When the Specials’ Jerry Dammers’ launched the 2 Tone label in Britain in 1979, his group was more than just a ska revival band with good taste in covers — they were a multi-racial spearhead of a post-punk movement combatting skinhead racism (fueled by far-right groups like the National Front) and the craven business-first classism of the Thatcher government. Now, with racist nationalism on the rise amidst the Brexit debacle, the Special’s third album — 38 years since the last one, More Specials — is well timed. As frontman Terry Hall puts it, the band remain “horribly relevant.”
On this iteration, their numbers have been winnowed significantly: co-founder/songwriter Dammers and singer Neville Staple are out of the picture; drummer John Bradbury and trombonist Rico Rodriguez died within months of each other in 2015. But with signpost singers Terry Hall and Lynval Golding in place, and Horace Panter holding down the bass lines, the classic sound is fairly intact, as is the spirit. The latter seems more to the point, as the set opens with stylistic curveballs. A cover of “Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys,” an Eddie Grant funk-rock jam, slyly echoes Booket T. and the MGs, Sly and the Family Stone and Talking Heads circa Stop Making Sense, kindred mixed-race outfits all. “B.L.M.” works a similar groove, as Golding charts a family history from Jamaica to England, with the so-called Windrush generation of post-war immigrant worker, and then to the U.S., suffering racist disrespect every step of the way.
“Vote For Me” finally rewinds the old sound, dressing down would-be leaders whose “politics bore us to tears” over a rub-a-dub jam recalling the band’s swansong Number One hit “Ghosttown,” with a trombone outro paying homage to Rodriguez. The band was built on ska covers, and “Blam Blam Fever” revisits the 1960s single by the Valentines, recorded for pioneering Jamaican producer Sonia Pottinger. Here, its gun culture lament gets updated for a new era: “What we gonna do/about Amendment number 2,” asks Hall over an irresistible rocksteady bounce; “we think it is obscene/you can buy AR-15.” A cha-cha-cha version of “The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum” finds the 1984 single by Specials offshoot Fun Boy Three as fitting a metaphor as ever. Considering Dammers’ absence, the writing is impressive, although hooks could be sharper, and lyrics occasionally stumble. Even if “Breaking Point” is writing its way purposefully into the head of a transphobe, the tossed-off “shemale” reference in a rundown of modern-day stressors feels gratuitous at best.
As it happens, the album’s highlight is a cover, and the sole track voiced by a guest. “10 Commandments” revisits “Ten Commandments of Man,” the spoken word hit by the late Jamaican legend Prince Buster, whose music the band built their sound on back in the day (see their covers of “Too Hot” and “Enjoy Yourself”). Here, the original’s noxious battle-of-the-sexes comedy is flipped by Saffiyah Khan, a 21-year-old activist whose image went viral when she was photographed standing off against a leader of the anti-Islamic English Defence League at a 2017 rally. Denouncing catcallers and “pseudo-intellectuals on the internet,” Khan’s also echoes the harrowing 1982 rape narrative “The Boiler,” another Specials side project, recorded by the group with Rhoda Dakar and banned by the BBC at the time. “Thou shalt not tell a girl she deserved it because her skirt was too short,” declares Khan, while the band jams on the riddim from Dawn Penn’s “You Don’t Love Me (No, No, No),” a cornerstone of Jamaican dancehall history, and a declaration of female self-determination in its own right. The cover is the best sort of revival: old meeting new on equal footing, using the past as a springboard to an improved, remixed future.