Last Friday, I was lucky enough to witness one of the most influential (and, more importantly, fun) British bands of all time playing venerable London institution The 100 Club.
The band was The Specials, and to see them in action in 2019, on the day of release of their new album, was a thing of pure joy.
They played the hits (all of them, from ‘A Message To You Rudy’ to ‘Too Much Too Young’ and ‘Enjoy Yourself’ and everything in between) and they played material from excellent new album ‘Encore’, which showed that the rebel spirit in which the band was formed remains intact.
When the group got together in Coventry in 1977, it was an assembling of a multicultural young line-up that mixed the energy and spirit of punk with the bouncy, goodtime feel of ska, reggae and rocksteady. That music had arrived in the West Midlands from Jamaica with the Windrush generation, who were subjected to disgraceful treatment last year when it emerged that then-Home Secretary Amber Rudd was trying to send some of them ‘home’ having destroyed their immigration papers.
At a time of great turmoil, The Specials didn’t just start a band, they started a movement that celebrated a new, shared culture among young people – even if it meant their gigs were frequented by National Front members spoiling for a fight. They formed the scene-lynchpin label Two Tone and signed like-minded groups The Beat, The Selector and Madness. Later, they would inspire the California ska-punk scene that continues to be hugely successful to this day.
Their music was inextricably linked to the times, taking into account teen pregnancy (the aforementioned ‘Too Much Too Young’), political causes (‘Nelson Mandela’, released by the band’s second incarnation The Special AKA) and urban decay. ‘Ghost Town’ – their most celebrated hit – spoke of the dreary desperation of life in Thatcher’s Britain: “This town is coming like a ghost town/Why must the youth fight against themselves?/Government leaving the youth on the shelf”. Sound familiar?
It’s a spirit which lives on in the band’s latest material. The godhead of the Two Tone scene was, arguably, Jamaican ska master Prince Buster, whose ‘One Step Beyond’ was covered by Madness and became their de-facto theme tune, and whose ‘Gangsters’ was covered by The Specials.
One of Buster’s songs, the not-really-OK-any-more ‘Ten Commandments of Man’, has been given a 2019 overhaul by The Specials on ‘Encore’, in collaboration with Saffiyah Khan, the activist who found fame when a photo of her fearlessly fronting up to an English Defence League member at a 2017 protest went viral.
“Thou shalt not listen to Prince Buster or any other man offering kindly advice in matters of my own conduct,” she begins. “Thou shalt not tell a girl she deserved it because her skirt was too short”.
It’s not just a brilliant killing-an-idol moment, it’s a manifesto for post-#metoo living.
All of which will probably have you wondering: sure, but why is there a picture of Hugh Jackman at the top of this piece?
Well, because yesterday, it was announced that The Specials were sitting pretty at the top of the Midweek Charts, bumping past Busted and Ian Brown on their way, and on course for their first ever Number One album.
Yet there is a problem. We’ve seen this pattern many times over the past year. Just as it looks like a great and worthy album is about to get the glory, up pops Hugh Jackman and – snikt! – out come the Wolverine claws to puncture those hopes.
Yes, we’re talking about the Greatest Bloody Showman, the album that’s hung around at the top of the charts like a fart in a lift, and which has loomed over every new release like the sword of Damocles.
Every week, all it takes is a few mums and dads doing the Big Shop to casually toss it in the trolley and we’re in chart paralysis once more. It’s an album about a singing circus man. It’s a musical monstrosity. It’s a record that’s been so cynically marketed, there’s a second version out featuring irrelevant pop stars belting through its miserable ballads so people essentially buy it twice.
It’s an album that says nothing about Brexit Britain, that has no cultural significance, that does nothing to support the music industry or propogate ideas, and it’s time we put our foot down.
The Specials today release a video for their politically-charged track ‘Vote For Me’, which couldn’t be more apt. It’s time to vote for The Specials. Stream their album or – better – buy it (it’s only a fiver on Amazon right now). Keep it at the top. End the Barnum barminess. Go! Click! Now!
And Jackman: if this doesn’t work this week, we’re coming for you every week, bub.