The Specials – ‘The Specials’

By late 1979 the musical mix of post punk and new wave was dominating the UK charts, whilst ‘the second wave of ska’ was also fast becoming part of the Top 40 countdown that by now, I was obsessed with. Of course there was dross too, but when isn’t there? Maybe there has to be the crap to fully appreciate the good stuff. If there’s one thing Thatcher can be credited with it’s inspiring a multitude of musicians, poets, and social commentators to wax lyrical; to pour scorn through their chosen medium.

Well, I was yet to read poetry or any literature beyond Smash Hits, Melody Maker or the NME, but one band who were a major part of my cultural learning, of my awareness of social, political and class issues were The Specials. Their eponymous debut album was a masterpiece, and would still rank as one of my favourite albums of all time.

 

Produced by Elvis Costello and released on Jerry Dammers’ 2-Tone label, The Specials was a dance mix of ska and punk; a brilliant homage to their musical heroes including covers of Dandy Livingstone, Toots & The Maytals and Prince Buster whilst capturing perfectly the angst and energy as well as inspiring the youth of the day. Unlike debut albums from Madness and The Beat (brief 2Tone label-mates) the album never veered towards pop, instead the social messages were as persistent as the ska rhythms. At 13 I was totally naive, but my eyes, ears and dreams were being opened up and fuelled by provocative, radical visuals and lyrics.

Political correctness did not exist in ’79 and the album is full of piss-taking and social spikes that seem wonderfully sharp compared to today’s banality, not that The Specials wouldn’t have given a shit anyway.

“I won’t dance in a club like this / all the girls are slags and the beer tastes just like piss” – Nite Club

“The only things you want to see are kitch / the only thing you want to be is rich / your little pink up-pointed nose begins to twitch / I know, you know, you’re just a little bitch” – Little Bitch.

Welcome to being a teenager. The Specials packed a mighty live punch and whilst I had to wait over thirty years to see them live, this album alone was enough to last three decades.

Madness – ‘One Step Beyond’

40 years ago I was a spunky school kid sporting sta-prest and Fred Perrys, carrying an unhealthy obsession with pop and desperately trying to mimic my newly found idols. Madness’ debut album One Step Beyond was made for a boy like me. The brand new 2-Tone label was seen as the second wave of ska; coming off the back of punk it was faster and edgier than in its sixties heyday, and in most cases, due to the social unrest at the time, had a strong political lyrical edge.

Madness were at the centre of that early 2-Tone scene, but politics seemed to be the last thing on their minds. Unlike most of their 2-Tone counterparts Madness regularly swayed from the labels’ ska roots, blending rock’n’roll, rockabilly and ‘60s pop into their sound. Lyrically too the subject matter was more diverse, from schoolboy tales of playground antics and first loves to underwear thieves and random cockney patois. The stomping Night Boat To Cairo was my fave, just a glorious ska romp and learning the lyrics to sing along was a must.

As much as anything the 2-Tone label had a wonderful identity; beyond the tonic suits and loafers this wasn’t musical sophistication, but was something teenagers could instantly and totally relate to. I dived into the deep end consuming the music with a fevered passion of which only a 13 year-old is capable. This was an album way beyond it’s brilliant singles One Step Beyond, My Girl and The Prince, I could listen to it now and love it almost as much.

One Step Beyond was totally of its time, but nostalgia apart it is still a brilliant debut album. Looking back, I feel lucky to have been thirteen years old in 1979. Not just for The Jam, The Specials, The Selector, The Beat and the iconic 2-Tone scene, but the Top 40 singles chart, Top of the Pops, Smash Hits, Our Price, Cassette Players, now all long gone but I’d take those days over our current instant download culture any day. My love affair with Madness ended with the release of their third album, but Absolutely, and in particular One Step Beyond are iconic, brilliantly British pop masterpieces.

Squeeze – ‘Cool For Cats’

40 years later I would still say 1979 was a fantastic year for pop music. Punk had all but been and gone, but it had revitalised popular music, giving it an energy it had lacked since the 60s. Ska and reggae, offshoots of the punk era, as well as a mod revival made its way into pubs, clubs and ultimately mainstream radio and into the charts. As a 13-year-old kid wearing sta-pressed, Fred Perrys and argyle jumpers I loved it all, soaking it up like my life depended on it.

Over the next two years Radio 1’s weekly Top 40 show on Sundays became my obsession. I created my own chart system, writing down the Top 20 every week, giving the no.1 position 20 points, no.2 19 points, no.3 18 etc. At the end of the year I made my own Top 20 singles chart from the accumulated points. My obsession with lists was also becoming a bit scary. By the end of 1980 if anyone gave me the title of a single from the Top 20 in ‘79 or ‘80, I could name the artist, every time. Some would say this was an early sign of me becoming a music nerd, and I’d probably have to agree.

Five bands dominated my desires in 1979, the first of which was Squeeze. Cool For Cats was their second album and I played it to death. It contained four singles, two of which Cool For Cats and Up The Junction were, and still are perfect examples of the song-writing brilliance of Chris Difford & Glenn Tilbrook. Like many new lyricists at the time, Difford & Tilbrook wrote songs about real life, real people and modern culture, but unlike many bands who were influenced by the dawning of the Thatcher-era and the mountain of political issues affecting the country, Squeeze wrote songs about people. And sex. Not sex as in your modern day sexist, image obsessed, body fascist bullshit. No. Cool For Cats was littered with innuendo, slang and stories of masturbation, desperation, infatuation, heavy drinking and unwanted pregnancies, all brilliantly linked together by razor-sharp social awareness. It was perfectly real, like a Ken Loach movie set to music.

Cool For Cats was a brilliant single. Lyrically reminiscent of a pubescent Ray Davies, musically bombastic in a London pub style. I turned 13 the week after its release, but it’s Squeeze’s next single that was the first song I remember being able to sing from start to finish. I guess I needed to be a teenager first. Strangely I remember a specific time too… in the changing rooms after swimming at school. It’s funny the things you remember. I felt quite adult, nervously reciting the lyrics, like I was narrating a grown-up story to school friends who I hoped would be impressed.

Up The Junction was clearly lyrically influenced by Nell Dunn’s 1963 novel of the same name, sharing the same gritty, working-class realism starting from its opening line “I never thought it would happen with me and the girl from Clapham”. Just looking at the album’s sleeve brings back blissfully happy, innocent, wide-eyed memories. Squeeze were a pop-obsessed pubescent boy’s dream. Give the dog a bone indeed.