s going anywhere.”

“Everyone’s got their opinion on Corbyn, and mine’s quite deep and I don’t know if that’s quite a big thing to discuss here,” says Terry. “You’ve got to be able to trust the people you vote for – that’s why you vote for them – and I don’t really get that at all. When I see some of the faces of the Labour Party that I used to be a part of, I just don’t identify with what they’re saying. I think what they’re saying is very simplistic and not always great.”

What did you make of Jeremy Corbyn at Glastonbury? “What, his set?” says Terry. “He should have dropped the Johnny Cash song. He had a shit drummer.”

Terry’s frequently making deathly dry quips when talking about serious subjects; he brings to mind Lee Mack if Lee Mack didn’t find himself so goddamned funny. Lynval, his polar opposite, is gregarious and larger than life; Horace has worked as an art teacher during fallow periods for the band, and has the inner calm of someone who has had to survive working with teenagers. It’s a balance that seems to work: when Lynval starts dancing in the photoshoot, Terry leans so far away from him that he’s almost at a 45 degree angle, but it’s playful and good natured. When Lynval plonks his bag down on Terry’s coffee cup, spilling the contents, Terry’s mock indignation lasts for about 20 minutes straight. I offer to make a replacement and ask him how he takes it. “About 25 feet away from Lynval,” he quips back.

Terry, famously, can never be found smiling in photographs. When I ask if Fun Boy Three was an ironic name, he says, “Ping! Penny drops.” Terry has lived with depression for most of his adult life, and it’s something he’s written about on ‘Encore’. He deals with it with humour and art – he once found that painting helped, and took to painting endless portraits of The Jackson Five, which he sadly insists will not be exhibited publicly. Singing about depression doesn’t necessarily offer the same catharsis, but it’s important nonetheless.

“The reason I feel like I want to write about depression is to open up that conversation,” he says, to nods of approval from Saffiyah – by day, she works at a roving service that helps people cope with mental health problems.

Terry continues: “It’s not going to cure anyone but it might help people understand people around them with depression and what they’re going through, because that’s the really the hardest thing to explain and the fall-out is massive for family and friends.”

The Specials NME
Photo Credit: Ben Bentley

Terry’s songwriting has always been brutally honest. In Fun Boy Three song ‘Well Fancy That’, he told the story of how a teacher sexually abused him while on a school trip to France. When he repeated the story in a recent podcast, it was picked up on the internet and became ‘news’, decades later.

“And here we are on the internet,” sighs Terry. “People always pick up scraps and get it slightly wrong. I find it amusing, because I can, because it’s me, you know, but it spreads like wildfire and it’s just horrible.”

He tells a story of a Facebook page that opened up after he made some comments at a Leeds gig. “I made these jokes about Leeds United, because I’m not mad on that team, but a Facebook page appears and the name of the page was ‘Terry Hall Is The World’s Biggest Cunt’. And I didn’t disagree, but it had hundreds of followers – people saying, ‘Yeah, he’s a right cunt, have you seen him recently? Apparently he’s got AIDS…’ This constant stream of abuse, and it’s sort of dangerous really.”

Especially if you’ve got depression? “Well, yeah, but the way you deal with depression is to joke about it and attack yourself more than anyone else. It’s no coincidence that a lot of comedians have depression.”

The Specials NME
Photo Credit: Ben Bentley

Though it’s not explicitly referred to on ‘Encore’, the “youth fight[ing] against themselves” spoken of in ‘Ghost Town’ is – after Brexit – again the hot-button issue of the day: the wave of knife crime afflicting Britain’s big cities. It’s something that’s directly affected the band both now and in the past. On September 1 last year, Fidel Glasgow, the grandson of founding Specials member Neville Staples, died after being stabbed in Coventry.

How does a band react to something like that affecting their extended family? “There’s not a great deal you can say,” says Horace. “We sent a message saying how sorry we were and that we were thinking of him.”

For Lynval, it was painfully close to home. In 1982 in the same city, he was stabbed in the neck on a night out. He’d gone out to take a 12-inch of Fun Boy Three’s brand new ‘It Ain’t What You Do (It’s The Way That You Do It)’ single to spin in a club.

“Back in the good old days, the 12-inch vinyl record was the thing to have, you know, and I was in this club in Coventry and then I woke up and I was in hospital. So I know what it’s like to be stabbed. I know what it’s like to be in intensive care with nurses running around saying, ‘We can’t stop the bleeding’. I was under lots of medication but I could hear everything they were saying.”

“We thought we’d lost you then,” says Terry, with utter seriousness this time. “We were at the hospital, we just thought, ‘He’s gone’.”

Seeing the rise in knife crime today, says Lynval, is “the saddest part”. “I can understand the kids these days, if you don’t feel safe going out, and there’s no police around,” he says. “In my day, we were scared of the police and we were scared of racism, so we were fighting our own battles, you know. But it’s just so sad that kids think they have to carry something to protect themselves because they don’t know if that other kid’s got a knife. If you haven’t got a knife, nobody’s going to get hurt. Even if you have to have a little fist fight between a few of you, no one’s gonna get stabbed to death.”

The Specials NME
Photo Credit: Ben Bentley

Shortly before their NME interview, The Specials played a one-off show at London’s 100 Club where Saffiyah put in her first ever live performance with the band – and totally commanded the room. She’ll be touring with the band on their forthcoming UK run.

The atmosphere at the gig was electric. The only person who didn’t appear to be having fun was Terry. “There again you have touched on my depression. It’s like I’m having a fucking party in there,” he says, tapping his head. “Seriously, it’s like bouncing-off-the-walls inside.”

“I love touring – it’s really, really good and now I really it appreciate where I didn’t so much before, because you’re wrapped up in whatever it was – drink or whatever. We’re playing to a Specials audience now, but we’re playing to a new audience as well.” And he’s right: The Specials are a band whose music goes through generations – take Saffiyah and her dad as proof.

“The best gig for me was when we did Mexico City, and it was just full of all these young Mexican kids who were just sort of fanatical,” says Terry. “It was really rewarding that you are… that you are…” he pauses. “I was going to say touching these kids. There’s your headline. Yeah, it’s really important for me to touch kids. Do you know what I mean?”

Indeed, in Mexico, as in many parts of the world, The Specials represent a unique form of rebellion, even now. “I had a young Mexican kid tattoo my leg and it was going really well until he realised that was in The Specials,” Terry recalls. “He started saying, ‘Wow, you got me out of a gang, you know!’ And the tattoo… I could feel the tattoo going fucking wrong and wobbly. But when you hear that and it’s one-to-one, you think, Well, what we said has reached people – and that’s the only important thing, you know.”

I ask if they find it odd that they’re still the ones people are turning to. “Well, yeah, where are the new Specials?” asks Horace. “Where is the band that does what we did? I’ve been waiting to pass on my baton for decades to be honest.”

Terry recently spoke about how he likes Idles, who do deal with social issues in their music. Saffiyah says she likes Sleaford Mods for the same reason, and you suspect they’d find something to like in Slowthai’s forthcoming ‘Nothing Great About Britain’ album. But Terry argues fewer people are make socially edgy music because there are platforms elsewhere. “When we were kids there was no internet, there was nothing, and the only way you could speak up was by being in a band or by doing that kind of thing,” he says. “Now kids speak up on the internet, you know, Facebook and Twitter, and they get their aggression out there.”

“I’m old-school though,” says Saffiyah. “I like fights outside northern soul clubs. No one’s up for it any more though so it’s just me.”

From “too much fighting on the dancefloor” to not enough fighting out front. Times are changing – or not changing enough. The Specials can keep hold of that baton a little longer.

The Specials NME
Photo Credit: Ben Bentley

The Specials tour the UK and Ireland from April 11 to May 18. The album, ‘Encore’, is out now.

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