The Specials - Encore - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

The Specials - Encore

by Kevin Orton Rating:8 Release Date:2019-02-01
The Specials - Encore
The Specials - Encore

I remember the first time I heard the Specials in high school. It was the early 80’s and if Ska was hip, the Specials were not only the poster boys but the reason why. Their performance on Saturday Night Live is still mind-blowing after all these years. Without a doubt, they were one of the most groundbreaking bands to come out of the UK Post Punk scene. Their Mod look set the trend for many to follow. Musically, that was even more the case. They brought a fresh, winning combo of 2 Tone, Ska, Reggae and Punk to the table. A sound, bands like Madness and The Beat would pounce on. What’s more, The Specials burst on an exclusively white UK Punk scene, with a line-up that was deliberately racially integrated. Anti-racism was at the forefront of their agenda. Songs like, ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ left little room for doubt. Nor did they shy away from controversy. Songs like ‘The Boiler’ dealt explicitly with date rape, while ‘’Too Much Too Young’ advocated birth control. Their classic ‘Ghost Town’ took on inequality and economic exploitation.   

It's been 37 years since we last heard from the Specials. Now, reunions are never what they’re cracked up to be. At best they’re a mixed bag. At worse, they’re The Stooges’, Weirdness. I wouldn’t say The Specials’ Encore is a mixed bag. And it’s a far cry from a disappointment. Musically, it's top notch. You get hooked from the first groove. And that signature Special’s sound is alive and well in places. If there’s one misstep it might be one too many spoken word pieces. But that's just a matter of subjective taste. 

Things kick off with a cover of Eddy Grant and the Equals’, ‘Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys.’ Before The Specials, The Equals were another pioneering Rock outfit. Putting forth an integrated front in the face of a white-dominated Rock scene.  It all goes to show, The Specials’ agenda remains steadfast and unchanged, “Black skin blue eye boys ain’t gonna start no wars”.

Lynval Golding’s autobiographical ‘B.L.M.’ is spoken word set to an infectious backbeat. Detailing his move from Jamaica to the UK and later experience in the USA. He bluntly lays out the different bands of racism on offer in both locales. Different names, same shame. “I’m not here to teach you, I’m not here to preach to you, I just want to reach out to you.”

Both ‘Black Skin’ and ‘B.L. N.” have a lot to commend them but ‘Vote For Me’ has that vintage Specials sound fans are drooling for. ‘The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum’ continues gloriously in this vein. Simply irresistible. Originally cut with Hall and Golding’s Fun Boy Three, this updated version goes to show how prescient and sadly universal it is all is. For my money, I prefer this dazzling piano-driven version to the somewhat dated Fun Boy Three.

‘Breaking Point’ is another welcome return to form. “Twinkle twinkle little star, point me to the nearest bar” clearly plays on Kurt Weil’s ‘Alabama Song’. Like Weil, The Specials manage to combine didactic civil outrage with deranged camp Folksiness. If this is the sound of the breaking point, it’s got a great beat and you can dance to it. It also has more than a little something going on beneath the pork pie hat.  

“Did you read the news, I’m a bit confused,” Terry Hall chants on, ‘Blam Blam Fever’. While their anti-gun agenda leaves little room for interpretation, musically this is a wildly eclectic mix of Reggae, Cole Porter and Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’. A song that manages to mix irony and charm with biting outrage. “Gun fever is back,” but so are the Specials. And they aren’t about to turn a blind eye to the insanity going on.

‘The 10 Commandments’ heads back to spoken word territory, narrated by British activist, Saffiyah Khan. A sharp, powerful jab at patriarchy, sexism, and white supremacy. “You can call me a feminazi or a femoid and then see if I give a stinking shit.” “You can cat call me on the street, but thou should take note I’ll cat call you back.” If it all sounds strident, that’s the point exactly. To not take this shit anymore. Musically, the Clash’s Sandinista can’t help but come to mind.  

On ‘Embarrassed By You’ there’s no question the kid gloves are off and they’re pulling no punches. “We never fought for freedom for nasty little brutes like you to come undo the work we do.” While plenty of white nationalists from Trump to Le Pen come to mind, the Specials never sully their tongues by dropping any of their foul names.   

‘The Life and Times of a Man (Called Depression)’ has an infectious groove, with some Doorsy, ‘Riders On the Storm’ flourishes. But ‘Depression’ once again finds us in spoken word territory. Depending on your taste, either third time’s a charm or this approach overstays its welcome. 

If you ask me, The Specials save the best for last. The brooding, ‘We Sell Hope’ is the album’s most haunting track. “If night is day, then day is night,” Hall laments. In terms of parting shots, its right on target. Blasting the clay pigeons of alternative fact out of the sky and revealing the one true thing necessary for survival: “We got to take care of each other.”

Encore isn’t going to rival the Specials’ classic work, but there is a lot of great stuff going on here that might have you coming back for more than one listen. For any perceived flaws, it’s a worthy addition to their catalog. Undeniably true to the band’s vision and integrity.  And I’ll be damned if you can’t dance to it. It's delightful to have them back. Hopefully, they won’t wait another 37 years for the next one.

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