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.

Dave Brubeck Quartet, Take Five (1959)

DaveBTakeFive

Artist: Dave Brubeck Quartet
Title: Take Five
Description: single; album track, Time Out
Label: Columbia
Release date: 1959
First heard: circa 1970

How do you pinpoint when you first heard one of the most popular jazz hits of all time? Especially one recorded before your parents had even got married. It feels to me as if Take Five has always been in the background, either as the accompaniment to some TV show, laid across a montage or played over a testcard. I may have first heard it in the womb in late 1964 and early 1965, or in my cot thereafter. I usually stick a pin in 1970 as the year I first became aware of which songs I was actually hearing through the radio (the birth of a collector and archivist), although TV theme tunes lodged much earlier, as there’s a feted reel-to-reel recording of me, aged two, parroting the themes to The Monkees, Z-Cars and Dee Time into a fuzzy mic, much to my Dad’s glee.

In a way, it’s immaterial. The Encyclopedia Britannica states that Take Five is the best-selling jazz single of all time and the first to sell a million copies. But since jazz was never really a singles club (and Take Five was a five-and-a-half minute album track by birth, talked down to three for release as a 45 with Blue Rondo A La Turk by CBS boss Goddard Lieberson), it’s the wrong yardstick. What’s remarkable about it is the fact that an instrumental workout in quintuple time inspired by Turkish folk music Brubeck had heard on tour became a hit at all.

I’ve stated elsewhere that jazz entered my life in a more conscious way in the mid-80s, when the form was infusing much of the modern indie pop I was listening to (blimey, including The Cure) and sounding a lot like summer. Also, I’d met a card-carrying jazz musician and expert, fellow art student Dave Keech, whose influence on my musical outlook was as seismic as that of Frank Wilson, my first 6 Music producer, 20 years later. Both men bent my ear away from the pale-faced 4/4 rock that dominated my core. Ironic, you might say, that the first jazz entry in The 143 should come from a white pianist and composer, but the two-tone multi-ethnicity of postwar jazz is what made it so appealing to so many kids in the shadow of the Atom bomb, as likely to tap a toe to the cool jazz of Stan Getz, Chet Baker or Gerry Mulligan as Miles Davis or Dizzy Gillespie. (By the way, don’t be impressed by the way these names trip off my typing fingers; I had literally never heard of these people before Keech became the jazzmaster to my Grasshopper at Nene College.)

Brubeck’s writing partner, saxophonist Paul Desmond, who composed Take Five, was also white. (I just read on Wikipedia that he bequeathed his royalties to the American Red Cross, who still get a “check” every year. What a swell guy.) We have Joe Morello to bow down to for that smoky beat, and Eugene Wright for the sparing stand-up bass, although it’s the foregrounded alchemy of Brubeck’s languid ivory-tickling and Desmond’s airy sax that clinches the tune. You don’t need to be a scholar to surmise that jazz is less about the composition and more about the execution. In this, it’s closer to eternally interpretable classical than the fixed formulas of pop. It’s not dance music, and can be appreciated seated, but let’s not dismiss nodding as anything other than a valid and primal response.

It’s wordless. A play without dialogue. A tune sung by percussion and wind. In this, it’s pretty unique among the “songs” the comprise The 143. We’ve welcomed Archangel by Burial, whose voices are only fragments; I can easily see Green Onions finding a seat here; something from John Murphy’s 28 Weeks Later soundtrack is shortlisted; and distinct passages of Autobahn are instrumental, another essential tune that’s very possibly coming over the hill. But Take Five goes further than all of these contenders, because, in the collective bones of the Quartet, it doesn’t quite know where it’s going, or how it will it all turn out. In this and only this respect is it like the TV series Lost.

Recorded jazz is almost a contradiction in terms. But it’s how we preserve and the Time Out rendition is as near as dammit. Purists will tell you that it’s better on vinyl, too, where, for instance Morello’s kick drum really kicks. I will take this on advisement, for I have not the hardware to play vinyl. Certainly, the key jazz sides I taped off Keech in 1984 were flat and pre-digital, and they were my tablets of stone for a good few years.

Some detail. I will always love a tune that begins with a beat, because the drum is the only instrument I have ever been able to master, but how unintrusive the intro on Take Five, the ride cymbal almost literally tickled and the snare tapped by expertly pulled punches. And how regular and conventional the 5/4 quickly becomes. The high alto coos like a pigeon; it summons images of summer breezes, ceiling fans and open windows – jazz on a summer’s day – while that piano doggedly presses its delicate but hard-wearing underfelt into place beneath. (You may say it’s a thankless task for the bandleader with his name above the title to keep insistently looping that piano signature, but where would we all be without it?) I think I’m right in saying that only on the album version does Morello get to “go round the kit” quite as much as the full length permits. I’m latterly so hooked on the five-and-a-half-minuter I can’t even recall what the foreshortened precis sounds like. It’s unfettered at executive length and yet never reckless or indulgent.

I’m listening to it now. Background music? By definition if you take into the account the way Take Five entered my consciousness by osmosis without ever introducing itself and how snugly it provides accompaniment to imagery. But only if you treat what happens in the background with the utmost respect. True “background music” is exposed if you listen too hard to it. Not this.