Like many of the post-punk U.K. ska bands, The Specials were serious fans of the late Cecil Bustamente Campbell, aka Prince Buster, one of Jamaican music’s godfathers. They covered his “Too Hot” on their debut, “Enjoy Yourself” on their follow-up; their cohorts Madness made his “One Step Beyond” their signature. Now, the Specials have overhauled Prince Buster’s mid-Sixties spoken word single “Ten Commandments of Man.” A battle-of-the-sexes routine, the original addresses a woman as if she were property, instructing that she obey the singer “In my every whim and fancy/Seven days a week and twice on Sundays,” and decreeing “Thou shalt not drink nor smoke/Or use profane language” and “Thou shalt not provoke me to anger/Or my wrath will descend upon you heavily.”
While there’s clearly comic intent — and a pointed mid-Sixties answer record by “Princess Buster” noted “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” – the original remains noxious comedy, especially by modern standards.
On their remake, the Specials replace the original backing track with the riddim from Dawn Penn’s dancehall smash “You Don’t Love Me (No, No, No).” Then they hand the mic to Birmingham activist Saffiyah Kahn, a 21-year-old activist whose image went viral when she was photographed standing off against a leader of the far-right, anti-Islamic English Defence League in 2017 — not incidently, while she was wearing a Specials t-shirt.
“Thou shalt not listen to Prince Buster or any other man offering kindly advice in matters of my own conduct,” she begins, continuing to indict catcallers, “pseudo-intellectuals on the internet,” and other clods buying into sexist ideology. When Khan declares “Thou shalt not tell a girl she deserved it because her skirt was too short,” she echoes an earlier Specials project: the harrowing 1982 narrative “The Boiler,” recorded by the group with Rhoda Dakar. [trigger warning: this is disturbing material]
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The new single — from the forthcoming Specials LP Encore, due tomorrow — shows a band whose political commitment apparently hasn’t dimmed a watt.