The Specials Talk Reunion Album & Recording With Viral Activist Saffiyah Khan


The Specials didn’t want anybody to validate Encore (Feb. 1), their first album of recent materials since 1980 or 1998, relying on the way you rely. Even with solely three of seven authentic members nonetheless within the fold, the British ska veterans discover themselves in a world wracked by racism, xenophobia, and different points they battled with weaponized dance music 40 years in the past. A bat-signal with their brand ought to’ve have gone up the second the Brexit vote got here down.

But if The Specials had been in search of somebody to reaffirm their relevance, they couldn’t have discovered anybody higher than Saffiyah Khan, the 21-year-old half-Pakistani, half-Bosnian activist and mannequin from Birmingham, England, who offers the album’s most incendiary efficiency.

Khan visitors on “10 Commandments,” a feminine response to Jamaican ska legend Prince Buster’s 1967 monitor of the identical identify. Buster’s authentic is a hyper-sexist rant wherein he orders womenfolk to obey him, caress him, forgive his transgressions, and promise to not cross him, lest they incur a violent wrath they’ll absolutely deserve. Khan is just not impressed by his machismo.

“Thou shalt not take heed to Prince Buster or another man providing kindly recommendation in issues of my very own conduct,” Khan declares in her first commandment, talking with icy cool atop a frigid dub-reggae groove. If you already know something about Khan and her outstanding rise to fame, it’s straightforward to image her facial features as she drops her feminist bombs.

Khan turned a viral phenomenon in April 2017, when she was photographed standing nose to nose with a pacesetter of the far-right English Defense League throughout certainly one of their rallies in Birmingham. In the picture, Khan grins calmly as the person stares her down, radiating hatred, seemingly able to pounce. Khan didn’t go to the demonstration in search of bother, however when members of the staunchly anti-Muslim EDL surrounded a girl in a scarf, she needed to step in.

While all this was taking place, Khan was carrying a Specials t-shirt beneath her denim jacket. It’s plain as day within the photographs of her smiling as she’s led away by police. Khan found the band the Internet as an adolescent and shortly discovered that her father had grown up with their music again within the ‘80s. Both father and daughter had been drawn to The Specials for extra than simply the infectious vitality of hits like “Gangsters” and “Too Much Too Young.”

As leaders of the two Tone label and motion within the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, The Specials sought to unite black and white children via music. The septet featured a nattily dressed multiracial lineup and raucous sound constructed from English punk rock and Jamaican ska. They made pop with function, and for a pair years, as racial tensions flared up throughout England, they had been the most popular factor on 14 legs.

“The Specials, for me, reignited the thought of honor and unity being intrinsic to all anti-racist struggles,” Khan tells Billboard. “They reside proof that such politics will stand the take a look at of time and transcend religions and colours.”

After photographs of Khan’s standoff exploded on the Internet, Specials rhythm guitarist Lynval Golding reached out and invited her to a present. “My household beloved it, and my dad teared up after we went to satisfy them after,” says Khan. “Lynval did a little bit shoutout for me throughout the set. My household, being as unhip as potential, did all of the pointing and the waving, at which level I pretended I didn’t know them.”

Meeting Khan additionally made an enormous impression on Golding. “She was thanking us for uplifting her, and I used to be like, ‘Thank you for uplifting us,’” he says. “We bought the band collectively 40 years in the past, and which means so much: It wasn’t wasted time. The Specials’ music actually touched a younger 20-year-old woman. This is what it’s all about.’”

Just a few months later, Specials lead singer Terry Hall reached out to Khan with the thought showing on their new album, the primary to characteristic his vocals because the group’s 1980 sophomore effort, More Specials. (In the ‘90s and ‘00s, Hall-free iterations of the band launched three covers LPs and one disc of authentic materials, 1998’s Guilty ‘til Proved Innocent.) Khan could also be the kind of one that’ll stand fearlessly within the face of hatred, however she admits to being extraordinarily nervous about rocking the mic alongside her heroes.

“If you set that job earlier than any Specials fan, you'd in all probability get the identical response,” says Khan. “It was one of many single most overwhelming duties I've ever been set, and even now that I’ve written the lyrics, I don’t really feel like I've achieved them justice.”

Khan agonized for weeks over her commandments, solely to complete them up the evening earlier than the London recording session. Hall made a number of last-minute edits, and he or she nailed her vocal in a few hours. Khan needn’t fear the completed product: Her efficiency is offended, assured, and at instances humorous, like when she blasts “pseudo-intellectuals on the Internet” and warns catcalling dudes on the road that she’ll catcall them proper again.

“We stated, ‘We’ll carry you up on our shoulders and allow you to say what you need to say—it’s your time to shout now,’” says Golding. “We gave her room to do her factor. I’m actually happy with the way in which she went about it.”

“10 Commandments” is certainly one of three spoken-word songs on the coronary heart of Encore. Given that Hall, Golding, and bassist Horace Panter are the one authentic Specials alongside for the trip, it’s cheap for even hardcore followers to be skeptical in regards to the mission. But the remaining trio delivers a pointy, mature, musically stunning album that’s applicable for the instances and respectful of two Tone’s legacy. And they achieve this with a good bit of speaking.

On the wah-wah-powered funk-ska exercise “B.L.M.,” Golding tells his life story starting together with his father’s transfer from Jamaica to England within the early ‘50s. This was a time when Great Britain was encouraging individuals from its Caribbean territories to return over and assist rebuild the nation after World War II. But Golding’s father arrived to seek out indicators studying “No Dogs, No Irish, No Blacks” in boarding-house home windows. As we be taught, Golding obtained an analogous welcome when he came to visit from Jamaica within the ‘60s. By the ultimate verse, we’re in Golding’s present residence, America, the place the racial slurs are completely different however the identical ugly story previous performs itself out.

Sexism and racism are clearly sizzling subjects within the age of Trump and Brexit, and maybe not coincidentally, so is psychological well being. Hall speaks about his struggles with bipolar dysfunction on “The Life and Times (Of a Man Called Depression),” a rubbery lounge-pop tune punctuated by nervy brass straight out of More Specials.

Hall tells his story with heat and candor and not one of the frosty deadpan he was recognized for again within the heyday of The Specials. The tune speaks to the progress he’s made since lastly being identified as bipolar following a suicide try in 2004. He refers to himself at one level as “a clear, imply, medicated combat machine.”

“I’ve been with him for the final 10 years, and I can have a look at Terry and inform whether or not he’s going to have good day or a nasty day,” Golding says. “That’s how shut we’ve turn out to be.”

“It’s very nice he’s been sincere [in his lyrics] about what he goes via,” Golding provides. “I’m the closest to him. I’m the one one which goes to go to him at his home. Because he doesn’t reply his cellphone. I’m simply so blessed to work with a man I contemplate among the finest. Most of the lyrics on the data are Terry’s work. He’s an incredible lyricist.”

Golding appears to have willed Encore into existence, simply as he did the reunion that reactivated The Specials as a touring band in 2009. As the driving pressure a decade in the past, Golding succeeded in getting 5 of his six former bandmates again into their black fits and pork pie hats. Alas, he was unable to safe the participation of Jerry Dammers, the eccentric keyboardist and songwriter who masterminded the group.

“Me and Jerry had been the closest,” says Golding, recalling how he and Dammers labored collectively on a still-unreleased tune referred to as “The First Victim of War” previous to the reunion. “I believed Jerry can be the primary one I’d get again on board. I really like the person, and I want he may’ve been again with us. He’s very, very troublesome. I attempted, I attempted, I attempted. In the tip, I made a decision we’ve bought to play music for the individuals. We’ve simply bought to maneuver on, you already know?”

Golding maintained that angle when vocalist Neville Staple left in 2013 and guitarist Roddy Radiation adopted a yr later. (Golding cites private points for Roddy’s departure.) Drummer John Bradbury died in 2015, however not earlier than he, Golding, and Panter started demoing tracks for a brand new album. One of those songs turned “Vote for Me,” the lead single off Encore. A far cry from the amphetamine ska of the band’s heyday, the tune is subtle dinner-party reggae with a easy query for politicians of the world: “If we vote for you do you promise / to be upright, first rate, and sincere?”

“It’s so applicable now for what the world goes via,” says Golding. “One factor I really like is that we’re simply asking questions. On that tune, the way in which we put it throughout was, ‘Let’s speak to one another, not shout at one another.’’’

The similar is true of “Embarrassed By You,” a barely extra aggressive reggae tune whereby Golding views the resurgence of British fascism as a private affront to the band: “We by no means fought for freedom for nasty little brutes such as you / to return and undo the work we do.” And so The Specials combat once more, optimistic regardless of all of it. Golding says the message of Encore actually boils right down to the title of the closing monitor, “We Sell Hope.”

Musically, the intention with Encore was to select up the place The Specials left off with their landmark 1981 single “Ghost Town.” It was the ultimate recording earlier than Hall, Golding, and Staple left to kind the brand new wave group The Fun Boy Three, spelling the tip of an period. (Encore features a cowl of the 1981 Fun Boy Three Hit “The Lunatics.”) With its disquieting horn blasts and howling background vocals, “Ghost Town” captured the temper of England on the brink. It reached No. 1 within the U.Ok. as race riots erupted throughout the nation.

Following “Ghost Town” can be troublesome even with Dammers nonetheless working his magic on the keys. Golding credit Nikolaj Torp Larsen, the Danish keyboardist who’s been filling Dammers’ loafers since 2009, with serving to to take care of The Specials’ distinctive ska-and-beyond vibe. Larsen produced Encore alongside Hall, Golding, and Panter and co-wrote all the new materials.

“Nikolaj is an absolute genius,” Golding says. “The work we achieved with Jerry was implausible. We had been actually lucky we may meet one other younger man with Nikolaj. It’s like successful the lottery twice. It doesn’t occur.”

Encore arrives initially of a yr marking 2 Tone’s 40th anniversary. Given that the motion’s different three flagship bands—Madness, The Selecter, and The English Beat—are all nonetheless lively in a single kind or one other, Golding says there’s an opportunity for some joint performances later within the yr.

“It’s one thing to rejoice: a youth motion that lasts 40 years,” says Golding. “It can be an incredible factor. But you already know what it’s like. There’s all the time debates and discussions. If we are able to sit down and never drink too many beers, however have cups of tea with no sugar, we are able to come to some settlement for the individuals, for the followers.”

News of any 2 Tone 40th anniversary live performance would absolutely spark new debates about what the label achieved all these years in the past—and whether or not it’s actually potential for music to vary the world. You can guess what Saffiyah Khan thinks about that final query.

“All music and artwork could make politics, love, struggles, and many others., tangible and human and accessible,” she says. “Accessible mediums are the important thing to all mass actions.”