Monday, April 27, 2009

April 27: The Specials, "The Specials"

Artist: The Specials
Album: The Specials
Year: 1979
Label: 2 Tone/Chrysalis

As the 1970's came to a close, the popular musical sounds were shifting drastically, and the reggae and SKA sounds of the Caribbean began to make a comeback into the music scene. Perhaps due to the worldwide influence of The Clash, this rebirth was closely associated with the punk movement. At the front of the revival of the SKA sound were a band that opened for The Clash throughout their "On Parole" tour, British legends, The Specials. Their flawless blend of SKA and punk remains without equal to this day, and their self titled, 1979 debut marks a turning point in music history.

Originally conceived as a way to get their legendary live sound onto a full length record, the songlist on The Specials is comprised of almost all of the bands' entire live set at the time. Only omitting a few songs form their live set, most notably, "Gangsters" (which was already out on a 45), the album perfectly captures the energy and emotion of the band. Sonically, The Specials is superbly produced, in large part because the man at the mixing console was none other than Elvis Costello. Costello managed to make the somewhat dark mood of The Specials music appear a bit brighter, and therefore it was far more accessible to fans. The tracks are a perfect mixture of studio polish and the gritty, live feel that made their shows notorious. Lending backing vocals to the record is one time member of Masters Of The Backside (the band that eventually became The Damned), Ohio native, Chrissie Hynde. Having this balance of seasoned music pros, along with the raw sound and energy that the band themselves provided helps to make The Specials nothing short of phenomenal.

Introducing the world to a new style of music, the sound found throughout The Specials remains a joyous celebration of musical freedom. At the core of the sound is the now well known "SKA" riff on the guitars found throughout nearly each track. When guitarist Roddy Radiation leaves the "riff" to Lynval Golding, he is free to lay down blistering solos and crushing, punk-fueled chords. The drums of John Bradbury provide a wonderful, consistent bounce to the record, and perfectly back the basswork of "Sir Horace Gentlemen." When The Specials feel the need to introduce horns to the sound, they call upon the talents of Rico Rodriguez and Dick Cuthell (who would end up joining the band full time). Rodriguez, who not only played on the original recording of "A Message To You Rudy," as well as The Specials cover of the song, hailed from the seminal SKA band, The Skatalites, and his presence on the album undoubtedly gave the group "street cred."

With nearly half the band adding vocals, the primary singing duties are shared between Terry Hall and Neville Staple. The contrast between their vocal styles and sounds gives the songs wonderful depth, and they play perfectly off of one another. In a bit of ironic prediction, one of the finest, most poppy songs on The Specials is the aptly named, "(Dawning Of A) New Era." Lyrically, The Specials features some of the most brutally honest, if not rude, lyrics you'll find anywhere. Summing up their distaste for all the bad "nights out" they'd ever had, the band muses, "All the girls are slags and the beer tastes just like piss..." An all out attack on listeners, "Little Bitch" is a "take no prisoners," rude as hell, yet enjoyable tune. However, much like their punk influences, The Specials take time on their debut record to address social issues. "It Doesn't Make It Alright" is a brilliantly written rallying call against racism. Taking a page from The Clash, The Specials openly address their distaste for teen pregnancy with the song, "Too Much Too Young" and takes the idea further with the "trial" found within the lyrics of "Stupid Marriage." From giving the finger to those who didn't like them ("It's Up To You") to discourses on important social issues, the lyrical content found on The Specials is diverse and yet unforgivingly honest.

In 1979, disco was dead, and punk was beginning to fizzle into mediocrity. Taking the island sound of SKA and blending it with the ferocity of punk, The Specials started a musical movement that is still very relevant today. The catchy, bright "SKA riff" has become the base for countless bands from Goldfinger to No Doubt to Amy Winehouse, and one simply cannot deny the widespread, lasting influence of The Specials. Bringing the intense and aggressive energy of their live performances, as well as their trademark unrelentingly honest lyrics, The Specials remain one of the most outstanding bands to ever record.. Lasting only a few years (though they reformed in 2008), The Specials produced seven consecutive UK Top 10 hits, as well as some of the most important albums in music history. Releasing a pair of amazing studio albums before breaking up, The Specials permanently cemented their place in music history with their groundbreaking 1979 self titled debut record.

Standout tracks: "A Message To You Rudy," "Nite Klub," and "Too Much Too Young."

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