By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
By the early Sixties, the island was flooded with music. Studios and sound systems flourished, while countless labels cranked out innumerable singles and albums documenting the sonic innovations of Prince Buster, Derrick Morgan, Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley's Wailers, Toots Hibbert and the Maytals, the Skatalites, Don Drummond, and many, many others. The music was built around chopping guitars that accented the upbeat (rather than R&B's emphasis on the downbeat), darting horn sections usually led by a swooping trombone, and a bass line that meandered through the whole mix, holding down the rhythm as it danced along the vocal melody. By the mid-Sixties, though, the music got slower, the tempos less frantic (owing, according to legend, to a particularly hot 1966 summer in Jamaica -- too hot for dancers to keep up with the hyper rhythms of ska). The music mutated first into the smoother rock steady, then, in the Seventies, into the style of reggae typified and perfected by Marley, the Maytals, and others.
Ska's first major resurgence came in England during the late Seventies, as punk rock was nose-diving and the notoriously fickle British music press were looking for the next big thing. They found it in the working-class industrial suburb of Coventry, where a keyboardist named Jerry Dammers had assembled a racially mixed septet named the Special AKA (later simply the Specials). Infatuated with ska's choppy, hyperactive rhythms and with the musical simplicity and political candor of punk, the Specials created a hybrid that was both accessible and challenging -- rooted in history, but very much a product of its environment.
Dammers debuted his 2-Tone label in 1979 with the Specials' maiden single "Gangsters," which featured lyrics written by Dammers affixed to Prince Buster's 1965 instrumental ska classic "Al Capone." Between the song's nagging, incessant riff and the added clout of star producer Elvis Costello, "Gangsters" became a huge hit in England, as did the band's eponymous longplayer. The Specials' success was quickly matched by similar offerings from the group's peers in Coventry and Birmingham, some of whom recorded for 2-Tone, including the Beat ("Ranking Full Stop," "Tears of a Clown"), Madness ("The Prince," "One Step Beyond"), the Selecter ("On My Radio," "Too Much Pressure"), and UB40 ("Food for Thought," "One in Ten").
Like the work of ska pioneers such as the Wailers, Desmond Dekker, and Prince Buster, these British groups used their music to comment on the heated political climate of the times and on various social issues. The Specials' "A Message to You Rudy" and "Doesn't Make It Alright" were heartfelt calls for racial tolerance, while "Too Much Too Young" was a scabrous, hilarious endorsement of contraception. Both the Beat's "Stand Down Margaret" and UB40's "Madame Medusa" were vicious, well-aimed attacks on prime minister Margaret Thatcher, and the Selecter's "On My Radio" and "Three Minute Hero" were wry commentaries on the pop world.
Two songs, though, best illustrate the Specials' scope. "Ghost Town" arrived amid the heated racial riots that plagued Liverpool and Brixton in 1981, underpinned with a mournful horn chart and an eerie, wailing vocal tag that floats through the song like a black angel. Even scarier than that chronicle of race wars and club violence is "The Boiler," a one-off pairing of the Specials with vocalist Rhoda Dakar. Over a bouncing, finger-popping backing track (some of the greatest music of the band's career), Dakar tells a first-person story of being picked up in a bar by a guy she thinks is way better than she ("boiler," after all, being British slang for an unattractive woman), then raped. The song is haunting and bone-chilling, an unshakable five-minute spiel that freezes time, her anguished screams hanging in the room long after the song fades out.
2-Tone's U.K. chart run had ended by 1984: The Specials splintered following the parting of vocalists Terry Hall and Neville Staples and guitarist Lynval Golding, who formed the Fun Boy Three, while Dammers reverted to the band's original handle, the Special AKA. The Beat had left the label earlier to form their own Go Feet imprint and were enjoying a smattering of stateside success with the singles "Sooner or Later" and "I Confess." The Selecter had broken up in 1981 after a disappointing and desultory second album (Celebrate the Bullet). Madness, however, had retooled their sound and were cranking out catchy pop confections for Stiff Records that had more to do with the Kinks than Prince Buster. With the aid of a goofy video, the band's 1983 single "Our House" became a Top 10 hit in the U.S., followed quickly by "It Must Be Love," the group's last Top 40 hit in the states. They disbanded three years later. The Special AKA, meanwhile, enjoyed one last burst of creativity -- 1984's brilliant single "Free Nelson Mandela" and the accompanying album In the Studio -- before disappearing in the late Eighties.
If the second wave of ska had gone the way of most music trends, it also developed a posthumous following among punk kids in the U.S., who latched on to the music's high-paced beat just as they voraciously consumed the ultrafast hardcore punk of Minor Threat, Black Flag, and the Dead Kennedys. Groups such as the Toasters and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones carried on, laying the groundwork for the current boom by burning a ska-scorched path through the rock and roll underground. Sparked by this continuing interest, the Specials reunited, as did the Selecter and Madness. They were uniformly welcomed as the elder innovators of ska by a legion of fans who were probably still in diapers when "Gangsters" hit the streets of England.