All the clubs have been closed down.
This place (town) is coming like a ghost town,
Bands won't play no more, too much fighting on the dance floor.
The band that would become the Specials was formed as the Automatics in 1977 in Coventry, England. They would rename themselves as the Coventry Automatics, then the Special AKA, and finally the Specials in 1978.
Leading members of Britain's second-wave Ska revival, their sound - popularly known as 2 Tone - was a combination of danceable ska and energetic Punk Rock, popular in Britain at the time. Their most recognised, seven-man line-up consisted of Terry Hall (vocals), Neville Staple (vocals, toasting), Jerry Dammers (organ, main songwriter), Roddy Byers (lead guitar), Lynval Golding (rhythm guitar, vocals), Horace Panter (bass guitar) and John Bradbury (drums). Horn players Rico Rodriguez (trombone) and Dick Cuthell (trumpet, cornet, and flugelhorn) were included as honourary members during their late-seventies heyday.
Dammers was undoubtedly the driving force behind the band and perhaps even the entire 2 Tone movement. As one of the founders of 2 Tone Records, Dammers provided a springboard for many aspiring ska groups thanks to the 2 Tone policy of contracting an artist for one single with no obligation to produce further records for the label. Bands who benefitted from these unconventional arrangements included Madness and The Beat, both of whom released successful debut singles under the 2 Tone label before moving on to different companies.
Popular in their day, many of their lyrics were socially and politically conscious. Their number-one hits, "Too Much Too Young" and "Ghost Town," encouraged contraception and attacked the Thatcher government for its role in creating unemployment respectively. Dammers was also strongly anti-racist and wanted to use his music to promote racial harmony and attack the National Front. The music itself was generally standard ska fare, characterised by syncopated guitar chops, energetic Hammond organ accompaniments, and reasonably simple horn arrangements; Rodriguez had played with several first-wave ska artists in Jamaica before he moved to the UK. As frontman, Hall had a sarcastic, expressionless delivery which contrasted with Staple's energetic, wacky toasting (scat-style chanting or talking over the music).
The band released two albums (The Specials and More Specials) and seven consecutive top ten singles before breaking up in 1981 when Hall, Staple, and Golding left to form a new group (The Fun Boy Three), Byers struck out on his own and Panter decided to quit. Reverting back to the original name of the Special AKA, Dammers kept the band going long enough to make a third, less successful album titled In the Studio (though the single "Nelson Mandela" was a hit), and the group had disappeared by the mid-1980s. After several attempts to get the band back together during The '90s, the Specials reformed in 2009 with a new horn section and their original lineup - with the conspicuous absence of Dammers, who claimed that the other members had forced him out of the band.
Bradbury died at the age of 62 on December 28, 2015. Rodriguez had died three months earlier at the age of 80. Following Hall's passing in December 2022 at the age of 63, Golding and Panter are the two original members still active with the band.
Notable songs by the Specials include:
- The Alcoholic: The main character of "Stereotype" is a heavy drinker and womanizer who catches an STD and has to lay off alcohol while taking medicine to clear it up. As soon as he's cured, he gets completely blitzed, starts a fight, and crashes his car while fleeing from the police.
- The Baby Trap: The song "Stupid Marriage" is about a young woman who does this to get a guy to marry her.
- Bad Date: The premise of "Dawning of a New Era." The narrator takes a girl to the pub, they both get roaring drunk, and he has to walk her home through a rough neighborhood. She can't get her apartment door open with her key, so they have to sleep in the hall. Once they wake up the next morning, the narrator realizes they're in an even worse area than the one they came through.
- The Band Minus the Face: Terry Hall was absent from the often-overlooked albums produced during The '90s, but the trope was averted to an extent because Neville Staple was equally recognisable as front-man until he left the band in 2012.
- And now the 2009 tour minus Dammers.
- Children Are a Waste: Or at least unplanned children. "Too Much Too Young" castigates a young woman for sleeping around and ending up stuck in domestic life to look after an infant son who's going to add to the burden on England's welfare state.
- Control Freak: Some members of the band say Jerry Dammers behaved like this in The '70s, which is why he wasn't allowed to take part in the reunion. Dammers' side of the story characterises the band getting back together as more of a hostile takeover than a proper reunion.
- The Cover Changes the Meaning: Bob Dylan's "Maggie's Farm" was originally about his dissatisfaction with the folk music scene he emerged from. In the Specials' hands, it became a Take That! against Margaret Thatcher and the National Front.
- Creative Differences: Hall, Staple, and Golding left partly because they disliked the gloomy tone the songs were taking on after the second album was released. Roddy Radiation's departure was to a certain extent attributed to his feelings that Dammers didn't appreciate his own songwriting efforts.
- Date Rape: The subject of "The Boiler", a collaboration between The Special AKA and Rhoda Dakar of the Bodysnatchers.
- Deadpan Snarker: Usually Terry Hall, who used this attribute to break up fights in the audience. Jerry Dammers exhibits this tendency as well in most of his lyrics.
- Elvis Costello: Produced the first album and "Free Nelson Mandela".
- Genre Roulette: The first album is ska, but with a punk influence in the speed and ferocity with which they played (and Terry Hall's unconventional singing style). The second album features a mélange of styles, ranging from easy listening and exotica to jazz.
- Ghost Town: They wrote the song which provides the page quotation as a critique of the policies of Margaret Thatcher.
- Greatest Hits: They released two albums, one EP, and a non-album single under the original lineup. Almost all of the fifteen Specials compilation albums includes songs drawn almost exclusively from these sources.
- I Am the Band: Jerry Dammers tried to pull this off after Terry, Lynval and Neville announced they were leaving and almost the entire rest of the band left. Opinions are mixed on how successfully he pulled this off with Special AKA.
- Lyrical Dissonance: Practically a trademark. Good examples include "Hey Little Rich Girl", "Stupid Marriage" and "Little Bitch". There are many more, of course.
- Misogyny Song: About "Stupid Marriage" and "Little Bitch"...a number of songs on the first Specials album are about a woman who is obviously evil because she (checks notes) broke up with her ex and married someone else.
- Music/Age Dissonance: When the Specials started, ska was seen as the music of a previous generation.
- Perpetual Frowner: Terry Hall is one of the best-known examples of an unsmiling frontman in popular music. Sounds magazine once put a photo of him smiling on their front cover as if it was a major news event.
- Protest Song: "Free Nelson Mandela" and "War Crimes", both released by Dammers after the original band broke up. The former is credited with making Nelson Mandela a cause celebre and became popular in the UK and Africa, both at the time of its release in 1984 and after Mandela's death in 2013.
- Real Life Writes the Plot: "Why?" was written by Lynval Golding in response to a violent race-related assault that left him hospitalised.
- Self-Titled Album: The first two albums, Specials and More Specials, and the 1996 reunion album Today's Specials.
- Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll: Part of the reason the band broke up was because of disagreements between Jerry Dammers and Roddy Radiation, the two heaviest drinkers in the group. According to Neville Staple, most of the band used drugs at some point.
- Sharp-Dressed Man: The mod-influenced tonic suits.
- Ska: A major force in the British second wave.
- Arguably, the Specials single-handedly revived ska and introduced punks to the genre. Everyone from Leftöver Crack to the Aquabats is in their debt.
- Special Guest: Madness saxophonist Lee Thompson contributed a solo on the More Specials album.
- Stage Names: Horace Panter was credited as "Sir Horace Gentleman" on their first two albums and Roddy Byers preferred "Roddy Radiation".
- Studio Chatter: Several songs on the self titled include snippets from live performances or other non-studio audio.
- Surprisingly Gentle Song: "Doesn't Make It Alright" from The Specials, which is a slow and peaceful song about being yourself, in contrast to much more energetic (and spiteful) tracks from the album.
- The Stoic: Terry Hall again. Onstage he rarely smiled, laughed or danced. He sometimes performed with his back to the audience.
- Take That!: Most of what Jerry Dammers wrote was a Take That against somebody, be it Margaret Thatcher, the National Front, women in general, or the band's own fans.
- "The Villain Sucks" Song: Their cover version of Bob Dylan's "Maggie's Farm" was targeted squarely at Margaret Thatcher.
- You Bastard!: The reason that the song "Stereotype" exists, and "Little Bitch" to a lesser extent.