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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”