The Specials were the fulcrum of the ska revival of the late ’70s, kick-starting the 2-Tone movement that spurred a ska-punk revolution lasting for decades. As influential as they were within the realm of ska, the group and their impact can’t be reduced to that genre alone. The Specials were one of the defining British bands of new wave, expanding the musical and political parameters of rock & roll with fiercely socially conscious music you could dance to. Protest was an integral part of the group, particularly their initial lead songwriter Jerry Dammers, who chronicled the tensions of the Margaret Thatcher era on such hit singles as “Concrete Jungle,” “Nite Klub,” and “Ghost Town.” The band balanced these barbed messages with an inspired rallying call to party and an impeccable sense of style embodied by Terry Hall, a lean, laconic singer who split vocal duties with the more exuberant Neville Staple. Hall left the group in 1982, prompting the band to rebrand itself as the Special AKA — one of many lineup changes that sometimes coincided with alterations in the group’s name. The Specials split in 1984, and while Dammers never returned to the fold, Staple, Lynval Golding, Horace Panter, John Bradbury, and Roddy Byers revived the band a number of times before Hall came back aboard in 2008, prompting a reunion that lasted for years. 1979′s The Specials was an instant classic and one of the defining documents of the ska revival, 1984′s In the Studio was a more eclectic creation from Dammers’ final edition of the group, and 2021′s Protest Songs 1924-2012 found the reunited band offering their take on a dozen politically and socially minded songs of the past.
The group was originally formed in Coventry in 1977, as the Coventry Automatics and later the Special A.K.A. by songwriter/keyboardist Jerry Dammers. He found inspiration in the sounds of Jamaican ska, the pre-reggae style that enjoyed a vogue of international popularity in the early 1960s and never fell out of favor in Britain’s West Indian communities. After two years of periodic gigging and frequent personnel changes, the band settled on a definitive lineup, with Dammers joined by Terry Hall (vocals), Lynval Golding (guitar, vocals), Neville Staple (vocals, percussion), Roddy Radiation (aka Roddy Byers; guitar), Sir Horace Gentleman (aka Horace Panter; bass), and John Bradbury (drums). An opening slot for the Clash stirred up interest in the press, and major labels began approaching the band. Dammers instead opted to start his own 2-Tone label, named for its multiracial agenda as well as the two-tone tonic suits favored by Rude Boys and like-minded Mods in the ’60s. The Dammers-designed logos, based in ’60s pop art with black-and-white checks, gave the label an instantly identifiable look. His eye for detail and authenticity also led to the band adopting ’60s-period Rude Boy outfits (including porkpie hats, tonic and mohair suits, and loafers).
The Specials debuted with the independently distributed “Gangsters” single, which reached the U.K. Top Ten in 1979. Soon after, hordes of bands and fans followed in the same vein as ska became the new hip sound, and the movement reached full swing. Over the next several months, 2-Tone enjoyed hits by like-minded bands such as Madness, the (English) Beat, and the Selecter after the label struck an international distribution deal with Chrysalis Records. Late in 1979, the band released their landmark debut album, The Specials, produced by Elvis Costello. By this time, trombone player Rico Rodriguez (who had played on a number of classic ska and reggae sides of the 1960s and ’70s) and trumpet player Dick Cuthell were joining the group on-stage and in the studio. They followed with several 2-Tone package tours and a live EP, Too Much Too Young (confusingly credited to Special A.K.A.). The title track, a pro-contraception song, was banned by the BBC but reached the number one spot in the U.K. Several punishing rounds of international touring, coupled with the fading of the initial excitement of ska’s new wave, led to Dammers and the band switching musical directions, releasing a second album, 1980′s More Specials, that reflected the influence of Muzak and vintage pop sounds. While 2-Tone began to experience financial troubles, a feature film documenting the 2-Tone package tours, Dance Craze, saw considerable success in the U.K., as did its soundtrack album.
“Ghost Town,” one of the group’s most powerful and politically charged singles, was issued in 1981 amid race-related unemployment riots in Brixton and Liverpool. The song jumped to number one, but the Specials were falling apart. Hall, Staple, and Golding left the band to form Fun Boy Three, leaving the group without their trademark voices. Dammers held on, reverting back to the old name, Special A.K.A., and enlisted a new vocalist, Stan Campbell. After several years and a handful of singles that attracted only scattered interest, they returned with In the Studio in 1984. The anti-apartheid anthem “Free Nelson Mandela” became a Top Ten hit in England, but the album stiffed, peaking at a tepid 34 on the U.K. album charts. The band’s final single, “What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend,” failed to break the British Top 40, and Dammers dissolved the unit and pursued political causes such as Artists Against Apartheid.
Shortly after the official breakup, various members of the band joined up with other ska revivalists (English Beat, etc.) to form a touring unit named Special Beat. By the mid-’90s, in response to the third-wave ska revival, a Dammers-less version of the Specials (featuring Roddy Byers, Lynval Golding, Horace Panter, and Neville Staple) reappeared with a series of mediocre cash-in albums: Today's Specials (1996), Guilty Til Proved Innocent! (1998), and Conquering Ruler (2002). The Specials reunited again in 2008 with the full original lineup, except for Dammers, and toured in the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States to great commercial success and positive reviews. The reunited band continued touring on and off until 2015, when drummer John Bradbury, the backbone of the 2-Tone sound, passed away in December at the age of 62. Trombonist Rico Rodriguez had died three months earlier, on September 4. He was 80 years old.
The Specials, headed by Golding, Panter, and Hall, released Encore — their first album of new material since their reunion — in early 2019. A planned reggae album was put on hold when the COVID-19 pandemic interfered with the group’s recording schedule. Instead, a stripped-down edition of the Specials recorded Protest Songs 1924-2012, a set of cover songs rooted in political and social commentary. The group intended to complete the reggae album in 2022, but plans changed when Terry Hall fell ill and was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died on December 18, 2022 at the age of 63. ~ Chris Woodstra & Mark Deming