Uncut: The 100 Greatest Debut Albums (2006) (number: 20)
en: The Specials (album) [info]
To understand the impact of this spearhead of the ska revival on early Thatcherite Britain you have to imagine something so left field and yet so apt occurring today. It was as if depression-era dustbowl ballads suddenly became hip again in this era of global economic meltdown. Hardly anyone would have predicted that a musical form so tied to its Afro-Carribean heritage (as well as its less cool skinhead connections) could, almost overnight, become the trendiest thing across the nation.
What's more, The Specials' combination of pre-reggae sounds with punk attitude was also a decidely non-Londoncentric movement. Two Tone (as it quickly came to be known, named for the band's label) was born on the streets of the West Midlands. And even though it also gave rise to the Camden nutty boys, Madness, it was bands like the Beat and Selector who had really seen the effects of mass unemployment and civil unrest on their neighbourhoods.
This amalgamation of styles was clear from the band's personnel: guitarist Roddy Radiation had been a big punk name around Coventry, guest trombonist Rico had played on some of the original bluebeat numbers they adopted, while Terry Hall had been a bored youngster, filling in his time behind the singles counter of the local Virgin record store. This was all put together under the gap-tooth gaze of vicar's son and organist Jerry Damners. Growing up in multi-racial Coventry had taught him as much about skinhead culture as rock 'n' roll.
This first album was produced by another (then) angry young man, Elvis Costello who kept the rawness of their club heritage intact. It reflected their setlist of ska standards (Monkey Man, A Message To You Rudy, You're Wondering Now) with social commentary (Too Much Too Young, Nite Klub).
It was a classic example of a band making an almost perfect first album, acting as both a mission statement (the rise of right wing groups opposed by the message of Two Tone equality) and as an alternative way to have fun without having to pogo or spit. John Bradbury's rimshots propel the numbers and Hall's deadpan delivery accurately soundtracks the disaffection of a generation. The Specials remains a snapshot of a bleaker time, and a wrily comical antidote to political and cultural indifference anywhere.