The music and songs still sound great, the lyrics too. Bouncy, moody, cheeky, threatening, witty; sometimes all in the same song.
Looking back, they appear very much a good thing. They were, of course, anti-racist but I don't recall them being preachy; I'm sure they mentioned it in interviews but just being who they were and sounding as they did was enough.
During the period from The Specials through to Soul II Soul the UK, at least for the most part, really began to put black/white racial tension behind it. Even the BNP don't go on about black people much any more - it's the muslims they're targeting.
I read about a survey of social attitudes the other week in which the bigger part of youth thought racism was just a bit bizarre, cranky and weird; somewhere between train-spotting and bear-baiting. A friend of mine, who's a barrister, was doing some local education authority work up Tottenham way and it involved talking to some teachers and pupils about race. They were of the view that there were no real racial issues between black and white. What worried them, pupils as well as teachers, was how to handle the more recent immigrants from the Balkans, Turkey and East Africa who had often been exposed to serious violence before their arrival in this country and had fewer qualms about using weapons.
Anyway, from today's perspective, The Specials appear to have been a force for harmony. But at the time, the band seemed enveloped in a constant scrap. The violent energy in the bass lines wasn't confined to the music.
I saw them at the Oasis in Swindon in about 1980. There were rolling fights in the crowd throughout, with lead singer Terry Hall, usually withdrawn and melancholy, repeatedly stopping the gig to berate 'boxer boys', threatening to 'have them myself', but prudently and quite carefully ('yes, him there, that one') directing the bouncers to beat several shades out of the trouble-makers. They split up shortly afterwards citing this sort of violence as the reason.
The '80s were a time of rough and tumble, fear and loathing. The atmosphere when I was at university in the latter part of the decade was politically poisonous. On the streets, squares, picket lines, factory floors, football terraces, and dealing rooms there were a lot of punch ups, real and figurative. But paradoxically we emerged into the '90s with much more of a live-and-let-live attitude. Looking back now, The Specials don't just demonstrate this; they were a fundamental part of it.