Although the trio hadn’t released an album together since 1980, they still had much to say about the state of England, race, their personal lives, and more, and they wanted to say it with flair and originality. And it seems that people wanted to hear what they had to say: The resulting album, Encore, went straight to No. 1 on the U.K. Album Charts, something the band had never accomplished before.
Along with songwriter, keyboardist, and founder of the legendary 2-Tone Records Jerry Dammers, rhythm guitarist Golding and bassist Panter (then known as Sir Horace Gentleman) had formed the band in 1977 under the name The Coventry Automatics. Hall came on board as lead vocalist, while deejay Neville Staple and rockabilly guitarist Roddy “Radiation” Byers also fell in place shortly after. Finally, the addition of veteran brass players Rico Rodriguez and Dick Cuthell added the right balance to the frenetic style of the band.
Politically, The Specials were multicultural and radical in body, spirit, and statement, aiming to express the down-and-out, bleak future of English youth in the late ’70s. The look said it all: black and white musicians in black-and-white clothes, blending a modern interpretation of the Caribbean sounds made famous by Prince Buster and Toots and the Maytals with punk attitude. By meshing Jamaican reggae with British punk, they earned a two-year run of seven Top 10 U.K. hits between 1979 and 1981 — from bouncy social commentary cut “Too Much Too Young” to the chart-topping “Ghost Town” — all while uniting black and whites during one of England’s most violent modern eras of racial strife.
The band’s success peaked with their second LP, More Specials, which hit No. 5 on the U.K. Album Charts. Venturing away from the frenetic ska mash up toward loungy alt-pop, it would also mark the beginning of their disintegration. As told in two biographies, Panter’s Ska’d for Life: A Personal Journey with The Specials and Staple’s Original Rude Boy: From Borstal to The Specials, the band members became burned out from the excesses of touring and recording. “Too Much Too Young” became their legacy.
Several reunions and changes in name and membership followed their initial breakup in 1983. One lineup, calling themselves The Special AKA, released the anti-apartheid song “Free Nelson Mandela,” which became an international hit. Eventually, the original trio of Hall, Golding, and Panter began touring Europe together without Dammers (although they’ve said there’s no bad blood between them).
To replace some of their original members — including drummer John Bradbury, who died in 2015 — the reunited Specials have recruited a crack team of musicians. Ocean Colour Scene guitarist Steve Cradock was tapped as lead guitarist while keyboardist Nikolaj Torp Larsen stepped into Dammers’ spot on the black and white. Other additions include brass players Pablo Mendelssohn and Tim Smart, and drummer Kenrick Rowe.
With Encore, Hall, Golding, and Panter, all in their mid-60s, have with the long-awaited new album made a slight departure from their difficult, yet hallowed old days. The record jumps right in with the energetic “Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys,” a cover of the hit by The Equals. Single “Vote for Me” echoes the frenetic organ of “Ghost Town” before moving into a rocksteady trot, as Hall discusses his disenchantment with the current state of British politics. Meanwhile, “B.L.M.” is a soapbox autobiography of Golding’s own narrative as part of the Windrush generation of Caribbean immigrants to the U.K., touching on his upbringing in Jamaica and experiences with racism in England.
The Specials also pay tribute to Cecil Bustamente Campbell, a.k.a. Prince Buster, an icon of Jamaican music considered the godfather of ska. Like many ska bands of their time, The Specials were disciples of Buster, covering tracks like “Too Hot” on their debut and “Enjoy Yourself” on the next release. On Encore, they decided to overhaul his track “Ten Commandments of Man,” a campy tune with retrograde sexual politics.
The band recruited Saffiyah Khan, a 21-year-old activist from Birmingham, England, to assist with a new, less misogynist version of the classic song. Her lyrics drop the biblical values of the original in favor of something more civilized: “Thou shalt not tell a girl she deserved it because her skirt was too short.”
Thirty-five years after their original bow, this new, yet old version of The Specials is surfing on a new wave of recognition. They may not have all their former members with them, but they’ve sold out 40 out of 72 shows on their current tour, which comes to The Van Buren on June 3 — and they’re not just playing the hits.
The Specials. With L.A. Salami. 8 p.m. Monday, June 3, at The Van Buren, 401 West Van Buren Street; 480-659-1641; thevanburenphx.com. Tickets are $35 to $40 via TicketWeb.