Friday, October 19, 2012

The Specials: How Special, Really?

Q: What's black, white, and British all over?

In the '90s, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a few of my peers listening to ska revival bands. Every now and then I heard someone mention a band called the Specials. I assumed they were a band from the '90s. Later I learned they were a band from the late '70s and early '80s, and that they were part of the British New Wave. I liked a lot of other New Wave bands, so I figured I would like the Specials. Allmusic gave their debut album five stars. It was produced by Elvis Costello! Should be right up my alley.

I'll say one thing, The Specials certainly had a dynamic stage presence: four white instrumentalists, two black singers from Jamaica (Neville Staple and Lynval Golding), and a third singer, who was probably the whitest white guy in the world.

Terry Hall sounds like he just stepped out of a cabaret wearing a top hat and cane. He eternally seems like he's about five seconds from completely losing interest in you. He could be Damon Albarn's long-lost uncle. Terry Hall doesn't sound like he should be anywhere near reggae. But that's why it works, I suppose.

At any rate, when I finally did listen to the Specials' debut album, I thought it was ... boring. It didn't seem to set itself apart from a million other bands who've played ska and reggae. Here, for example, is their cover of the 1967 Dandy Livingstone song, "A Message To You, Rudy."

Kind of ... bland, right? I started to wonder if critics had praised The Specials only because of the novelty of a British band performing that type of music during that particular era. Another example: An EP featuring a live version of the album's "Too Much Too Young" as its headlining track went to #1 in the UK in 1980. I probably find the lyrics, a serio-comic tale about teen pregnancy, more interesting than the music, which is kind of repetitive and slightly gets on my nerves:
You've done too much
Much too young
Now you're married with a kid
When you could be having fun with me

Ain't you heard of the starving millions
Ain't you heard of contraception
Really want a program of sterilization
Take control of the population boom
It's in your living room
Keep a generation gap
Try wearing a cap

Sure, I got it: the Specials had a genuine appreciation for ska and were sincere in their attempt to popularize it. But that's not enough! I mean, the Clash didn't simply mimic the reggae artists they liked; they added their own punk guitar rage and indecipherable Joe Strummer vocals to the mix. They performed reggae with their own distinct voice.

The Specials' debut album just sounds like a ska tribute bar band down the street. There's a lot of slow, unfocused jamming. I expected it to be tighter, poppier, funkier, heavier. However, it turns out that the Specials did record some songs that more closely match my earlier expectations; they're just not on the debut album. Maybe Elvis Costello did a crappy job?

Witness the band's first single, "Gangsters," which is more of what I expected the Specials to sound like. "Why must you record my phone calls?/Are you planning a bootleg LP?" Hall deadpans into the mic. I dig this surf rock/lounge-pop feel.

I also like some of the singles from their second album, the imaginatively titled More Specials, such as "Rat Race," with its kitschy '60s keyboards and wry British educational references that would have never found their way onto a genuine reggae record:
You're working at your leisure to learn the things you'll need
The promises you make tomorrow will carry no guarantee
I've seen your qualifications, you've got a Ph.D.
I've got one art O level, it did nothing for me

Working for the rat race
You know you're wasting your time
Working for the rat race
You're no friend of mine

Now this is a bit more like it! Turns out the Specials were actually a singles band. That said, the band's finest single ... was yet to come.

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