The Album List #15: The Specials “The Specials”

I would have written “Where Have All The Rude Boys Gone” if Ted Leo hadn’t thought of it first.

One of the greatest songs ever written about loving music was written by one Ted Leo. A spry, punkish tribute to ska, the lyrics drip with references to the Rude Boy era of British music, particularly the perfection that were the Specials. It has the benefit of being one of the greatest songs ever written, for sure. But it wouldn’t matter how great the song was if it didn’t ring true somehow. “Where Have All The Rude Boys Gone?” is gospel truth. The Specials were, for lack of a better word, special.

When I first the band’s brilliant take on the rock steady classic ” A Message To You Rudy” one random night watching The Wedge on MuchMusic, I actually stopped what I was doing and listened. Much by this point of time was starting to pull away from music and more into random reality shows, but it was still early in the process and The Wedge still played fantastic old shit along with whatever screamo act they were enamored with this week. From the harmonica to the horns, every second of this song is gorgeously put together, a true gem of a song.

The other covers on this record, Toots and the Maytals “Monkey Man”, Coxone Dodd’s “You’re Wondering Now”,  and Prince Buster’s “Too Hot” all pay attention to the true spirit of rock steady and ska rhythms that are simply too unique to let go of. Ska,  the music of the new world, based in the R&B and soul of the U.S. but spun with the  laid back island feel of calypso, the Jamaican immigrants who arrived in droves in the U.K. in the late fifties and the sixties brought it over, influencing a generation of music fans with the hypnotic beats. The Coventry-based The Specials were the best band playing ska, but also serving as important social example. The mixed race group made a big statement in just existing in late 1970s Britain, in an era of massive social upheaval and racial unrest.  There is a beauty in the way the band works together on record, a democratic and fair feeling.

And have I mentioned the horns? Oh, lord, the best part about ska was always the horns. This album had Rico Rodriguez on trombone.  Rico, the legendary session man who played with Dodd and Buster, learned from Don Drummond, based in jazz but free enough to be the basis of ska. I adore Rico’s playing, always have. It’s fitting that the Specials asked him to play on their cover of “Rudy”, as Rico played the trombone on Dandy Livingstone’s original. Just… gah!

These are guys, though, with a bit of a mean streak. “Little Bitch” is an awesome song, but it is downright vicious as it dismisses the woman in question. “Too Much Too Young” is bitter, both about parenthood and the welfare state. “Nite Klub” doesn’t hold back as it skewers the average working class pub on a Friday night, and “Blank Expression” takes it a bit further. They rail against racism (“It Doesn’t Make It Alright”), haters (“It’s Up To You”), and civil disobedience (“Concrete Jungle”).  The album is very much of its time and place.

And it would have been even more perfect if “Gangsters” had been on it.

Perfection sometimes can be made even more perfect. That’s all I’m suggesting.

God, I love “Gangsters”.


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