Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Specials: Ska Little Too Late?

The Specials 2010: Ska-little too late?
By Rob Nieto

I never trusted Mark Bergamini’s taste in music. Sure, he was my best friend growing up and for several years we were inseparable. But I could never wrap my head around the fact that his favorite singer was Elvis Presley.

Back in 1979, “The King” was far past his ass-kicking prime (In all fairness, he had just passed two years earlier). So when Mark tried to sell me on The Specials, a new band he had a just snagged a cassette of, I found it hard to swallow. “What’s so special about them”, I blurted rather dorkily. Sadly, I wouldn’t learn of my fatal error in musical taste for another several years.

By then The Specials (or The Special AKA, depending on how the wind was blowing that day) had already arrived in the U.S. -- care of a nascent TV oddity known as MTV, which delivered unto an unsuspecting audience not only a new band but a whole new sound. Listening to “Message to you Rudy” from the 1979 disc simply titled Specials was a musical Rosetta Stone. I was blown away by the heart-skipping fusion of sneaker-stomping ska puréed with a punk-laden drive that sneered at your senses daring you to listen.

Formed by mates Jerry Dammers, Lynval Golding and Horace Panter in Conventry, England, The Specials featured lead singer Terry Hall, Neville Staple on backing vocals and percussion, “Roddy Radiation” Byers on lead guitar, “Sir” Horace Panter on bass, and John Bradbury on drums. Festooned in pork pie hats, the mod styled suitors successfully delivered their brand of music while tempering it with a sense of social responsibility. A good example of this was “Ghost Town” which soared to # 1 on the U.K. charts. It’s melancholy beat was not only catchy; it drove home the desperation felt by the jobless masses in England at the time.

Sadly after a string of hits - and much fewer misses - the band folded up shop in 1981. If you blinked you caught Staple, Golding and Hall reform in the Ska/Pop band Fun Boy Three. Their remake of the Go-Go’s classic “Our Lips are Sealed” was a fave and was co-written by Go-Go Jane Wiedlen and FB3’s Terry Hall. (Side Note: another “must listen” from the period, "The Lunatics [Have Taken Over the Asylum]".)

Speed forward 3 decades. Sadly, I’m older, not as slender nor near as cool.

But The Specials are back! Many of the original members have reformed forging forward with a string of dates, including a key spot at Coachella this month and a stop on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon on tap for mid April (bonus cool points for the SNL alum!) But they’ve done so without the help of songwriter/keyboardist Dammers, who is reportedly in a tiff with his former band mates. Dammers insists he was “kicked out” of the band and will not be a part of the reunion. Meantime the remaining Specials say they hold no grudge against him. “The door is always open” say Dammers’ ex-mates. Let’s hope he decides to walk through.

So what’s changed in the 30 years since they last took stage? A quick check of the way back machine -- 1980: Walkmans & Ray Bans. 2010? = iPods & J. Crew.

So are the once-irreverent social shakers as relevant today as they were 3 decades ago?” You don’t have to turn the pages of the Wall Street Journal to see that nearly one in ten of us are out of work. While we all shouted they lyrics to “Rat Race” at our TV’s, few of us heeded the warning of what was yet to come in our not-to-distant future. And with thousands of foreclosed homes sitting empty across the U.S., “Ghost Town” has taken on a whole new meaning.

While I won’t make the trip to Coachella, (yeah, you try and convince my wife), I look forward to hearing young voices strain to hit the high notes on the chorus of “Message to You Rudy”.

As for Mark Bergamini, we lost touch after I got out of high school. But I will say this. He was right about The Specials. Long live The King!

Rob Nieto is a contributing writer to With This I Think I'm Officially a Yuppie. Rob has worked in TV & radio for nearly two decades and is a dictionary of 80's one hit wonders and New Wave aficionado.