I recently saw Lily Allen performing Gangsters at the Glastonbury Festival with Terry Hall & Lynval Thompson.
In 1979 The Special A.K.A. appeared on Top Of the Pops singing their debut single, Gangsters. They almost immediately changed their name to The Specials. I was still enthused by the tail-end of punk, posthumously listening to the Sex Pistols, championing The Clash, Adam & The Ants and finding my political feet through white punk anarcho-commune sloganists Crass. When along came The Special A.K.A.
Everything about them was totally refreshing, cool, and whacky and above all sounded brilliant. At the tender age of 14, The Specials singled-handily changed the direction of my musical taste for good. They also opened various doors and avenues that broadened my whole musical intake; bold but truisms that I shall back up.
Firstly, what made the Specials stand out was first and foremost that I was blown away by hearing something as different and original as Gangsters. Mid-1979 was somewhere between the end of punk rock, and a never ending list of leather-clad major label plastic punk rockers bashing out three-chord second-rate verse chorus verse chorus pop song after pop song, and a new darker, more intellectual alternative to the blandness of New Wave, much deeper and serious mood swingers such as Echo & the Bunnymen, The Cure & Joy Division. But The Specials were occupying in their very own juxtaposition – a lead singer with as much a disinterested persona as Johnny Rotten himself. Members jumping round a stage not built for seven (yes seven) band members, while still looking menacing and pretty anti-social, and a song that sounded every bit as ‘hard’ and streetwise as The Clash. Furthermore, they looked fucking cool. Tight fit two tone suits, ankle swinging trousers, braces, loafer shoes and pork pie hats – and not a single leather jacket or spiky hairdo in sight!
“Bernie Rhodes guns don’t argue!” the scratchy role call introduction pays immediate homage to Price Buster’s Al Capone in much the same way Oasis ‘borrow’ tunes and lyrics from The Beatles. At the time I don’t think I knew who Bernie Rhodes was, let alone Prince Buster. Rhodes was manager of The Specials and The Clash among others, and Prince Buster was a legendary Jamaican blue beat and ska musician who had limited commercial success in the UK in the late 1960’s.
The timing and beat of the music is most definitely ska, a jarring three/four skipping beat not the four/four rock timing I was familiar with. Ska was an up tempo forerunner of Jamaican reggae music; but the delivery of Gangsters was very much a product of urban white boy post punk angst. The singer, Terry Hall, had an uncomfortable sneer coupled with a bored teenager droll. He looked downright pissed off, full of Rotten-esqe disdain for what he was actually being asked to do, perform in front of the camera, something that was equally apparent when I played the single over and again the very next day. Hall’s mannerism warmed me to the band. His manic psycho killer stare was in complete contrast to the other members as they leapt about like they had ants in their pants.
For me, Gangsters was more important than The Prince in much the way that The Specials were more important than Madness. Both entered the charts simultaneously and introduced ska music, Prince Buster, Rude Boys and Mods to a new generation. But it was Gangsters that was fuelled with the power, energy and aggression of punk; and it The Specials Two Tone record label that lead the way in the ska revival of 1979 – Madness’ debut single The Prince was the second release on the Two Tone label before they opted for major label success.
From Gangsters I remember listening to Prince Buster’s Fabulous Hits round a school friend’s house one lunch time. It was from this that grew an appreciation for ska & blue beat that lead on to dub reggae; and because I guess Gangsters was the main catalyst it should be recognised as a classic song, the first of its kind. For it wasn’t simply a spin on the first wave of ska and reggae music associated with the skinhead youth movement; it was the result of a group of spotty black and white teenagers from Coventry (of all places) that had been touched equally by The Clash as they had been by scratchy old Trojan 45’s.