Provincial cities often tend to define themselves more in competition with their nearest metropolitan neighbour than engaging in the futile exercise of trying to out-London London; perhaps the lengthy rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester is the most famous example, with these twin titans of 19th century industry extending their pissing contest well beyond industrial decline and into the arena of pop culture. The football field has long been an outlet for old intercity enmities, with the weighing scales of North-Western dominance sometimes falling in favour of Liverpool FC and sometimes Manchester United; elsewhere, the long shadow cast by The Beatles has always been a thorn in Manchester’s side, though post-Beatles notables like Joy Division, The Smiths, The Stone Roses and Oasis have made enough inroads into the public consciousness to redress the balance, if only temporarily. Beyond the North, what of the Midlands? Birmingham and its Black Country satellites is the behemoth few have ever challenged. The Moody Blues, The Move, Slade, Black Sabbath, half of Led Zeppelin, ELO…no wonder the rest have always struggled to get a look in. However, there was a very brief period at the turn of the 80s when Coventry outshone Brum.
Divided from its overbearing neighbour by the greenbelt of the Meriden Gap, Coventry’s main claim to fame for centuries was as a renowned medieval showpiece city ala York; and then came the Blitz. Rather than demolish great swathes of a historic city centre, post-war town-planners were provided with a clean slate thanks to the Luftwaffe, and a familiar ‘concrete jungle’ facelift was gradually unveiled. The once-prosperous motor industry’s slide into stagnation by the late 70s became emblematic of Coventry’s downturn, and while high unemployment coupled with racial tensions (the city saw large immigration from Asia and the Caribbean in the 50s and 60s) may have made life hard for its citizens, these conditions also provided the perfect breeding ground for a short-lived musical revolution that put Coventry at the centre of the pop map.
The sad death of Specials frontman Terry Hall this week was received with a wave of genuine sadness from people of a certain age, those old enough to remember when his band were the most important post-Punk act in the country; not only did The Specials manage the impressive feat of achieving both critical acclaim and commercial success, but the name of the record label the band established to ensure their independence – 2 Tone – also gave its name to an entire scene that thrived around them, the first scene for kids too young for Punk. They enjoyed two chart-topping singles and maintained their credibility throughout, spurning the silly inverted snobbery of The Clash by regularly appearing on ‘Top of the Pops’ and never once being accused of the heinous crime of ‘selling out’. Moreover, with the exception of The Equals a decade earlier, The Specials were the first notable mixed-race British band to break through, successfully merging the distinctive sounds of the two musical cultures the members of the band had inherited, musical cultures that had served to bring the members together.
The black members of The Specials had been raised on a diet of Jamaican Ska imported to these shores by first-generation West Indian immigrants; but the white members of the band had received exposure too. The skinheads of the early 70s may have drifted further to the Right as the decade progressed, but Ska and Reggae constituted their original soundtrack, uniting black and white at a time when racial unrest – exacerbated by the contemporaneous emergence of the National Front – was spawning an exceedingly unpleasant climate. Punk bands like Sham 69 effectively split due to the far-Right shit-stirrers they inadvertently attracted to their gigs, and the descent of one Punk strand into the unlistenable and politically dubious ghetto called Oi! meant the invigorating marriage of recognisably black sounds with the same energy (and socially-conscious lyrical content) that had fuelled Punk was a potentially combustible mix at the end of the 70s. Happily, the melting pot produced pure gold, and the nation’s singles-buyers responded positively to the new hybrid from the second half of 1979 onwards. The Specials’ ‘Top of the Pops’ debut saw them performing ‘Gangsters’, which refitted Ska legend Prince Buster’s track ‘Al Capone’ with a distinctly cutting-edge engine; so swift was the sound’s rise up the charts that when The Specials returned to TOTP to promote their second single, ‘A Message to You, Rudy’, they were joined on the same show by another 2 Tone act, The Selecter, and a band whose debut single had also been released on the same label, Madness. It was hard not to conclude that here was a scene that was set to carry British pop into the 80s and beyond.
1980 was the real year of 2 Tone, even if – as had happened before with Psychedelia and would happen again with the New Romantics – it was all over and done with in the blink of an eye. Madness opened the first TOTP of the decade performing ‘My Girl’, and barely a month had passed before The Specials achieved their first No.1 single with ‘Too Much Too Young’, an uncompromising ditty about teenage pregnancy that limited its Radio 1 airplay. Birmingham’s The Beat were another band bearing the 2 Tone sound and they achieved several hits throughout the year, whilst Madness were already in the process of becoming a hit machine that would end up transcending and outliving the scene that bore them. But it was The Specials who remained the most interesting and intriguing act of the lot; the hit singles continued – indeed, every single the band released during their original incarnation reached the Top 10 – and they proved their value with the release of their second album, ‘More Specials’, one of those albums that grows richer the further we travel from the moment of its arrival. In fact, it was actually greeted with a degree of bewilderment at the time.
A brilliantly eclectic and adventurous shift away from the formula, ‘More Specials’ sowed the seeds of the band’s demise and exposed the different directions its creative forces were heading in. Keyboard player and founder Jerry Dammers was delving into the kind of movie soundtracks that would later provide the sampled roots of the 90s ‘Trip Hop’ scene as well as exhibiting a fondness for what would eventually be labelled ‘Lounge-core’; the rest of the band were not so enthusiastic. The Specials could have imploded there and then, right at the point when the 2 Tone craze had peaked, but they kept their cool long enough to deliver their masterpiece the following summer, bowing out with a single that rightly ranks as one of the finest slices of pop-as-social-comment ever committed to vinyl, ‘Ghost Town’.
A song such as ‘Ghost Town’ reaching No.1 right at the very moment when rioting was incinerating many of Britain’s inner cities is as retrospectively a mind-boggling occurrence as Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ providing the nation with its unlikely Xmas chart-topper in 1979; but it happened. In some respects, there was nowhere for The Specials to go after that and they finally splintered into both The Special AKA and The Fun Boy Three. Terry Hall was the frontman of the latter, dispensing with the sharp suit that had been the sartorial trademark of The Specials and allowing his cropped thatch (another trademark) to grow a little. The Fun Boy Three were TOTP regulars for a good couple of years and then they too split. Hall’s amusingly glum countenance and deadpan delivery were less visible in the charts thereafter, though he hovered on the maverick fringes for a decade or two before the inevitable Specials reunion and accompanying sell-out tours. Unlike many such enterprises, however, the reunion was regarded as something far more than just another nostalgic cash-cow for hard-up middle-aged musicians. The Specials had always been smarter than the usual music biz mentality, and they always will be.
© The Editor