Label: 2 Tone/Chrysalis
Released: November 1979
There have been three waves of ska. The first originated in Jamaica in the early to mid 60s as a predecessor to reggae. It was danceable, fun and full of energy, but generally poorly recorded, making it more difficult to take in large doses despite some great artists such as Prince Buster and Desmond Dekker. It was essentially Jamaican soul music. The third wave of ska occured during the 90s, but with few exceptions showed no real understanding of ska’s soulful roots. It was occaisionally fun, but most often just pop punk songs played with ska technique. In between these two waves, in the late 70s and early 80s, another wave of ska had its day. It was deeply rooted in its own history, with a keen understanding of what made ska tick. It took the fun and soul of the first wave of ska, wrapped it up with punk energy, a social agenda and better production and made some of the genre’s best music.
Perhaps Madness was the second wave’s best band, but they generally stretched themselves beyond the style’s musical boundaries. It was the Specials who best captured ska’s essence and were it’s purest performers. In fact, they were the fathers of this second go round. They formed in 1977, before any ska revival was afoot and songwriter/keyboardist Jerry Dammers was both the founder of 2 Tone Records and the designer of well-known balck and white ska logos associated not only with the Specials, but with Madness, the English Beat and the Selecter among others.
By 1979, the Specials released their self-titled debut which may just be the best true ska record ever recorded. It ranges from upbeat good times to slower more serious subject matter and everything in between. The rhythm section is crisp without being stiff and cold and rolls smoothly as the pace changes over the course of individual songs and the album as a whole. The guitars are sharp, precise and clean, but not to the extent of stifling even an ounce of the fun, with keyboards often providing a dirtier counterpoint. Vocal parts range from snotty punk to smooth soul. For anyone familiar with the third wave of ska, the Specials emply relatively few horn parts, but that gives them considerable impact.
Most of the tracks address some kind of social concern whether it’s a warning to stay out of trouble in “A Message to You, Rudy” or breaking down the racial divide in “Doesn’t Make It Alright.” The Specials certainly have a message which is even embodied in the multiracial makeup of the band, but they maintain their conscience with a sense of fun rather than self-righteousness. One listen to their debut and there’s no avoiding it’s lessons, because they’re so much fun to learn.