‘More Specials’ and ‘Absolutely Madness’ (02/19/81)

When the Specials kicked off the nouveau ska craze in England not long ago, it seemed like a fine idea. Working from a-local base in Coventry, the Specials launched their own label, gave a start to kindred groups (Madness, the Selecter, Bodysnatchers, the Beat), scored hit after hit with a revamped version of early Jamaican rock and attracted listeners both black and white—which was only right, since they themselves were a racially integrated band. The Specials made a good distribution deal with Chrysalis, Elvis Costello, hotter than hot, produced their first album.

The only problem was that The Specials wasn’t very good. It was stiff, not from moldy-fig cultism (ska, after all, had been a dead letter in Jamaica since the rise of rock steady in 1966; and a memory in the U.K. since the disappearance of the mods somewhat earlier) but from a singular lack of imagination. Forced enthusiasm, no doubt terrifically convincing onstage, didn’t salvage woefully inexpressive vocals, and the second-time-around novelty of the ska sound dried up fast when the Specials failed to catch the delicate, witty rhythms that had brought the sound to life in the first place. As for Madness, a clunky, clowning, all-white outfit from London, their “wild” sense of humor couldn’t disguise the fact that they were little more than the Blues Brothers with English accents. Listening from his record store in Kingston, ska legend Prince Buster, the inspiration for the whole minimovement, must have had himself a few good laughs along with, one hopes, a few good royalty checks.

It soon became evident that the one great band to emerge from the ska revival was the Beat (renamed the English Beat for U.S. consumption), a group of black and white punks from Birmingham. They had the verve the Specials and the others lacked. Pushed by a fifty-year-old Jamaican sax man, they had rhythm: more a hard combination of 1977 punk and the Maytals than the tricky pulses of ska. It was, as the Beat liked to say, music to make you think while you danced. The songs were funny and ominous and sexy. The vocals were full of personality, and they snapped like locker-room towels. All the good ideas of the Specials—commercial independence, interracial comradeship, cultural boundary hopping—were there, but so was the music, and the tension necessary to put across the ideas behind the music.

More Specials makes not a nod in the tougher direction of the Beat. Still, in some ways, it’s an attractive little LP. Again, the singing is flat, the mood contrived—the sound of the late-night brainstorm that’s never quite so fecund the next morning and the source is ska plus pure trash music: airplane Muzak, movie themes, a James Bond roll call (“Goldfinger! Live and let die!”) and a bit about the next world war that crashes with cheesy sound effects. Taken as a piece, the album is pleasing, almost diverting. The Specials are digging ideas out of odd sources, and the result is slightly more artful than the analogues you carry in your head

It’s only when you recall how much better this has been done before—by the Coasters say, or Frank Zappa—that the record pales, and soon all you’re hearing is secondhand sociology: stuff about gray-flannel suits, racist cops, bureaucratic robots, dead-end streets, “stereotypes.” The Specials make no attempt to write beyond the obvious, to bend a cliche or find unlikely targets. It doesn’t seem that these guys are capable of doing more for their principles than mouthing them.

The funny thing is, they can do more. Not long ago, one of their U.K. shows was busted up by “Sieg Heil”-ing British Movement recruits. After trying to silence the fascists from the stage (“We don’t tolerate people who shout Sieg Heil?… Do you wanna come up here and have it out?”), the Specials dove into the audience and drove the thugs from the hall. If they ever get that kind of punch into their music, Americans will hear it. If they don’t, we won’t.

As for Madness, they’re still the Blues Brothers, though it’s unlikely anyone will give them $30 million to waste on a third-rate movie. As for the Selecter, they seem to be having personnel problems. As for the Beat, they’re better than ever—if you’ve already heard Just Can’t Stop It, seek out “Stand down Margaret (Dub),” an import single on Go-Feet. It’s a masterful piece of roots music that’s also as modern as the future is grim.

Rolling Stone, February 19, 1981

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