Monday, July 13, 2009

Free live Specials CD with the Sunday Times

The Specials back on stage after 30 years Coventry band formed during last economic recession blended ska, punk and politics with top ten hits including Ghost Town

The first thing that strikes you, when the re-formed Specials take to the stage after more than a quarter of a century, is how good they look. They are all in their fifties, all of them fathers, and the last time they all played together was 28 years ago. Yet there are no bald patches or paunches, and they race around as if they’re in training for a sprint race. Apart, of course, from Terry Hall, who stands stock still, surveying the crowd with the baleful look of old, spitting sarcasm from a slightly baggier frame.

The second thing is how fresh and joyful their music sounds — and how vital and relevant their songs’ sociopolitical sentiments, chronicling life amid the racial, economic and class divisions of late-1970s Britain, remain in 2009. Formed in Coventry during the last economic recession to drive a failed Labour government out of power, they blended ska, punk and politics, proving an instant hit with a generation fired up by the Sex Pistols and the Clash.

Between 1979 and 1981, the Specials enjoyed seven Top 10 hits, including the chart-toppers Ghost Town and Too Much Too Young — a song that seemed doomed to become their epitaph when they broke up.

While Hall went on to have a successful subsequent career, with Fun Boy Three, the Colourfield and Vegas, followed by collaborations with everyone from Tricky to Gorillaz, the others have fared less well. Three of them abandoned music careers entirely. Now, after six years of delicate diplomatic talks begun by the guitarist Lynval Golding, they are back together to mark the 30th anniversary of their landmark debut album.

Judging by the numerous times various members spontaneously get up to hug each other as they meet in a London hotel, before a pre-Glastonbury warm-up gig at the tiny 100 Club, they are loving every minute. That was far from the case in 1981, when simmering tensions came to a head and they broke up, acrimoniously, in the dressing room of Top of the Pops, as Britain’s inner cities burnt in race riots to the soundtrack of Ghost Town at the top of the charts. “I’ve had nightmares about it since the 1980s,” admits the traumatised guitarist Roddy Byers, once known as Roddy Radiation. “And I still do.” Horace Panter, the dapper and articulate bass player formerly dubbed Sir Horace Gentleman, sums it up. “We just burnt ourselves out. Too much too young.”

Both men still live in Coventry with their families, and both were apprehensive when they learnt of plans to put the Specials back together. Byers says: “I just thought, ‘Do I want to go through the nightmare again?’” Panter had a new career as an art teacher at a special-needs school (“The job my parents always wanted me to do,” he notes drily) and was not immediately convinced about the reunion. “I had to sit down and think about it,” he confesses.

The band who boasted that they “don’t wanna be rich, don’t wanna be famous” might have had the fame, but they missed out on the fortune. “Someone made some money,” scowls MC Neville Staple, “but we didn’t.” Then again, as Panter points out: “We never made much money first time around, but that was never the object. It was just to be in a group.” Byers recalls the band members being offered £30 a week each by the Clash’s manager, Bernie Rhodes, who took them under his wing in the early days — and was rewarded by being ridiculed in their debut single, Gangsters. “And we were just delighted to be paid to do what we loved doing.”

Yet even that palled eventually. “I used to love it, but it became a chore,” says Staple, openly admitting that he’s doing it for the money now. “I’m not gonna lie, it’ll help me grandkids,” he says. “I’m enjoying it, but, basically, I’m getting the financial reward I didn’t get as a kid.”

There may be a financial incentive, but there is a unity to these six middle-aged men, not just in their on-stage chemistry, but in their offstage banter. The truth is, they are enjoying it more than they once did.

The drummer, John “Brad” Bradbury, who battled serious illness five years ago, talks of the reunion’s “healing” benefits for himself. “I feel so lucky. I’m so excited, I still don’t sleep at night. I woke up at 3am today and couldn’t get back to sleep.” He adds: “I have been humbled by the plaudits people have bestowed on us. There is a passion, and when we look out at that audience...”

There is also a feeling that they know how to cope this time. “We realise the mistakes we made last time,” Panter admits. “We won’t spend time cooped up on a hot bus. We’ll travel independently. We’re not a gang: I don’t go out for a drink with Roddy or talk politics with Lynval or football with Terry. I’ve got a family and my own social life. We make sense when we’re all standing on a stage together.”

So, do they have any happy memories of their times in the Specials Mk 1? “When it was good, it was great,” Panter quips. “But when it was bad, it was horrid.” Byers believes it was America that destroyed the band: “We went straight there after a European tour and on the tour bus, we gradually got to hate each other.”

The reunion may have seemed sudden even to their staunchest fans, but Golding, who has spent the past decade bringing up his children in Seattle with his Native American wife, began the process six years ago when he contacted Hall and founder member Jerry Dammers — the one original member absent from this reunion.

A tortuous period of trans­atlantic communication ensued, punctuated by occasional clandestine meetings. “At one point, Jerry told us to meet him at the British Museum, but we had to stay in a back room because he was so paranoid about us being seen together,” Golding recalls.

In the end, Dammers failed to see eye to eye with the others about the reunion. Hall says the sticking point was the band’s desire to tour, and Dammers’ preference for playing just a few football stadiums, but it seems that plenty of old tensions rose to the surface. Do they miss him? “No, no, no!” Panter howls. Golding and Bradbury both agree they don’t miss him at all. Finally, Byers admits there is an element of regret. “I miss his craziness. Jerry used to... not dictate, but he had a plan.” He laughs: “And none of us knew what the hell it was!”

Hall has most to say on the subject: “I think it’s really sad that he’s not with us. And the longer it goes on without him, the harder it is for me to find the reason why. It’s pretty basic — do you wanna play or not? And he doesn’t seem to want to. But he can walk back in any time he wants.”

Hall arrives to be interviewed last of the band, barely an hour before stage time, but looks calm and characteristically weary. Is he enjoying it more this time? He strokes his chin and ponders. “I’m more in control,” he replies after a long pause. “That’s good.” He looks up. “Do you know what I mean?” Six years ago, Hall was diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder, though his perpetually glum demeanor had been a running joke for decades. “I know,” he nods. “I always found myself incredibly cheery on stage.” He chuckles momentarily. “Others didn’t.”

By the time Hall received the diagnosis, he was on the point of collapse. “It got so acute that it ended up with total physical and mental breakdown. I couldn’t walk and talk, couldn’t do anything for a really long time.” It took four years to find the right medication, “just to function during the day, and sleep”. The results have been spectacular, he says. “For two years, I’ve been really good — no weirdness, no darkness — and that’s great. I can operate now.”

And has standing on that stage again brought him catharsis?

“Very much so,” he nods enthusiastically. “It’s been a massive healing process for the band.

And I think that’s the biggest thing for me: to be able to be with mates again, people I grew up with.

It’s like we had this big family rift and we all fell out at our uncle’s wedding or something. But now we’re putting that right, and that’s good for all of us. I think a few bands have greatness, and I think we had it.” He looks up. “And I think we’ve still got it.”

Below is the track list for the CD giveaway:

Do the Dog
The band’s opening song sets forth their punk-ska fusion and anti-racist manifesto.

Dawning of a New Era
The Specials changed the face of music with the 2-Tone revolution, and on this song Terry Hall staked his claim as the voice of disaffected youth.

A homage to the ska great Prince Buster, this debut single put them on the map.

Rat Race
A sneering attack on the complacency and political posturing of affluent students.

Monkey Man
Dedicated "to all the bouncers", this is a storming version of Toots and the Maytals’ ska/reggae anthem.

Blank Expression
Hall’s dissolute vocal reflects the vacant expressions of the people he meets on an edgy walk through Coventry.

Concrete Jungle
A chilling slice of social realism from Roddy Byers.

Friday Night, Saturday Morning
The false hopes of living for the weekend, working all week for it and staggering home disappointed.

A Message to You Rudy
Dandy Livingstone’s rocksteady favourite reaches a new audience, borne along on the fabulous interplay of trombone and trumpet.

Do Nothing
An achingly sweet melody listlessly recounts the gloom of the new Thatcher era.

Nite Klub
A sneering attack on scenesters, or whatever they were called back in 1979.

Too Much Too Young
Who could have predicted that you could top the charts with a vicious anthem about teenage pregnancies.

Specials CD & Interview in the Sunday Times

For those of you living outside the UK who are unable to get a copy of The Sunday Times, below is a link to download the tracks along with the free download of 'Too Hot' that is now available on iTunes.