The Specials, also known as The Special , are an English Ska revival band formed in 1977 in Coventry. Their music combines a “danceable Ska and Rocksteady beat with punk’s energy and attitude, and had a more focused and informed political and social stance than other Ska groups. The band wore mod-style 1960s period rude boy outfits pork pie hats, tonic and mohair suits, and loafers. In 1980, the song ‘’Too Much Too Young”, the lead track on their The Special AKA Live! EP reached number one in the UK. In 1981, the unemployment-themed single “Ghost Town” also hit number one in theUK Singles Chart.
After seven consecutive UK Top 10 singles between 1979 and 1981, several members of the group abruptly left to form the Fun Boy Three. Continuing on as “The Special AKA” (a name they used frequently on earlier Specials releases), a substantially revised Specials line-up issued new material through 1984, including the top 10 UK hit single “(Free) Nelson Mandela”. Afterwards, founder and songwriter Jerry Dammers dissolved the band and pursued political activism.
The group reformed in 1993, and have continued to perform and record with varying line-ups (but without Dammers).
Founding and early years (1977–78)
The group was formed in 1977 by songwriter/keyboardist Jerry Dammers, vocalist Tim Strickland, guitarist/vocalist Lynval Golding, drummer Silverton Hutchinson and bassist Horace Panter (aka Sir Horace Gentleman). Strickland was replaced by Terry Hall shortly after the band’s formation. The band was first called The Automatics, then The Coventry Automatics. Vocalist Neville Staple and guitarist Roddy Byers (aka Roddy Radiation) joined the band the following year, and the band changed its name to The Special. Joe Strummer of The Clash had attended one of their concerts, and invited The Special to open for his band in their “On Parole” UK tour. This performance gave The Special a new level of national exposure, and they briefly shared The Clash’s management.
The Specials began at the same time as Rock Against Racism which first organised in 1978. According to Dammers, anti-racism was intrinsic to the formation of The Specials, in that the band was formed with the goal of integrating black and white people. Many years later Dammers stated, “Music gets political when there are new ideas in music, …Punk was innovative, so was Ska, and that was why bands such as The Specials and The Clash could be political.”
Ascendancy of The Specials (1979–81)
In 1979, shortly after drummer Hutchinson left the band to be replaced by John Bradbury, Dammers formed the 2 Tone Records label and released the band’s debut single “Gangsters”, a reworking of Prince Buster’s “Al Capone.” The record became a Top 10 hit that summer. The band had begun wearing mod/rude boy/skinhead-style two-tone tonic suits, along with other elements of late 1960s teen fashions. Changing their name to The Specials, they recorded their debut album Specials in 1979, produced by Elvis Costello. Horn players Dick Cuthell and Rico Rodriguez were featured on the LP, but would not be official members of The Specials until their second album.
The album led off with Dandy Livingstone’s “Rudy, A Message to You” (slightly altering the title to “A Message To You, Rudy”) and also had covers of Prince Buster and Toots & the Maytals songs from the late 1960s. In 1980, the EP The Special AKA Live! (featuring “Too Much Too Young” and credited to The Special AKA) was a number one hit in the UK Singles Chart, despite controversy over the song’s lyrics, which reference teen pregnancy and promote contraception.
Reverting once again to the moniker The Specials, the band’s second album, More Specials was not as commercially successful and was recorded at a time when, according to Terry Hall, conflicts had developed in the band. Female backing vocalists on The Specials first two studio albums included: Chrissie Hynde; Rhoda Dakar (then of The Bodysnatchers and later of The Special AKA); and Belinda Carlisle, Jane Wiedlin and Charlotte Caffey of The Go-Go’s. In the first few months of 1981 the band took a break from recording and touring, and then released “Ghost Town”, a non-LP Specials single, which hit number one in 1981. However, shortly afterwards, Staple, Golding and Hall left the band to form Fun Boy Three.
Band split, rebirth as The Special AKA (1982–1984)
For the next few years, the group was in a seemingly constant state of flux. Adding Rhoda Dakar to the permanent line-up, the group recorded “The Boiler” with Dakar on vocals, Dammers on keyboard, Bradbury on drums, John Shipley from the Swinging Cats on guitar, Dick Cuthell on brass, and Nicky Summers on bass. The single was credited to “Rhoda with the Special AKA”. The controversial track described an incident of date rape, and its frank and harrowing depiction of the matter meant that airplay was severely limited. Nevertheless, it managed to reach number 35 on the UK charts, and American writer Dave Marsh later identified “The Boiler” as one of the 1,001 best “rock and soul” singles of all time in his book The Heart of Rock & Soul.
After going on tour with Rico Rodriguez, the band (without Dakar, and as “Rico and the Special AKA”) also recorded the non-charting (and non-album) single “Jungle Music.” The line-up for the single was Rodriguez (vocal, trombone), Cuthell (cornets) Dammers (keyboards), Bradbury (drums), Shipley (guitar), returning bassist Sir Horace Gentleman, and new additions Satch Dickson and Groco (percussion) and Anthony Wymshurst (guitar).
Rodriguez and the three other new additions were all dropped for the next single, “War Crimes”, which brought back Dakar and added new co-vocalists Edgio Newton and Stan Campbell as well as violinist Nick Parker. Follow-up single “Racist Friend” was a mild hit (UK #60), with the band establishing themselves as a septet: Dakar, Newton, Campbell, Bradbury, Cuthell, Dammers and Shipley.
The new line-up (still known as The Special AKA) finally issued a new full-length album In the Studio in 1984. Officially, the band was now a sextet: Dakar, Campbell, Bradbury, Dammers, Shipley and new bassist Gary McManus. Cuthell, Newton, Panter and Roddy Radiation all appeared on the album as guests, as did the vocal trio Afrodiziak. Both critically and commercially, In The Studio was less successful than previous efforts, although the 1984 single “(Free) Nelson Mandela” was a number 9 UK hit. The latter contributed to making Mandela’s imprisonment a cause célèbre in the United Kingdom, and became popular with anti-Apartheid activists in South Africa. Dammers then dissolved the band and pursued political activism.
Since the break-up of the original line-up, various members of the band performed in other bands and have reformed several times to tour and record in Specials-related projects. However, there has never been a complete reunion of the original line-up.
Upon their departure from The Specials, Hall, Staple and Golding founded the pop band Fun Boy Three and enjoyed commercial success from 1981 to 1983 with hits such as “Tunnel of Love”, “Our Lips Are Sealed” and “The Lunatics (Have Taken Over the Asylum)”. The group ended with Hall’s sudden departure, leading to a 15-year rift with Staple.
After Fun Boy Three, Staple and Golding joined Pauline Black of The Selecter in the short-lived band Sunday Best, releasing the single “Pirates on the Airwaves”.
In 1990, Staple, Golding, Bradbury, and Panter teamed up with members of The Beat to form Special Beat, performing the music of the two bands and other Ska and Two Tone classics. The group, undergoing many line-up changes, toured and released several live recordings through the 1990s.
Moving into production and management, Neville Staple “discovered” and produced Johnny Zee, who became a huge star in the UK East Asian population, creating bhangra pop fusion in the process. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Staple would stay active producing and guesting with a variety of artists, including International Beat, Special Beat,Unwritten Law, Desorden Publico, The Planet Smashers and others, as well as leading his own bands and starting the Rude Wear clothing line. He sang with the 1990s Specials line-up, and again from 2009 to 2012.
Bass player Horace Panter went on to join with members of The Beat and Dexys Midnight Runners to form General Public, and then Special Beat. He joined the 1990s Specials before training as a primary school teacher at the University of Central England in Birmingham. He continued to play with latter-day Special Neol Davis in the blues outfit Box of Blues. However, he rejoined the band for their 2009 reunion and continues as a member.
Lynval Golding teamed up with Jerry Dammers for a brief spell of club DJing, and then worked with Coventry band After Tonight. After Special Beat, he went on to lead the Seattle-based Ska groups Stiff Upper Lip, and more recently Pama International, as well as many collaborations with other Ska bands. He has also toured with The English Beat. He joined the 1990s Specials line-up, but left in 2000. He rejoined in 2009 and continues with the group.
Roddy Radiation fronted and worked with several bands including The Tearjerkers (a band that he had begun in the last months of The Specials), The Bonediggers, The Raiders and Three Men & Black which included of Jean-Jacques Burnel (The Stranglers), Jake Burns (Stiff Little Fingers), Pauline Black (The Selecter), Bruce Foxton (The Jam), Dave Wakeling (The Beat, General Public) and Nick Welsh (Skaville UK). He also fronts The Skabilly Rebels, a band that mixes rockabilly with ska. He joined the 1990s Specials line-up and again in 2009, continuing to the present.
Drummer John Bradbury continued through the Special AKA era, then formed the band JB’s Allstars, before moving into production. He joined Special Beat for several years, then a reformed Selecter before retiring from music to work as an IT specialist. He rejoined the band for their 2009 reunion, and continues to perform with them today.
From 1984 until 1987, Terry Hall fronted The Colourfield, with some commercial success. After they disbanded, Hall pursued a solo career, working mostly in the new wave genre. He co-wrote a number of early Lightning Seeds releases. He also performed some vocals for a Dub Pistols album. Hall and Eurythmics member David A. Stewart formed a duo Vegas in the early 1990s they released their eponymous début album in 1992. He joined The Specials for their 2009 reunion and continues to perform with them.
The first reunion under the Specials name occurred in 1993, when producer Roger Lomas decided to use The Specials as backing band for a new album by Ska legend Desmond Dekker. Only Staple, Golding, Radiation, and Panter were willing to participate. They were joined in the studio by former Selecter drummer, Charley Harrington Bembridge. Bembridge had also played in the 1970s with soul singer Ray King, who mentored and worked with Jerry Dammers, Neville Staple, Lynval Golding and Silverton Hutchinson in their days before The Specials. A group of studio musicians filled out the band, including keyboard and horn player Mark Birch. The album, released by Trojan Records as King of Kings, was credited to Desmond Dekker and The Specials.
This led to an offer from a Japanese promoter to book a tour for the band. Retaining Bembridge and Adams and adding Adam Birch on trombone, the line-up began rehearsing and playing live using the names The Coventry Specials and Specials2, but shortly reverted to The Specials after accepting that it was the name promoters were using anyway, although the line-up was referred to as Specials MkII by those involved. This line-up would go on to tour internationally, and in 1996 released the studio album Today’s Specials, a collection of mostly reggae and Ska covers. In 1998, the band released Guilty ’til Proved Innocent!, a collection of original compositions featuring guest vocals by Tim Armstrong and Lars Frederiksen of Rancid. The band toured heavily in support of both releases-including headlining the prestigious Vans Warped Tour- and received positive reviews of their live shows.
Despite the live success, the band fizzled out after a 1998 Japan tour (which Panter missed due to illness), although limited touring with a different line-up continued into 2000.
After their 1993 project backing Desmond Dekker, the band had been brought back into the studio by producer Lomas to record a number of classic songs from the Trojan Records back catalogue. Two weeks before this project, Golding left the group to concentrate on domestic life in Seattle. Once again turning to a Selecter veteran for help, the band replaced him with Neol Davies. Davies, Staple, Radiation and Panter, joined by a group of session musicians, recorded a wealth of tracks that eventually saw release by Trojan as Skinhead Girl in 2000 and Conquering Ruler in 2001. This would be the last heard of The Specials for some time.
In 2007, Hall teamed up with Golding for the first time in 24 years, to play Specials songs at two music festivals. At Glastonbury Festival they appeared on the Pyramid Stage with Lily Allen to perform “Gangsters”. In May 2009 Golding claimed that Allen’s reuniting him with Hall played a “massive part” in the group’s later reformation. Later the same day they played on The Park Stage, with Damon Albarn of Blur on piano and with beatboxer Shlomo providing rhythm, to perform “A Message To You, Rudy”. At GuilFest, Golding joined the Dub Pistols to again perform “Gangsters”. In 2007, Golding regularly performed concerts and recorded with Pama International, a collective of musicians who were members of Special Beat.
On 30 March 2008, Hall stated that The Specials would be reforming for tour dates in autumn 2008, and possibly for some recording. This was officially confirmed on 7 April 2008. On 6 September 2008, six members of the band performed on the main stage at the Bestival, billed as the “Surprise Act”. By December 2008, the band had announced 2009 tour dates to celebrate their 30th anniversary, although founder member Jerry Dammers was not joining the band on the tour.
Hall was quoted as saying “The door remains open to him”. However Dammers described the new reunion as a “takeover” and claimed he had been forced out of the band. Around that same time, longtime Specials fan Amy Winehouse joined Jerry Dammers onstage at Hyde Park, singing the song he wrote for the Specials, “Free Nelson Mandela”, for Mandela’s 90th birthday concert, dubbed 46664 after Mandela’s prison number, and also the name of his AIDS charity, which received money raised by the birthday bash.
On 10 April 2009, The Specials guested on the BBC Two’s Later… with Jools Holland. The following month, Golding and Bradbury expressed their intentions to release further original Specials material at a later date. On 8 June 2009, it was announced that The Specials would embark on a second leg of their 30th anniversary tour, taking in the locations and venues that they missed earlier in the year. In July and August 2009, The Specials toured Australia and Japan. In October the band picked up the Inspiration Award at the Q Awards. In 2010, they performed at the Dutch festival Lowlands.
In an interview at the Green Room in Manchester in November 2010, Terry Hall confirmed that there would be further Specials dates in the autumn of 2011, and confessed to having enjoyed playing live again: “It’s a celebration of something that happened in your life that was important, and we’re going to do that again next year, but then maybe that’ll be it.” In late 2010, the band re-released “A Message to You, Rudy” as a Haiti Special Fund available to download from iTunes in both the UK and the US, with proceeds going to aid the UNICEF effort to help children in earthquake-stricken Haiti.
In February 2012, it was announced The Specials would perform at Hyde Park with Blur and New Order to celebrate the 2012 Summer Olympics closing ceremony. Specials bass player Horace Panter said the Coventry Ska legends were excited to be involved in such a momentous event and said, “We have been keeping it under our pork pie hats for a month or so now. I think it is going to be the only chance people get to see the Specials performing in the UK this year.”. The Specials’ performance was said to have remained synonymous with Britain’s political and social upheaval of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
In August 2012, The Specials released a new live album called More… Or Less. – The Specials Live, featuring “the best of the best” performances from their 2011 European tour, selected by the band themselves on a double-disc CD and double-vinyl LP.
In January 2013, The Specials announced the departure of Neville Staple with the following message on their website: “We are very sad Neville cannot join us on The Specials UK tour in May 2013 or indeed on the future projects we have planned. He has made a huge contribution to the fantastic time and reception we have received since we started and reformed in 2009. However, he missed a number of key shows last year due to ill health, and his health is obviously much more important. We wish him the very best for the future.”
The Specials completed an American tour in 2013, performing to sold-out crowds at Chicago, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland and Vancouver.