The Specials

The Specials

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A perfect moment in time captured on vinyl forever, such is the Specials' eponymous debut album; it arrived in shops in the middle of October 1979 and soared into the U.K. Top Five. It was an utter revelation -- except for anyone who had seen the band on-stage, for the album was at its core a studio recording of their live set, and at times even masquerades as a gig. There were some notable omissions: "Gangsters," for one, but that had already spun on 45, as well as the quartet of covers that would appear on their live Too Much Too Young EP in the new year. But the rest are all here, 14 songs' strong, mostly originals, with a few covers of classics thrown in for good measure. That includes their fabulous take on Dandy Livingstone's "A Message to You Rudy," an equally stellar version of the Maytals' "Monkey Man," and the sizzling take on Prince Buster's "Too Hot." If those were fabulous, their own compositions were magnificent. The Specials managed to distill all the anger, disenchantment, and bitterness of the day straight into their music. The vicious "Nite Klub" -- with its unforgettable line, "All the girls are slags and the beer tastes just like piss" -- perfectly skewered every bad night the members had ever spent out on the town; "Blank Expression" extended the misery into unwelcoming pubs, while "Concrete Jungle" moved the action onto the streets, capturing the fear and violence that stalked the inner cities. And then it gets personal. "It's Up to You" throws down the gauntlet for those who disliked the group, its music, and its stance, while simultaneously acting as a rallying cry for supporters. "Too Much Too Young" shows the Specials' disdain for teen pregnancy and marriage; "Stupid Marriage" drags two such offenders before a Judge Dread-esque magistrate, with Terry Hall playing the outraged and sniping prosecutor; while "Little Bitch" is downright nasty. Those were polemics; "It Doesn't Make It Alright" reaches a hand out to listeners and, with conviction, delivers up a heartfelt plea against racism, but even this number contains a sharp sting in its tail. It's a bitter brew, aggressively delivered, with even the slower numbers sharply edged, and therefore the band wisely scattered sparkling covers across the album to help lift its mood. The set appropriately ends with the rocksteady-esque yearning of "You're Wondering Now," the song that invariably closed their live shows. Even though producer Elvis Costello gave the record a bright sound, it doesn't lighten the dark currents that run through the group's songs; if anything, his production heightens them. It's left to guests Rico Rodriguez and Dick Cuthell to provide a little Caribbean sun to the Specials' sound, their brass sweetening the flashes of anger and disaffection that sweep across the record. And so, this was Britain in late 1979, an unhappy island about to explode.

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