For the Specials -- a band that vividly captured the decaying, recession-hit atmosphere of post-industrial Britain in the late-1970s -- to mean so much in the sunny, palm-tree flecked landscape of Southern California is something that no music fan could have possibly imagined.
Yet, over the last four decades, the Coventry ska-punk pioneers have become cultural touchstones in much of the Golden State. As the band promote their new album Encore (their first since 2001) on a 40th anniversary tour of North America, the Specials have been soaking up the SoCal love. On Saturday night (June 1), they played to a packed Novo in downtown Los Angeles -- their fourth show in the region in a week that’s also seen them honored for their influence by Los Angeles City Council, who declared May 29 to be The Specials Day.
“I heard Morrissey had a day, but I didn’t think that would happen to us,” singer Terry Hall told Billboard backstage at the Novo. “It’s a lovely thing -- a real honor. We’ve always had a good following here, but there’s no link between Coventry and Los Angeles.” Or at least, there wasn’t until the Specials unwittingly made one.
Hall, guitarist Lynval Golding, and bassist Horace Panter are the only members left from the band’s classic line-up, which burned bright and produced fireworks for a very short time. Their debut single “Gangsters” dropped in 1979 on their own newly minted 2-Tone Records label, a vision of racial and musical integration (right down to the black and white checkerboard logo) conceived by keyboardist and songwriter Jerry Dammers. The Specials’ breakneck melding of ska energy, reggae melodies and punk aggression struck an instant chord.
The Specials scored a string of UK Top 10 singles and a lauded, Elvis Costello-produced, self-titled debut album followed -- but success came at a price. Their shows were dogged by violence, while musical disagreements over their 1980 album More Specials eventually led to Hall, Golding and vocalist Neville Staples quitting the band in 1981 to form Fun Boy Three. Dammers carried the band through several rounds of line-up changes that resulted in 1984’s In The Studio, but the Specials dissolved shortly after.
Their influence grew over time, however, especially thousands of miles away in Southern California, where the-then dominant alternative radio station KROQ continued to expose listeners to the group’s classic singles. Meanwhile, a new wave of ska-punk bands including Sublime, Reel Big Fish, Rancid and more picked up the Specials’ baton.
Of these acts, No Doubt was especially in awe of the band. “They represent unity,” bassist Tony Kanal told Billboard before the Novo show. “The mix of punk, reggae, and the spirit of bringing all races together -- it was tremendously important to us as kids, and even more so now, in this period of disunity.”
After spending years building up a fanbase with their own frenetic shows, the Anaheim quartet became superstars with 1995’s Billboard No. 1 album Tragic Kingdom. With the world watching, they were generous in paying tribute to the Specials, frequently covering “Ghost Town” live and inviting Hall to cameo in their “Sunday Morning” video. “I didn’t do much, I just sat on a swing,” deadpans Hall.
Aside from the musical impact, the Specials’ racial and cultural blending has undoubtedly echoed across the diverse makeup of Los Angeles and the surrounding areas. During the ceremony to mark the establishment of The Specials Day, councilwoman Monica Rodriguez drew direct lines between the Coventry of 1979 and the Los Angeles of today.
“The late ‘70s was a time filled with racial tensions,” she said. "But the Specials were made up of both black and white performers, and their lyrics encouraged racial harmony while celebrating our many differences. For me, [Specials Day] was really an opportunity for us… to recognize and uplift individuals that are contributing to helping spread the word and the message that together, embracing our uniqueness and our differences makes us far more powerful. That is who we are in Los Angeles.”
But while the Specials' influence on Southern California is being rightly recognized, there is a broader importance to their current activity. Encore is an album that has arrived in a divided and threatening era that bears an uncanny resemblance to the social and political climate that birthed them. That fact was underlined by their set at the Novo, where new track “Embarrassed By You," a scathing critic of street violence, segued naturally with classics such as “A Message to You Rudy,” while the political frustration of “Vote For Me” went hand-in-hand with the street level horrors of “Do the Dog.” It feels like an uncomfortably relevant time for them to be here again.
The passing of 40 years means the Specials no longer operate at the blistering pace of old, but there is still a stately energy to everything they play. During “Concrete Jungle,” a spirited mosh pit broke out as Golding added to the theater by throwing some mock punches, simulating the violence depicted in the song, while the main-set finale of “Gangsters” and “Too Much, Too Young” both still felt like solid gold skanking anthems.
Los Angeles has become a spiritual home for the Specials, but even with this new official honor, Hall is not one to over-romanticize. “You can’t always connect things up, sometimes they just happen,” he adds. "Overall, I tend to think about different things…like House Hunters on HGTV.”