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The Best Of Times... Podcast The Specials
John Doran , March 11th, 2019 07:16

Episode Two of The Best Of Times, brought to you by Lush and The Quietus, features Horace Panter and Terry Hall of The Specials talking to John Doran

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The Best Of Times… is a podcast series brought to you by Lush and the Quietus, presented by tQ Editor and Co-Founder, John Doran, in which he talks to people about the highest and lowest points of their career to date and how this has shaped who they are as an artist today. In Episode Two he talks to Horace Panter and Terry Hall of The Specials about the chaos of early gigs, how strippers saved The Clash in Glasgow, their wishes for Jerry Dammers and the difficulty of being creative as a bipolar person.

The Specials formed in Coventry in 1977 and are often typified as a ska revival or two tone band, which probably does them a disservice given their breadth of sound, ambition and importance in pop culture in general. It’s true that they did latch on to ska and rocksteady after the fact very early in their career but from the outset the urgency of punk was also a huge influence. (This can perhaps also be heard in the mix of working class anger, a readiness to tackle social issues and a relatively sophisticated political outlook. The band were energised by Rock Against Racism movement and had close links with The Clash.)

Things happened very quickly for the racially mixed group, with their debut single 'Gangsters' (a reworked cover of Prince Buster’s 'Al Capone') scoring them a top ten hit in the summer of 1979. The band claimed they were caught in a kind of fashion feedback loop with their fans, the various tribes who came to see their gigs, which played an influence on their own style leading, in time, to a unique dress code: a sort of Jamaican rude boy, 60s mod, punk hybrid that also shared its name with their record label, 2 Tone.

The hits came thick and fast with 'A Message To You Rudy', 'Rat Race', 'Do Nothing' and 'Stereotype' hitting the top ten and 'Too Much Too Young' getting to number one. A second album, More Specials, quickly followed the first, showcasing a lot more influences than just ska and rocksteady, while also perhaps revealing disagreements within their ranks over exactly where the group should be travelling. These disagreements came to the head when arguably their most ambitious single to date, 'Ghost Town', was at number one and the band split up, backstage after a Top Of The Pops performance in 1981. The Specials have carried on in a few different guises intermittently since then but the newest iteration of the group, around the core of Horace Panter, Terry Hall and Lynval Golding has recently released the excellent Encore album, which shows them once again fighting at full strength... not that everyone is delighted by their return.

Recently, I had good reason to nearly choke on my deeply unsatisfying gluten, wheat and oat free breakfast cereal while scrolling through Twitter. My eye had been caught by a provocative story claiming the British charts had gone to hell in a handcart. The journalist, presumably much younger than me and unable to remember how bad the albums charts had been during, say, a random week in 1986 or 1993, set out their stall by lambasting the presence of Busted in the top three. Fair enough. It’s anachronistic at best and a punch in the face of musical decency by Iron Man at worst, when you stop to think about it. Then the writer expressed their dismay at the high placing of the OST for The Greatest Showman to which I can only say: solidarity, it’s hard to even begin to understand the popularity of this badly rendered sonic blancmange. He also poured scorn on the presence of DJ Fredo (who?) and Ian Brown (ouch). So just as this writer and I are about to walk hand in hand off into the sunset unified by our deep accord on all things musical, they have to go and spoil everything.

In this blistering broadside on the apparent failure of the English album charts for the first time since their inception in 1956, one of the prime pieces of evidence presented is that The Specials have scored a number one album with Encore. The one line of distaste for this occurrence that the writer can muster runs like this: “The Specials have reunited and are heading off on a major tour, which probably means nothing to you, but accounts for your uncle wiping dust off his pork pie hat again and playing their album on repeat in the car.”

While I have some sympathy for thirty something writers pretending to be twenty something writers so they can impress teenagers with their snark - it’s a skill! Don’t knock it! - I personally feel like we need The Specials now more than ever. Now, I know this is the kind of statement that usually has the youth obsessed poptimist critical majority, choking in anger but I’m not suggesting that there’s an absence of racially mixed groups in the charts, or even that there’s an absence of songs tackling the many problems of 2019 in a socially realist manner. (Although, I pity anyone who fancies pitting Joy As An Act Of Resistance by student union disco rock band Idles against Encore by The Specials. The former seems like lightweight, if well intentioned, posturing to me by comparison, with less first hand experience of the issues they sing about.)

The reason we need The Specials firing on full power in 2019 is exactly because they appeal to an older listener. The notional uncle who has all but forgotten his youth is the problem this country faces at the moment - not the already left leaning, socially conscious Idles fan. It is the notional uncle who is currently drifting into political extremism, egged on by hucksters at the far right and far left; it is the notional uncle who has voted en masse for Brexit or who is turning a blind eye to the Lexit lie; it is the notional uncle, hyped up by talk radio, empowered by blue top tabloids, given justification by fake digital news, once more finding community in hate mongering Facebook groups, who is helping to dismantle the idea of the UK as an equitable society.

I had the pleasure of running into well-preserved, well-dressed gentleman of a certain age, John Robb at the weekend and we both admitted to no little amount of nervousness at the proximity of the Brexit deadline on March 29. However, we both feel anger more keenly than nervousness because it’s our own generations and those older than us that have caused this mess. No wonder those younger, feel so much antipathy towards us and the boomers. Sure things are changing but simply not fast enough. If there were a second referendum tomorrow, the vote would almost certainly flip, with 54% voting stay and only 46% voting leave. Some of this is due to a change of heart as ever more businesses quit these shores, the amazing work done by some journalists reveals the full extent to which we have been lied to and the reality of how ill-prepared we are becomes unignorable. But some of this change is undeniably down to natural demographic progression. As older, more conservative elders die off and ever more idealistic young people reach voting age, the political makeup of this country continues to shift in what I have no problem defining as the right direction.

But as regards Brexit, it’s too little, too late. For the massive rifts that have gaped open in this country dividing up communities along strange new lines to ever stand a chance of healing, then we need more people than ever before - especially the middle aged and elderly - to reconnect with the idealism of their youth and to reject extremism and hateful thinking of all stripes. In every village, town or city in the UK are a bunch of notional uncles who have lost their youthful optimism and become embittered and prey to hateful thinking. And it is because of them primarily that we need The Specials and their uncompromising social and political message now more than ever.

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