Photography by Ryan O’Toole Collett
One of the founding motivations of this magazine has been to celebrate the increasingly freeform nature of contemporary music – today’s most vital artists cross genre lines, moulding elements of hip-hop, jazz, R&B, punk and soul to create sounds which defy expectation and confound categorisation.
In the late seventies, The Specials were doing this very same thing. Around the same time that hip-hop was taking its first steps in New York, a group of young men in post-industrial Coventry were exploring new sounds of their own, building on the rocksteady rhythms of the Caribbean with an informed, indignant and incendiary social conscience. It was a sound that defied definition – the genre would take the name of the record label that pressed those Specials releases: 2 Tone.
“It was chaos, and not exactly controlled chaos. It was a joyous celebration,” bassist Horace Panter remembers of early Specials gigs. Vocalist and lyricist Terry Hall adds “It was just a load of kids really, we were and the audience were. It flashed by, and we didn't really know what was going on as it was going on, because we were so deep into it.” What was going on was that the incisive social commentary of their lyrics had touched a collective nerve in a generation of young people not only in the band’s hometown but in Brixton, Liverpool and many more cities that had been left stranded by a government prioritising profit margins over social welfare.
After the release of “Ghost Town,” a single that perfectly captured the spirit of inner-city malaise in Thatcher’s Britain, the group disbanded - Terry Hall, Lynval Golding and Neville Staple left to form Fun Boy Three, marrying their ska influences with new-wave. The following four decades saw band members continuing under several alternate names and in many different forms (a history of which will be much more concisely charted on Wikipedia than I will manage in these pages,) before the core members of the band (with the exception of founder Jerry Dammers) reformed as The Specials for a 2009 tour to mark the 30th anniversary of their self-titled debut album.
In the years since that reunion, the band have continued to tour frequently amid further line-up changes. Guitarist Roddy Radiation departed in 2014, Neville Staple stepped down due to ill health, and original drummer John “Brad” Bradbury passed away in 2015. Ahead of their 40th anniversary tour in 2019, Hall explains that “it felt like we needed to freshen it up, because we've been playing pretty much the same set for eight or nine years. The only way to do that was with new songs.” Those new songs, the first original music on which Hall has featured since “Ghost Town”, became the basis of ENCORE, the ten-track record released in February that entered the UK Album Charts at Number One. As we discuss their chart success, it’s clear that the response was unexpected, and is taking a while to sink in.
“People keep saying ‘congratulations,’ and I have to do a double take, asking myself ‘What have I done?’ Then I realise they’re talking about the record,” Hall says, perched on a sofa alongside his bandmates in a Brixton studio where their photoshoot for BRICK has just wrapped. The effervescent Golding nods in agreement, as bassist Horace Panter adds “It’s insane.”
Also gathered around the Dictaphone is Saffiyah Khan, who wrote and recorded the lyrics to one of the album’s highlights, “10 Commandments,” a rebuttal to the Neolithic approach to gender relations espoused by Prince Buster in his 1967 track “Ten Commandments of Man.” Khan came to the band’s attention after being photographed wearing a Specials t-shirt while standing toe-to-toe with a member of the far-right English Defence League. In response to his furious, red-faced hatred, Khan calmly offered a smile. The image soon went viral and came to the attention of Panter, who called on Khan to get involved with the track. After a triumphant maiden performance at London’s 100 Club, she will be joining the band on tour.
As talk moves on to their 100 Club performance, Hall expresses he felt the show, the first time they had performed these new songs, was “good practise,” and highlighted a few areas he felt they could improve before embarking on their 60-date tour – “especially with you,” he says, nodding towards Golding. Before he can finish his sentence, Golding leaps in to explain that just before the gig he had lost a filling, the pain from having an adverse effect on his performance. “Since when has a lost filling ever affected your tuning?” comes the incredulous response. If I hadn’t spent the last few hours in their gregarious company, it would be easy to mistake this exchange for a genuine signal of tension rather than a playful wind-up. “He’s always moaning about something,” Panter explains with a laugh, before the three embark on a collective reminiscence of the Jamaica-born Golding’s historical list of ailments: there’s the time he had flu when they toured with the Clash, his increasingly creaky knees, the time he was knocked over by a bus after soundcheck at Brixton Academy (“My shoes went flying!” he excitedly recalls,) and the continuing theme of his poor eyesight. “That's fun on stage, watching him nearly fall over stuff,” Hall deadpans, before we move on to discuss the genesis of the new album.
BRICK: I'm sure in all the interviews you've done around this new album, you must've heard the word “relevant” mentioned a lot.
TH: Yeah. A track like "Vote for Me" sounds like it was scripted for Brexit, but it really wasn't. It started life as a statement about confusion with politicians, and in the last two years there's been a lot of confused politicians who were asking you to vote for them. But it's like, “You don't know what you're doing. So why would I?” I think it's very, very important to vote and it's our duty really, as an almost democratic country, but they've made it very confusing for people.
BRICK: That idea of history repeating is present on a track like "B.L.M." Taking the message of that movement and contextualising it against your experiences, Lynval, as a young black man in Britain half a century ago.
LG: That track is about thinking back to conversations with my father late on a Friday night after he's come home from the pub. Thinking of him being drunk, and telling me what he went through when he first came into England. The terms that they used back when you try to get somewhere to live – “No blacks, no dogs, no Irish.” He had to sleep in a garage because he couldn't find anywhere to live. Then I went to school in England, so I got a different form of racism at school, in the playground. That song is just telling the whole history of our parents coming to England to rebuild the country after the Second World War.
BRICK: Another song with a clearly defined message is "10 Commandments." Where did that idea come from, and how did you decide to get Saffiyah to write and record the lyrics?
HP: We saw the photo of Saffiyah in Birmingham; she was wearing a Specials T-Shirt, so we knew she obviously had good taste. It was a really iconic, powerful photo. We had listened to the "10 Commandments of Man" by Prince Buster, and thought we would try to re-write it; give it an update. But it just ended up as sort of a comedy record. Then Terry had the idea to turn the whole thing on its head and do the "10 Commandments of Woman." I thought, “I know this girl from Birmingham that would be great for this,” so that's how that song came about.
BRICK: Saf, how did you find the process of writing the new "10 Commandments"?
SK: Super difficult. I'd never done music before. I knew what I wanted to say, but I was trying to make it in a way that didn't sound really preachy. I knew there'd be people listening who follow the far right and call me an “anti-white militant feminist.” It's been received largely really well, but some people have been really pissed off.
HP: A lot of people really like it and a few people just don't get it. But we didn't make the album to make everybody happy, we made the album to make the album.
TH: There were comments, mainly from old skinheads who can't do anything but be old skinheads and refuse to accept that change is a part of life.
BRICK: How do you feel to see the re-emergence of the far right in recent years? Have you been surprised by it?
TH: I'm not surprised at all because we've introduced the new scapegoats, which is people seeking asylum, people wanting to get out of shit situations and have a decent life. People look at immigrants as the problem, saying “You've taken our jobs, you've taken our houses." Well, they haven't really. Your jobs are all fucked because of governments.
SK: I think the internet just accentuates any opinions that anyone already has. People are more willing to share controversial things that they wouldn't otherwise say in real life. I think that it's played a part specifically in the rise of the far right.
TH: People would rather point the finger than address the problem, which is government after government messing things up. It can pass you by living in Central London, which is a pretty affluent place to live, but parts of the country have been ignored, parts of the North-West and North-East, to a really unbelievable state. It's very sad.
BRICK: What were some of your notable early musical influences?
LG: I was born in Jamaica and spent my first part of my life there; I'd be listening to ska, like Derrick Morgan and Prince Buster. When I moved to England and discovered Bob Marley, that literally introduced me to our black roots. We had no idea, because the history books never taught us about slavery because Jamaica was owned by Britain from the Colonial days. So it was amazing when Bob said "Get up. Stand up. Stand up for your rights." That taught me what our rights were. When Bob started educating us through the music, that's where we started finding our own identity.
TH: For me it was The Sex Pistols, because before that I listened to stuff like Roxy Music and David Bowie, but I didn't find it accessible at all. I loved it, but had no idea how to get into what was going on. When I saw The Sex Pistols, the message was "You don't have to be good. You don't have to wear this. You don't have to play this. You can actually do what you want to do." I think that the greatest artist out of the whole British punk-rock thing was Malcolm McLaren, because he actually wanted to break stuff down and that's the important thing.
BRICK: He was instrumental in introducing hip-hop to Britain as well, really.
TH: Exactly. I was with him, I think Lynval was there too, we went to this club in the Bronx, it was really early on, before it ever took off, in the late '70s. We were watching the b-boys, it was fantastic. He took all that and tried to do something new with it, rather than try and emulate it; he tried to move it on with “Buffalo Gals.”
SK: My parents didn't play a lot of music, it's really strange. We have really silent car journeys. I think my mum had a couple of Smiths CDs, Amy Winehouse, some random Bosnian folk songs. That was it for many years. I do remember discovering things when I started going to punk gigs on my own when I was 15. The Birmingham punk scene, there's no one under 30, so I ended up going on my own and all these older men with daughters my age, they all adopted me, but not in a weird way. They were like "you're one of us."
BRICK: Do you think there are young artists that are making the same sort of commentary on what's going on now as you were forty years ago?
LG: I think Stormzy is one guy that comes to mind. He's doing his bit and is trying to make a difference. I think he's doing a fantastic job. He's putting his money where his mouth is. I’ve got a lot of respect for him for that.
TH: I think for me, another band that addressed things in the way that we tried to, was Public Enemy. Directly addressing what life is like growing up in a certain area and saying, "we need change."
This is story was originally published in BRICK Edition 07.
A small number of back issues are available in print here.