If you were 12 in 1979, the Specials were easy peasy lemon squeezy the greatest band on the planet. The sort of band you can't quite imagine not existing before. Of course, style over substance is any easy sell in the pop charts, and you have to assume that the vast majority of the millions of catalogue rude boy clones who cat walked Britain’s high streets over the following few years were fashion victims of the lowest order (check Stereotypes or Do Nothing for the bands response). The difference being that, perfectly packaged as they were, the Specials were substance wrapped in checkerboard. Who else could mention the Irish Republican Army and the Ulster Defence Association in a dance track? It turns out I, and millions of others, nailed our colours to the right mast at the time, and try as I might I still can't find a single chink in the armour of The Specials legacy.
First, they looked great. If you weren't there, Britain was transformed into a mail order version of The Wailin Wailers album cover almost overnight, though it probably didn't know it at the time. Before the birth of the woeful sports casual, the working class dressed up for the weekend and the easily attainable and striking evocation of mid 60's Jamaica was too irresistible for those who founds punks sartorial alienation just that bit too alienating.
Plus, how many record label designs will ever be a iconic as the fictional Walt Jabsco effortlessly cooling on every two tone label?
Secondly they sounded great. Musicians aside, and if you're listening to musicianship you're not hearing a band, that contrast between Terry’s pained self conscious proselytizing and the manic party time antics of Lynval and Neville either side have only ever been equalled by Public Enemys Chuck D and Flava Flav. And never bettered.
It was the music, rather than the look, that pinned my mind back; a lifetime of joyous Ska appreciation began with that first album, and the subsequent realizations that Stupid Marriage was a superior take on Prince Busters various Judge Dread outings, Too Much Too Young was a vastly superior rewrite of the rather childish humour of Lloydie and the Lowbites "Birth Control" and that Enjoy Yourself from album two was first a pop hit in 1949 ! And yet it all sounded so new. And still does.
Thirdly, they thought great. In an age where teenage girls called Kate or Katie clog up the airwaves with songs about boyfriend trouble, (and that age is always), a number one about birth control seems highly unlikely. And it did then. Add to that, a first tour supporting the Clash, their own label which proportionally was more about others than them, launching Madness, launching The Selector before they even existed, that Two Tone episode of Top Of The Pops, the tour that introduced the non ska wonders of Dexys Midnight Runners to a generation, a faultless and thoughtful back catalogue, opening barely formed minds to racial tolerance, their constant defiance of the ever present National Front and very much under staying their welcome, I defy anyone to find a criticism worth mentioning.
At the time Friday Night and Saturday Morning just seemed like a dream existence, rather than the dispiriting experience of far too many small town weekends that were to come . Concrete Jungle far surpasses anything before or since as a cry for help from a council estate, and if they had council estates in Jamaica, that includes Bob Marley’s song of the same name. And I still have no idea what Gangsters is about.
Their final release was not only the most prescient 45 ever, but also their most musically avant garde. They were no longer merely the greatest ska band around, Imagine Ghost Town being allowed anywhere near the charts today. Not only near the charts but No1. Ghost Town hit the charts the week before the Toxteth Riots, somehow still journalistically given the tag of Race Riots, as if anyone riots because of their race. Let's face facts, a mixed race riot is a class riot.
The sound and vision of Ghost Town, was not only the perfect backdrop to the despondency facing the youth but also the despondency facing the group (let's not forget " bands don't play no more, too much fighting on the dancefloor").