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A History of Alternative Rock One Album at a Time: (1977-2001) Album 3-25: “The Specials by The Specials” (1979

Cover of the Specials self-titled debut album 1979

If you weren’t British or a self-defined Rude Boy (or even knew what that meant) in the years of Thatcher’s England, The Specials were more spirit than form, a band name whispered into the wind who imbued more music than they ever made themselves. The original members were only together for two records–Their self-titled debut (our topic for today) in 1979 and the follow-up “More Specials.” in 1981. The band that lasted barely 4 years and self-destructed before most of the members turned 30 would nonetheless be responsible for the bands Fun Boy Three and General Public and indirectly The Lightning Seeds and Rock N Roll Hall of Fame Class of 2023 nominees The Eurythmics. At the intersection of Ska, Punk and New Wave, the roads leading on from the Specials ended up being more special than the band themselves.

The Specials (the record) feels like an album born of youth, effortless and uneven, conviction in place of completion. It’s considered a pioneering record of early British Ska, whatever that means to you (to me it means you can’t listen to it without raising one knee then the other, an involuntary marching band of one). You’ll also hear that Britain is a racist, crumbling pile burying its young while you groove. How fun! 

But it is.

At 15 songs, a good half feel curiously undone, as if keyboardist/label owner/primary songwriter Jerry Dammers yelled “good enough” before he should have. The ones we remember are gemlike in their imperfections: the understated battle cry of “A Message to you Rudy” , the metallic soar of “It’s Up to You” and my favorite “Concrete Jungle” which sounds as though The Stooges and Death met up on a Detroit street corner one Sunday morning to reinterpret Toni Basil’s “Mickey,” as a painful tale of youth violence.

As a young person near Detroit at this time, I knew The Specials from T-shirts and posters in record store windows. I didn’t know what “ska” meant until age 18 and the bands that operate in that genre I do know are American interpreters of what The Specials brought to bear. It’s my own fault for not looking more into where they came from and therefore voting without meaning to with the category’s most ignorant critics: That Ska is a spasm fad at 10-year cycles when white kids feel like dancing while wearing mid-century costumes and don’t want to learn steps like you have to in swing dancing.

I really like to dance. So any genre whose prime directive is lifting your knees in rhythm can count me in.

The Specials: Briefly here, then back again with an echo echo echo. Too young to be mods and too old to be New Wavers, they still made the nodes between those two generations of British youth culture bright and clear. Multiply that by the band punching then countering with Ska then Punk then children-of-Windrush Caribbean party music, and you have a band that made different shades of British Youth Culture feel of a common spirit and precisely the time nationalist politics sought to divide and tear.

I’m so glad I listened and made their spirits feel real.



“A Message to you Rudy”

“It’s Up to You”

“Concrete Jungle” 

“Little Bitch”

“You’re Wondering Now”



“Do the Dog”

“Too Hot”
“(Dawning of A) New Era”


Kevin’s Travels Through Purple America: Louisville, KY

Friends, Louisville is friggin’ awesome.
Birthplace of Muhammed Ali, Diane Sawyer, Gus Van Sant and Jennifer Lawrence. Home of the Kentucky Derby, Bourbon, the t, and the Louisville slugger baseball bat. The town on the Ohio River that gave us the Happy Birthday song, disco balls, the Mint Julep and the Sealbach Hotel as featured in The Great Gatsby.
A place I have visited for business and pleasure for 14 years.
Yeah, it’s got Mitch McConnell and his desperate hold on meaningless power but he ain’t what Louisville is all about. LV has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to with open-minded, creative, diverse, forward thinking people and institutions like the Speed Art Museum and movie theater, Carmichael’s Bookstore, one of the great neighborhood bookshops in America, Please and Thank You coffee (creators of the nation’s finest chocolate chip cookie) the 21c Hotel chain, which has a free art museum in each hotel for guests and non guests alike, a killer public library system, a sublime public radio station in WUOL and Headliners, a live music venue everyone in the world should visit when we can.
Oh and its the home of Erin Keane, Melissa Ryan Chipman, Tara Anderson, Daniel Gilliam, Paul Blakeley, and so many other first rate people that make its greatness apparent.
I miss it.
Fellow blue staters, as I spoke of Tulsa previously, do not clutch your pearls when you hear “Kentucky” and think everywhere in the Bluegrass State lives in a dirt shack out of a Walker Evans photo. Louisville is one of America’s great cities. You are really missing out on something if you do not drop by.
Tell them I sent you, order a lot of beer cheese.

RIP Andre Braugher (1962-20230


Though the competition is stiff, though the choices are many, when it comes right down to it, is there a better television cop show than HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET? (1993-1999). And was there a more compelling character on it than Detective Frank Pembleton, played by the late, great Andre Braugher who died earlier this month?

The answer is no. If you only know Mr. Braugher’s work via Brooklyn 99, it was the character of Frank Pembleton that laid the seedbeds in which Captain Ray Holt could flourish. If you first became familiar with TV Showrunner David Simon’s work via THE WIRE (2002-2008) Mr. Simon’s first attempt at using television to explore how cities work and often fail and the all too human people in the all too difficult jobs assigned to those roles was HOMICIDE. HOMICIDE was really a show about a profession, who choses to take on the impossible work of speaking for the dead, how the work can corrode your soul and yet a soul made of stainless steel is an absolute prerequisite for the job.

In a show full of top drawer actors (I still cannot believe that Richard Belzer, Ned Beatty and Yaphet Kotto are gone too. Thankfully future Oscar winner Melissa Leo is still here) no one did better at embodying the conflict of a noble yet impossible calling than Andre Braugher. In his last season, he would win an Emmy for it. But that’s only a cake topper. Frank Pembleton will live forever as one of the most unforgettable characters in the history of television.

I was fortunate to live in Baltimore while HOMICIDE was being filmed there and to witness Andre Braugher at work.

Sail on, Mr. Braugher. Thank you for the memories, the great work, the still-emitting glory of your artistry and the reminder of how hard and necessary it is to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.


A Few Words of Thanks for Mother Emmanuel (Charleston, South Carolina, Fall 2023)

Photo of Mother Emmanuel church

It was our privilege and honor to visit the Emanuel African Methodist Church (known as Mother Emanuel) in Charleston, South Carolina on our first visit to the city this fall. Standing on the sidewalk just to the left of its front door, I found myself so overcome I asked my wife if I could give something like a drash (Hebrew for sermon or textual interpretation) right there.

She listened and this is what I said.

“We are standing now in front of one of the most important structures in America, a house of worship where, for over a century, we have entered the struggle over what it means to be an American, what promises were made at our founding and what promises were broken. That struggle all so often is really an attempt to insist on the repair of those broken promises.

At times, right here, that struggle has been in victory, like when this congregation and this church were at the center of freedom struggles during both the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. And at times it has been in horrific defeat as it was that Wednesday Night in June right here, only 8 years ago.

On that evening, 9 members of the the staff and congregation of Mother Emanuel gave their lives for a principle so important to whom we are as a nation that it is in our very first Amendment, the freedom to worship and the freedom to gather. They invited a nervous stranger to join them in prayer on the idea that a house of worship here in America does not close its doors to anybody. And they paid for their patriotism with their lives.

As much as we have to take in the full horror of that evening and of the senseless loss of those 9 precious Americans, we can look up at this beautiful building and say that whatever misbegotten evil Dylan Roof thought he was carrying out, he failed. Pathetically so.

At best, Dylan Roof will spend the remainder of his meaningless waste of a life in a dark cold cell. And while he does, at 110 Calhoun St in the city Dylan Roof wished he had grown up, stands Mother Emanuel, tall, proud, gleaming white against a cloudless autumn sky. Still serving this community, still ministering to the sick and desperate, still a pillar of Charleston, this pillar of the confederacy, still led by this city’s black citizenry and still reminding the rest of us, from near and from far who have come to pay our respects of what it truly means to be an American.

We are honored and humbled to be here. And we thank them for having us.” 


RIP Paul Reubens aka Pee-wee Herman (August 27, 1952 – July 30, 2023)

Peewee Herman and the Black Talent he cultivated.

Goodnight, Pee-wee Herman, aka Paul Reubens, Gen X icon, comic genius, Fella of the Jewish persuasion and way ahead of his time on race and gender and different people issues. Before they held honorary degrees and acting awards all over creation, S. Epatha Merkenson and Laurence Fishburne were Pee-wee’s buddies in the Playhouse.

That’s right. Pee-wee hung with Lt Van Buren from Law and Order and Furious Styles before we found them ourselves.

Side Note: The Pee Wee Herman Radio Hour was entirely amazing classic black women of pop and soul & R&B and Jazz. The man had taste.

Sail on, Yid Brother in a bowtie. You had a strut with your giggle, a funk in your funny little walk.

You were way more than you seemed.