The Specials - The Specials (Cover Artwork)

The Specials

The Specials (1979)

2 Tone Recprds

In 1979 the UK was going through some rather interesting changes, some of which are still felt in the country to this day. Punk rock had already reared its ugly, colorful and yet highly commercial face and gave another voice for disenfranchised and angry youth. With the Sex Pistols having already imploded though and Thatcher slowly starting to leave her mark, all was not lost and an unlikely contender emerged with an infectiously danceable and socially conscious form of music: the 2-Tone ska revival.

Along with Bad Manners, Madness and The Selecter, The Specials were one of this fresh new sound’s pioneers and amalgamated traditional Caribbean styles with a punk rock approach and spirit. Featuring both seasoned veterans and young upstarts alike, the band formed in 1977 and after a few line-up changes entered the studios in London to record its eponymous debut, in the summer of 1979.

Starting off with a cover of Dandy Livingstone's classic “Message To You Rudy”, the London-based band introduced itself to the world by showing respect to its predecessors and evoking the sounds of an older Jamaica. From then on though, the band quickly starts to bring in its own spin on the pre-reggae ska sound that people used to know, with the horns being sparser and the guitar more prominent in the mix. It is worth noting that the album was produced by Elvis Costello, who managed to preserve the youthful anger and intensity simmering beneath the surface.

Along with the highly danceable music they created, The Specials also had a strong socio-political message that is prevalent throughout the album; on “Doesn’t Make It Right” they make their position on racism clear – at a time when violence from the far-right was on the rise – while the rockier follow-up “Concrete Jungle” they tell the tale of being chased by the National Front and having to carry a knife to feel safe. These lyrical themes are arguably what elevates The Specials (and their 2 Tone peers) above being a mere tribute to the original ska, rocksteady and blue-beat scenes.

The second side also starts off equally strong with another cover, this time “Monkey Man” by Toots & the Maytals, which to this day encourages inebriated skinheads with a huge smile from all over the world to clumsily bump into each other on the dance-floor. Before you can catch your breath, The Specials speed things up a bit with the bouncy “(Dawning Of A) New Era” that brings back some of that aforementioned rock flavor and which draws from Prince Buster’s “Judge 400 Years”.

The highlight on this side though is undoubtedly “Too Much Too Young”, which is based on Lloyd Charmers’ “Birth Control”. This song illustrates the sort of bleak society and limited options that young people in Britain had at the time, juggling dead-end jobs and unfulfilling relationships in an uncertain landscape. “Little Bitch” is a strong contender for second best song on this side, as it brings out even more of their harder edge by mashing up the jumpy ska with more outright rock bursts of energy. The album fittingly and amusingly concludes with “You’re Wondering Now” by Clement Seymour, where The Specials carry on singing “you're wondering now, what to do, now you know this is the end” after all the instruments have stopped.

The Specials’ debut release is a classic example of a band pretty much getting it right the first time around – subsequent releases mostly maintain a similarly exceptional execution (despite the line-up changes), but on this first outing they have seemingly captured lightning in a bottle. A solid selection of Jamaican classics blends in effortlessly with their more modern take and punk-inspired ethos, while conveying a strong social and political message that is as relevant as ever.