The Specials are a British ska revival band from Coventry who first formed in 1977. They are easily the most significant band of the movement, which was also known as 2tone. named after the label formed by the band’s keyboardist Jerry Dahmers. The Specials were known for their heavy political stance, having a racially diverse line-up with many of their songs tackling issues that were very crucial in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. After a couple of early line-up changes, in addition to Dahmers the first stable of personnel consisted of two vocalists Terry Hall and Neville Staple, guitarists Lynval Golding and Roddy Radiation, bassist Horace Panter, drummer John Bradbury and two horn players, Dick Cuthell and Rico Rodriguez.
The band very quickly got off to a successful start with their debut single “Gangsters” reaching the top ten. Over a two-year period, they managed to score seven top ten singles from 1979 to 1981, in addition to two successful full-length albums. Hall, Staple and Golding all left in 1981 to form Fun Boy Three, after which the remaining members continued as Special AKA. In 1984 they issued a new full length album titled In the Studio which featured the top ten hit “(Free) Nelson Mandela.” Dahmers quit soon after this to pursue political activism.
The Specials reformed in 1993 and released two more albums before 1998 when they once again entered a period of inactivity. Ten years later in 2008 The Specials announced that they would once again be touring but without Dahmers. Since then, they have continued to tour with several other members, including Staple, having since left. Bradbury died in 2015. In 2019 they released their long-awaited comeback album titled Encore. Here is a list of our favorite Specials songs.
# 10 – (Free) Nelson Mandela
This track is taken from the band’s third album In the Studio which was their first to be released under the name Special AKA. Written by Dahmers and featuring vocals by Stan Campbell it was written as a plea to free the anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela from prison which made it very politically and culturally significant. It reached number nine in the UK singles chart and was re-released in 2013 after Mandela’s death where it reached number ninety-six.
# 9 – Blank Expression
Here we have an early track from the band’s self-titled debut album The Specials released in 1979. This album is seen as defining record of the ska revival movement. It was produced by none other than Elvis Costello and was a record that captured the frustration and anger felt by much of Britain’s youth in a way that very few other records did. It was a mix of original material and cover versions and has left a much celebrated and long-lasting legacy.
# 8 – A Message to you Rudi
This track was the lead single from the first album and is actually a cover of a 1967 song by Dandy Livingstone. The track has also been covered by a wide variety of others artists. However, this version is easily the most famous, which has led many to incorrectly believe that it is an original Specials song. This is likely due to the fact that it was much more commercially successful reaching number ten on the UK charts.
# 7 -Too Much Too Young
Here is yet another track from the first album that takes a rather scathing look at women who have children at a young age. Even though it is an original song, parts of it are based on a song by Lloyd Charmers titled “Birth Control” which was released in 1969. It does not so much attack the idea of having a child at a young age as much as the irresponsibility which often results in it. The standout line is most definitely “Ain’t you heard of the starving millions? Ain’t you heard of contraception?”
# 6 – International Jet Set
Next is a song from the band’s second album More Specials released in 1980. This track is without a doubt one of their most dark and experimental. The lyrics explore the psychosis of an individual who is having a nervous breakdown whilst on board an airplane before being told that the plane is about to crash. There has been much speculation as to the true meaning of the song, with one popular opinion being that it is a metaphor for what was then the current state of the world.
# 5 – Ghost Town
At the surprising position of number five is the band’s biggest song which was released as a single in 1981. It reached number one in the UK for three weeks and spent ten weeks in total in the top forty. It was a very poignant song at the time of its release, being about urban decay, unemployment and inner city violence, which made it very appropriate when it coincided with the riots that where occurring across several of Britain’s biggest cities.
# 4 – Gangsters
Continuing with our Specials songs list, we turn to the band’s first ever single released in 1979. Upon its initial release only 5000 copies were distributed by the fledgling 2tone label where it was included on a split with label mates The Selecter. When it was given a wider release a few months later it reached number six in the UK charts, gaining the band success very early on. BBC radio DJ John Peel gave the track its first bit of airplay, where he was so impressed, he also played The Selecter’s side as well.
# 3 – Friday Night, Saturday Morning
Here is the B-side to “Ghost Town” which talks about something that many of us can relate to (although obviously not at the minute) namely the drunken night out and the aftereffects that come with it. It is one of the band’s less fired up tracks and is more mellow in its tone and style. It will always be a timeless song because the subject matter will probably never be irrelevant! Although it was written four decades ago, young people today can still relate to it.
# 2 – Rat Race
At the number two spot is a single released in 1980. It was yet another successful release reaching number five. The song is something of an anti-student number. The song criticizes middle class people who go to university to mainly just drink and party whilst knowing that their rich parents will be able to get them a job at the end of it, whilst so many of the working class youth who were unemployed did not have that opportunity.
# 1 – Why?
At the top spot is one of two B-sides to “Ghost Town,” the other being “Friday Night, Saturday Morning.” The song is anti-racist track that was written by guitarist Lynval Golding after he was the victim of a racially motivated attack which left him with broken ribs. Like many of the band’s songs, it was very topical at the time with racist movements such as the National Front and the British movement, both of which are addressed in the song, gaining a strong following.