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.

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Led Zeppelin, Whole Lotta Love (1969)

led zeppelinII

Artist: Led Zeppelin
Title: Whole Lotta Love
Description: album track, Led Zeppelin II
Label: Atlantic
Release date: 1969
First heard: 1972

Long and hard did I cogitate over which Led Zeppelin track to single out as their pinnacle for The 143. Because the band and their manager were so adamant that their albums were “indivisible” and arrogantly eschewed single releases as part of their deal with Atlantic, it seems counter-intuitive, not to mention rude, to boil them down to one song. But I have. It could have been Kashmir, or Moby Dick, or Communication Breakdown, or Custard Pie, or Good Times Bad Times, or even Stairway To Heaven. But it’s not. It’s their most recognisable song. The Top Of The Pops theme.

Actually, Whole Lotta Love was released as a single in the United States in 1969, apparently without the band’s permission and against the terms of their contract. It went to number four and helped break them in America. This is the inconvenient truth. (It was even edited down from its original 5′ 34″ in the process.) The unifying myth of them not putting out singles elevates them from the rock and pop herd: big and principled, they defied record industry orthodoxy and did it their way. As a massive if belated fan of Led Zep’s work, I bought into this myth with my eyes wide shut. So much of the band is mythology, who wouldn’t “print the legend”?

However antithetical to the legend it may be, they also put it out as a single in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain and Switzerland. That’s a whole lotta Whole Lotta Love. One the most imitable and best remembered guitar riffs in all of rock – thanks to its use over the chart rundown on Top Of The Pops throughout most of the 70s – it’s actually disarming to hear in its primal form and for Robert Plant to start singing over it. But he’s got something important to say, and it’s that he’s gonna give you his love. Not only that but he’s gonna give it to you “way down inside, honey”, not just a lot of his love either, but “every inch.”

That Mr Plant also wants to be “your backdoor man” is as close as this disarmingly direct lyric gets to mystery. (Although I think we know what he’s talking about.) Stuart Maconie wrote a piece for Select about the abject unsuitability of most rock and pop lyrics as chat-up lines and the illustration by the mighty Carl Flint depicted an open-shirted Robert Plant schmoozing a wench at a bar and no doubt suggesting she squeeze his lemon until the juice runs down his leg. It was understood, at sufficient ideological remove, that as long as you thought of Plant as “Percy” he could get away with offensive bawdy nonsense that was otherwise verboten. (Plant actually used the word “wench” to Stuart when he interviewed him on Radio 2; I believe it was an off-air invite to a gig in Birmingham that included a plus-one, ergo, “Bring the wench.”)

Away from the tumescent lyric (Plant later described Led Zep II as “very virile” and has spoken of the band’s “carnal approach”), there’s the riff itself, no less sexual as it pumps urgently and snakily away beneath Plant’s entreaties and guarantees in that famous intro. I looked it up, and Jimmy Page is playing a Telecaster through a Vox Super Beatle, whatever that is. It sounds amazing either way, played twice – hey, probably on a different guitar, don’t ask me. Page and Plant build to Bonzo’s lazy-sounding but laser-guided drum fill that ignites the song and we’re off. Page seems to be playing about three or four parts – and producing himself of course. Bonzo does that salt-shaker rhythm where the whole kit seems to be keeping time under his weight, nothing like as flamboyant and dangerous as the man himself, but as solid.

Yeah, it sounds like a hit single in the making. And then. Not even a minute and a half in, Whole Lotta Love stops being popular music, stops being a future TV theme toon, and starts being jazz-fusion. With every knob on the desk being fiddled by Page and engineer Eddie Kramer so we’re now told, it loops off into a prog hinterland of tickled cymbals, errant percussion, scraped strings, spectral echoes, space traffic, orgasmic monkey noises and then, at the three-minute mark, to the sound of radio station playlist managers heading for the car park, Bonzo signals the song back in, with a Page solo that’s built for the concert arena. But it’s not back on conformist track yet. Plant goes “way down inside”, deserted by all but his own cavernous echo. Further rat-a-tat from Bonzo and it’s a warm welcome back to listeners to the heretical 3’10” “radio edit”.

I think I understand why I have chosen what seems such a first-thought-that-springs-to-mind track by Led Zeppelin: it expresses all the foot-on-floor bluesy orthodoxy and stadium-ready majesty of one of the biggest rock bands of all time. It’s dirty, it’s dangerous, it’s over the top, it’s raw and overcooked at the same time, it’s West Bromwich and the Mississippi Delta, and yet it’s a number one smash hit. Good times, bad times.

These qualities, which ought to work against each other, but in fact find sweet, filthy harmony, are “indivisible”.