Thursday, April 6, 2017
The Specials / Interview (12/08/1981)
THE POP LIFE
By ROBERT PALMER
August 12, 1981, Wednesday
DURING the worst weeks of the inner-city rioting that flared up in Britain last month, that country's number one single was ''Ghost Town,'' an eerily prophetic song by the Specials. ''Why must the youth fight against themselves?'' the Specials asked, and they provided an answer: ''Government leaving the youth on the shelf. No job to be found in this country / Can't go on no more, people getting angry / This town is coming like a ghost town.'' (Plangent Visions Music, Ascap). Tonight, the Specials are playing at the Dr Pepper Festival on Pier 84, 12th Avenue and 46th Street. They flew into town earlier this week to finish planning a brief American tour that will take them across the country to Los Angeles and back again for a second New York performance at the Ritz on Tuesday, Aug. 25. On Monday, the three of them (there are seven in all) sat down to talk. ''When we recorded 'Ghost Town,' we were talking about last year's riots in Bristol and Brixton,'' said Terry Hall, one of the group's lead vocalists. ''The fact that it became popular when it did was just a weird coincidence.''
Nevertheless, the Specials, a multiracial band that has played numerous benefit concerts for antiracist and antinuclear organizations and recently performed in Britain to aid the Right to Work march protesting unemployment, have always been a cause-oriented group. ''Because we are multiracial, we want to see people live together the same way we work on our music,'' said Lynval Golding, the group's black rhythm guitarist and vocalist. ''Issues like racism and unemployment can't be pushed aside. One reason we aided the Right to Work march was that one in ten people in Britain are unemployed now, which is a lot of people, if you think about it. Most of the Specials are from working-class backgrounds. I know if I didn't have this job to do, I'd probably have been out there doing what those kids were doing during the rioting. You can't blame them for rebelling against the system, because it's the system that has caused the unemployment.'' 'They Aren't Helping Anybody'
''Our government leaders aren't interested in knowing the way people feel,'' Mr. Hall added. ''If they were, they'd just resign, because they aren't helping anybody. The kids can't go to the Prime Minister and say, look, 'We are unemployed, what are you going to do to help us?' There's no way they can approach people like that. So they express themselves by smashing things up.''
Neville Staples, the Specials' black lead vocalist and most manic stage performer, joined the conversation. ''Can you imagine leaving school and just going on the dole,'' he asked, ''with no hope of getting a job? Knowing that for the next 40 or 50 years you probably aren't going to be working? That's really depressing. It's very depressing in England now, and everyone is saying there's more of this to come and worse. I'm just wondering what my kids are going to do.''
The Specials have had a stormy history. They were the first British band to popularize a new kind of rock that was heavily influenced by ska, the Jamaican pop music of the 60's. Two Tone, the record label they started as a home base for bands with similar ska-related styles and similar commitments to racial harmony, eventually lent its name to an entire movement, encompassing popular bands like The Selecter, the English Beat, and Madness. After the Specials burst on the British recording scene at the end of 1979, Two Tone music became extremely popular there, but performances by Two Tone bands sometimes drew crowds that included opposing or hostile elements - blacks and Asians on the one hand, a few neo-Fascists on the other. Several Specials concerts were interrupted by shouts of ''Sieg Heil'' and Nazi salutes, and on more than one occasion, members of the band waded into the crowd to eject hecklers from the premises. A Second U.S. Tour
After more than a year of almost nonstop touring, including a swing through the United States in early 1980 that resulted in remarkably vivid and energizing performances at new-wave clubs like New York's now-defunct Hurrah, the Specials decided to take a vacation. They returned to action recently with their single ''Ghost Town,'' which included an antiracist song by Lynval Golding and a bittersweet partying tune by Terry Hall on its flip side. They also played some benefits before beginning their long-delayed second United States tour, which comes almost a year after the release here by Chrysalis records of their second album, ''More Specials.''
The British music press has been spreading rumors of a Specials breakup recently, but Terry Hall put these rumors in perspective. ''We've all been writing songs that might go on a third Specials album,'' he said, ''but right now we're thinking about Wednesday night's concert, which we've been looking forward to for a long time. When we get back to England, we'll decide what to do next. We learned long ago that planning things far in advance doesn't work for us; we have to plan things from day to day.'' That might help explain how the band managed, apparently without trying, to make a hit single that perfectly mirrored the perilous tenor of its times. Black and British
The Specials have helped create a brand of pop music that appeals to both blacks and whites in Britain. For the most part, British pop since the advent of their Two Tone fusion has either been variations on Two Tone, white rock and popular music, or Jamaican-derived black reggae. But recently, a few of Britain's black musicians have begun to create pop that is both overtly black and overtly British, rather than black and second-generation Jamaican or some species of blackwhite fusion.