Monday, April 25, 2011

Reviews from the Attic: The Specials (self-titled)

The Specials the Specials [2Tone Records]
Released: October 1979

Last Saturday I happened to find myself at Two Boots Pizzeria in the East Village with two close friends after an ill-fated attempt to make it into the Kim Gordon show at the Stone (it was sold out). As we sat there drinking beers and planning our next move, “Little Bitch” by the Specials came on the shitty little speakers they had setup in there. I didn’t say anything, but it brought back all sorts of memories of the first time I had gotten my hands on the Specials’ first album and listened to it as a teenager. That song in particular just sounded so cool to me at the time, kind of like seeing Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure as a kid and wanting so badly to be one of the starring characters. I totally wanted to be Terry Hall back then, so much so that I’d often listen to the Specials and envision myself as their frontman instead of Hall. Creepy, I know.

After my initial obsession with ska music waned in the early 00’s, I had largely written off the genre in favor of all the other great music I eventually discovered throughout four years of college and so forth. I’ll explain why, but the important thing is that the Specials will always hold a special place in my heart, and I’m now sort of kicking myself for not checking out one of their reunion shows this past summer.

Anyway, the summer of 1997 was a weird time for music. In general, and also personally. I had just discovered Radiohead’s OK Computer, I was probably listening to Rage Against the Machine’s Evil Empire at minimum five times a week, and the biggest emerging trend at the time was… ska. It wasn’t exactly “authentic” ska, not that I knew the difference back then; it was the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Reel Big Fish and Goldfinger that dominated ska music, and really all music on mainstream radio. Nothing against the Bosstones (they’ve been doing their own thing for a while), but looking back on the plethora of bands that jumped on that bandwagon, many of them pop-punk bands who I assume woke up one day and said, “hey, we should write a few ska songs,” it really was a pretty embarrassing scene. Even Pitchfork, who gave Save Ferris’s It Means Everything a 9.5 rating, has since had the review removed.

Not to say there weren’t some great acts out there gaining attention because of the spotlight on the genre. Hepcat, the Slackers, the Articles, Stubborn All-Stars, the Adjusters & pretty much anything Victor Rice or King Django touched, were all putting a creative spin on ska, and any attention they received due to the overblown hype placed on No Doubt was well deserved. However, to the casual listener, ska was nothing but punk-with-horns, and that’s a shame. In the end, that’s likely the legacy the third wave of ska left behind.

But after my initial discovery of the genre, digging a little deeper I soon discovered Madness, the (English) Beat, Bad Manners, the Bodysnatchers, the Selecter, and of course, the Specials. Ska-revival. The “Second Wave.” 2-Tone. Again, not what a purist would call “authentic” ska either, but this was a fucking scene. A scene worth reading books about, worth collecting 7” records of, worth getting a tattoo of (yes, my one and only tattoo is of Walt Jabsco). If you’ve seen the Specials’ fantastic performance of “Concrete Jungle” from the documentary Dance Craze, you’d know that this was essentially a punk band, a real punk band, doing a really unique thing. The Specials were great.

And so was their debut self-titled album. With Elvis Costello on production duties (fun fact), everything about the Specials exudes this very specific vision that keyboardist/2-Tone Records’ head honcho Jerry Dammers had. That album of course looked, but also somehow just sounded black and white (and not in a closed-minded Pleasantville sort of way). They created this iconic image and promoted such positive messages of racial harmony that it was almost impossible to listen to “Gangsters” or “Nite Klub” and not see tons of people dressed in black and white suits dancing together. How many bands can you say conjure up such a distinct cartoon-like image in your head? Apart from Gorillaz and the Archies I’m sort of at a loss…

There’s also something extremely charming about Terry Hall’s voice on that first album. Like he’s just got to fill up every possible syllable with words, delivered with the intensity of a Buzzcocks song, yet making you want to dance rather than mosh. His lyrics were also hilarious, but sung as deadpan as possible. Lines like, “I won’t dance in a club like this, all the girls are sluts and the beer tastes just like piss,” instantly come to mind. The image of Terry Hall being at a club and refusing to dance for these reasons alone is pretty amusing. And “Too Much Too Young,” undeniably the greatest public service announcement for birth control in music ever, tells the story of one of Hall’s mates having a baby well before he should have and Hall being pissed that he can’t hang out with the guy anymore. Bummer. “Keep a generation gap… try wearing a cap!” he shouts at the very end of the song. It would be kind of hard for a band to get away with that these days without sounding too preachy, or of course, too goofy. But somehow with the Specials it just worked.

Credit must also go to Neville Staple, whose stage presence alone made him an iconic figure within the band, but his vocal talent should not go unrecognized. Though primarily there to provide a contrast to Hall’s high-pitched spouting of words, Staple's harmonies on songs like “A Message To You Rudy” and album closer “You’re Wondering Now” were as important to the Specials’ sound as any other aspect. During live performances I suspect Staples’ primary role was to get the crowd to dance, but it wasn’t like he was that dancing guy in the Bosstones (which I still don’t quite understand). Neville Staple was/is a great singer, and during those weird partial reunion tours in the late 90’s (of which I believe only Staple and a couple others participated) he even took on the frontman role. But where would songs like “Stupid Marriage” and “Do the Dog” be without his distinct low-pitched patois accent?

Even as great as the songs are on the Specials, the production is as raw as a garage band’s recordings from the 50’s, which is what really gives the album its punk rock aesthetic. Lead single “Gangsters” comes across clean and polished at first, but once Lynval Golding’s guitar solo comes in, it’s pretty outstanding how absolutely badass that song becomes. Same as “(Dawning of a) New Era,” which is essentially just a 1950’s rock & roll song, but with its rather lo-fi production, the handclaps, those tinny upstroke guitar notes and that walking bass line, it makes the entire thing sound so danceable in a way that hadn’t been done since the 1950’s. And of course, it was another song about Terry Hall’s strange encounters with women, a subject that always comes off as endearing with the Specials.

A lot of my obsession with ska music during the early 00’s came from a mutual fascination of the genre with a girlfriend at the time. When you’re with someone who's as fanatical about something as you are, it’s kind of hard to escape it. And once I did start to lose interest in that whole scene (meaning, it wasn’t the only type of music I’d ever even consider listening to), it’s oddly enough when our relationship started to crumble. I wonder how much my writing off of ska had to do with that, but looking back, the majority of bands that I did give up on really were piece of shit bands. It’s kind of hard to defend a scene that spawned names like Skabba the Hutt and Francheska (those were real bands). But regardless of the personal association I have with ska music, when I go back and listen to the Specials’ first album, it’s still undoubtedly a classic.

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