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Me and The Specials

Welding punk and ska, art and dance, earnest and ironic, The Specials captured the anti-Tory mood of 1980 - but they never had the seriousness to challenge Thatcher.

Andrew Calcutt

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Story: deadpan dreamers from cultural desert produce visionary music which briefly solves the art-dance problem and momentarily stands for something, er, er, something, before being sucked into internal strife and swallowed up by widespread disillusion.

Format: personal reminiscence interspersed with contemporary diary entries and evocative photographs, all told in the manner of early 1970s rock journalism (more Chris Welch bonhomie than Mick Farren anarchy).

Result: being-on-the-road as a pale imitation of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road.

Verdict: Interesting vignettes; occasional insights. But come on, Horace, you did fine art at the Lanch(ester Polytechnic). You could have come up with a less workmanlike depiction. 6/10

That’s my report card on Ska’d for Life, Horace Panter’s memoir of his time with The Specials – a hugely successful band whose guiding light and keyboard player was my old friend Jerry Dammers. A band I might have been in.

Is this my revenge? I didn’t realise I needed to settle scores but my mildly damning review looks a lot like it. You see, in music press reviews published in the same week nearly 30 years ago, my first record (‘Motorbody Love’ by Ersatz, on the Raw label) was listed as a nothing-special also-ran (6/10), whereas The Specials’ debut ‘Gangsters’ (2-Tone) was picked as record of the week (10/10). The rest is history. For amnesiacs and those too young to have forgotten, The Specials’ history included:

  • A sack full of chart-topping singles and albums culminating in ‘Ghost Town’ (1981);
  • The moment when The Specials became the soundtrack for the left-liberal opposition to Margaret Thatcher’s newly-elected Tory government – and often seemed stronger than the opposition itself;
  • An aura surrounding The Specials – it got bigger after they gave up the ghost and split up, in the midst of which they appeared as the lost heroes of the spirit of anti-racism.

Horace and I have a history, though we have only ever exchanged the briefest of pleasantries. He plays bass; so did I. He played bass in a band with Jerry Dammers; so did I (though when we started playing together, Jerry was still ‘Jeremy’). I gave Jerry my organ – the cast-off my dad got cheap from the church where he was priest-in-charge. Horace recalls that it lasted for years until falling down a flight of stairs in a Birmingham nightclub. Straight after my finals (summer 1976), I moved to Cambridge to join Jerry and a couple of local graduates (one of them a Coventry Kid like us) in forming a band of wannabe rude boys (I borrowed the phrase from Jamaican slang via the NME and introduced it at a rehearsal the previous summer – to general hilarity); except that JD didn’t show up as I thought we had agreed.

A year or so later, I received a phone call asking me to go hear him play at an American airbase (soul showband or rock’n’roll revival? Could have been either) somewhere in East Anglia. When I couldn’t go, I got a message to the effect that if I wanted to join up where we had left off, I’d better get back to Coventry quick because of another good bass player in the offing. The other good bass player was Horace Gentleman, nee Stephen Graham Panter; and the off-ing happened to me, not him.

I don’t know whether Jerry’s call to come home was a genuine invitation or more of a get-out clause – as in, you were asked, you didn’t come, there was no option but the other guy. Was I jealous? Not that I know of, except on one occasion when The Specials sold out The Nashville in West Kensington and I couldn’t even get in to see them; according to Horace’s book, neither could Johnny Rotten.

The truth is that, since our early teens, Jeremy/Jerry had a continuously expanding musical imagination which his peers, me included, struggled to keep up with. I matched him on riffs and the texture of sound; another adolescent, Mark, was as good as he was on chord changes. No one else could do both. In the days of The Specials, before digital sampling and mixing, the only way to realise the breadth of this imagination was to direct other musicians, which almost always involves some degree of personal manipulation. Not to have been at least a wee bit manipulative would have left my erstwhile best friend with the burden of grossly under-fulfilled potential, and I would never have wished that curse on him.

The early part of Horace’s story is an insight into the nut that Jerry cracked, and how cracking it caused the re-formation of the band that then became The Specials. The episode is epitomised in the photo of a long-haired Horace (Stephen) reproduced from the back of his student card (both he and Jerry were fine art students in the mid-1970s). Here was a youth schooled in rock (Cream, Free, Led Zeppelin – to his credit, Horace is candid enough to admit this), prompted by the increasing pomposity of ‘progressive’ rock to turn back to the (hitherto) secondary modern music of Stax, Motown and Trojan, and about to be outflanked by the adrenaline rush of punk.

For young musicians in the Seventies, the problem was how to be aggressive, funky and modernist all at the same time. How not to fuck art altogether in order to dance? When Jimi Hendrix choked, had we lost the ability to walk-the-walk and chew gum at the same time? It certainly seemed that way. In the early years of the decade, Disco may or may not have been ironic but it was still dumb. Roxy Music were arty and aggressive, but so decidedly un-funky that they opted not to have a bass player (for the real nerds among you, so did The B-52s). Punk was a musical poltergeist but it could not reach the other side. All you could do to it was pogo. As music journalists used to say back then: ‘Nuff said.’

Jerry Dammers fiddled away at this dilemma by assembling a band, constructing a set and composing a few songs (some of them drawing on material from the Cambridge-band-that-never-was: he always acknowledged these sources and wrote them into his publishing deal) combining punk with reggae, the realisation of a punky-reggae party already mooted in the music press. But this posed a further problem: amphetamine punk into marijuana reggae doesn’t go. Speed is too fast for ganja, and the difference in their beats-per-minute, if left to be played out to its logical and musical conclusion, could only result in songs with fast bits and slow bits – the kind of tempo change associated with unacceptable reference points such as Blood, Sweat and Tears, Barry Ryan’s ‘Eloise’ and Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.

Back to square one.

Except that Jerry had the foresight to go back to Studio One, to the sound of bluebeat and ska – the early to mid-1960s dance music which came together in Jamaica, incorporating soul and R’n’B with a New Orleans roll to the rhythm which tended to push the emphasis away from the on-beat. In Kingston, this push was pulled even further towards the off-beat, resulting in the rhythm-guitar scratch (‘…chka …chka…chka …chka’) which marked the four off-beats of the bar and characterised the (then) new ‘rude bwoy’ music which soon made a further journey to Brixton, Notting Hill and the dance clubs of the London Mods.

Having already played in rock’n’roll revival bands, Jerry revived this other, superb dance music because it had a tempo to match the punk-rockabilly composite which guitarist Roddy Radiation brought to the band. Meanwhile, ska had fallen on hard times. When I moved to Brixton around the time The Specials got going, the only public places you could hear it played were downmarket pub discos frequented by middle-aged blacks and the occasional, white cultural tourist like me. Because it was old style, because it was a style of music that was known to be anachronistic, most people, including young black people who were linked to it (by dint of being Afro-Caribbean in origin) but not entirely of it, could not but be a little distant from it. This made it perfect for those of the Jerry (and me) Generation who already lived in a cage of irony, that is, who experienced much of life at one, indirect step beyond the living of it. Yet, at the same time it was beautifully infectious, ecstatically on-the-one (especially with the jazz inflection later brought to the expanded version of The Specials by veteran Skatallite, trombonist Rico Rodriguez, and trumpeter Dick Cuthell).

Horace describes how Jerry put together a band of Coventry-based musicians, some black and some white, and gives a blow-by-blow account of progress made and obstacles encountered in the early days. He reports that guitarist Lynval Golding came grudgingly on board the new train to Skaville, while Silverton Hutchinson refused to entrain because he thought ska was old hi-hat. Silverton was replaced by a white drummer (John Bradbury) already drilled in emphasising the off-beat of the third. What Horace does not say is that the adoption of ska must have played another important role in bridging the musical gap between whites and blacks in the band – the gap between those who played ‘black music’ because it’s what their parents danced to, and those who played it because their parents probably did not dance and certainly not to this.

When Jerry picked up ska and The Specials agreed to run with it, they were all stepping beyond their respective backgrounds and moving, grooving together.

The whites in The Specials could play black, up to a point; and the blacks had lightened themselves up a point or two by agreeing to skank. Here was a band of not-quite-blacks playing music combining modernity with an antiquated form largely abandoned by black people and, so, not-quite-black. There were to be no absolutes. Not-quite was the key characteristic that made The Specials quite the rage at the end of the Seventies. Nearly funky; almost arty; knowingly cheesy, where cheese held together the other elements in the cake. From the guitar riff in ‘Gangsters’ (nicked from the advert for Fry’s Turkish Delight) to the deadpan ditty ‘Enjoy Yourself’ (clue: it’s later than you think), The Specials kitsched everything, including their own black and white-ness (with chequerboard artwork to match). Relativism – and the one-step-removed standpoint from which to read it as such – ruled.

Furthermore, the combination of old ska with the ultra-modern sensibility of punk turned alienated irony into something you could dance. Note: dance, not dance to. In the case of The Specials, it meant getting so close to non-identification (identification with the not-quite) that you – band and audience united – could perform it. On a good night and on beautiful tracks such as ‘Ghost Town’, what a not-quite-white riot it was!

All of which places The Specials in the right place at the right time. They came from the place – Coventry – that no one readily admitted coming from, the city that seemed to have reconstructed itself during the postwar boom, only to find that reconstruction had not quite gelled, so that Coventrians increasingly identified themselves as originating from and/or on their way to somewhere, anywhere else – eg, youths from the north side of the city who made a point of supporting the Birmingham-based team of Aston Villa. The Specials also locked on to the moment after the postwar consensus and before political conflict became fully explicit, which meant that large numbers of people from elsewhere were ready to recognise themselves in something not-quite from a place that wasn’t quite there. They were so much of their moment, they were the moment, but it was just that: momentary.

All of this places me at odds with the widely circulating legend of the lost promise of The Specials, which Horace also seems sympathetic to – at least, he does little to challenge it. The orthodox version of their demise includes mounting personal differences and the build-up of external pressures on the group. I wouldn’t disagree with either: playing on the More Specials tour must have seemed like being locked in a pressure cooker with family members you’ve grown sick and tired of. It’s the ‘what if?’ that I don’t go along with: if they had not broken up, could they have shown the way for anti-racism? If cynicism had not taken hold, would they have been a rallying point for anti-Thatcher culture?

My point is that there was always a strong element of cynicism in what The Specials produced. Their not-quite-there necessarily combined intelligence and ironic distance, which is not to step simply and completely aside from issues of truth, progress, action; but it does involve projecting your own off-key sensibility on to them, so that there is always a get-out clause in response to social questions as there is in personal relations.

The social questions of the Eighties demanded more than this (if only the left had been as focused on social change as the right); and those who engaged fully with such questions had to become ‘younger than that now’. Whatever our age, we had to acquire youthful qualities such as openness to new ideas and the capacity to close ranks and fight for them. This really was one step beyond the dis-ingénue mindset which The Specials expressed.

Of course, I don’t mean that they were always as personally jaded as Horace shows they were by the end of their term together. The Specials were initially enthusiastic about producing their lovely music and obtaining a wider hearing for it; and with Jerry as spokesman they did find themselves in spiritual opposition to the full-on offensive of the Tory government, forged in the image not of irony but of the Iron Lady.

But the right to be relativist was never going to be a match for the ‘manager’s right to manage’. And by 1980, it was already out of time. Their deliberately cheesy soundtrack – the sound that said: all standards are relative; absolutism is intolerable because you can’t dance to it – had been underscored by the same economic and psycho-social security which also underpinned the art school dance of the Sixties and early Seventies. Apart from a few outposts like the Greater London Council, it did not withstand many months of the Falklands Factor and wholesale attacks on the working class in Britain.

In short, whether you wanted Thatcher dead or alive, there’s no way that More Specials would serve as a sufficient soundtrack to the days of the Brighton Bomb.

Yet in another sense, the Specials’ sensibility may have gone into hibernation in the Eighties, only to return writ large in the late Nineties and Noughties. True to the band’s original spirit of relativism, Horace introduces his book as just one of half-a-dozen putative versions of The Specials’ story, one for each member of the original band. In an extended quote on the inside front cover, Lynval Golding is singing from the same sheet music: ‘Inevitably we would all have experienced it differently.’

Same difference (celebration of), in the ex-band and in far wider, more influential, social circles. In retrospect, it’s as if The Specials formed the blueprint for multicultural social policy, with each member as a separate client culture, and Jerry Dammers as a model for the post-political state.

Now there’s a curse I would not wish on my worst enemy.

Andrew Calcutt is a recovering bass player and leader of the MA in Journalism and Society at the University of East London. He is speaking at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 27-28 October.

Ska’d For Life: a personal journey with The Specials, by Horace Panter is published by Sidgwick and Jackson. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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