Top 11 Specials songs

After writing what I consider my eleven favourite songs by David Bowie, I’m now going to explore what I consider the best songs by a British ska punk band known as The Specials.

Some of you may have heard last month of the last year when the drummer John Bradbury died. It’s ironic that he died on the same day as Lemmy (of Motorhead fame) and no one knows what his cause of death was. Earlier that year, the band also lost Rico Rodriguez, the trombone player, who contributed to some of the band’s material. This is why I think it would make sense if I explore the Specials next.

Out of every ska-related band, The Specials are my second favourite (the first being Madness). If there’s one nit-pick I have with the band, it’s the constant changes within the line-ups. For instance, the only original members who currently remain in the band are Terry Hall (vocals), Lynval Goulding (rhythm guitar/vocals) and Horace Gentlemen (bass). The rest of the current members, I hardly know much about. I sometimes wonder what Jerry Dammers (keyboards/composition), Neville Staples (vocals/percussion) and Roddy Radiation (lead guitar) are up to nowadays.

11. Racist Friend

Album: In The Studio

UK Chart Position: 60

Racist Friend is a song that basically attacks racism. I tend to agree with the political views covered in this song. I’d definitely hate to have friends who disapprove of one’s skin color, nationality, features, etc. The lyrics also say so (“If you have a racist friend, now is the time for your friendship to end”), but the singer doesn’t mind if that friend is a relative (“be it your sister, be it your brother…”); that would be fairly embarrassing, but a fairer point. If that person was just a friend who had racist views, I’d see no point in hanging out with him/her.

10. The Boiler

UK Chart Position: 35

The Boiler is one truly haunting song about a woman who gets raped by a mysterious man. The lyrics are so uniquely written and sung. I can’t think of one other song written in the way that Rhoda would panic and scream so loudly that it would put listeners into a frightening situation. This is why I’d recommend that you give The Boiler at least one listen. It brings awareness of sexual harassment and hints that rape is morally wrong. I should also say this to anybody who intends to rape innocent people; you need to take a hint and seriously rethink your actions.

9. A Little Bit Me A Little Bit You

Album: Today’s Specials

UK Chart Position: Didn’t Chart

The first of two entries from the nineties and one of the Specials’ many covers. Today’s Specials was a fine start to the band’s reunion following their 1984 split. The following original members who returned then; Horace, Lynval, Neville and Roddy. Wait a minute, what about Jerry? We’ll get to that later.

I mainly admire the band’s more original stuff, but the covers they do are fine. This version of A Little Bit Me A Little Bit You, written by Neil Diamond and originally performed by the Monkees, is pure great. Seriously, it’s as fab as the original. Well executed.

 

8. What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend

Album: In The Studio

UK Chart Position: 51

And this is the song where the composing guru Jerry Dammers sings lead vocals, and what great vocals. Of course, he sounds a bit like Mickey Mouse with that high pitched voice. It probably was done for comedic effect, which is an advantage, because this song’s so amusing. I mean, the protagonist talks about admiring a friend just for that guy’s girlfriend. Though apparently, Jerry’s motive for taking the lead vocals was because Stan Campbell, who was then the lead vocalist for the album, left the band. But then, we had absolutely no idea Jerry, who is as talented as Brian Eno, could sing so well. He kept that quiet! So kudos to that!

The music video is also worth a watch. It begins with an alien, played by Jerry, who lands on Earth and enters a nightclub, meeting a sailor and flirting with the sailor’s bird. Kinda reminds me of The Man Who Fell To Earth and E.T.

As I close this part of the review, What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend, then The Specials’ final single before their 90s reformation, is an underrated classic. And speaking of the reformation, the band did it without Jerry! Apparently, he moved on to pursue a political career and follow Bob Geldof’s footsteps, and he’s been doing a good job. Though the Specials ain’t much the same without him. I guess all I can say now is;

Come back Jerry! Come back!

 

7. Too Much Too Young

Album: Specials

UK Chart Position: 1

I relate so much to Too Much Too Young! Okay, this may sound debatable considering that this ska punk anthem debates the subject of producing children and considering that I’ve dreamed of starting my own family, thinking how much my future kids would grow up to be like me.

But why do I relate to this song? When I left my teens, many of my friends were getting engaged and married and some of them starting families, meaning that they’d spend more time with their partners and new relatives; consequently, my time with them friends would be more limited. It’s kinda like; “yeah I know you got your family and that, but don’t’cha want to play with me no more?”. That’s the impression I get through that era of life and through the lyrics; “You’ve done too much / Much too young / Now you’re married with a kid / When you could be having fun with me”. On the subject of having babies (“Ain’t he cute? / No he ain’t / He’s just another burden / On the welfare state”), maybe I want to have children, but of course Terry does make clear that parents do need money to look after their children. With that said, it’s a bit harsh to say that the kid ain’t cute, I mean surely the vocalist must’ve found him at least a little cute. We also have to be mindful that whether to give birth should be a choice and if one wants that kid to be born, to plan ahead for the future.

In regards to the other lyrics; “you’re chained to the cooker making current buns for tea” – most certainly not a hobby of mine and what I personally view as a boring activity, and I think that’s how Terry views it too. “Ain’t you heard of the starving millions?” – totally agree with that statement as a lefty who opposes poverty of any kind. “Don’t wanna be rich / Don’t wanna be famous / But I’d really hate to have the same name as you” – that is so me!

6. Pressure Drop

Album: Today’s Specials

UK Chart Position: Didn’t Chart

Another cover from the reunion album. The Toots & The Maytals version may have been an enjoyable treat, but it took seven (well, technically four) guys from Coventry to create an upbeat and bouncy feel to the classic. The Clash, the latter which the Specials once supported, also attempted it, but dude, did you hear them awesome keyboard sounds?

The Specials owe so much to classic reggae.

5. Stereotype

Album: More Specials

UK Chart Position: 6

Stereotype refers to a bloke who enjoys going out to bars each night and let’s be honest has serious drinking problems and is a pure stereotype. It’s an obvious and dark view of the ordinary world. Of course, we have a lot of different stereotypes, but then those in relation to the same stereotype are not so much different, though the band doesn’t mean any offence when he say; “he doesn’t really exist”.

So according to this stereotype of the protagonist, “he spends his weekends with a load of blokes” – (nods head) a very sociable guy, “he forgets the punchline when he tells a joke” – very common for someone who’s drunk. “He wants to stay out, he don’t want to go home” – that is so me! But “til his nicotine fingers are stuck down his throat” – errrr.

During the second verse, due to his careless drinking, the protagonist catches a venereal disease due to what seems to be a violent sexual intercourse with his fiancee and he accuses her of causing it. Then he’s medically advised to take several weeks off beer, which he clearly hates.

After his cure, the protagonist obviously ain’t learned from his mistakes and goes back to heavy boozing again, which gets him into serious trouble with the cops.

Remember kids, if you ever plan to drink, drink wisely and mind how much you drink.

4. Nite Club

Album: Specials

UK Chart Position: 10 (b-side to A Message To You Rudy)

In my younger day,s I remember going to clubs as an excuse to see my old school friends again. I even thought about getting a job at one. But then of course, I find attending night clubs so overrated. I mean, think about it. You can’t socialise properly, the drinks are more expensive compared to taverns and I don’t find dancing with a drink in my hand that appealing.

Nite Klub empathises with my cynicism towards clubs. Terry points out the pointlessness of being in the club (“Is this the in place to be / what am I doing here”) and blames it for changing his sleeping hours (“I sleep all day / It’s the only way”) and ruining his social life. He also criticises the poor quality during the last verse (“I won’t dance in a club like this / the beer tastes just like p**s”).

But that’s not all. The guitarists make up for it as does Horace’s incredible bass solo. Horace is one of the most underrated bass players in music history. I’ve heard guitar solos, sax solos and brass solos, but a bass solo? Very unique!

3. Gangsters

UK Chart Position: 6

What do I need to say about the Specials’ first great hit? A splendid debut for the septet! No, really. For Jerry, Terry, Lynval, Neville, Horace, Roddy and Brad to get together, give birth to 2-Tone and to prove that songs don’t have to be light-hearted to contribute to the ska genre, it was worth the effort.

As ska punk goes, Gangsters is so well written. I mean listen to Horace’s opening bass riff, followed by Terry’s vocal melody. The song also questions the law (“said you’d been threatened by gangsters / now it’s you that’s threatening me”) and mocks the fascism (“Don’t interrupt while I’m Talking, or they’ll confiscate all your guitars”), which at the time begun, thanks to Thatcher.

2. Nelson Mandela

Album: In The Studio

UK Chart Position: 9

Following Nelson Mandela’s death at age 95, it made perfect sense that Free Nelson Mandela would be re-released to honour his memory.

Nelson Mandela refers to a guy who helped to make black people’s lives better, which is why he should be hailed a hero as is made clear through this dance classic. At the time, Nelson was in jail despite no wrong doing, hence why Stan is asking the government nicely to free the dude. The saddest thing is that racism still rages on and certain people especially the British First are still racially intolerant.

This is why I think more parties, carnivals and discos ought to play this song as it not only spreads awareness, but is also a beautifully dance-able tune.

 

Before I reveal the number one pick, here are some honourable mentions;

 

  1. Ghost Town

UK Chart Position: 1

And we’ve hit the jackpot. If you thought Michael Jackson’s Thriller was the scariest song in the world, then clearly, you ain’t heard Ghost Town. Not only is this masterpiece dead spooky, but it’s based based on the real life events that took place in Coventry; thanks to Thatcher, the economy was so screwed up that many places closed down, unemployment rose and the youth was neglected, hence why Coventry was referred to as a ‘Ghost Town’. It’s no joke. My mom was studying at a local college when it all happened. She recalls the times when she listened in to the Specials rehearsing the song.

Ghost Town is like the Specials’ Bohemian Rhapsody. Seriously, no other band could cover this one. If there was a contestant on the X-Factor attempting to cover Ghost Town, (s)he would be so rejected. Even I struggle to play it on guitar.

One important note; there are two versions of Ghost Town. I would advise you go for the extended one. It has Rico’s enduring trombone solo, which contributes so awesomely to the song’s dark tone. No matter how long it is, it never gets boring. Added to that, the guitars and Brad’s drum also add their haunting touch. The shorter version’s fine, I mean it does go with the splendid music video. But if you’re listening to the song on say the radio, you’ll want the extended one.

 

That concludes my personal top 11 list of songs by The Specials. Thank you for reading and feel free to comment.

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