Wednesday, January 27, 2010

January 27: The Specials, "A Message To You Rudy"

Artist: The Specials
Song: "A Message To You Rudy"
Album: The Specials
Year: 1979

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While every genre of music has had different stylistic changes over time, there is perhaps no genre where they are as well defined and as clear as within the SKA style of music. Containing at least three (depending on your opinion) distinct waves of music, the second-wave SKA sound fused together the island sounds of reggae with the established SKA sound, as well as a number of different external styles of music. The three major waves of the SKA sound can be seen as representing the end of the three consecutive decades, beginning with the 1960's, and this is also why each wave has its own unique characteristics. Easily one of the most, if not THE most important band of the second wave of the SKA genre (also simply called "SKA revival") was the seminal U.K. band, The Specials. Their 1979 self-titled debut record is a true classic of music, and the album perfectly captures everything that was happening musically at that time in history. Fusing together the reggae roots sound with elements of SKA, rockabilly, punk, and even a foreshadowing of what would be called "new wave," The Specials, is without question one of the pivotal records in history. The albums' lead track, a cover of Dandy Livingstone's 1967 song, "A Message To You Rudy" stands today as not only one of The Specials' most beloved songs, but one of the most classic songs in the entire history of the SKA/reggae genres.

"A Message To You Rudy" is truly a special song, as it has proved its influence in being covered by artists ranging from Sublime to Amy Winehouse to Barenaked Ladies over the years, yet there is little question that the recording by The Specials remains the definitive version. The Specials are the very definition of everything that it meant to be part of the "2 Tone" movement within SKA, and though many people assume this name was given due to the black and white checkered fashion style, it was actually derived from the fact that a majority of the bands of this style were recording for 2Tone Records. The iconic logo for the label is actually a drawing of a photograph of Peter Tosh, and this further solidified the connection with the reggae sound. On "A Message To You Rudy," The Specials put one of the most amazing personal spins on a song that has ever been heard, as they seamlessly incorporate many sounds and styles into the SKA sound. At the base of the music is the classic "SKA" guitar sound, and this sound is emphasized by the brilliant, light keyboard work of Jerry Dammers. However, there is little question that the key to the fantastic sound on the song is the combination of Rico Rodriguez's trombone and the flugel horn of Dick Cuthell. In fact, Rodriguez also holds the distinction of having played on both this version, as well as the original 1967 recording of the song. It is this smooth, persistent horn progression that defines the song, and would go on to be the key factor in later SKA revivals. Without any "studio gloss," the song embodies the minimalist approach of the punk movement, and the repetitive, simple musical progressions further this connection.

Keeping in line with the stripped down nature of the music, the vocals on "A Message To You Rudy" follow a similar style and progression. Flawlessly mixing together solo vocals alongside group harmonies, nearly every member of the group has their voice somewhere on the track. Handling a majority of the lead vocals on "A Message To You Rudy" are Terry Hall and Neville Staple, and their direct singing-speaking approach is nothing short of perfect on the track. When the rest of the group jumps in, the harmonies are absolutely fantastic, yet there is never a point where the vocals get too loud or too aggressive, giving the song a constant, smooth and relaxed mood. However, though the overall feel of the song is laid back, the truth of the matter is, the lyrics are one of the most direct and clear warnings ever committed to record. The "message" of the song is simple, telling the "Rude Boys" of the era that their carelessness and questionable choices in life will likely land them in jail or in the grave. The "Rude Boys" or "Rudies/Rudy" was a term coined in the early 1960's in Jamaica, referring to juvenile delinquents and then later used as a broader term in reference to second and third wave SKA fans. It is with this knowledge that the lyrics become far more clear, and one can understand the true meaning behind lines like, "...better think of your future...else you'll wind up in jail..." Due to this almost universal application of the sentiment of the lyrics, the song has persevered over the decades, and has been covered or slightly altered across countless genres, proving to be one of the most timeless lyrics ever penned.

Throughout music history, there are a handful of moments in time that have been perfectly captured on recordings. Without question, the 1979 debut from The Specials is one of those, as it encapsulates everything that was happening as the punk ethos began to bleed across into other genres, and the brighter, more reggae driven sounds began to take hold. Taking the minimalist approach that punk had perfected, and fusing it together with the more upbeat, more musical sounds of the reggae movement, the second wave of SKA music re-introduced the music-loving public to one of the most enduring and endearing sounds in history. With their debut record finding great success in the U.K., The Specials remain today one of the most important bands in the development of music, as their sound served as the catalyst for the "new wave" era, as well as the foundation for the third wave SKA movement nearly a decade later. Furthering their revival spirit, The Specials kicked off their debut record with a cover of the classic song, "A Message To You Rudy," and their version quickly became their defining song, as well as one of the songs that defines the entire SKA movement to this day. From the perfectly organized music to the top-notch vocal work, The Specials' 1979 single, "A Message To You Rudy" is unquestionably one of the most enjoyable and most important songs in music history and the song remains just as enjoyable and influential more than thirty years later.

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