Noise An Arts Blog

We Chase You Out the Dancehall: Anti-racist ska legends The Specials play Baltimore

City Paper

Last April, a photo made the rounds of a punkish-looking woman named Saffiyah Khan as she smiled at a member of the far-right, very-white English Defense League at one of its rallies in the city of Birmingham, U.K. The photo was taken moments after Khan decided to intervene in a circle of howling men that had formed around Saira Zafar, a fellow Brummie, as locals are known, who wears the hijab.

Amusement, pity, and easy superiority are a few of the expressions Khan appeared to beam down at that angry little man. Her image went viral at the same moment Pepsi spectacularly failed its own challenge to appropriate an image of resistance, this one of Ieshia Evans as she stood in the middle of a street in Baton Rouge with riot police poised to arrest her. Like Evans' picture, the one of Khan is sure to be treasured for a long time as a document of the public courage demonstrated by women of color during a high tide of white supremacy in the English-speaking world.

In another photo, taken moments later, Khan is still smiling as she's being led away from the confrontation by police officers. Enough of her T-shirt is visible to reveal a stripe of black-and-white checkerboard, like the stripe that rings one of the constables' hats, and the name of a band from the nearby city of Coventry: The Specials. Thirty-five years have passed since The Specials made their best-known recordings, and yet there they were across the Internet, on the body that Saffiyah Khan risked.

It would be dumb to make too much of this. Maybe the rest of Khan's T-shirts were in the laundry that day. Even if they weren't, the Specials made a certain amount of sense as an emblem on a suit of armor—a Sublime hoodie wouldn't have been the same.

Yet, the Specials were—are; they've regrouped through the years for shows like the one at Soundstage on June 22nd —just a band. Over the last several decades, though, they've come to represent something much larger: the promise of multiracial youth culture, and even a vision of Britain itself as it might be, where people of different races are as equitably integrated as squares on a chessboard. Today, this may sound no different from the sentiment of Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney's infamously vapid 'Ebony and Ivory,' a song released one year after the original Specials broke-up in 1981. But the Specials never had the luxury of talking down to the masses from ebony and ivory towers of pop stardom. They took their music to the same streets prowled by the National Front, the neo-fascist movement eager to buzz as many working-class white heads as it could lay its hands on at the end of the 1970s.

These were years of routine attacks like the one recounted by the Specials' Jamaican-born Lynval Golding, jumped by a skinhead after a London gig, on the great B-side 'Why?' Golding addresses his assailant: "You're too scared to make a speech during the light/ Without a thousand police protecting your rights/ To threaten and abuse, incite or fight/ But who will protect me from you in the night?"

Jamaican ska music had been popular in the U.K. among working-class white and black youth alike at the end of the '60s. As Don Letts' recent BBC documentary, "The Story of Skinhead," recalls vividly, the original skinhead movement was multiracial and infatuated with black music, not white nationalism. By the time punk detonated in 1976-77, ska's popularity had faded in the parade of intervening movements and accompanying tribal subcultures, from roots reggae and its Natty Dreads to the early metalheads and dub's mad scientist DJs carting homemade sound systems from to club to club.

The Specials handled the speed and cynicism of punk like defibrillator paddles, reviving ska into something backward- and forward-looking at the same time, danceable and packed with commentary drawn from lived experience. "For black kids, the punk attitude was something that infected us and we understood where that anger was coming from," the Specials' vocalist Neville Staple later wrote in his memoir. "After all, if white kids' lives were shit, ours were doubly shit."

In the Jamaica of Staple's youth, ska had been "like a musical newspaper," he remembered, different in tone from the prophesies and spiritual themes of roots reggae (hear the difference in the Wailers' 1964 debut single 'Simmer Down' and a song like Bob Marley's 1977 'Exodus,' for example). The Specials continued ska's journalistic tradition, reporting on the dreariness of everyday life as seen not from Kingston or even hip, cosmopolitan London, but Coventry—a city in the middle of England that had been bombed to shit by the Luftwaffe and grew a large population of Caribbean immigrants and their families in the decades after the war. From the social mixing of Coventry's youth centers and dancehalls, the original Specials emerged as a team of two black men and five white, a rare combination for a group in those days that's hardly less so now.

They sang about going out on Friday night and coming home on Saturday morning. Spending all your money at the club when "there's no work to do." Realizing your city is a "ghost town" with no scene, where "all the clubs have been closed down" because there's "too much fighting on the dance floor." The first two tracks of their Elvis Costello-produced debut album saw them step in one move from a clean-edged, breezy cover of Dandy Livingstone's 'A Message to You Rudy' to the blistering 'Do the Dog,' a fatwa handed down to all the rival tribes at once: "All you punks and all you teds/ National Front and Natty Dreads/ Mods rockers hippies and skinheads/ Keep on fighting 'til you're dead."

Put in more familiar terms, it was The Specials versus y'all whores.

Their youth-targeted appeals for racial compassion, like 'It's Up to You' and 'Doesn't Make It Alright,' just broadcasted to everyone else what the Specials knew from their own experience: that black and white kids could find common ground in music, and then work from there. This asked a lot more of black British kids, of course, as pleas for
"unity" always demand serious follow-up questions. The majority of the Specials' fans were white, and they knew it.

Still, at a historical moment when both the U.S. and the U.K. were beginning long periods of right-wing rule, the Specials were one of a very few pop cultural voices telling young people to band together in rejection of the racism that marched openly in the streets and covertly as national policy. The regimes of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher would go on to visit a great deal of harm to the prospects for working class interracial solidarity, fissures still present in our countries' politics today. The Specials were hardly the era's most stridently political group, but like none of their contemporaries they attempted to carve out a space for desegregated youth culture—including the physical space of the dance floor in places like Coventry, not just a space on record store shelves for a group with multiracial appeal. They were not theorizers, but they modeled an alternative. They forced a lot of (mostly white) kids to ask themselves, Why not? Which, however insufficient it may seem in retrospect, was a start worth getting to for a lot of people.

And importantly, the Specials looked great doing it.

They dressed beautifully: sharp suits inspired in equal measure by the Jamaican rudeboys and British mods. "Each day I walk along this lonely street/Trying to find, find a future," Golding sings on 1980's 'Do Nothing,' but at least the shoes on his feet are brand new, because "fashion is my only culture." In photos, the Specials look as if in another era they could have been mobsters or secrets agents—smooth types that had long fascinated Jamaican musicians, just as Tony Montana and the Corleone family would capture the imaginations of a generation of rappers. They seemed to be a band of characters, like the rockabilly-obsessed Roddy Byers (aka "Roddy Radiation"), who could have stepped out of Tupelo, Mississippi, or Hampden, Baltimore; keyboardist and label empresario Jerry Dammers, with his permanent shades and missing front teeth; and white singer Terry Hall, an arresting presence even as he looked bored most of the time, melancholy and smooth-faced "like a character out of 'The Great Gatsby,'" as Staple described him.

And then there was Staple himself, an ex-burglar who sang and toasted, a Jamaican kind of chant-singing that influenced rap. To Hall's deadpan aspect Staple played an exuberant, Flav-like hype man, charged from head to toe with a current of electricity he refused to let ground. When the Specials appeared on "Saturday Night Live" to perform their noirish first single 'Gangsters,' Staple arrived on stage waving a replica tommy gun around like a rudeboy Looney Toon. "Original rude boy/ Never am I coy," bragged the Trini-descended Malik Taylor/Phife Dawg (RIP), but "Original Rude Boy" is the actual title of Staple's memoir (uncoy excerpt: "Throughout my misspent youth, I just have to say that me, women, and making babies happened as easily as falling off a log.")

Early on, at least, The Specials were a boys' band, whether the boys were rude or just dreamed of being that way. The juvenile misogyny of songs like 'Little Bitch' and 'Too Much Too Young' ("You've done too much/ Much too young/ Now you're married with a kid/ When you could be having fun with me") was a bad, bro-y look at the time and doesn't look any better today. With the 2 Tone label founded by Dammers, however, they helped create room for new voices and new messages in pop that extended the conversation proposed by the ska revival to include gender as well as race.

The Selecter—led by Pauline Black, London-born to a Nigerian father and Jewish mother—would record the purest distillation of the ska revival sound on their 1980 album "Too Much Pressure," but the group's "6:1 black:white ratio fronted by a woman singer," Black wrote in her terrific memoir "Black by Design," became a "major obstacle" once they moved to a major label. And that was after the abundant stresses of the 2 Tone years: skinheads invading concerts to sieg heil, the frat-like mentality of male bandmates chasing hook-ups on the road, etc.

The all-woman Bodysnatchers took dead aim at domestic entrapment on the single 'Easy Life' and, in another of the just four songs they recorded before disbanding, challenged sexism in the ska scene head-on with 'Ruder Than You,' a warning about "rudegirls"—"You better watch out/ Rude girls/ Now there's more of us about." When the Specials reorganized after their number-one hit 'Ghost Town,' the Bodysnatchers' singer, Rhoda Dakar, joined the group for a final album and stunning singles like 'War Crimes,' about the 1982 carpet bombing of Beirut, 'The Boiler,' about rape, and the anti-apartheid anthem 'Free Nelson Mandela.' In these years before the arrival of Sade and the British R&B divas of the 1990s, the ska revival was a rare site of Black British women's voices in pop. Dakar, who guest DJ'd a handful of dates as opener for the Specials last year, is sadly not along for this year's American tour.

On YouTube, there's footage of a Specials gig from 1979 that catches the group at the height of its live energy, pounding back-to-back covers of late '60s ska favorites in an amphetamined medley they called 'Skinhead Symphony.' First comes the Pioneers' 'Long Shot Kick the Bucket,' a trackside dispatch from a horse race at Jamaica's Caymanas Park, and then Symarip's 'Skinhead Moonstomp,' which imagines an entire hall of shaven-headed youths rocketed to a lunar dance floor.

By the time 'Skinhead Moonstomp' starts, the band is approaching liftoff. A teenage girl with a mod haircut jumps on stage and starts dancing. Terry Hall beans his tambourine at someone rowdy in the crowd (a bouncer? a skinhead?). Drummer John Bradbury, who became the first member of the group to pass away, in 2015, is playing so hard his hand is stinging from sweat. A few more kids rush the stage, then a few dozen, and for about a minute the band and the audience are one, with the kids pressed up against Hall, Golding, and Staple—the Specials and the kids about to topple over the edge of the stage as the tempo builds and builds to a point of resolution. And then they all walk away.

The Specials' gig on June 22nd will likely be more subdued than that, but we shouldn't put anything past them. Of the many geezer-revival acts farting through Baltimore this summer, this will not be the one to miss. It's been decades since Lynval Golding first sang, on 'Why?': "We don't need no British movement/ Nor the Ku Klux Klan/ Nor the National Front," but here we are, in times that are far worse than rude.

The Specials tried to tell us. The song 'Why?' doesn't just pose a question—"Why did you try to hurt me?"—to the racist who attacked Golding and it doesn't stop at conversation either: It's about intervention and resistance, like what Saffiyah Khan did in Birmingham and what many brave people are doing in this country every day, like Rick Best and Taliesin Myrrdin Namkai-Meche in Portland.

Neville Staple doesn't toast, "Ebony and ivory, Live together in perfect harmony/ Side by side on my piano keyboard/ Oh Lord, why don't we?" He says, "We chase you out the dancehall/ We chase you out the door/ Cause we can't take no more of this at all/ Cause we can't take no more of this at all."

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