Oct 08

THE SPECIALS – The Special AKA Live! (EP)

FT + Popular70 comments • 4,982 views

#450, 2nd February 1980

The Specials are a nexus point in British pop, and it’s easy to see why they were so important to so many. They pick up on the thread of Britain’s love for Jamaican dance music and the skinhead culture of the early 70s. They’re another incarnation of Britpop’s Hamburg Ideal – bright, straight-talking lads honing their pop to an awesome no-bullshit sharpness. Their working model of collective, cross-racial collaboration has been an indirect blueprint for almost every mutation in the UK’s urban music scenes since. And by giving that concept a label – Two Tone – and tying their creativity so closely to the ferment of British street politics, the band moved from blueprint to inspiration. Like all bands, they were a roil of individual egos; like many, they fell apart too soon, but it would be tough to argue that the Specials were anything other than a Good Thing.

But none of that explanation captures the hard physical response the Specials’ music inspires – particularly this Live EP. The less famous tracks – a clutch of covers acting as a ska primer for the band’s new audience – are as compact and forceful as any of the dance music we’ll meet later. But it’s lead track “Too Much Too Young” that sold the EP – it captures what made (and makes!) Two Tone so exciting, its understanding of how a dancefloor balances between abandon and aggression. “Too much” gives you both at once in its double-time peaks – “Aint he cool? NO HE AIN’T”, Terry Hall’s exasperation making the song explode. The interlock of band and backing vocals is thrillingly tight, but Hall’s the star here, his anger pushing the song along, his sardonic edge giving it an extra expressive dimension: he’s also, as ever, a naturally funny performer, timing each line perfectly until the tempo – and the anger – peak and the song smashes into its brick wall.



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  1. 51
    Mark G on 22 Oct 2008 #

    I played the first album a month ago, after many years having not heard it, and was pleasantly surprised about how good it actually was.

    I’d always pick “MOR-e Specials” as being better, but the first still rates a 10 for me anyway…

  2. 52
    mike on 22 Oct 2008 #

    My answer to #50: at soul/funk gigs. The most evenly balanced crowd I’ve ever seen was at a Maze gig in Brixton. (Frankie Beverly: “Oh my goodness, just look at you. Like salt and pepper. That’s the way it should be.”)

  3. 53
    rosie on 22 Oct 2008 #

    SteveM @ 50

    The demographic map in 1980 was rather different then. Coventry looked quite a different place from where I was living Hull, where dark skins were few and far between and almost always belonged to relatively high-status people – doctors, academics and so on. The same is true today in Barrow (though no longer in Hull) but Barrow, being an isolated sort of place, is very much the exception in 2008.

    With the exception of my student years in Liverpool, and Liverpool’s very long-established black community is probably unlike any other, I’d never lived anywhere up to that point where anything else pertained. But in the course of the 1980s that all changed. Apart from the fact that by the end of the decade I’d landed in Notting Hill, via Hitchin (of all places) which is a small market town with many inner-city characteristics.

    Two-Tone couldn’t have happened in any of those places, really. Coventry on the other hand, with its faltering car industry, had the right mix in the right relationships for the formula to work. That doesn’t mean it didn’t find a receptive ear in those places, but a Hull crowd for a Specials gig would be an almost all-white one.

  4. 54
    Conrad on 22 Oct 2008 #

    I would have liked the first album a lot more if I had not first heard the bulk of the songs on a Specials live on BBC In Concert (I didn’t get the debut album until the Summer of 1980). The ferocious power of songs like “Do The Dog” sounded diluted in their studio incarnations, and the slow 6 minute version of TMTY was a real anti climax after the EP version.

    As for “More Specials”, I was hooked by “Man At C&A”, “Jet Set” (which sounds like the precursor to a later Specials release best not mentioned at this point) and one or two others straight away but found some of it a bit bewildering on first couple of listens.

    The ice rink strings version of “Do Nothing” is also superior to the album version, partly because the string sounds submerge the very out of tune piano riff that features prominently on the LP.

  5. 55
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 22 Oct 2008 #

    re jazz and racial balance: it possibly depends a bit what you mean by “established”, but on the whole brit jazz audiences were at this point quite white (and by the early 80s) not very youth-skewed — this would change a bit in the mid-80s, when a generation young black players got a lot of recognition

    reggae audiences — unkess you mean ub40 — would skew black

    my guess* for “most racially balanced” audiences prior to this might be jazz-funk, actually — a loyal and busy constituency way off the map of the normal rock grasp of history

    *but it is purely a guess, i wasn’t attending them

  6. 56
    Billy Smart on 22 Oct 2008 #

    ‘More Specials’ is a more developed and interesting LP than ‘Specials’, its true – but then again the first album doesn’t have anything quite as uneccessary as ‘Sock It To ‘Em JB’ – a shouted list of James Bond titles – on it…

    Not always a good idea getting other members of the band to contribute songs (see also: The Police)

  7. 57
    Mark G on 22 Oct 2008 #

    #54 – reminds me, some Radio 1 DJ at the time played the album version by mistake, and persevered with it anyway, until it got into the ‘dub’ version at which point he acknowledged and sacked it.

    Also, I think you’re in a minority regarding the ice-rink sounds, smothers the track and negates that piano riff for me.

    #56 – That track was going to be a stand-alone solo single for JBradbury but I guess they changed their minds. In any case, he didn’t write it.

  8. 58
    LondonLee on 22 Oct 2008 #

    “Sock It To ‘Em JB” is a cover version of a 60s soul tune by Rex Garvin & The Mighty Cravers

  9. 59
    Erithian on 22 Oct 2008 #

    Back when we covered “My Ding-a Ling” in 1972, I confidently said that Chuck Berry’s only number one had been recorded in the same venue as “Too Much Too Young”, namely the Locarno in Coventry. But according to what seems a reliable fansite, http://2-tone.info/2tone.pl?show102& , it was recorded at the Lyceum in London (wasn’t that where Bob Marley’s live album was recorded?) and Tiffany’s in Coventry. And here’s a revelation about the audience on the sleeve picture: it’s not even a Specials audience! A fan named Simon Joyce writes:

    “I think I can solve the mystery of where the photo was taken. It was at the Lyceum, taken by Jerry Dammers, but not at a Specials gig. I’m fairly certain it was actually at a Selecter show there (I think it was one with early supporting appearances by the Beat and UB40), because I remember Jerry D taking photos from the stage — this must have been a few months before TMTY was released. Because I used to work in a very narrow record shop on weekends (I was still in school then) I was always good at finding my way to the front of the stage — that’s me with the hat on in the bottom left hand corner, while my best friend of the time, Chas, is about 12 rows back in the middle, so you can barely make him out. Somehow another friend of mine recognised my picture even before the single was released, from a small reproduction in the NME when it was “single of the week.” And since then, I’ve bought and lost or given away far too many copies of the damned thing.

    One regret, though, is that an enormous skinhead (at least, that’s how I remember him) stole the hat I was wearing as soon as I got outside the gig, and I think it was the first and only time I ever got to wear it!.”

  10. 60
    johnny on 22 Oct 2008 #

    #57 – nope, i too prefer the single version. in fact, if i have one fault with “More Specials”, it’s that the ice-rink version of “do nothing” doesn’t appear.

  11. 61
    Will on 22 Oct 2008 #

    All of More Specials is brilliant but my favourite track is I Can’t Stand It – domestic misery to the accompaniment of a cha cha cha beat.

  12. 62
    wichita lineman on 22 Oct 2008 #

    Ice rink version took a while to sink in for me but, hey, I love both. I was suckered by the MOR aspect of More Specials (note strategically placed ‘sticker’ that you couldn’t remove), especially I Can’t Stand It.

    Stereotype, as mentioned in another thread (can’t remember where), had one of the weirdest chart histories of any single. It looked guaranteed to break their Top 10 run but in its fourth week on the chart it ended up going from 25 to 6, and then back to 22 the following week.

  13. 63
    Mark G on 23 Oct 2008 #

    .. and they said chart hyping was dead!

    About as suspect as you could get!

    Oh yeah, and as per the Lesser Free Trade Hall audience for the Sex Pistols gig, the number of people who claim to be on that picure for the Specials’ live e.p. comes to…..

  14. 64
    Martin Skidmore on 23 Oct 2008 #

    I was a fan of the Specials from an early stage – I went to this gig with Suicide supporting the Clash, sometime in 1978, and the other act were a band I’d never heard of called the Coventry Specials. I loved Gangsters, and I still love the first album (and I’m totally meh about the second). They made sense to me from the start – reggae and punk had been so linked, and a lot of people in my generation (I’d have been 18 or 19 at the time of that gig) had first heard a lot of reggae, stuff beyond the occasional hit, in a punk context. The combination of the energy of ska with that of punk made perfect sense at the time.

    I didn’t much like this single, and still don’t – sonically it was fine, its anger is impressive, but it seemed to be sneering at not one particular woman but at countless young working class women who had babies at a young age. When this came out, I was living with a woman (we stayed together for 23 years), who had hung out with half a dozen other girls in school and just after: she was the only one of them who hadn’t had a baby by the time she was 17 (the earliest had been 14). This wasn’t any special judgement on her part, I think. I felt as if a band I really liked was sneering at the kind of person I was in love with.

    We split up 7 years ago, but that hasn’t changed my reaction to this. Maybe it wasn’t the intention, but it felt contemptuous towards an awful lot of people who, as far as I could and can see, don’t deserve any condemnation at all. I’ve no idea whether early babies led to their having happier lives or not, but whatever the case, that’s not an excuse for this kind of emotion, for me.

    So I’d have given Gangsters, say, a 9, but for me this would be worth about 3.

    Oh, as for audiences: virtually all white for that early gig, of course, but also for the Selecter a little later, whereas I saw Misty In Roots around the same time, and my wife and I were the only white people there. Clearly the black reggae fans were not hugely taken with Two-Tone – or, possibly, the expectation of crowds of aggressive white people (there was a fight at the Selecter gig), the sense of a music and maybe atmosphere recalling skinheads, was an offputting factor to attending the gigs, I don’t know. I recall some years later (mid- and late-’80s) being a little disappointed that the African bands I saw had almost all-white audiences too.

  15. 65
    richard thompson on 16 Dec 2008 #

    The video was cut short on totp as well, it reminds me of being 17 and in a rough town called Chelmsley Wood, where I lived at the time, prefer this to the LP track which I didn’t hear until much later on BRMB on a chart rundown.

  16. 66
    punctum on 8 Oct 2009 #

    I saw the Specials at the Glasgow Apollo two days before Christmas – Sunday 23 December 1979 – and together with the Brotherhood of Breath they constitute just about the best argument for multiculturalism in music I can think of. Both groups took the genres they loved – ska, post-Ellington big band jazz – and directly injected vibrant and sometimes violent nowness. Theirs was empathically a living music, stripped of drear worthiness and stultifying respect; it existed for its own now and ideally had to be witnessed at first hand, aurally and visually.

    The Specials – and concurrently, the 2-Tone movement – had emerged with their avant-garde post-punk take on ska in the summer of ’79 with the already strange “Gangsters.” Madness, the Beat and the Bodysnatchers rapidly followed in their wake – and eventually, and tangentially, Dexy’s and UB40. The movement was energising and inspiring; punk in its blood and rock steady in its Coventry-born genes. Watching the Specials onstage in their rumpled suits, porkpie hats and merciful-bordering-on-glum abandon made me think of what it must have been like to witness, say, the early Archie Shepp groups live; noisy and militant, but ultimately joyous in outlook. The first, eponymous Specials album was bountiful in raw colour, produced in a no-nonsense, get-it-down-quick-NEXT! fashion by Elvis Costello, and featured Chrissie Hynde enthusiastically joining in on the chorus of “Nite Klub,” keen backing vocals throughout from a then little-known American New Wave girl group called the Go-Go’s, and the imperturbable Rico, the direct link to their roots, the noblest of all trombonists with his effortless, natural authority.

    The E.P. – the first live number one since “The Wonder Of You” – still gives a good idea of what it was like to experience the Specials on stage. Side one was recorded in London and features “Too Much Too Young,” a slow-burning, mournful (and seemingly endless) skank in its album incarnation which they despatch at 300 mph in a shade over two minutes, and their raucously steady take on “Guns Of Navarone” (so it’s also the only number one to involve Dimitri Tiomkin) featuring Rico’s majestic slide. Side two finds them on home ground, at Tiffany’s nightclub in Coventry, roaring their way through “Skinhead Symphony,” a tribute to the music which had inspired them as children a decadde earlier, a medley featuring “The Liquidator,” “Skinhead Moonstomp” and “Long Shot Kick De Bucket,” all of which they play as though they had been written two minutes ago and as though they only had two minutes left to live.

    As a souvenir, a snapshot of about-to-be-happy youth, it’s indispensable; as a fuck off to the bonehead racist Right (who continually tried to disrupt Specials gigs) and isolationist racists in general, the band and the document still stand tall and proud – this is how we can coexist happily together. The listener gets so carried away in the currents that even the intentionally nitwit misogyny of “Too Much Too Young,” a harangue against teenage motherhood, seems palatable; mainly because singer Terry Hall whines it in the purposely puerile manner of a spoilt brat (“When you should be having fun with ME!”) such that its very Thatcherite message (“You’re just another burden on the Welfare STATE!”) is revealed as the childish tantrum it really is. Meanwhile I danced and danced like the proverbial Lanarkshire dervish, and continue so to do.

  17. 67
    james on 13 Dec 2009 #

    Fantastic record that defined not only the era then but also today. The Specials, in my view, were one of the best “unknown” bands to ever grace this country. They lost there way just after the Ska explosion with drivel like Rascist Friend, War Crimes and the Crap Nelson Mandela as these things didnt effect or bother us or were part of our every day life like Ghost Town, Nite Klub or Rat race did. I was there, in awe, on there first tour in Plymouth as a spotty 13 year old in 79 and I was there in awe as a hairy arsed bloke, in Newcastle in 2009.

  18. 68
    thefatgit on 4 May 2012 #

    Here seems as good a place as any to say goodbye to Lloyd Brevett of The Skatalites. Jamaican music would have been very different without his basslines.

  19. 69
    Larry on 23 Nov 2014 #

    Loved the Specials back then. I even took the Long Island Railroad out to Long Beach (NY) on a freezing night to see them at a club there, and they didn’t disappoint. Watching the videos now, I’m struck by their enormous energy and joy. I was ignorant of ska before its 79/80 revival..

  20. 70
    Erithian on 29 Dec 2015 #

    John Bradbury leaves us too, much too young. RIP.

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