Monday, February 18, 2013

(Dawning of A) New Era: The Current State of The Specials' Reunion

Every month, I write a handful of concert previews for Chicago INNERVIEW. The goal is to promote the concert scene in the city and to help support local venues. The one downside to this is that I occasionally have to write positively about a band that I’m not too excited about. This time around, it was the Specials.

Don’t get me wrong, the Specials were an amazing band. Their self-titled debut album is the best LP document of the second wave of ska in the UK at the turn of the eighties (sorry Madness). In particular, Elvis Costello’s production managed to capture a live feeling that was so far removed from most of the post-punk bands that were supplying the most vibrant English music of the day. It was as if he just happened upon the band in a hip little Coventry bar, set up his recording equipment, and captured the start of a new sound. Album highlights like “Concrete Jungle,” “Too Much Too Young,” “Nite Klub,” and “Blank Expression” showed a band that was especially adept at mixing witty, socially conscious lyrics with dance floor ready ska beats (Elvis Costello’s predilection for depressing lyrics over upbeat melodies made him perhaps the perfect producer for this record).

Their second album, More Specials, was released in 1980, almost a year exactly after their debut, and it’s unfortunately the work of a band in transition. Several second-rate 2 Tone copycats popped up almost immediately after the Specials, Madness, the Selecter, and the Beat (the four great original second wave ska bands) began getting serious attention from the UK music press, and the Specials wanted to expand their original sound in order to stay distinct. Unfortunately, most of their experiments didn’t quite hit the highs of their first record, so they returned to studio, and not without some dissent over primary songwriter Jerry Dammers’ increasing control over the band’s musical direction, returned the next year with not only the best song of the band’s career, but also the best song to come out of any of ska’s three waves. 

“Ghost Town” does a better job of creating an atmosphere than nearly any song before or since. From the opening wind sound effects, through the spooky horns and the low-key Neville Staple vocals describing the desolation of Thatcher-era industrial towns (like the Specials’ native Coventry), everything about the song conjures an image of formerly hip and exciting places turned empty and run-down. The brief Terry Hall aside on how great things were before these towns became ghost towns is startlingly different from the rest of the song, but only heightens the feeling of resigned emptiness that arrived alongside the upheavals created by Margaret Thatcher’s policies. The video, which was produced almost simultaneously with the launch of MTV (and in the middle of an already vibrant music video culture in Great Britain), pulls you right back into those days of deteriorating England.

Unfortunately, the dissent within the band eclipsed their incredible new sound, and singers Terry Hall and Neville Staple, along with several of the band’s instrumentalists, left the group, leaving a shell of the Specials (now performing under the name The Special AKA), to put out the subpar In the Studio in 1984. The Special AKA broke up almost immediately afterward. A terrible reunion in the nineties, led by Neville Staple without Hall or Dammers, released four awful albums that were immediately forgotten. In 2008, however, Staple and Hall had apparently reconciled, and amid claims from Dammers that he was muscled out of the band, the Specials returned to the stage with both of its original lead singers. Since the band wasn’t recording new music, the loss of their principal songwriter was unfortunate, but Hall and Staple were clearly excited to be playing together again, and it showed in their concerts.

Their upcoming tour is disheartening for two reasons. First, Neville Staple is no longer with the band, apparently due to health issues, so now they either have no toaster and no one to sing “Ghost Town” or he will be replaced by someone inferior. Also, in his statement about Staple’s departure, Terry Hall seemed to imply that there will be new Specials music on the way. Without Staple or Dammers, all songwriting will fall on Hall and rhythm guitarist Lynval Golding (who wrote the great “Ghost Town” b-side “Why?”). The band currently touring under the name ‘The Specials’ is half of the great band that is rightfully legendary for their work over thirty years ago. If this current incarnation puts out new music under the Specials name, it will necessarily feel incomplete. It is hard to imagine any way that it won’t tarnish a legacy that’s already been sullied by the existence of more subpar music made by half-assed reunions than there is great music that they made in their original incarnation. They were a great nostalgia touring act. They should leave it at that.

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