Memory and music travel hand in hand, popping up in strange places, creating feelings associated with a certain time period, song or band. One of the musical high points in my life came in 1979 with the arrival of punk, new wave and ska in my neighborhood. Bands like Devo, the B-52s and Talking Heads are now forever associated with the passion and joy generated during this explosion of musical creativity.
The three-headed monster of punk, new wave and ska (and there were many other exploding heads as well) came at me from many directions. Punk was simple, loud and fast, often political and associated with outlandish fashions. New wave was a bit broader in spectrum but often boiled down to synth-based poppy dance music, often with a quirk, and Flock of Seagulls hair (eyeliner optional). Ska was the least prolific of the three in the US, developing a small fan base of pork-pie-hat-with-black-and-white-houndstooth-clad enthusiasts. This music originated in Jamaica in the late 50s as reggae’s peppier cousin, re-exploding in the late 70s faster than ever (thanks to punk) with a strong emphasis on off-beats. Bands involved in this ska rebirth included The Specials, The English Beat, Madness and The Selecter.
Tastes change over time and 40 years later I no longer enjoy some of the music that made 17-year-old me twist and contort like an enraged emu (some called it dancing). However, certain bands still hit 54-year-old me as hard as they did those many years ago. The Specials are one of those bands. In fact, if I was forced to choose my favorite song ever, it might well be A Message to You Rudy off of The Specials self-titled first album. With the first few notes of the introduction I’m transported to the summer of 1979, a “new wave” dance party and an enchanting time of musical discovery. It’s still one of my go-to songs in gloomy times.
Musically, The Specials features the Caribbean influences characteristic of early ska (especially in the drums and walking bass lines) mixed with fast tempos, percussive guitar, cheesy keyboard, and a general miasma of happiness (even in the face of serious lyrics). Unemployment, poverty and racial tension affected many Brits in the seventies, and youth used music, particularly punk and ska, as a means of illuminating and combating these issues. The Specials were known for their stand against racism, and they actively tried to racially integrate their listeners. Their song lyrics reflected racial and other divisions.
While racism is a topic in many of the album’s songs, clashes between other contentious groups are also addressed.
For those who don’t speak British, teds, or teddy boys, are associated with rockabilly, natty dreads partake of reggae, mods listen to rock rooted in the early 60s, skinheads are militant punk rockers and the National Front is a far-right political movement. Tensions between groups simmered just below a boil. But, ideally, they could all come together in the world created by The Specials.
For me this music is happily nostalgic, but it’s also intoxicating, dance-inducing and highly listenable. Check this one out. Toe tapping is required, skanking is optional.