The Specials are back, and they aren’t playing around.
The founding fathers of Britain’s 2-Tone ska revival—Terry Hall, Lynval Golding and Horace Panter—are still dealing with the same shit they were singing against in 1981. Racism, gun violence, catcalling…things haven’t changed all that much.
“Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys” calls for a world where race is dissolved and white supremacy no longer exists. “It’s a brand-new day/with brand new people,” is a little simplistic, but Panter’s bass is as funky as it’s ever been.
The disco stylings carry over to “B.L.M” as Golding tells the story of his family’s immigration from Jamaica to England, and his own experiences in America. “I’m not here to teach you, I’m not here to preach to you, I just want to reach out.” Golding’s father saw British racism as he searched for a new life. Golding saw British racism. He’s still seeing racism, even as he’s trying to buy a watch for his sister in America, even as the helpful shop woman insists, after spitting a racist epithet at him, cheerfully concludes he’s not one of those when she hears his Jamaican accent. He finishes by stating “Black Lives Matter” and then it’s onto the next song. It’s the most powerful track on the album, and as such, “Vote For Me,” the lead single, feels weak by comparison.
And the feminists among listeners get their own song guest artist Saffiyah Khan, the socialist activist and model who was photographed staring down neo-Nazis in Birmingham busts out her “10 Commandments” demanding in equal parts dry weariness and give-no-fucks attitude. “Thou shalt not tell a girl she deserved it because her skirt was too short.” The band noted she was wearing a Specials shirt in the photo of the cops hauling her away and invited her to a gig, and her presence elevates the album towards a more truly inclusive experience for the listener.
We all have someone we picture when we hear Golding sing “We didn’t fight for freedom for nasty little brutes like you,” on “Embarrassed By You.” Maybe it’s someone from high school who crops up on Facebook, or a dough-faced, MAGA hat-wearing little toad who shows up at rallies to “trigger the libs.” It’s the only downside of an otherwise great song; the mere image that it conjures fills your whole body with angry bees.
Protest music is, by nature, didactic, but The Specials are clever enough to tread that line and never cross it. “Blam Blam Fever” probably comes the closest; a mildly generic reggae tune about gun violence that sounds more like a knock-off tune to be sung during assembly in high school. And while I appreciate tunes that call out the NRA and pay homage to the kids of Parkland, it’s preaching to the converted, an easy way for the listener to pat themselves on the back and say “There, we did it, we solved the problem.”
But musically, The Specials sound is more The Coup than the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. It’s danceable, sure, but there’s a sinister edge, and the album spans more than just your classic ska and reggae beats. It’s easy to listen to, easy to get lost in. Music to fight the power by.