A hot, lazy afternoon on a Jamaican beach; ska classic A Message To You Rudy playing slowly along in the background, cheerily telling the youngsters of today to buck up their ideas. The beat chugging along like a little steam train. That’s how 1979 album Specials by The Specials opens. It’s relaxed. It’s sunny. Ahh, it’s great.
Suddenly the pace quickens. Do The Dog is fast. It’s loud. It’s punky, but somehow dancey. We’re not in Jamaica any more – we’re in England, with its mods, rockers, hippies, skinheads and National Front. Even the accent has changed.
These two opening songs will define the sound of the album. A fantastic blend of ska and punk, the Specials create their own style. It’s ska with a kick. Guitar solos, bouncy rhythms, changes of pace, aggressive punky shouting, slow pop chorusses – it’s all in there. There is a great mixture of moods too – from slow and relaxed to fast and tense; dark and serious to light-hearted and fun.
The album was written during and just after the 1978-79 Winter of Discontent, at a time of rising unemployment and high inflation. The people’s dissatisfaction is captured wonderfully in the bitter singing style and angry lyrics, which provide an excellent social commentary of the time. Nite Klub makes reference to the high unemployment while Concrete Jungle describes the fear of the dangerous city streets after dark. Several song discuss matters of social conflict and comment on political problems. Too Much Too Young releases a vicious attack on young mums with its blunt and scathing lyrics “Ain’t he cute? No he ain’t. He’s just another burden on the welfare state.”. Likewise Stupid Marriage blasts young families through the strange setting of a trial scene. Despite the ex-boyfriend being in the docks, the lyrics heavily lay the blame on the woman, who left the accused and trapped her new man into a loveless marriage with an unwanted child.
The darkness of the lyrics is counterbalanced by the upbeat bounce in the music; the grim British weather is given a little Jamaican sunshine; the moaning English grump is given a little Caribbean cheer. Little Beach is a great example – one the liveliest songs on the record, it’s lyrics are perhaps the bleakest “And you think it’s about time that you died, and I agree, so you decide on suicide”. It’s this mixture that makes the album work, and they get the recipe just right.