Brexit chaos. A near-decade of Tory austerity. Poverty, racism and inequality on the rise. A country irreparably divided. Time to send out the Two-Tone Bat-Signal and call in The Specials.
Their numbers have dwindled due to death, ill health and dissent – Jerry Dammers, Neville Staple and Roddy ‘Radiation’ Byers have all quit since their 2009 reunion, and drummer John Bradbury died in 2015 – but their relevance as commentators on our broken nation is as strong today as it was when ‘Ghost Town’ sneered darkly at Thatcher’s riot-rattled Britain in 1981. In troubled times, thank god The Specials are on hand to slap some sense into a babbling world.
You wouldn’t expect the ’70s’ premier ska-punk band to return after 20 years out of the studio having transformed themselves into a cutting edge psych grime act – ‘Encore’ essentially mingles mellowed ska and reggae with funk disco, Latin hints and spoken-word pieces – but initially you might fear their socio-political edge has dulled. The record opens with a Chic-disco-style cover of The Equals’ 1973 track ‘Black Skinned Blue Eyed Boys’, presenting an idealistic vision of a peaceful “half-breed” melting pot world where race has been globally mixed into irrelevance; a lovely Blue Mink sort of idea, but one that feels date-stamped to its post-hippy era, a million miles from tackling the issues of a 2019 increasingly scarred with the poxes of racism, division and intolerance. Have The Specials grown up into dislocated dreamers, sitting back waiting for love to heal the world? Have they watched a Question Time recently?
Thankfully, their own tunes are far more pertinent. ‘B.L.M.’ (an acronym for Black Lives Matter) finds Lynval Golding telling the story of his father arriving in the UK on the Windrush to help rebuild a war-torn Britain, and his own experiences of racism in the UK and America; the infectious pop reggae of ‘Embarrassed By You’ is its sister-piece, the older generation berating the knife-carrying, hoodie-hidden “nasty little brutes” as a shame to their country.
Terry Hall is just as open and confessional on the topic of mental health and his bi-polar disorder on the gently spoken ‘The Life And Times (Of A Man Called Depression)’, and most striking of all is a guest spot by Saffiyah Khan, the acivist who was photographed cheerfully facing down an angry EDL protester in Birmingham wearing a Specials t-shirt. ‘Ten Commandments’, her space dub answer track to Prince Buster’s misogynistic ‘Ten Commandments Of Man’, is every bit as defiant, as she recites lines attacking cat-callers, victim blamers and anti-feminists. These are tracks cutting deep into the malignant tumours of society, out to heal them by brutal, frank exposure.
And don’t go thinking the Tories get a free pass. ‘Vote For Me’ is a slinky ska takedown of the rule-makers protecting their own interests while “tearing our families apart”, and Fun Boy Three’s ‘The Lunatics (Have Taken Over The Asylum)’ is resurrected from 1982, a song whose time couldn’t get more now. The mildly unhinged circus spin of ‘Breaking Point’ even manages to capture our current, social media-driven sense of desperation, confusion and frustration as we hurtle inexorably towards riot and revolution: “with the help of God and a few Marines we’ll blow this place to smithereens”, Hall sings, presumably with one ear to the door of May’s no-deal planning committee.
The album ends on a similarly optimistic, but far more realistic, note than it began. “Looked all around the world, could be a beautiful place,” Hall decides on deserted ballroom ballad ‘We Sell Hope’, but acknowledges that the best we can do on a planet run by madmen is to be the sanity you want to see in the world: “do what you need to do without making others suffer”. We need right-thinking rebel records like ‘Encore’ now more than ever.