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The band that would become the Specials was formed as the Coventry Automatics in 1977 in Coventry, England. 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 Radiation (lead guitar), Lynval Golding (rhythm guitar), 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.
Keyboard player Jerry 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 English 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 he 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; trombone player Rico Rodriguez had played with several first wave ska artists in Jamaica before he moved to the UK. As front man, Terry Hall had a sarcastic, expressionless delivery which contrasted with the energetic, wacky toasting style of Neville Staple.
The band released two albums and seven consecutive top ten singles before breaking up in 1981 when Hall, Staple and Golding left to form a new group (Fun Boy Three), Roddy Radiation struck out on his own and Horace 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, and the group had disappeared by the mid-1980s. After several attempts to get the band back together during The Nineties, the Specials reformed in 2009 with their original line-up and a new horn section, but Jerry Dammers himself was conspicuously absent.
Notable songs by the Specials include:
- And the Fandom Rejoiced: As far as the core of the fanbase (mods who enjoyed Northern Soul and reggae) was concerned, the inclusion of Rico Rodriguez on the first album.
- Anvilicious: Quite a few of their more politically charged songs ended up like this. The most anvilicious of them all, though, are probably Racist Friend and War Crimes.
- The Band Minus the Face: Terry Hall was absent from the often-overlooked albums produced during The Nineties, but the trope was averted to an extent because Neville Staple is equally recognisable as front-man.
- And now the 2009 tour minus Dammers.
- Big Lipped Alligator Moment: The song "Holiday Fortnight" on the second album is an easy listening Latin jazz instrumental, at right angles to the style of the rest of the record.
- Control Freak: Some members of the band say Jerry Dammers behaved like this in The Seventies, 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.
- Covered Up: Their version of "A Message to You Rudy". Two of their earlier songs, "Gangsters" and "Too Much Too Young", also borrowed heavily from earlier Jamaican ska songs.
- 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.
- 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".
- 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 line up. Almost all of the fifteen Specials compilation albums includes songs drawn almost exclusively from these sources.
- Face of the Band: Mostly Terry Hall and Neville Staple.
- High Octane Nightmare Fuel: "The Boiler".
- Lyrical Dissonance: Practically a trademark. Good examples include "Hey Little Rich Girl", "Stupid Marriage" and "Little Bitch". There are many more, of course.
- Narm: While Jerry Dammers was a talented songwriter, some of his lyrics could leave something to be desired.
- 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 is still a popular song in Africa.
- Self-Titled Album: The first two albums, Specials and More Specials.
- Sex, Drugs and Rock and 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.
- 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".
- The Stoic: Terry Hall again, who never seemed to have any kind of facial expression and 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 "Maggie's Farm" was targeted squarely at Margaret Thatcher.
- You Suck: The reason that the song "Stereotype" exists, and "Little Bitch" to a lesser extent.