Being a teenager in the late 70’s presented Britain’s disaffected youth with an embarrassment of riches to which tribe to pin your colours to the mast. In 1979 those colours were definitely black and white.
The Specials looked like a gang. A gang you wanted to be in. They looked hard, sharp and they had your back. That was also a necessity on the streets of late 70’s Britain. The style template was on the record label. Walt Jabsco the creation of band-leader Jerry Dammers, Horace Panter and designers ‘Teflon’ Sims and David Storey was taken from an early shot of Peter Tosh in full on rude-boy mode as part of the cover of the LP Wailin’ Wailers. The wrap around shades, the blue-beat stingy brim hat, slim-jim tie (although on original abum he sported a bow-tie) and tight-fitting black suit; the trousers of which looked like they’d had an argument with the wearers ankles and the shoes. Thick soled or leather soled beef-roll loafers with fringe, tassel or ‘penny’ vamp. Suddenly the high street was full of rude-boys walking the walk and talking the talk.
The Specials were so much more than just an image. They were politically conscious on a local level, reflecting the social-divide that their working-class audience were at the sharp end of. A witty re-write of Lloydie and the Lowbites ‘Birth Control’ became ‘Too Much Too Young’; ‘Concrete Jungle’, its title cribbed from an early 70’s Bob Marley tune turned into an all too real urban nightmare in the hands of Jerry Dammers and the effortlessly enigmatic Terry Hall, the bouncing Lynval Golding and Rude boy in chief Neville Staple.
Larger topics were handled with similar aplomb. Touring with The Clash (and a brief share of management) lead to the creation of Rock Against Racism. Their traditional skinhead image heavily at odds with bone-head National Front and British Movement fascism. Later still they’d champion the release of former ANC leader Nelson Mandela. From the litter-strewn streets of a still bomb-site Coventry to the dusty roads of Soweto their heady-mix of Ska and Punk struck a chord with those who demanded both justice and change.
All this was driven from the creation of their record company 2-Tone. Funded by Chrysalis records who were sold on the power of the bands image, musicality and Dammers’ intense belief. Altruistic (a shared B-side on debut single with The Selector) and Artistic its output was eclectic, politically challenging and just oh so danceable in your choice of loafers.
2-Tone launched the careers of The Selector, The Bodysnatchers and music-hall popsters Madness all of which used both arch humour and social commentary to great affect and all of which conquered the charts on a regular basis. Other bands took their lead from their ideals too; Bad Manners whose slapstick vaudeville approach belied great musicianship and The Beat who also had their own record label Go-Feet and stylish logo based on one-time Prince Buster paramour Bridgette Bond, released a slew of stunningly good singles. Young Soul Rebels Dexys Midnight Runners were also given a leg-up supporting The Specials on Tour.
In 1981 The Specials released possibly their greatest single; Ghost Town. It is by any measure a stunning song that is as (sadly) reflective of today’s society as it ever was then. Released in the week of the Toxteth Riots and with a punch in the guts despondency that reflected the fears of their audience (and also the band – it was to be their last single in this line-up) it stormed to number one. It’s rejection of social cleansing via faceless town centres, mind-numbing boredom and being set adrift in a sea of jobless statistics and scapegoat politics is incredibly powerful. The haunting trombone (played by original Alpha Boys School alumni) Rico Rodriguez adds to its paranoid air. The streets were set ablaze to its soundtrack that summer. The mixed race (more so than reported… naturally) working class rejection made real.
Music so rarely achieves the change it promises, but rarely has a band been so instrumental in fighting the injustices it sees. The Specials stood for something and continue to do so, such is their legacy. Ask most teenagers in the late 70’s who their favourite band was The Specials would have been a long way up the list… to many they still are.
We have done a few pictures to go with this blog.
Here are the Shoes & Tights In the Pictures