This first edition of Late Monday Music will focus on the first and self-titled album of The Specials, a British ska band that emerged in 1979 and served as direct youth opposition to the election of Margaret Thatcher. Their music is jumpy and agitated, reflecting the turmoil of racism and recession that was crashing through Britain in the late ’70s and early 80′s, and there is a distinct blend of reggae, ska, and punk that howls against dowdy domesticity. The Specials were well known for being a racially integrated group during a notably prejudiced period in Britain, and their jarring music and presentation was a brass blast against bigotry.
The first Specials album, The Specials, is a kaleidoscopic whirl through pseudo-Dickensian streets of grime, violence, and hedonism. Many of the songs are covers or are derivative of earlier Jamaican ska, transformed to fit an urban British narrative. Visually the group embraces a stark black and white approach in fashion and in music videos that leaves an inescapable frenetic feel, as well as embracing racial unity. The first track “A Message to You, Rudy” has a more traditional sound and opens the album with a cheery, arching upper harmony so common in Jamaican-influenced music. The effect of the brass instruments is instant, they lurch in and out of the song with a delightful tipsiness. If this song is a little inebriated, the rest of the album is belligerently drunk, and in the best possible way. There is an omnipresent image, due to the lyrics and instrumentation, of a permanent nightfall.
Vocally the lyrics are often shouted in the punk style, with rambling rhythms that frantically speed up, juxtaposed with relatively controlled bass and keyboard solos. The cover of “Monkey Man,” initially performed by Toots and the Maytals, lives up to the already outstanding original, and the back half of the album is supported by the bitter anti-authority “Stupid Marriage” and “Too Much Too Young” where it is exhorted that we, the listener “should be having fun with me.” Not every song is perfect. “Do the Dog” retains a punk feel but loses some of the harmonic musicality that makes the group intriguing, and “Blank Expression” is one of the weaker lyrical offerings. In fact, the group is at its strongest when they successfully take a confluence of traditional ska and reggae backdrop and mix it with punk lyrics of street violence, exemplified in their interpretation of “Concrete Jungle.”
Ideally, music is not just a sound for somebody’s ears. It has a message, and The Specials, with tremendous success, blend their music with their message. The panting guitar parts leer at you from nightclub doorways, and the rapid vocals produce a determined anger that doesn’t veer into extremism. These guys know exactly what they are about, and their music that sneers against convention and doldrumic existence proves it.