I will never forget the first time I became aware of The Specials - it was the April 19, 1980 episode of NBC's Saturday Night Live, hosted by Strother Martin; one of the very last episodes to feature the majority of the original SNL cast, in their fifth and final season. As I've mentioned in an earlier post, SNL's fifth season, in terms of comedy, was pretty uneven. But the show's saving grace at the time, and perhaps the best reason to continue watching it that year, was the breadth and quality of the musical guests. Blondie, Chicago, Bowie, J. Geils, Gary Numan, The B-52's - all of them made iconic TV appearances that season. The Specials' appearance was no exception, although I didn't know what to expect until the host introduced them, and the band kicked into a white-hot version of "Gangsters":
With the first note, I practically LEAPT out of my seat and rushed the television, all but pressing my face against the screen so I wouldn't miss a note or a moment. Holy arm-waving shit! The movement - the energy - the music - just jumped out of the set at me! By the end of that first number, I'd already added The Specials to my list of favorite bands.
At that point in time, I would have done anything to have seen them live, and looked forward to their next US visits. But regretfully, The Specials fell apart little more than a year later, soon after the release of their greatest triumph, the timely and prophetic "Ghost Town" single in the summer of 1981. They joined my 'dream list' of bands that I would have loved to have seen in their heyday (a roster than included The Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Police), ones whose time, I assumed, had passed for good, and would never again come to pass . . .
How wrong I was.
Since 1993, The Specials had a number of off-and-on half-assed reunions, groups billed as "The Specials" but including, at best, only a handful of original band members. But it wasn't until September 2008, at the Bestival on the Isle of Wight, that a majority of the original group played together again. Six of the founding seven members were present for that show, for legal reasons at the time billing themselves as "Terry Hall and Friends" (Jerry Dammers pointedly refused to be part of the reunion, claiming that he had been forced out of the band and calling the reformation a "takeover" of the group he was instrumental in forming - a stance and attitude he maintains to this day). The one-off gig was so well-received that by December 2008, the band announced a full-scale international "30th Anniversary" tour, which for the next two and a half years took them all over the globe, playing to wildly enthusiastic audiences. The Specials took a long break from their worldwide trek during 2011 and 2012 to play some gigs closer to home. But earlier this year they resumed their schedule with an extensive, full-fledged American tour.
Before the show, I was a little worried that my enthusiasm and anticipation for finally seeing my longtime musical heroes might be dampened during the actual show - after all, it HAD been thirty-plus years since the band's origins; they weren't spring chickens anymore. Also, I knew that Neville Staple, one of the lead vocalists and the driving force behind getting the group back together, had been forced to drop out of the group earlier this year due to illness. So there was more than a little trepidation on my part regarding just how good The Specials were going to be that night . . .
In their late 70's/early '80s heyday, The Specials were far from being a household name in the U.S. And despite their massive mainstream U.K. success, the passing of time has caused their music and achievements to fade into the background and out of the overall popular frame of reference in their home country. But the band's influence and importance remains strong in certain circles, both here, there and beyond. It is hard to imagine the emergence and continuing endurance of the worldwide Third Wave and ska-punk movements occurring without The Specials stepping up and spearheading the English ska revival of the '70s. The look the band and its followers and contemporaries (Madness, The Selecter, The Beat) co-opted and championed - the rude boy fashions of porkpie hats, Dr. Martens' boots, Ben Sherman shirts, and black-and-white checks - remains the signature look of ska around the world. Many a modern-day group has attempted by various means to tap into The Specials' leftover legacy, and harness the group's energy (and loyal following) to their own ends.
Beginning in 2008, a few artists took a shot at doing just that; a series of limited-edition bootleg EPs were released, featuring popular mainstream musicians covering classic ska tunes. All were released under mock 2-Tone EP covers paying homage to The Specials' iconic singles packaging of the late 70s/early 80s (shown above) which featured label logo Walt Jabsco and the signature black-and-white checkerboard theme. When I first heard about these discs, I snapped them up just as fast as I could get my hands on them. My reactions to three of them are provided below:
1. Amy Winehouse - The Ska EP (2008):
On June 29th, 2008, audiences were given essentially a sneak preview as to what this future Amy Winehouse ska album would sound like, when she performed an extended set at the Glastonbury Festival. At that gig, she sang a number of Specials hits, including "Monkey Man" and "You're Wondering Now" [ed. note: apparently, she did a couple of these songs at the previous year's Glastonbury as well]. Shortly after that concert, she slipped into a London studio to commit those tunes and two others (another Specials "Hey Little Rich Girl" and a cover of Sam Cooke's "Cupid") to wax, which was released on a limited-edition bootleg before the summer was out.
I know that it's not considered proper to speak ill of the dead . . . but I've got to call it as I see it - for me, this EP is damn-near unlistenable. Winehouse rambles and slurs her way through the songs; you can't even say that she's off-key, because she never remains on any single key long enough for you to make any comparison. Her version of "Hey Little Rich Girl" is especially cringe-inducing - "sounds like complete shit" is too kind or mild a description for this horror. It's hard to believe that these are professionally produced versions - they sound like Winehouse woke up after an all-night schnapps bender and stumbled into the studio, bringing in with her a couple of ragtag street musicians she met along the way and another street person to run the tape. It's THAT bad, and it makes you wonder what was in her head (or, more likely, not) when she decided to foist these songs onto the public. After listening to them, I didn't feel sorry or embarrassed for Winehouse - I HATED her for butchering these classics. No wonder this was released as a bootleg - no reputable label would have touched these monstrosities with a ten-foot pole.
The song was actually pretty good, and to me showed how well Winehouse could interpret Jamaican music if she set her mind to it. Shoot - I would have paid good money to hear an album full of these types of songs from her (makes me wish I had back the money I paid for the EP . . .). Too bad she never had the full opportunity to prove just how adept she was with this genre.
2. Lily Allen - The Ska EP (2008):
3. No Doubt - The Ska EP (2010):
said my piece here about how much I loathe this band. No Doubt had its origins in the California 'Third Wave' ska revival of the late 1980s. But in their quest for commercial success after signing with Interscope Records in 1990, they quickly cast aside any and all vestiges of that association, remaking themselves into an alt-rock radio-friendly band. After they became successful, No Doubt occasionally added ska covers to their live sets, as a "throwback" to "their roots". But to me, it always smacked of pandering, a calculated attempt to show their critics and fans how "cutting edge" and "indie" they really were. What utter rubbish.
No Doubt's versions of "Ghost Town" and "Racist Friend" (from The Special AKA's album In The Studio) were released as part of the bootleg series in 2009. They're serviceable enough, in that the band is playing mostly in time, and is hitting the proper notes and singing the words in the right order. But, similar to the way the band homogenized itself for commercial consumption, the songs here are similarly devoid of any character. Gwen Stefani & Co. just suck the life and feeling out of these hits, making them into something other than the cultural touchstones and trenchant social commentaries they were when The Specials first released them. I don't know what pisses me off more - Winehouse's under-the-influence Specials in-slurrrrr-pretations, or Stefani repeatedly exhorting the crowd to "Put your hands up in the air!" during their blaring arena-rock version of "Ghost Town". Either way, I can't recommend this disc either.
So, for better or for worse, that's my take on these three bootleg EPs. I know that a lot of my criticism may seem harsh. But I have long known and loved the original article, produced by The Specials, still one of my all-time favorite bands. So I think I have a right, and an expectation, to be a little critical. It is only by knowing the true meaning of quality - as in the quality music that The Specials released and continue to play - that you can honestly assess the nature of a similar product's worth.
But I'll let you all hear and judge for yourself. For your listening pleasure, here are The Ska EPs, limited-edition bootlegs released by Lily Allen, No Doubt and the late Amy Winehouse in 2008 and 2009 (the Winehouse one is an extremely limited edition EP, including not only the original four bootleg songs, but their live Glastonbury versions as well, and a tribute cover of one of her songs by The Selecter, done in 2011 mere hours after the report of her death). Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.
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