The Specials - so much, so young

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In 1981 Britain was in a state of crisis: 2.5 million people were unemployed and Margaret Thatcher's government was deeply unpopular.

In April of that year the police introduced a stop and search policy in Brixton, named Operation Swamp. In just six days 943 people - most of them black - were stopped and searched by plainclothes officers. This led to the Brixton riot - an uprising against racist brutality and poverty.

On 10 July the country just exploded with wave after wave of rioting. In the midst of the turmoil The Specials released "Ghost Town". It hit number one. Can any other record claim to have captured the spirit of its age so acutely?

This year sees the 30th anniversary of the release of the band's first single, "Gangsters". Its black and white checks and "rude boy" mascot, Walt Jabsco, adorned many a school kid's textbook. Over the coming months much is going to be written about the band. Most of it will concentrate on their inspiring music, the massive impact they had on youth culture and the bitter and acrimonious break up of the first group. I will be lapping it all up and reminiscing about seeing The Specials play at Hemel Hempstead Pavillion and playing a small part in getting The Specials to perform at a Rock Against Racism (RAR) gig at Hatfield Poly.

But for me the most interesting question is how did a group of young black and white kids from Coventry (lead singer Terry Hall was only 17 when the band formed) get together and fuse a punk sensibility with ska to create some of the greatest pop music of the past 30 years? I was able to get an answer last month at a SWP fundraiser. Showing his solidarity on the record decks that night was Jerry Dammers - one of the founders of the band, and the man responsible for "Ghost Town", "Free Nelson Mandela" and "Too Much Too Young".

"It was simple really," Jerry replied. "I loved all those early Jamaican records, stuff like Harry J Allstars' 'Liquidator', Desmond Deckers' 'Israelites' and the Upsetters' 'Return of Django'. I would pop down to my local Woolworths and tucked away in the basement were all these cheap reggae records - reggae was always treated as second class music."

The Specials began life as the Coventry Automatics in 1977 when Jerry Dammers, the keyboard-playing son of a clergyman, asked a fellow student, bassist Horace Panter, to help him record a set of self-penned reggae songs.

They recruited musicians from Coventry's thriving club scene. Jamaican-born guitarist Lynval Golding had played in local soul bands, and singer Terry Hall and guitarist Roddy "Radiation" were part of the local punk scene. John Bradbury was drafted in on drums. Finally, Neville Staples, a former member of disco-dancing troupe Neville and the Boys was recruited and the Specials were born. They were a product of Coventry - England's very own motor city - and their sound encapsulated the frustrations and alienation of 1980s Britain.

On their first tour Nazi skinheads attacked their gig in Bracknell. "That was the night The Specials concept was born," said Dammers. "It was obvious the Mod/skinhead revival was coming and I was trying to find a way to make sure it didn't go the way of the Nazi National Front. I idealistically thought, we have to get through to these people, and that's when we got the image together and started using ska rather than reggae. It seemed a bit more healthy to have an integrated kind of British music, rather than white people playing rock and black people playing their music. Ska was an integration of the two."

The band recorded two stunning albums. The first, Specials, was youthful with a healthy dose of realism about urban life. The second, More Specials, is an often-neglected classic, leapfrogging from jazz-inspired exotica, dark ska soundscapes and new wave. It is a bleak, cynical record and the refrain of the track "Pearl's Café", "It's all a load of bollocks. And bollocks to it all", summed up how many of us felt.

The Specials were defiantly political - one of their last concerts was the Leeds RAR carnival. When black band member Lynval Golding was brutally attacked by racists, his ribs were smashed and he was slashed across the face with a razor, he responded by writing the haunting track, "Why".

At the height of the band's popularity Terry, Neville and Lynval left. Jerry kept the project together and continued to record under the name The Special AKA. He wrote more and more overtly political music that dealt with issues like apartheid, rape, Palestine and racism.

Thirty years on the Specials have reformed and will be touring the country, but Jerry won't be joining them. He has decided to pursue a different musical path and continues to wear his political heart on his sleeve. But The Specials still matter. They were the midwives of multiracial music in Britain today.