The Specials: Back in Black and White
Lynval Golding talks about the Specials with the overjoyed humility of a man whose band has just landed its first legitimate gig. He has plenty of reasons to be excited. Our phone conversation with the guitarist takes place the evening the ska group, reunited after nearly 30 years with all but one of the original members, plays London's Royal Albert Hall as part of Roger Daltrey's Teenage Cancer Trust concert series. "It's a venue I've always dreamed of performing in," Golding says.
Afterward, the band members will parade their porkpie hats across America once again, starting with a sold-out night at Club Nokia (their first full stateside stop since 1981), followed by a set before a crowd at Coachella that'll be anything but a ghost town.
Blame the young 'uns. The Specials' influence didn't end with the unofficial third wave of Cali ska bands in the '90s. The three years since Golding and singer Terry Hall joined Lily Allen at Glastonbury have yielded an extensive British tour in 2009, the obligatory NME covers, and requisite lifetime-achievement awards and tributes by younger artists. These range from Amy Winehouse's cover of the doo-wop–flavored "Hey, Little Rich Girl" to Kasabian's take on their first hit, the ode to zero population growth "Too Much Too Young."
"It was public demand," Golding says. "At the end of the day, it's all down to the fans."
The only fly in the ale (and a large one for many) is the absence of keyboardist Jerry Dammers, the group's founding member and one of the architects of the U.K. ska revival.
Through his label 2 Tone Records, Dammers championed Madness, the Selecter and the (English) Beat. While their label mates were more on the fun-loving side of the ska spectrum, the Specials were the music's magnificent and multiracial seven, their fusion of ska and punk an aural time capsule of '70s British politics: unemployment, racism, hate crimes and running from the National Front.
And none of the other bands had a frontman as cool as Hall. He was the band's attitude personified, whether sneering at the institution of marriage, pleading for racial harmony or bemoaning the "slags," pissy beer and general drabness of small-town life in Coventry. All of this, years before pub-crawling laddish rockers Oasis and Arctic Monkeys were celebrated for doing the same.
By the time the group completed two brief U.S. tours in 1980 and 1981 (which included supporting the Police, an appearance on Saturday Night Live and a four-night stint at the Whisky), the Specials were on their last legs. Golding can't remember most of it. "My head was on a different planet," he says. "We were drinking so much at the time it was like one huge city."
Following the breakup, percussionist and co-singer Neville Staple would form the new-wave Fun Boy Three with Golding and Hall in the early '80s, while guitarist Roddy Byers, bassist Horace Panter and drummer John Bradbury went in and out of various Specials-inspired splinter groups over the years.
Hall — still a notorious sourpuss and the unlikeliest of the bunch to wanna skank down memory lane — has also released two solo albums and worked with artists as disparate as the Lightning Seeds, Sinéad O'Connor, Gorillaz and Tricky.
Dammers currently fronts the Spatial A.K.A Orchestra, a free-jazz outfit. When asked about re-forming the band for a tour, he favored hitting the studio before hitting the road.
"We wanted to play for the fans because we haven't played in 28 years," Golding explains. "The fans would want to hear the music the way we recorded it the first time around. But Jerry didn't want to do it that way. He wanted to start tweaking [the songs]. There's seven of us, and six of us said, 'No, let's do it the way the fans want to do it.' "
Golding knows a thing or two about democracy. The Jamaican immigrant has been living in Seattle for the past 13 years and, though he's not a U.S. citizen, he volunteered for Barack Obama's presidential campaign.
In a sense, Golding's political involvement mirrors what the Specials have always set out to achieve. "If we can make music work from all our different backgrounds," he asks, "why can't people live together? It doesn't matter what religion you are. By the way, my religion is love. That is the true religion of the world."
THE SPECIALS play Club Nokia on Thursday, April 15.
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