music journalism, Op-Ed

The Specials and Rock Against Racism

Over time the entire body of work of any given musical artist becomes boiled down to a specific purpose; sometimes a specific song. History allows us to look back and classify, often also to simplify in order to better understand. The Specials are a band that time has been kind to; a band whose formation, raison d’être, message, and musical achievements are focused around anti-racism. In 1976, England saw an uptick in white nationalism, and the campaign Rock Against Racism was created to steer young people away from racist sentiments. The Specials were instrumental to the Rock Against Racism movement.

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The Specials uniqueness comes hand in hand with the simplicity of their goal: to form a mix-race Ska/2 Tone band. Founder Jerry Dammers’ desire to be part of a political movement meant that the band needed to embody the change it wanted to see. If their band could survive as a multi-ethnic entity, so could Great Britain. Kids across from all backgrounds could pick up The Specials’ LP (cleverly entitled Specials) and see someone who looked just like them. What’s more, they made music that sounded cool; and, in 1970’s England, that was all every rude-boy cared about. You could listen to “Too Much Too Young” and groove – while lyrics promoting contraception (a very radical idea for the late 1970s) were etched into your brain. And when you said to your friend “check out this cool song by The Specials!” you were inadvertently promoting the progressive ideals the band espoused. I mean, hey, what’s cooler than singing about birth control?

In this regard, The Specials were genius. Propelled by word of mouth through the sheer popularity of their songs, the growing momentum of Rock Against Racism and identifiable with rude-boy/mod fashion, The Specials married commercial success with progressive political drive.

They continued to gain political acclaim with the song “Free Nelson Mandela” off their second album (aptly titled More Specials). Despite the album’s waning commercial success, “Free Nelson Mandela” became an anthem for the Anti-Apartheid movement. (Although it would take another six years after the release of “Free Nelson Mandela” to free Nelson Mandela).

All of this is intrinsic to the story of The Specials (and their reunion in 2009, without Jerry Dammers). What makes it interesting now is this: when a magazine like The New Statesmen compiles its Top 20 Political Songs (“Free Nelson Mandela” ranks second behind “This Land is Your Land”), where do we have to go? In 2007 I made my way to Washington D.C. for an anti-war rally. We marched through the streets with a mobile stereo system under their campaign of “Funk the War”. Who’s music did we play? It was not our own – it was from bands like The Specials and the rest of top twenty list.

In the England of Jerry Dammers’ heyday the issues were black and white. What type of band would he have assembled today in the face of these murky socio-political, economically and environmentally unstable times? It would have to be a 600-piece orchestra. I hope The Specials are willing to expand.