Monday, 29 June 2009

The Paradoxical Specials

The Specials were on TV playing at Glastonbury the other night. My best band ever. Or at least they were when I was 13 or 14. I can't hope to convey how much they meant to me and how much fun they generated back then. That rhythmic, jaggy, punk-aggressive bass didn't half make you hop around when you were fourteen and full of beans, as well as a few cans of Courage Light Ale.

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 There were rolling fights in the crowd throughout, with lead singer Terry Hall, usually withdrawn and melancholy, repeatedly stopping the gig to berate 'boxer boys', threatening to 'have them myself', but prudently and quite carefully ('yes, him there, that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.


worm said...

I was a bit too young for the whole 2-tone/ baggy/ ska thing, but I have fond memories of my older brother coming home in a long black coat "like what Suggs has" that he'd bought on a weekend in Camden. As a small child in rural Cornwall it seemed incredibly exotic. Having never seen a real live black person until I was about 10 or so I was totally unaware of racism, being more concerned at the time with taking out my predjudices by poking fat children with sticks

Gadjo Dilo said...

Ah, matey, I loved the Specials. I was about 16 when they hit the charts. I never saw them live but I saw The Selector - a similar band who were also great - in Copenhagen about 20 years later: Pauline Black still the sassiest babe on the block, and expertly quelling punch-ups between the 2 Danish skins in the front row! I lived in Tottengham for 10 years and only saw a weapon once - a white guy pulled a knife on me, but after I gave him 50p for his gas meter he went away again.

Brit said...

Like the songs but, like Worm, I was too young to get the Specials as a lifestyle choice. It's interesting how some bands seem to stand for a movement or zeitgeist, rather than just a style of music (The Jam, The Clash, Smiths, Nirvana, Manic Street Preachers etc). I was a bit unlucky. Too young for two-tone and too old for The Libertines; I had Suede, god help me.

Re: racism. My sister teaches at an extremely multicultural school in north london. She says that race still matters but that racism is the ultimate taboo amongst kids - they have a completely different take on it.

worm said...

ouch. suede. with a soupcon of elastica.

Gaw said...

Worm: There weren't a lot of black people where I went to school either. But it's funny how life comes back around to you sometimes. My sister-in-law's Mum and Dad came over from Jamaica and he was friendly with the Dad of one of The Specials and, blow me over, he used to do some roadying for them!

Gadj: I remember The Selector, The Beat were a favourite too. Do you remember rushing to the record shop the day singles were released? It was such a thrill to send the 'Too Much Too Young' EP to number one ('Dad, what's an EP?').

Brit: I remember slightly despising Britpop as a re-tread of The Jam era, conveniently forgetting that that was a re-tread of The Who era. Crumbs, we took music seriously, what with all the talk of whether a band were 'posers' or selling out. Seems very quaint now. ('Dad, what's 'selling out'?)