By Jacqueline Howell
The Specials, by now an institution to those who know, reached their first number one album on the music charts in the U.K. in February 2019. Fans who do social media the right way are still sharing pictures, excited as kids at Christmas, of the new album being played on their turntables. We’re among them. The band’s extensive spring U.K. / Europe and U.S. tour will sell out as it always has and as it has, emphatically, since the band reformed around 2010. The tour will include several days in Coventry, where the band formed. They will kindly visit the U.S. and Canada, as they always do these days. And make no mistake: in a time of bleak, dystopic, machine-made pop music crafted from smoke and mirrors designed to obscure that today’s pop music acts are product mascots miming and dancing looking like lost pageant children, The Specials’ spectacular reception, rumbling as it has for some months through the authentic underground, quietly building momentum, finally broke through at just the right time, in a matter of otherwise bleak, midwinter days. It’s historic.
It’s no accident that The Specials first record in 37 years, Encore, is so successful and has been embraced so fervently by a generation (or two) who live unconditionally: who love things sincerely, waving them like flags, or not at all. The unequivocal success of The Specials’ new record is real, gritty, and pure. It’s not the result of ads and expensive handshakes, a contrivance of some branding genius somewhere, ensconced in a cool but lifeless concrete supervillain lair, who needs only his thumbs to influence the world for good or ill. It’s the opposite of things we’ve grown used to in music, trends that we suspect, that make us mistrustful of all media messages, while our critical thinking abilities and voices are regularly shouted down by thoughtless social media commentary that dominates so much public opinion. The success of The Specials in 2019 is (remarkably) the same as their success of their first records and tours: the result of hard graft, talent and something even rarer, an incorruptibility. Once again, we are seeing the rareness of originality rising to the top, and being embraced when it’s found. Only later does it seem inevitable or easy. Only from a distance. The ingredients of the new Specials record are the markers of genius that we’ve gotten rusty at recognizing because we are rarely offered it, point blank, no strings attached, in this new century that promised us so much more.
Lead single “Vote For Me” came out of the dark one day, sounding very reassuringly like The Specials of old. Terry Hall has always told us the truth, sounding fearless and confident, and detached in a way we all strive to be. “If we vote for you, do you promise / to be upright, decent and honest / To have our best interest at heart? You understand why we don’t believe you / You’re way too easy to see through / Not the best place to start.” YES. YES. YES.
Isn’t this what we’ve all needed? A crisp voice of reason, from a time, place, memory of when we had true musical outsiders we could trust? Where a dance beat and even a trombone could merge with punk rock’s ethos and whatever was coming next at the end of the century, telling us kids that things were dark, but we would still dance, resist, fight if we had to, and question what we were told by whichever grinning wolf sat in power? Thatcherite early 1980s Britain was full of turmoil, pain and glorious rebellion that was carried on music as much as anywhere, and maybe more. The Specials ducked in and out of taverns and working-class towns and down dark winding motorways in those days of emerging, to find out some people didn’t dance, but only ever threw bottles to express themselves. The Specials tenacity is well-documented, but as a reminder, they encountered seething, vile racism, out in the open, the violent kind, which made being a band like them dangerous, and yet, they sang, played, fought, resisted, and looked a million. There was no one else like them then. There’s still no one like them. Today’s political leaders have led their nations into darkness again, and the questions raised by The Specials in the late 1970s and early 1980s still ring out. Only now they, and we, have follow up questions. New sounds. More ammunition.
Encore is full of moods, ideas and painterly colours with pretensions. It’s a mature work, one that sounds like the organic evolution of this band. With a fairly short, tight and perfect back catalogue, the new record has been made with the attention and patience maturity brings. No need to repeat what was done before. No obvious label pressure to pander to pop or dance hooks (hell, they invented and adapted new kinds of hooks in popular music worldwide.) With a nod to the founding members’ divergent pasts, they’ve remade the Fun Boy Three song “The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum”, which deserves to be bopped to by new audiences. The inclusion of a Fun Boy Three song also points to the reality of the divergent paths the bandmembers have taken over the years, heading off any silly criticism about then and now and members’ departures. It’s a dark world, in which we have all lost too many, too young all the time. The fact that Terry Hall, Horace Panter and Lynval Golding are still here, and still here (making & performing their music on a global stage), is, as recent years’ concert-goers can attest, worthy of skanking your knees down to nubs.
Encore draws on the different musical styles that make up The Specials’ unique and genre defying bouillabaisse, with call backs to Prince Buster and Desmond Dekker’s music, as usual, spun with just an acid, British, twist. This band is still keenly in tune with not only the particular cultural concerns of Britain, but of the planet, too. Travel and life beyond the journey of a band grounds Encore firmly in the present moment, with authority to speak on the deepest concerns of today (as ever, with style): gun control. Black Lives Matter. Feminism, particularly in re-centering of the “I” of who has the mic and the power, a bold and sincere statement from a historically all-male band.
Which brings us to “10 Commandments”. The song features Saffiyah Khan, the activist who famously stared down an alt-right man while wearing a Specials T-shirt. This tune is a spin on Prince Buster’s “Ten Commandments”, in which the subject, women, are instructed how to behave. Buster’s ten commandments have been remixed and remade in a kind of call-and-response.
“The Life and Times of A Man Called Depression” takes an insightful look at its subject. Terry Hall has been open about his depression as well as throwing support behind awareness campaigns in the U.K. Here, The Specials take another clear-eyed look at a subject that has too long been the subject of shame in families, in the workplace, and in the arts, where we demand of ourselves and our entertainers to be “on” at stage time, to perform and to give those waiting the time of their lives no matter what illnesses people are dealing with behind the scenes and outside of the 90-minute window of a gig. Depression among musicians seems, to us as journalists and music fans (first) to be a pressing issue deserving of consideration in the demanding world of entertainment. We need our artists well, and to get to retire, and to have private lives that are balanced with all they give us.
“He stands accused of being socially inept
Some say rude, aloof, devoid of any real truth
He lives in a world of self-doubt, self-pity, self-loathing, self-harm…”
Depression is an urgent subject for artists to become more vocal and honest about, as we’ve lost too many beloved artists in recent years to depression and its tragic outcomes. A song like this will no doubt hit home to so many, as well as affording a moment of empathy for our artists themselves.
The remarkable Lynval Golding steps into a bigger vocal role on Encore. He masterfully re-interprets The Valentines’ “Blam Blam Fever”, his authentic timbre ringing with the all the divergent experience of a Jamaican-born boy / now mature man living in America, a country of pain and strife today, much of it based around abuses of power and senseless gun violence. These themes continue into the very personal “B.L.M.”, in which Golding shares his life story through three countries and the casual, cruel brutality of racism he’s encountered along the way. His story is poignant, painful and clear: Black Lives Matter. Golding uses his warm voice and his platform to point to an ugliness that follows people of colour across time and space, that must be seen and called out with no quarter given, (including by everyone who hasn’t experienced it, as allies).
And so, we listeners and lifelong fans get to feel part of a brand new chapter, a continuum that started back in 1977 with a call for “black, white: unite”; the look, feel, style, and deeper messages of a sound and a loose philosophy called “two-tone”; the band who made it fashionable to be radical, peer over our hedgerows and borders, shake shit up. The Specials did this all while subtly giving glimpses underneath the well-turned cuff of a sharp suit, those unseen, countless, painstaking stitches, the labour that makes something as straightforward as fabric into art. The Specials will take this new music, blended with their classics, and their solid arguments on the road, as ever, facing down difficult subjects with the grace, power and euphoria of music.