brent johnson examines The Specials’ career — and greatest single — as they take their reunion to The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J., this weekend …
Posted by: pop-break | July 19, 2013
Pop-Preview: The Specials at The Stone Pony
It opens with the faint sound of creepy, whistling wind. Then, out of nowhere, comes a blast of eerie horror-movie organ. Soon, a spooky flute melody floats into the mix and ominous voices start singing about a deserted, crumbling landscape.
You’d be forgiven for thinking this is a track on some forgotten Halloween party album.
But in reality, it’s one of the most original, most underappreciated, and most ominous pop songs of the 1980s.
‘Ghost Town’ was the crowning achievement for The Specials, an interracial British band that helped bring Jamaica’s ska movement of the 1960s back to life in the late 1970s. It hit No. 1 on the U.K. charts in the summer of 1981 — a remarkable feat considering it sounded like the work of a demented circus and featured lyrics about the economic crisis and riots that were breaking out across England at the time.
Head to the famed Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J., tomorrow night, and you’ll see The Specials play ‘Ghost Town’ live — a remarkable feat for different reasons. The original lineup of the band (well, most of it) is four years into a prolonged reunion after nearly two decades apart. (One big piece missing is Jerry Dammers, the keyboardist who wrote much of the group’s material.)
If you’re an American who doesn’t spend their time trolling in record shops, this may not mean much to you. After all, The Specials are one in a long line of bands who strike big in their native Britain never to find major success Stateside — i.e., The Jam, The Smiths, Suede, Manic Street Preachers.
But even if the only ska you know comes from early No Doubt, The Specials are wroth getting to know. They formed in the late 1970s in Coventry, a town north of London. Featuring a mixture of white and black members and sporting a full horn section, they spearheaded the 2 Tone movement — aka the second wave of the ska genre — that swept through Britain. (The name “2 Tone” was not only a reference to the black-and-white clothing they wore, but also a nod to the racial unity of the movement.)
Their 1979 self-titled debut album — produced by Elvis Costello and released on Dammers’ own label, 2 Tone Records — was stellar. Their songs were both danceable and catchy — like ‘A Message To You, Rudy,’ which bounced with a pogo-stick rhythm. Their hits often highlighted controversial subjects — like ‘Too Much Too Young,’ a tune about teen pregnancy that also managed to reach No. 1 despite its topic. And they were fronted by Terry Hall, a singer who seemed both unaffected and wildly charming at the same time. (See his spoken introduction to ‘Enjoy Yourself’ — a happy ode to impending doom — is priceless.)
‘Ghost Town’ was actually the original lineup’s last great hurrah. By 1984, Hall had left the group to form Fun Boy Three, scoring a British hit with a song he co-wrote for The Go-Go’s: ‘Our Lips Our Sealed.’ Dammers soldiered on with The Specials for a few years, but by the mid-80s, the band was no more.
Of course, the group was a key influence on the third wave of ska in the late ’80s and early ’90s — a movement that included bands like Sublime and Reel Big Fish. And hipsters and audiophiles continue to gobble up Specials record to play on home hi-fi systems and college radio shows.
Now, they also get to see the band back on stage. Quasi-reunions featuring a few Specials members popped up every now and then over the next 20 years. But it wasn’t until the current lineup — headed by Hall — got together in 2009 that it felt like a true reunion.
The Specials will play at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J., on Saturday, July 20. Doors are 4 p.m. Tickets are available here.