The Specials, Gangsters (1979)

SpecialsGangsters

Artist: The Specials
Title: Gangsters
Description: single
Label: 2 Tone
Release date: 1979
First heard: 1979

There follow two fairly faithfully transcribed entries from my 1980 diary.

Sunday, 10 February
Did my Smash Hits Specials album competition entry. Rather hopeful. Only six winners. Had to design 2 Tone man for record of choice. I did Smash It Up. You never know …

Friday, 7 March
Craig bought Smash Hits for me because I have come in the top six in the 2 Tone competition. My entry’s bin printed. It’s really good to see my name in the mag in print. I’ll be getting a Specials album. Goodo.

The first Specials LP duly arrived in the post, slightly bent but free of charge. I was excited about winning this prize, but perhaps more so about having my own drawing of Walt Jabsco, the 2 Tone mascot, “smashing up” some vinyl records to echo the Damned hit Smash It Up, printed in my favourite magazine. It was a victorious time for all of us, as 2 Tone – the name of a Coventry indie label which also stood for the ska revival movement itself – was a win-win. In repackaging a Jamaican form not previously known to most of us, but refracted through the prism of punk energy, related multiracial detente and Midlands stoicism, it slotted perfectly into the tribal landscape of Thatcher’s Britain, and gave even the most provincial among us something to think about.

The broader mod revival was easy to dress for (my younger brother took to wearing his school blazer down town at weekends, matched with a thin tie and some suitable target badges from the market) and if you preferred, as I did, to fashion yourself after punk, you didn’t have to be against ska. Into my already strictly coded “punk” singles collection went 2 Tone seven-inches in their distinctive paper sleeves, and we all got along famously. My friend Craig even invested in Skinhead Moonstomp by Symarip, and we all danced to it, even though none of us had a skinhead. But the Specials, aka The Special AKA, had been the first to convert us, and for that they remained supreme.

Too Much Too Young, A Message To You Rudy, Concrete Jungle, Rat Race, Nite Club, there wasn’t a selection on The Specials that we didn’t rate, or stomp to. Some of us aped Chas Smash’s bendy shapes, too. We welcomed The Selector, The Beat (initially on Go Feet) and even Bad Manners and the Bodysnatchers into our bedrooms. But Gangsters is where it all started and Gangsters is where we went back to. As with The Prince by Madness, released a month afterwards, Gangsters had history built in. It was a reworking of Al Capone by the Prince himself, Buster. But much was gained in translation.

The screeching of tyres and the in-joke rewording of “Al Capone knows, don’t argue” to “Bernie Rhodes” (the much-maligned Clash manager who briefly handled the Specials) announce a record that would change lives in the UK. Where our beloved punk and new wave records kicked and elbowed, this new, worldly record bounced and syncopated, its hiccuping rhythm seemingly sung as well as wristed by guitarists Lynval Golding and Roddy Radiation. I hadn’t been there to witness the actual birth of punk, but 2 Tone burst from its sac before our very ears. The skies were blackened with pork pie hats. (I never had the hat. Nor did anybody in Northampton that I knew.)

It was all about the black and white, the two skin tones of the Specials, the Beat and the Selector (although not Madness), the contrast – literally – between the two. Northampton was a predominantly white bread town, but this seemed a wider, national move toward racial coalition, and there was clearly only one side to be on, that of both sides. If West Indian culture could be so sincerely and idiosyncratically filtered through Coventry and Birmingham to create this thrilling new hybrid, then mixed was the only colour in town. It’s quite a thing, looking back from my privileged position of over 30 years living in melting-pot London from the vantage point of so much enlightenment, that some seven-inch singles in 1979 and 1980 must have cast such a liberating, liberal spell over us.

The lyrics of Gangsters, a Jerry Dammers composition, touch on Cagney, Raft and Muni (“Don’t call me Scarface”), but paint a modern urban picture of distrust, paranoia and threat.

Why must you record my phone calls?
Are you planning a bootleg LP?

He knows what he’s doing when he gets Terry Hall to repeat the word “dread” in the line, “I dread – dread – to think what the future will bring”, recalling as it does fear and loathing, but also the street poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Dread Beat an’ Blood, all grist to our duotonal mill. The idea that the police state might “confiscate all your guitars” is an inspired rock’n’roll recontextualisation of Orwellian angst. “And Catch 22 says if I sing the truth, they won’t make me an overnight star.”

It was Hall who became the overnight star, with his eyeliner, his nasal sneer and his close crop. That slight lean and the blank-eyed gaze fixed somewhere in the middle-distance (far beyond the kids in v-necks chickening away in the audience at Top Of The Pops) made him an instant rock’n’roll model and if anything updated ska for our concrete jungle, it was his faraway deadpan. Flanked by the hyperactive Golding and Neville Staples, his was the true punk presence in amid the night moves.

It’s rare for music to summon up the anxiety of a lyric in the instrumentation, but Gangsters does just that during the passage, “Don’t offer us legal protection, they use the law to commit crime”, where, spiced only by an Egyptian sounding keyboard doodle from Dammers, John Bradbury’s almost militarily precise snarework creates a modern malaise which may well have had roots in amphetamines of which we had no working knowledge. Then it’s back into the dancehall groove to end. Though it’s fast and furious, you can hear Ghost Town prefigured here – the howling wind, the desolation, the ironic pre-apocalyptic party mood – but for now, we’re living in gangster time.

I finally saw the Specials live in 2009, at Glastonbury, in the afternoon. Terry was still doing that lean and gaze, Lynval and Neville were still leaping around, Brad was still lock-tight, only Jerry Dammers – was he pushed? did he jump? – was absent from this viable nostalgia band. They were among the very best acts I saw over that lost weekend, even if the pies were a little porkier.

Bob Marley & The Wailers, No Woman, No Cry (Live) (1975)

BobMarleyLive

Artist: Bob Marley & The Wailers
Title: No Woman, No Cry (Live)
Description: album track, Live!
Label: Island
Release date: 1975
First heard: 1980

Just as we learned about the United States of America from the movies, we learned about Jamaica from reggae. Just as musically hungry residents of the fifth largest island country in the Caribbean got their jazz and R&B from US forces radio in the 50s, which helped fertilize the birth of ska and rocksteady, here in the UK we relied heavily on the likes of Island and Trojan for our understanding of reggae, which first infiltrated the charts through Eric Clapton before demand for the real thing took over. Cloaked in the smoke of myth and misinformation, reggae and Rastafari seemed exotic and aspirational: the big hats, the dope, the dub plates, the low-speed patois, Haile Selassie, Marcus Garvey, the uprising against colonial thumb. Punk embraced it. We embraced it.

It is a simple fact that Bob Marley was the first rock star of reggae. The leonine, dressed-down, kickabout messiah looked and sounded like he could lead an exodus anywhere, any time he liked. He and the original Wailers toured the UK’s clubs, polytechnics and Top Ranks in ’73 and ’74, but it was the two nights at London’s Lyceum ballroom in ’75 after a long tour of the States in support of Natty Dread that gave us the monumental Live! album, and with it the definitive version of No Woman, No Cry. It does not strike me as perverse to enter the concert recording of what is, for me, their greatest song, into The 143. I am hardly the first to favour it over the 1974 studio original.

Arranged on the album by Hammond organist Jean Roussel, the keyboardist who sets the live rendition sail is new member Tyrone Downie, basically playing the vocal line, which causes sections of the ecstatic London audience to sing along even before the I Threes start mellifluously wailing. There’s a full minute of this somnolent, take-your-time intro and no showmanship intrudes on the vibe; new drummer Carlton Barrett and his bassist brother Aston “Family Man” keep the patient, confident beat, Alvan Patterson skims in a bit of bongo, while guitarist Al Anderson largely keeps his powder dry, content to simply catch the downbeat. (He’ll have his Eagles-style solo about four minutes in.) Bob’s first croak is not even that loud in the mix, and he sounds like he’s done every one of the previous 34 American shows, but it’s all the more plaintive for that. Sore throats and a touch of feedback remind us it’s live. Even the feedback is cool.

That first verse is so evocative of a home turf Marley and the Wailers haven’t even seen for six weeks, you can feel the pang of what the Welsh call hiraeth as Bob remembers sitting in the Government Yard in Trench Town, “observing the ’ypocrites” as they “mingle with the good people we meet.” There’s emptiness and longing in the talk of “good friends we’ve lost along the way”, not to mention a hint of Jamaica’s mortality rate, but optimism and pragmatism in the command to “dry your tears, I say.” Everything, after all, is gonna be alright.

The best reggae lyrics – in common, perhaps, with country’s – do not mince words. While not everything is literally spelt out, it’s unlikely to be obfuscated by metaphor. We hear, again nostalgically, that “Georgie would make the fire lights”, upon which “cornmeal porridge” was cooked and then shared. Never bothering to look it up, I always heard Bob sing, “My faith is my only carriage” – metaphor alert! – but the Internet tells me it’s the more terrestrial “feet“. With the Jamaican pronunciation (“fait‘”), you can empathise with my mishearing, but in the final analysis both versions work for me.

The advantage of a live recording, aside from the satisfying verité of hearing musicians ply their trade without overdubs, is the context. The reaction of the audience becomes part of the performance. Literally so, when what we may assume is a multi-ethnic throng joins in and preempts (producing a haunting pre-echo on the chorus). But this speaks of communality and where better to join hands with your fellow man than at a Bob Marley gig? In the mid-70s! Nobody in that ballroom is going to enunciate the words like Bob does, but it’s sweet hearing them try.

It’s seven minutes long. Another plus. Let’s be brutally frank, there is noodling, including some dextrous but surplus Hammond detail in the finish, but nobody in the room wants this one to end and that sense of gratitude seeps from the sum of its parts. Loose-limbed and lazy-sounding might be the modus operandi, but the Wailers’ command over the occasion is calculated and precise, and the rousing “everything’s gonna be alright” section takes off and lands right on schedule.

Marley wrote more political songs in his foreshortened lifetime and poppier ones. He proved himself a formidable albums artist, and yet the first posthumous compilation Legend sealed his reputation as one of the century’s master singles artists.

I never owned the big albums at the time – I always had a friend who did – so it was always the hits for me. I saw the Sisters Of Mercy at the Lyceum, my only pilgrimage to this seat of musical learning. There was a lot of smoke then, too.