Though short-lived, The Specials Mk I were punk‘s multi-racial idealism made flesh. The group came together almost by osmosis, gathering together the remnants of several Coventry punk, soul and reggae outfits.
Chief instigator, songwriter, designer and founder of the 2 Tone label was keyboard player Jerry Dammers – he of the gap-toothed look (the result of a childhood accident). The son of a Church of England vicar and an English teacher, Dammers harboured dreams of forming an epoch-defining band dating from the day he saw The Who play My Generation on Ready, Steady, Go! in 1965, aged 11.
A short stint on keyboards in local New Faces winners The Cissy Stone Soul Band came to an end with the coming of punk, and together with bassist Sir Horace Gentleman (real name Stephen Panter) and Jamaican-born guitarist Lynval Golding, Dammers formed The Coventry Automatics.
Seventeen-year-old vocalist Terry Hall from punk band The Squad and second guitarist Roddy Radiation (real name Rod Byers) from proto-punkers The Wild Boys soon joined the trio. After a mercifully short-lived liaison with then-local DJ Pete Waterman (later of SAW fame), the group secured a support slot on The Clash‘s 1978 ‘On Parole’ tour, with The Clash’s manager Bernie Rhodes taking them under his wing.
The escape from Coventry was encouraging, and the emergence of roadie Neville Staple as toaster/dancer/stage invader (an early adherent of the Chas Smash school of sidekick-as-star) was a key move. Staples added a patois-gruff, rowdy-yet-baleful presence that contrasted superbly with Hall’s utterly English intonation, alternately wry and sour.
With Dammers’ flatmate (and former mod) John Bradbury on drums, Golding’s collection of old ska 45s was raided for Dandy Livingstone’s Rudy, A Message To You, joining covers of Andy and Joey’s You’re Wondering Now and Toots and The Maytals‘ Monkey Man. Another ska tune, Lloydie and The Lowbites’ Birth Control inspired Dammers to pen the controversial Too Much Too Young.
Bernie Rhodes’ business practices were found wanting (as lampooned on their debut single, Gangsters, recorded four months before their debut album in January 1979), and he was dispatched in favour of Coventry publicist Rick Rogers.
Dammers took some of The Clash‘s mastermind’s advice to heart before they parted company though. Specifically, Rhodes had told him the band needed to look like their audience.
In the early months of 1979 – with Gangsters only beginning its nine-month crawl from independently produced limited edition to chart hit – The Specials supported Gang Of Four, The Damned and Sham 69. Elvis Costello (an early supporter of the band) was hired to produce an album for the group.
Recording took place over three weeks, a month after Margaret Thatcher‘s election win, at TW Studios in Fulham. The result – Their eponymous debut album – would prove a touchstone and rallying point for British youth against the draconian Thatcher government.
On its release in October 1979, the confrontational yet mournful mix of 60s ska and punk caused a dynamic surge in the national pop grid.
When Live EP landed them their first Number One in January 1980, the group was already locked into a gruelling six-week tour of America. The five-track EP, recorded live at London’s Lyceum and Coventry’s Tiffany’s, captured a band at their live peak, but they were physically and mentally exhausted, involved in every decision made from the price of tickets to the hiring of the van – and with an American record label that just didn’t understand.
The pressure took its toll on Byers and Dammers, who took to quarrelling about the music on the tour bus in the US (Dammers wanted jazz, Byers wanted rockabilly) and the band’s attire (Byers ditched his suit for leathers and a cowboy shirt). Terry Hall woke up in his hotel room one night to the smell of burning after John Bradbury had set his bed alight with him in it.
Back in Britain, the pace didn’t slack, with Rat Race hitting the Top Five in May 1980. By the time of their downbeat second album, More Specials (1980), though, world-weariness had crept in.
The Specials released the timely Ghost Town single in 1981 amid massive unemployment and race-related riots in Brixton and Liverpool. The single perfectly captured an inner-city mood of anger and alienation that would, by the summer, explode into widespread rioting. It jumped to #1 – but the band was falling apart.
Hall, Staple and Golding left to form Fun Boy Three, leaving the band without its trademark voice. Byers left next, taking his rockabilly outfit The Tearjerkers on the road before releasing the single Desire (1982) on Chiswick.
Dammers recruited Rhoda Dakar (ex-Bodysnatchers) and with the remaining members, released The Boiler, Rhoda’s horrific account of a woman who is raped by a man she meets in a bar. The single ends with Rhoda’s agonising screams.
It set the new Special AKA agenda: challenging music with a strong political, social and moral conscience.
With John Shipley and soul vocalist Stan Campbell, the band began work on their third album. Panter left not long after. After several years in the studio, they finally released In the Studio in June 1984.
The album managed a few hits with Racist Friend and Nelson Mandela, but since Campbell had already departed – making the promotion of the LP impossible – the album stiffed. Dammers dissolved the unit, pursuing political causes such as Artists Against Apartheid.
The band reunited in 1996 and 1998 for some gigs and recordings (without either Hall or Dammers). Further recording followed in 2000 and 2001, but again without the two main original players.
Hall finally reunited with the band in 2009, but founding member Jerry Dammers did not participate. Terry Hall was quoted as saying, “The door remains open to him”, but Dammers described the new reunion as a “takeover rather than a proper reunion” and claimed he had been forced out of the band.
Terry Hall died in December 2022 from pancreatic cancer. He was 63.
Roddy Radiation (Rod Byers)
Sir Horace Gentleman (Stephen Panter)
John ‘Brad’ Bradbury