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Three Special Questions about The Specials

To celebrate the release of Encore, I reached out to 21 people I’ve interviewed over the past few years and asked them three questions:

  • When did you first hear The Specials?
  • What impact did they have on you?
  • What’s your favorite Specials song

Nee Nee Rushie, The Big Takeover

I had never heard of The Specials living in Jamaica. I discovered them when I moved to New York. Rob Kissner (bass) showed their music to me. It was easy to appreciate the 2nd wave of Ska, after being familiar with the 1st wave for so long.

The Specials give us the stamp of approval to be flexible and unique in our sound. They have songs that are not quite ska, not quite reggae. And so do we. We have followed in their footsteps by creating a quirky, distinctive version of traditional Jamaican music. They showed us that it is OK to have a unique sound.

Favorite tracks: “Do Nothing” and “Friday Night/Saturday Morning.”

 

Machete Alexis, Les Skartoi

I think it was 20 years ago in a reggae-ska comp. “A Message to You Rudy” and “Too Much Too Young” were included in that CD. It was a blast for me.

For me as a bassist, Horace’s bass riffs influenced my style. I learned to play all the lines of their first album, one by one, then I started to dig in the ska music deeper and deeper. When we started our band, Les SkartOi!, we did covers from The Specials just to have fun and learn ska music.

We have an E.P. called “Fighting on the Dancefloor” [a line from Ghost Town] “Ghost Town” is a great song with heavy loaded lyrics. One of my favourite tracks including many others.

 

Adam Flymo Birch, The Vershons, trumpet player with The Specials (1996–2001, 2008)

I first heard them I was about 11 when they first came out and I was starting to get rude. The 2 years went fast and everyone I know had a tonic suit and loafers or docks and monkey boots. You had to have a Fred Perry and your hair had to be shaved.
By the time I was 13, “Ghost Town” was out and it said it all about where we were from. I am a Leicester boy and proud of it. Little did I know I would be playing for them later in life. Dream come true.

Favorite track, “Pearl’s Cafe.” It’s hard, there are many. Very proud of the boys for the new LP.

Andy Bassford, guitarist

I missed them because I was in Jamaica by then. Didn’t affect me at all. “Ghost Town” is a great track. That’s probably the first one I heard.

Heather Augustyn, historian and author

I honestly don’t remember when I first heard The Specials. It seems like they’ve always been with me. I don’t think I experienced them like most people did. They weren’t my first foray into ska. I found them after I had already heard ska from other bands. My first experience of ska was The Beat, so I likely found them shortly after that, in the mid to late 90s.

They had a big impact on my philosophically because when I saw them perform live, I witnessed that there was no separation between audience and the band. The audience went up on stage and danced with them. Neville Staple came down into the crowd and danced with them. You have to understand that this was a very big deal then. Sure, it happens all of the time now, but then, it was incredible to see that there was no hierarchy in the way we experience music. It’s all a collective—a musical communion— and to me, that is the essence of ska. The Specials brought that element to ska in their own way through this expression.

Hands down, favorite track, “Ghost Town.” Doesn’t even come close for me. I have written pages and pages in my books on this song. Not only do I love it because of the significance, culturally, but it is just such a kick-ass song. Sultry, haunting, captivating.

And I want to give a shout out to my favorite song on their new album, even though it is a cover. “Blam Blam Fever” is a killer version of The Valentines’ “Gun Fever.” They did a fantastic job, and man, how relevant this song still is—in America, anyway. Could be our new anthem.

Fred Campbell, SkaJamz

I first heard the Specials in California in the 90s. Can’t say they had any impact on my playing, but I was impressed with the show and as a Jamaican, a little surprised to find so much popularity for Ska/Reggae in the states.

Monique Powell, Save Ferris

I first heard “Ghost Town” on LA’s first alternative radio station, KROQ, when I was a kid … maybe about 6-7 years old. Loving their music, from hearing it on the radio through my older sister, changed everything for me in the trajectory of my musical future. The Specials were the catalyst that took me down the musical rabbit hole that opened my world to the most important musical influences in my life. They have guided for a career that would eventually span 23 years in ska. Here’s how the rabbit hole went: Through hearing “Gangsters,” I found Prince Buster. Obsessing over every word printed on my sister’s vinyl copies of “the Specials” and “More Specials,” I found The music of Elvis Costello (who’s early writing influenced my own deeply) and Two Tone records. Pauline Black and the Selecter, the Gogo’s, The Pretenders and the Bodysnatchers: they inspired who I would eventually become as a woman in ska. “A Message to you Rudy” took me to Dandy Livingstone. The list goes on and on. Then I got to know Neville and we became friends in 1998. We did the Warped Tour together. I still have to pinch myself whenever we reconnect when I’m in the UK.

Favorite track: That’s a very hard decision to make, as the self titled album has too many great songs to choose only one. “Do the Dog”? “Blank Expression”? “Too much too Young”? “Monkey Man”?

Tim Receveur, SuperNova Ska Fest

I lived in Japan for 3 years in the early 1990s and found a record shop in Tokyo that only sold ska. The guy running it gave me records by Operation Ivy, Voodoo Glow Skulls, and The Specials and I was hooked from then. I still have dreams of that record store nearly 25 years later.

Their music has been a total inspiration since the first note, especially the way that they spoke out against the National Front and racism. It’s absolutely terrifying that these kinds of hate groups are once again gaining a foothold in the 21st century. Dicky Barrett from The Mighty Mighty Bosstones called ska “a musical superhero” because it helps in times of turmoil, like Jamaica in the 1950s or Margaret Thatcher’s England. Ska is the hero we need in the age of Donald Trump and Brexit.

On a personal note, we have been running ska festivals in Virginia for several years and I know that we only do that with a steady diet of The Specials over the years.

Favorite tracks: “B.L.M.” and “Embarrassed by You” off Encore are quickly moving up the list for me. Lynval is amazing on the new album. “Doesn’t Make It Alright” and “Concrete Jungle” are two of my all-time favorites.

Steve Montgomery, The Ska Vendors, Melbourne Ska Orchestra

I first heard The Specials in the very early eighties. A magical impact … cool look cool sounds and very danceable.

Favorite tracks: “Gangsters.” It’s a monster track!

Dave Hillyard, The Slackers

I first heard The Specials in 1982 or 1983. I got a cassette of More Specials. And then copied a cassette of the first album off someone else’s vinyl. I got into two tone as it was dying in Europe but it was just picking up in the States with Madness and the Beat having hits.

It turned my head around. I listened to The Specials probably every day or at least multiple times a week for 3 years. From 1983 to 1986. Their songs were my anthems. They took me away from being a lost, unhappy suburban kid, and gave me purpose. The fact that you could dance to it, or at least I could in my own lumbering way, made it more total. It was mind and body. In terms of impact it’s been ubiquitous. The Specials’ edgy sound. The mix of positive political messages with music you could dance to. The original self reliance idea of starting your own label.

Favorite track: “Hey Little Rich Girl.” I have a lot of favorites but that one spoke to me first. I heard their second album first. I went to school with a lot of rich girls. It was the 80s in southern California. So lots of day-glo, shoulder pads, and horrible hair. Empty privileged attitudes towards life. And this song seemed to be a perfect antidote to them.

 

Eric Doumerc, author

I first heard The Specials in 1979 or 1980. They were then beginning to become popular in France, along with other bands like Madness and UB40.

The Specials had a great impact on my life. They revealed to me the existence of Jamaican music as I was intrigued by the rhythms they were using in their music and the great covers like “Monkey Man” and “A Message to You Rudy.” Thanks to their music, I discovered Jamaican ska and later reggae.

I’ve got many favourite tracks by The Specials, but if I had to narrow it down to just one, it would definitely be “Do The Dog,” from the first album. Terry Hall’s delivery is just fantastic and the musicianship is great. A close second would be “Too Much Too Young.”

 

Chris Trent, BobsSkaRadio.com

I don’t remember exactly when [I first heard The Specials], probably the mid 90’s when I was getting into Ska. Like many people I first noticed their catchiest tunes like “Message To You Rudy” and “Monkey Man.”

They sill are having an impact, Lynval Golding lives here in the Seattle area now. I have seen him play several times with his band Gigantor, as well as seeing him play guest spots with other local bands. I also have seen The Specials several times when they have played in our area.

It’s hard to pick a few songs songs without naming half of their entire catalog, so I will stick with their newest album. At this point my top songs from it would be “Breaking Point”, “Embarrassed by You” and “Vote for Me.”

Steve Jackson, The Pietasters

I graduated in 1988 so my first exposure to The Specials was thanks to the backing track to high school parties in the 80s.

Our first show was in 1990, kind of the front side of the second wave. Since then we’ve been driving around in circles, trying to write catchy songs, inspired by the ones we heard on those first three Specials albums, while trying to match the live energy we heard on those live bootleg recordings.

I can’t pick just one favorite. Over the years, as a band we’ve become well versed in covering The Specials’ songs. Whether finding or missing the mark it never hurt to try to learn some masterful songs. The one that I long to do right is “Friday Night, Saturday Morning.”

Darren Reggae, DJ, record seller

I first heard The Specials in the 8th grade in 1988. “Nite Club” was the first one that stood out at a skater party. The Specials were one of the bands key into getting me into 2-Tone Ska.

Favorite track: International Jet Set

Robert “Bucket” Hingley, The Toasters

I first heard The Specials in 1978 when I was just finishing university. The big track of them was, obviously, “Ghost Town,” which was a number one hit, but I really like the new album. Had to get that in. I think people expecting a two-tone album will be disappointed, but I think the level of social commentary is great, and that’s something that I really like about two-tone. So, it’s really good to see people talking about ska music again, 40 years after their first success. It’s awesome. I think it’s a great album.

The Specials weren’t my favorite two-tone band. That accolade has to go to The Selecter. I’m a big fan of Neol Davies. I liked Pauline on stage. They also wrote most of their own tunes, and the musicianship in that band was really excellent.

I always liked listening to Enjoy Yourself from them. Normally they would play that in the encore, because it’s a great tune. [As for a track off the new album] Well, a lot of it … they have some covers on there. We’ve been listening to it in the van. I’m going to listen to it at home with some good headphones when I get back [off tour]. I think the record is good and people should cut them a lot more slack.

 

Mike Geraci, The Abbruptors

I first heard The Specials at a punk house when I was a teenager, probably around 18. They had, and have always had, a major impact on my music. They will always be one of my favorites. We cover quite a few tunes by them, even have “Do Nothing” recorded with our single “Wait & See.” They taught me how to think outside the box musically, not every song is a ska song, they always knew what genre fit with their lyrics.

My favorite Specials track is “Rat Race.” Always has been and probably always will be. They lyrics spoke to me as a kid, reminded me that I didn’t want to get stuck in a mundane 9 to 5 working for some asshole. That song is a huge reason as to why we’ve pushed so hard as a band.

 

Olly Silky Hookings, Death of Guitar Pop

I remember first hearing The Specials as a young kid in the back of my mum and dad’s motor.“A Message to You Rudy” came on the radio. It obviously stuck with me.

The Specials have had a huge impact on our music. I became obsessed with the Dance Craze movie a few years back and it played a big part in inspiring me to start my own Ska band. And of course since then, getting Neville on board for “Suburban Ska Club” has played a big part in our growth as band. It’s been an honour to work with him and he’s now a dear friend.

“You’re Wondering Now” is an absolute beauty isn’t it! The live performance of this featuring the addition of Amy Winehouse (at V Festival) is magical.

 

Eric Taft, Party Like It’s

I first heard The Specials when I was a kid, maybe 8 years old, combing through my dad’s vinyl collection. He was a huge Elvis Costello fan and bought the first record on a whim simply because he had production credits on it. It was a happy coincidence because it was a true introduction to two-tone ska for me.

I’ve heard that the band wasn’t all that happy with Costello’s contributions to their first record, but for me as a fan of both, I think it’s exciting to have a collaboration of two fairly different musical backgrounds and watching them collide. We try to carry that mentality in Party Like It’s…, and to inject our songs with a fresh vibe and unique influence so it doesn’t feel like every song has the same ska element, but it’s all rooted in the same place.

My personal favorite Specials song is “Little Bitch.” We went through a phase where we used to cover that song and we really should bring it back.

 

Roger Apollon Jr., Rude Boy George & Heavensbee

It must of been around 1984-85. I was a junior in high school in West Orange, NJ (a quiet suburban town outside of NYC) and was in LOVE with The Police! I had every album and listened to them (and other 80’s New Wave) constantly. One day I was at the local department store and was browsing the “bargain bin” and saw this album cover that stopped me in my tracks: Black AND white musicians wearing cool suits and hats. Black and white photo. They weren’t even looking at the camera but they looked COOL. Something about the body language. I knew nothing of “ska”, just reggae and the stuff The Police were doing. $5.00?! [$5 in 1984 is equivalent to $13/€11.5 today] No questions about that. I bought it and took it home. As I listened to each track, I fell deeper in love with the sounds and the political messages. NONE of my close friends really got into it initially but my constant playing won them over.

After a month of constant listening, I decide that I want to be a US representative of Two-Tone here in New Jersey. The only problem was that I didn’t have any of the gear and couldn’t find it anywhere at the time. It wasn’t until I started college the following year that I was able to go to NYC and dig around the vintage clothing stores and find my black blazer, my “The Specials” tee shirt, black jeans and black brothel creepers. I “officially” became a self-proclaimed “Rude Boy” in 1987. Almost everyday, you could see me walking around the campus of Rutgers University in full Rude Boy Uniform. I found out later that on my way to NYC on day on the train, my best friend and musical partner in crime, Marc Wasserman, saw me and commented that he hadn’t seen a Black rude boy in person before! It would be another year until we met again to start our first band, Bigger Thomas [featuring Chris Malone, interviewed below]. When Marc and I met, all the Two Tone bands were our reference point but The Specials were our guiding star. The music, clothing and attitude was all inspired by these cool guys from Coventry.

It’s really hard not to love everything off the first albums since that was my first exposure to them. It’s like that first girlfriend you ever had or that first kiss. Nothing can compare! However, as my love affair continued with the band, I found myself drawn to the the “More Specials” songs more and more. One of my absolute favorites is “Stereotypes” because of the amazing storytelling and the “Part 2” with Neville chatting. I especially liked the line: “I don’t need no speed to make me go fast/just give me likkle 45 and 33/buy me my stereo I want to be free/stereo”. That line pretty much summed me up at the time. “Man at C&A” and “Do Nothing” round out my top 3 for the blunt political commentary in the first song and the hilariously sad social commentary of the second. Terry Hall wraps up the world view with 6 LINES! Take a look:

The man in black he told me the latest Moscow news about the storm across the Red Sea

They drove their ball point views

I’m the man in grey, I’m just the man at sea
And I don’t have a say in the war games that they play
The Mickey Mouse badge told the Ayatollah at his feet
You drink your oil you schmuck, we’ll eat our heads of wheat

If you watch them perform this in the movie “Dance Craze,” you can feel Terry seethe along with Neville’s warning of “nuclear attack.” All of this over a punky, dirty reggae beat. Amazing!

“Do Nothing” is even better:

Each day I walk along this lonely street
Trying to find, find a future
New pair of shoes are on my feet
Cause fashion is my only culture

Nothing ever change, oh no
Nothing ever change

People say to me just be yourself
It makes no sense to follow fashion
How could I be anybody else
I don’t try, I’ve got no reason

I’m just living in a life without meaning
I walk and walk, do nothing
I’m just living in a life without feeling
I talk and talk, say nothing

To, basically, critique your current fan base? To call out the poseurs who follow you and your music? Brilliantly bold and self-aware. This is why I will ALWAYS love The Specials!

Chris Malone, The Pandemics

The short answer would probably be 1998. When I was 15 and I had just joined my first band on trumpet, The Jimmy Kickers. The guitarist, James Doyle (later of The Fad / The Forthrights) let me borrow a copy of The Specials singles collection. At the time I was still very new to ska music and had only really had exposure to our local scene on Long Island (eg. Edna’s Goldfish, the Scofflaws, Spider Nick and the Maddogs) and whatever bigger bands would come through on tour. In 1998, my parents finally got a computer and modem that could access the internet. One of the bands that would inevitably come up when you searched “ska” was The Specials. Songs like “Message To You Rudy,” “Nite Klub,” “Concrete Jungle” and “Gangsters” were staples of my playlists. It was from there that a young 15-year old band geek really started to discover how deep the ska music rabbit hole went.

I didn’t zero in on The Specials as the iconic band that they were until a few years later when I was in college. Not because I didn’t like the band, but because I was just so overwhelmed! As a kid in my mid teens I was still trying to piece together how all of these bands fit together under the broad heading of “ska”. My first real exposure to The Specials was seeing Neville Staple’s Specials in Las Vegas in 2003. Suddenly everything clicked. I obsessed over the first two Specials records. I joined Spider Nick and the Maddogs in 2003 because they were playing the type of music closest to that 2 Tone sound on Long Island. The themes of anti authoritarianism struck a chord with me, and continue to influence my views, musical tastes and the music I make with The Pandemics today.

The Specials were also a huge influence on 2 other bands I played with such as Bigger Thomas and Roger and The Rudie Crew [featuring Roger Apollon, Jr, interviewed above]. One of my proudest, favorite memories was linking up with Roddy Radiation. Roddy was kind enough to ask us to back him for a short run of Specials tunes to help close out the night after our own set. It was both exhilarating and terrifying! Roddy and I have kept up online ever since, and had a good time reconnecting last year at SuperNova!

I think that my favorite song by The Specials has changed a lot over the years. As I’ve filled in the blanks in my own knowledge, I’ve rediscovered and recontextualized a lot of their work because it is so hauntingly timeless. To be honest it still shifts depending on my mood, but usually it’s any one of these: “Gangsters,” “Nite Klub,” “Rat Race,” “Man at C&A,” “Hey Little Rich Girl,” “You’re Wondering Now” and “Ghost Town”.

 

Bonus responses from the RSS team

Charles Benoit

I was 19 and, thanks to a record store employee’s recommendation, deep into The Ramones, Talking Heads and The Clash. The same employee handed me The Specials first album the week it came out and said, “This is going to change your life.” It did.

The Specials were my entry drug into a 40-year addiction to ska. It helped shape my nascent leftist political views, gave me a sense of style I still emulate, and inspired me to start my own band. It’s safe to say that The Specials first album made me the person I am today.

Favorite song: “Rat Race” off the first and “Life and Times (of a Man Called Depression)” off Encore.

Joachim Uerschels

The first time I heard The Specials was in early 1980, when they appeared in the German television program Musikladen and played “Rudy, A Message To You.” Life-changing minutes.

The Specials became my religion. I read everything I could reach about the band, every quote meant the world to me. Music and words were not only fun, they made sense, too, like nothing else. I can’t imagine how I should have got into making music, releasing music and touring in the UK and Japan, if it wasn’t for The Specials. I don’t think any relationship or instance defined me as much as The Specials did.

There are so many favourite songs. My pick for today: “It Doesn’t Make It Alright.

 

 

 

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Described by friends as “way, way too obsessed with ska,” Charles Benoit lives in Rochester, NY, where he writes novels (Young Adult noir) and plays tenor sax in Some Ska Band. Incriminating details and paparazzi-quality photos at charlesbenoit.com.

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