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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”


In Praising of “Listening Through” (Every Album By Your Favorite Artist)

Lately I’ve assigned myself the project of listening to every album recorded by a band I like. This came about when, kicking the hull of my own ignorance, shook out that Depeche Mode has released 7 studio albums AFTER  Violator, home of their last chart hits, and I hadn’t the slightest idea what Devo had been up to since their 1982 video for “Peak a Boo” freaked me out as a second grader. 

This isn’t middle-aged memory loss. A more recent example might be that the album that brought Lizzo into our lives was her third, not her first. We can’t control when we learn of an artist’s work and it’s probably just some quirk of the human brain to believe, at least a little, that someone didn’t exist before we know of them. Nonetheless, it’s incorrect and I ain’t about to say “oh well” when I found out there’s more on offer from a band I already love. Give me all of it. 

The idea then that I only knew fractions of the output of artist who’d given so much to me felt selfish, like not knowing the date of someone I cared about’s birthday.  Over time, we’ll miss almost everything and all we have is what we chose to to do with our time and attention. So for something as important to me as music, I’d rather spend that time on long-term commitments and not unresolved affairs, on friends who have been with me through it all instead those I once knew or haven’t even met. 

I’m in the middle of my third “Listen Through” project (Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings). These efforts happen alongside listening to perennial favorite records and in tandem with the faucets I turn on regularly for drips of new music. Otherwise, deepening your romances comes at the expense of seeing and making friends. And nobody should be that guy.

How it Works

 Before I start in on an album, I will usually read its wikipedia entry as well as the review in AllMusic. I am curious about different performers, producers, engineers on different records and a little why the band might be trying something different this time around. I’m not musically smart enough to know what chromatic scales are or which studio results in this or that sound. But I like to have a sense of who had a hand in the choices that went into a record and who showed up on the day it became real. The answers are always more interesting than believing it all happened by magic.

 I will usually listen to one album every two or three days in the afternoons during the scutt-and-boring-tasks portion of the workday. I’ll jot initial notes after the first listen then 2-3 days later revisit those notes and be rigorously honest if I was being unfair, impatient, etc. If I was doing any of those things, I listen again. If not, I scrawl a quick review to a group of friends with two goals in mind:  1. To have it be fun to read even if whomever is reading it doesn’t like the band/hasn’t heard of them. 2. To be clear in such a way that whomever is reading can hear the music even if they haven’t heard it before. My opinion is a distant third priority.

Writing for a living, I feel a responsibility to do this. You can write down your thoughts just to have them. Or not. 

I focus on studio albums (meaning no live records, reissues or greatest hits compilations) usually with an artist who has more than 5 records in their catalog. The courage hasn’t yet arrived to take on the discography of a Nina Simone (40 studio albums) or a Dolly Parton (51 and still going). It also helps to at least start with musicians who have died or retired or bands that have broken up. Then you know exactly how many records you are dealing with and they won’t release a new one while you are mid-swim. 

Listening in chronological order renders the clearest picture of where an artists sound began and where it ended up. The second option, equally valuable, is to enter an artists catalog during their peak “accessible phase” (i.e when they hit the pop charts or became a star) which gives you great appreciation for when they zig and zag. Like wading in off the beach but appreciating the depth and mystery of the ocean.

Format really doesn’t matter. I happen to love vinyl records but the project is the same no matter how the music gets to you.  

Also try to avoid running a segregated lunch counter (musically speaking) and only listening through to bands you remember fondly from 9th grade or who are all of one genre/race/gender/moment in time. It’s fine to start out that way, led by the same question I was: “What’s doing with that old friend I haven’t spoke to in a while?” But it’s just as valuable to visit undiscovered countries than to stay close to home.  

What I Learned

Even the great treasure of music can seem dull at times. I’ve found that giving over real considered time to an artist’s work has taught me so much–about art, about creative decisions and really just about how we all get up in the morning and have to make that day happen in a way that it mattered. 

I’ve quit making thoughtless judgements about how successful a band actually was. I’ve learned through enjoyment. If we need to change into our relationship with music to keep it from dulling, Listen Though has provided the shine. 

Try it. I bet you end up in the seat next to me, alongside your favorite artist, both receiving their music and piloting the sonic skies with them. 



Fishbone Listen Through Album 2 of 7: “Truth and Soul”

"Truth and Soul" -- Fishbone

Released: September 13, 1988.

Produced by: David Kahne.

Recorded at: Sunset Sound, Hollywood

Songs you might recognize:

The cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddy’s Dead” that opens the record, the single “Ma and Pa” and the ballad “Change” that closes things out


Second albums are problematic. Either they fail and tumble into the cliche of a “sophomore slump” (i.e. what we liked about the artist the first go-around came down to newness and hype) or they succeed and blot out the first album they built on (see brilliant follow-ups to now overlooked debut albums by the likes of Madonna or Carol King or Nine Inch Nails or Public Enemy) and are only duly appreciated in retrospect. I say “duly” because it’s our own mistake to believe that great second albums are breaks from the past i.e the artist finally growing up and living childish things behind. Second records always build on first records, whether as evolution, contrast, or here’s-a-few-things-we’re-still-working-out. In the case of TRUTH AND SOUL it’s all three and a fourth thing too, the studio album that feels like one long jam session.

Get past “Freddy’s Dead” as the opener (which is a great cover but doesn’t sound enough like Fishbone has made the great Mayfield track their own) and the album l feels like an extended groove all the way until the ballad “Change” that closes things out (a courageous choice that works for a record that, on the whole, resembles a 40 minute party. Why send your guest homes in a stroll instead of sweat ecstasy unless you can really nail it?). Critics at the time made way too much of Fishbone borrowing from heavy metal on this record, which to me only sounds like news if you willfully ignore what kissing cousins metal and punk often are and if you think 6 black musicians doing furious guitar solos is novel (if so, meet a shy kid from Seattle named Jimi Hendrix). But I suppose given that metal at this time typically meant the cloud of toxic masculinity and toxic hair spray hovering over the Sunset Strip, Fishbone’s raucous neighborhood vibe, more garage party spilling out on the lawn than cocaine and motorcycle leather, got critics over- focused on that. Which also meant ignoring the band’s first album IN YOUR FACE that TRUTH AND SOUL built on.

If IN YOUR FACE feels like a series of experiments from a band that has always been about hyphenates, TRUTH AND SOUL is the organization of those experiments (politics and punchlines, ska and soul,) into a coherent argument. It’s just that in Fishbone’s case, a coherent argument feels like a great concert, a live album that isn’t a live album, instead of a perfectly laid out sequence of songs. TRUTH AND SOUL then has the seeming liability of also feeling like an album where it’s easy to lose your place, to be taken enough by the groove that you forget what song you’re on and how to revisit it and can, quite humanly, feel like a record where all the tracks sound the same.

Which means this record probably makes the most sense if listened to immediately after IN YOUR FACE. On its own, you’ve got to stop dancing in place long enough for its greatness to sink in. Its politics are honed like a knife in a way its predecceser was only just getting around to. See the penultimate track “Ghetto Soundwave” a circular shuffler you can dance to that feels like it was written about the murder of George Floyd rather than 35 years before it or the psycho-circus wail of “Subliminal Fascism”, 90 seconds of an convincing argument for punching nazis from Killer Klowns. The record’s humor lays seamlessly (notice how the sincerity of the beach-jammy ode-to-friendship “A Mighty Long Way” at position 6 sets us up for similar in grove if not in message “Bonin’ in the Boneyard” next ) rather than coming to a stop for it. Perhaps ironically, it’s a party record that may be best listened to alone with headphones, to get the component parts that make up the magic whole.

But the magic is everywhere. A record with that surpasses its overstated title by having a lot of truth a lot of soul and then also, a lot of fun and experiments and jags that somehow all end up in the same loud garage. As a second record, it doesn’t surpass the first or let us down from its high. Incredibly, the two feel like younger and older siblings, both of whom you’d want as friends


The Smokler 50 (2021): My Annual Playlist of New Music


Every year since 2012, I have put together a playlist of 50 songs from the 600-800 new songs I discover each calendar year. The songs don’t have to be new (as in released that year), just new to me (as in I had never heard them before this year). Ordinarily these are on Spotify but no thank you to that.

I started doing this because I would fall in love with an artist, a few weeks would pass and I would forget their name. Literally. As though we had never met. The playlist gives me a facimile of everyone I met and fell in love with, musically, that year.

The name The Smokler 50 is dumb. And I have not come up with something better yet.

I usually tell anyone who dives in if you have three new discoveries, I’ve done my job. And immediately skip anything that isn’t working for you.



Greg Tate (1957-2021)

I have been thinking about the death of writer/curator/force of nature Greg Tate this entire month and my sadness has not left me. I did not know the man like so many writers I admire did. Instead I head about his books and essays about hip-hop, art and black culture from this generation of writers who taught me. Maybe that makes Mr. Tate, legacy-wise. like a great-uncle to the work I do. Or try to do.

Really though, what he created was too big, too magical and other-wordly for to pin it on my own chest. Reading him, listening to him in print or on television or radio was like discovering other planets, being thrown into the galaxies and knowing, instead of plummeting you would fly. 

Knowing we have read the last of his work is feeling like the sun has dropped out of the sky. 

Look at some of the titles of his obituaries…

That first one concluded thusly (bravo to its author, Jon Caramanica)

“By that point, Tate’s sui generis brilliance was widely acknowledged in our circles, and still barely touched by others. Showcasing his critical pirouetting was meant to serve as a beacon, and also a simple acknowledgment of the way he affected every writer I cared about and learned from — we’re all Tate’s children. I still buy “Flyboy” every time I see it in a bookstore. I never want to be too far away from it, lest I forget how vast the cosmos is.”

By “Flyboy”, Mr. Caramanica is referring to Flyboy in the Buttermilk, Tate’s first collection of essays published in 1992. The writer Jeff Chang and artist Tim’m West steered me to it during my early years in the Bay Area. If reading about music and art and the people who make it is act of redemption for you, Flyboy is like a volume of the Hebrew Bible.

I still have a few notes I scribbled down when I first read it all those years ago…

Reading “Flyboy”you realize you are in the presence of a genius, a voice reaching down from the cosmos unlike any you have ever heard. And so you forgive it when its once-in-a-while too twisted or loud or muffled or sharp. Because when it is quiet and you  are too, you are better for having heard it, better for your listening and it makes you want to be better as well.

Greg Tate died a week before Bell Hooks and two weeks before Joan Didion, writers he admired, knew and in their lifetimes, get many more trophies and honorary degrees than he did.  I’ve been distributing used copies of Flyboy to many wise men and women I know, who missed the word on Mr. Tate, the first time around. It’s a small gesture for an artist who knew and shared and gave so much. 

My friend and fellow writer Annie Zaleski once sat on a panel with Mr Tate and told me, shortly after his death, that the man, a generation’s worth of admirers did not scream out his gifts, did not ask you to praise them and led with a generosity of spirit that split through his work like light through glass. We weren’t simply gifted his imagination. His imagination showed us what we could be, how much brighter and smarter and far out. Apparently, he mentored dozens of young journalists too. 

Goodbye Mr. Tate. I’m late to a dream you opened right on time. 

Some of my favorite Greg Tate pieces are, in no real order


Listening to Every Song I own: Letter “C”

The latest update in my absurd project to listen to all 11, 704 songs in my iTunes library straight through no skipping (called Abba Zappa Zoo, thank you to Mike Gluck ) included Song #1235: “Charlie Loves Our Band” by From Good Homes to #1334 “City Rising from the Ashes” by Deltron 3030.

The Math:

99 Songs
10.5% complete — 11.3% complete


“Charlie Loves Our Band” by the New Jersey folk rock band From Good Homes pays tribute to their most loyal fan in the group’s early days. It’s an incredibly sweet reminder that, when creating anything, you have to start with one “Charlie” and can always go somewhere higher from there.

“City Rising From the Ashes” is one of a dozen great songs on the self-titles dystopian hip hop album Deltron 3030 from the year 2000 about the year 3030.

1. The most common title words in this block are “City, Cherry, Child, Chill and Choice”

2. In one string of songs “City of Dreams” by the Philadelphia bar room rockers Marah and “City of Dreams” by The Talking Heads sit next to each other.

3. Best one-two punch: “Children’s Story” by Slick Rick followed by “Children’s Work” by Dessa.

5. Song you really must know but probably don’t…

“Chase” an instrumental soundtrack banger by Giorgio Moroder which has become intro/outro music for dozens of people, places and things.