When the album “Introducing … King Zepha & The Bluebeat Renaissance” dropped in 2015, it won a spot on my go-to, weekend-long playlist. With the release this month of Northern Sound, King Zepha again rules my sound system. Sam Thornton is the power behind that throne. From his home in Leeds, West Yorkshire, Sam and a small handful of excellent musicians create your new favorite music. I reached out to Sam, who had just wrapped up a busy week. “They’re all busy to be honest,” he says. “We’ve got three young children, including 18-month-old twins!”
RSS: Who, or what, is King Zepha?
Sam: King Zepha is actually my tenor saxophone! It’s a 1960s “Zephyr” model made by the King Company, originally of Cleveland, Ohio. I use the alias King Zepha on all of my recordings and also when I tour with my band. I changed the spelling to avoid any potential legal issues. My real name doesn’t sound badass enough!
King Zepha’s Northern Sound is an absolute favourite at Reggae Steady Ska.
Tell us a bit about your recording process—who writes the songs and how you capture that vintage sound.
I write, arrange, record and mix all of my music at home. I’ve currently got an eight-track tape setup. There’s not a great deal of space in my living room, so the maximum number of musicians I can comfortably get in there at a time is three. Four at a push, but it’s a squeeze!
I usually get the rhythm section in and we track the drums, bass and piano live. I like to record as many instruments as possible, live in the same room, to get that old-school sound, with a bit of bleed. If it’s bass guitar I’ll do it myself but, if upright bass is required, I get my good friend Adam Richards in because he’s better than me! Parts are notated and sent out, along with very rough guide recordings, a few weeks before the session. We usually do a quick rehearsal on the day and then get down to business.
Afterwards I overdub all the guitars, organ, saxophones and the odd bit of percussion myself. If a horn section is required I also like to track this live, with all the musicians gathered around one ribbon microphone. I do the same thing with the vocals, as most of my music is four-part harmony. I’m very lucky that all the musicians I work with can sing.
I have a five-piece band who tour with me: Adam Richards on bass, Ric Colley on drums, Chris Lloyd on keys and Andy Morgan and Jonny Hick on guitars. I play saxophone on the live shows and we all sing. It’s been the same personnel in the touring band for about three years, although I sometimes use different musicians in the studio.
“I’m hugely influenced by R&B, especially the jump blues of Louis Jordan and Louis Prima and vocal harmony groups like The Coasters and the Mills Brothers … and jazz. I love jazz!” Sam Thornton
There’s a wonderful R&B/Soul vibe to many of the songs on the new album. “You Let Yourself Go” sounds as if it could be a long-lost Louis Jordan number. Who were/are your inspirations?
When I was a teenager, I discovered ska first via the British 2-Tone bands like The Specials, The Beat and The Selecter. I wanted to find out where these kind of sounds originated, thus began my obsession with Jamaican music. In those pre-internet days we had to rely on local record shops and the first two albums of interest that I managed to find were “The Best Of Horace Andy”, on Studio 1 Records, and another compilation called “The Upsetter: Essential Madness From The Scratch Files”. I was blown away by Lee Scratch Perry and he’s still, to this day, my favourite record producer of all time. I particularly like his rocksteady and early dub productions from his Black Ark studio.
I had your two albums playing on random and “I’ll Be Home”, the first song on your debut release, came up followed by “Mother of All Hangovers” from the new release. That got me thinking: is “Mother of All Hangovers” the unofficial sequel to “I’ll Be Home”?
Haha, it definitely should be! It would present a nice moral to the story, like Aesop’s Fables. If you choose to behave like this, that’s fine, but here’s what happens! We have quite a few songs about boozing. It’s something we’ve done a lot of, whilst on the road!
“We have quite a few songs about boozing. It’s something we’ve done a lot of, whilst on the road!” Sam Thornton
We did a series of concerts in Catalonia three years ago and I wrote this melody whilst relaxing on the roof of our apartment in the sun. We don’t usually get much downtime on tour, so that was a rare treat. In that beautiful and relaxed setting, I couldn’t resist doing a bit of composing. Catalunya, as the locals call it, is under Spanish rule, but has its own language and strong identity. Rumba Flamenca is the most popular style of music there, the most famous exponents being the Gypsy Kings.
My drummer, Ric Colley, actually suggested that one. He started singing it in the van in the way to a show, and the whole band all joined in with the harmonies. We put it in the set that night and it’s proved to be an audience favourite ever since. It’s the only cover that we play live and it’s the only song that I don’t sing lead vocals on.
Any chance we’ll see you in North America anytime soon?
We’d love to cross the Atlantic and do some concerts over there. We haven’t performed outside of Europe yet. If any of your readers can make that happen, we’d love to hear from them!
King Zepha’s “Northern Sound” is available now on CD and 12″ vinyl, or as a digital download from Happy Records—just click here.
The Aggrolites – Reggae Now (Pirates Press Records)
For quite some time, it had looked like Jesse Wagner, Roger Rivas and the other Aggrolites didn’t think it was necessary to beautify the world with a new product. But why was that? You wouldn’t think it was just because of the loss of guitarist/producer Brian Dixon as a driving force. Maybe it was lack of time. Roger spent many hours, days, weeks and months in his studio in Los Angeles producing the next vintage reggae generation from the US Westcoast, The Delirians for example. At other times he joined the Long Beach Dub Allstars for some big shows. Whereas Jesse did it his own way as a singer and songwriter with Vic Ruggiero of The Slackers (and drummer/producer Nic Leonard as Reggae Workers Of The World), touring Europe and recording two albums. And when The Aggrolites had been touring themselves, then just without a new release since 2011. You can do that for some time, but you can’t do it for ever. Otherwise you run the risk of getting left behind by the young blood, bands like The Steady 45s who rule the scene with the sweet Chicano Soul Reggae Vibe now. So it’s good to see The Aggrolites back on track with „Reggae Now“, not only an album title, but a statement. Because who was it that developed „Dirty Reggae“, the sound that has influenced hundreds of bands in the last 15 years? True. The Aggrolites’ trademark call and response vocals, the hard-hitting breaks from the snare, the pimped up early 70s reggae beats, the mighty organ licks have been often copied, but never matched. „Reggae Now“ shows that The Aggrolites can still deliver all that in their sleep in 2019. They represent tunes that are set in stone, like their upcoming party hits, the first single „Pound For Pound“ and „Aggro Reggae Party“. The afore-mentioned ingredients of the Aggro sound are in the tool boxes of loads of other bands now, but Jesse’s voice und Roger’s treating of his organ remain in a league of their own. Yet to me, The Aggrolites are at their coolest in 2019 when they try new things, like in the songs „Say Or Do“ or „Love Me Tonight“, when Jesse’s voice gets softer and softer, hardly recognizable, as if he had been listening closely to (and that way acknowledging) those new Westcoast bands. And that’s where it comes full circle, don’t you think?
“Reggae Now”, the new album by The Aggrolites is available at Amazon.
In 2019, The Specials released an answer song to Prince Buster’s “The Ten Commandments”, now as “10 Commandments”, with Saffiyah Khan on vocals.
The Specials - 10 Commandments (Lyric Video) - YouTube
Prince Buster released countless singles and albums. Here is a small selection of records that are available on vinyl today.
“1963’s I Feel the Spirit is renowned today as the first ska album ever released outside of Jamaica, as well as standing as an excellent introduction into the fiery soul of Buster‘s earliest work.” (allmusic.com) (the sleeve is clickable)
Collected here are 16 of these classic cuts, some of the finest ska songs ever released and the blueprint for a sound that would take the UK by storm. Including “My Sound That Goes Around”, “They Got To Come” and “Longer Than Rope” (Reissue by Dynamite!) (the sleeve is clickable)
From 1976 with hits like “Sister Big Stuff”, “South Of The Border” and “Sata a Masa Gana.” (the sleeve is clickable).
Jerry Dammers, born on May 22, 1955 in Ootacamund, Tamil Nadu, South India, and his band The Specials changed the lives of a whole generation of young people in the UK and beyond. By bringing together fun and politics, they reached the hearts of millions. Jerry Dammers was the mastermind and one of the main songwriters of the band.
The Specials / Jerry Dammers (2 Tone) 15/06/12 - YouTube
In 1979, the first album “The Specials” was released on their own label 2Tone Records. 1981 the band split after the release of their first number one-single “Ghost Town”.
The Specials - Ghost Town (Official Music Video) - YouTube
The Specials - Nelson Mandela (Official Music Video) - YouTube
The Specials - What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend (Official Music Video) - YouTube
When The Specials reformed in 2009, Jerry Dammers was not part of the lineup. There are different accounts about the reasons. Jerry said he was kicked out of the band, whereas the remaining members declared that they would have loved him to join.
Jerry Dammers interview 2014 - YouTube
Today, Dammers regularly DJs and sometimes performs with his band, The Spatial AKA Orchestra, playing his own compositions and tributes to Sun Ra and other experimental jazz artists.
Classic Albums with Jerry Dammers, available on Amazon:
Full disclosure: The links in this article are affiliate links, which means Reggae Steady Ska receives a small percentage, if you buy from Amazon using those links. You do not pay a cent more than you would otherwise. We do not love Amazon, but at the moment this is the only way we get compensation for our work for the ska scene. If you like the offers and want to support us, please do use these links. Also feel free to include other goods in your shopping, if you want to buy them anyway, like shoes, amps, turntables or guitars. That way you make sure that some of the money you pay stays in the scene. Thanks and cheers.
One of the highlights of Record Store Day 2019 was the release of Prince Fatty’s 7” cover of the William DeVaughn’s 1974 hit “Be Thankful For What You Got.” The original was the first song I ever slow-danced to—the best (and sweatiest) 3½ minutes of my young life. Just like the original, the Prince Fatty and Earl 16 remake gets me moving with an irresistible beat and sing-along vocals. There were only 750 copies of the 7” available worldwide, and if you didn’t get one—and I’m betting you didn’t—you can still buy the digital version or stream it at all the usual places. And, as you’d expect from Prince Fatty, the b-side is a killer. I know why I love the original but I was wondering why Prince Fatty and Earl 16 chose this song to cover. So I asked.
RSS: What made you choose this song?
Prince Fatty: Earl 16 was at my studio, just hanging out, recording some other songs, and it just came up in conversation. Many versions have been recorded, mine was originally done just for the sound system dub-plate box. Sometimes, a song just releases itself over time.
I think Earl 16’s interpretation and backing vocal arrangement brings something new to the record bag. Most of the versions are straight, so I wanted to add some swing to the groove, or a little pepper as Horseman calls it.
Talk about the musicians you assembled for this project and what they brought to the song.
The core of the Prince Fatty sound has always had the same core musicians, so Horseman on drums, Carlton “Bubblers” Ogilvie on organ and piano, the bass on “Just Be Thankful” was played by Dianne White, a brilliant musician and dope Rasta lady! My friend, Dread Flimstone, in LA helped me with the backing vocals by finding Junior Milton for the third harmony.
Have you shared the song with William DeVaugh to see what he thinks of your version?
No, I have not and have no idea how or where to reach him. I would love to send him copy, from my experience people enjoy hearing reggae versions of his songs, there’s a little roots in everybody!
There was some talk around Record Store Day about an upcoming tour. Any chance that it’ll include some U.S. dates?
Nothing planned for the U.S.A. right now, it’s been a few years since we’ve been so it’s about time. My album is set for September release, its titled Prince Fatty “In the Viper’s Shadow” and it features the likes of Big Youth, Marcia Griffith, Cornel Campbell, Winston Francis and more from Earl 16.
Listing all the artists you’ve worked with would take too many pages. Who you haven’t worked with yet, but would really like to?
I have been very fortunate to work with great artists and musicians. I have learned a lot as they are all my elders so now my focus is to work on new up-and-coming artists. I have found a great soul singer called Shniece McMenamin and I am planning some roots funk to blow people’s minds! In Brazil, I’ve been recording deep spiritual percussion albums for myself and it’s my passion. It’s all in the percussion, if you don’t believe me just listen to Marvin’s “What’s Going On” and check how loud the congas are in the mix.
At one point, you were the new kid on the scene. Today, you’re one of the well-established masters. What do you do to challenge yourself and keep your sound fresh?
The journey I have been on has come full circle, so I feel the same energy as when I left home as a teenager. I love collecting vinyl, and digging for new sounds and lessons. I spent four months in Brazil last year touring with Monkey Jhayam. I privately baptised myself in the waterfalls of Ubatuba so it felt like a re-birth. I love the album we made called the “Role of Monkey Man” and it features Earl 16, Tippa Irie, Horseman and the soul sounds of Shniece McMenamin. Delicious Vinyl got involved and released the album and the whole experience was dope. Big shout-out to Mike Ross and the Sao Paolo family!
“These fourteen songs run through a diverse collection of themes ranging from the culture of over-sharing (Too Much Information) to being obsessed by love (Can’t Stop) to eating far too much ice-cream (Brain Freeze) to that one time a couple years back when Matt Smasher broke his neck in four places after a show in Sherbrooke (Break My Neck A Love Song). One thing’s for damn sure, you can’t keep a good band down.” (source: Stomp Records)
A new album that’s earning rave reviews from the critics (here, here and here), a rapidly growing fan base with packed gigs and all-star guests, and an opening slot at gigs for your musical heroes’ sold out tour—any way you slice it, The Skapones are living the dream. The eight, nine or ten member band (appears to vary by the night/gig) have been together for a half a dozen years, swapping out cover-filled setlists with brilliant originals. While they’ve released some noteworthy singles, their debut album “Cradle to Grave” shows that The Skapones are high-caliber Two-Tone ska. Band members Willo, Mark Wilson, John Day and Steve Cummings took a breather from their gloriously hectic schedule to answer a few questions.
RSS: What’s your musical backgrounds, how’d the band come together, and when did you know it had the potential to be something special?
Willo (vocals): The band started in 2013 in Darlington, a market town in the north east of England. A few guys from local bands were kicking around doing nothing when Mark asked Neil to do something and it sprang from there. Early setlists were covers, as that was the original plan then. Your basic stuff, but I knew we had good musicians, so after a while of getting tight and used to each other and the odd member leaving to be replaced, I suggested that we do our own stuff as we were more than capable. The early shows were great, well received but as each month went by, we gained loads more confidence and the shows stepped up a gear. As for hitting on something special? Tough question. I think it just appeared one day! A team that stays together wins together is a fave motto of mine. We love what we do and that filters to the audience. It’s a real feeling for it, not just part of a cash cow. I’d been in odd bands (in every sense of the word) over the years but preferred promoting so I moved in that direction. It wasn’t until I was asked to join The Skapones in 2014 that I drifted back to bands.
Mark (guitar): I’m self-taught and my first band was Turn Left To Obscurity, we did one gig. The Negative Zone, a punk band which morphed into The Platelayers, The G Men for what seemed a millennium till, voilà The Skapones. At this point the defence rests its case.
John (trombone): I wasn’t an original member of the band. I joined in 2016. I started playing the trombone while at school and did the usual thing of orchestras, brass bands and school theatre productions as part of the band. I was taught by professional tutors. I’ve played in several bands as part of brass sections prior to the Skapones encompassing rock, funk, jazz, blues and even Asian Bollywood Brass. I joined my first Ska band in the late 90’s (The G-Men) and then played with ska covers bands Ska-Boom UK and Live Injection till I was asked to join The Skapones. Hitting something special? It was a gradual thing but we started to believe we had something when we started to play our own numbers.
Steve (vocals and keys): I started piano lessons at nine when we inherited my great-grans old upright piano, complete with brass candlestick holders. After a few months I realised I had my dad’s ear for picking out chord and tunes. Most important early musical influences vocally were Simon & Garfunkel and The Everly Brothers. Good vocal harmonies can make a fairly good song sound really good. I started gigging at around 15 years old, playing piano in local pubs and hotels. There have been many bands over the years but none really reaching the levels of exposure of The Skapones.
RSS: You capture (and extend) the Two-Tone sound, creating new songs I’d swear I heard 40 years ago. How do you define that sound and how do you keep it sounding so fresh?
Willo: It’s something that comes from the heart, I think. Mark, John and I are huge 2Toners, with 40 years’ experience of listening to the sound—we know all the nuances. We put our own spin on it by simply being us and using influences brought in by other band members. We live in the north east which has been decimated by the Tories since the days of Thatcher and it made us angry then—and politics still makes us angry now. Song-writing wise, all the political stuff is me and Mark. That’s what 2Tone taught us. It’s ingrained into us. Take no shit, take no prisoners and tell it like it is, which the tracks “T.O.R.Y” and “Benefit Street” do on our album. Straight for the jugular! The process of creating songs is across the board—I write lyrics, Mark has a studio and creates a lot of demos, I go round lay down vocals (sometimes 99 takes on one sentence) but also a lot of the band have written stuff which is great because it’s good for growth. I think I have to say a massive thanks to Paul Ayriss, AKA The Tinkerman, our producer—a legend—and our local engineer, Chris Davison, who has to cope with nine men in a small studio eating lots of crisps.
Mark: The social and political issues from 40 years ago are just as, if not more, relevant today. The music is something that we were brought up on and weaned on, so it is ingrained in our psyche. It’s second nature to know when something sounds like it should sound. With the more modern recording techniques that are available to us now it can be updated and still retain the original two-tone sound.
John: 2Tone is an attitude and a belief in an all-encompassing community. Black and white unite. The first song I wrote along with our keyboard player Steve was “Skapones A Go Go”. I am mainly a lyricist and usually write with the keyboard player Steve. We kind of work off each other.
Steve: Main song writing partner is John Day. He sends the lyrics over then leaves me alone to come up with melodies and arrangements. Very Elton and Bernie!
RSS: Tales from the road?
Willo: Tales? Well, we are a pisstaking bunch. Ribbing and joking if we’re not shouting at each other. eight, nine (sometimes 10) guys together can be demanding (Keyboard Steve is a farter which makes life difficult LOL.) But it’s a great experience and we’ve had some great team building times, most recently in Poland. I once had a fake handgun planted into my suitcase whilst we were gigging in Germany and realised when I got home I’d been through airport customs. Could have been a nightmare! We gig virtually every week. It’s crazy but nice to be in demand as people like what we do. I prefer small compact crowds that are in your face and you can dive into the crowd from the stage, but big gigs are extra special! We played with Madness at the House Of Fun and that was fabulous. We were so well looked after, massive crowd all dancing. Great time. We have two dates supporting The Specials in May and that for me, is the TOPS. Biggest crowd? House Of Fun Fest. Smallest? Any pub. Wildest? Definitely Poland. And York was once a cracker. We’ve supported lots of the names of the ska & Reggae scene, from the original Jamaican ska stars and the 2Toners, USA bands like The Toasters but we’ve done gigs in our set with Lynval Golding and Roddy Radiation of The Specials and King Hammond – Loved every minute. As for the USA tour? Phenomenal. We’re playing east to west. I’ll report back later on that one! I just wanna see Al Capone territory!
Mark: Best person I shared a stage with was Roddy Radiation at the March of the Mods event in York. I spent the whole gig, standing in front of his amp just listening to his guitar work. I can’t remember anything else about that gig.
RSS: What’s it like to be living the dream of probably every pub ska band ever?
Willo: It is “living the dream” as you put it. Pouring your heart and soul into creating stuff and seeing happy people? Seeing your own vinyl and CDs? A special feeling! What’s not to like? – It’s a beautiful thing. If one person comes up and says, “You were great,” then that’s job done. It is fun and once we are in full swing, anything can happen, but I think if the crowd sees us having fun then they’ll follow. It’s very hard work though as we all hold down jobs, but we made a democratic decision to go with the hard work ethic and with that comes rewards such as great reviews of live and recorded work, a growing fanbase and the support slots with our heroes, The Specials. It’s a fabulous thing and we do it cos we love it. Ska music is good time music. All goes hand in hand.
Mark: It’s a lot of hard work and effort that people don’t see. They just see the two hours that we play on stage. It is worth the effort as the feeling you get when you’re on stage is difficult to describe to someone who hasn’t done it.
Steve: The “dream” is different things to different people, for me personally the dream is to keep entertaining people and playing/singing to a standard I feel is acceptable for as long as humanly possible…. while people want to hear it, I’ll keep trying to play it.
John: It’s a love thing baby!
The Skapones reggae/steady/ska songs (that aren’t their own.)
Willo: Too Much Too Young(live) by The Specials—Encapsulates the whole 2Tone thing for me, social lyrics, energy and drive. A live recording as that’s the best place to experience the 2Tone atmosphere.
I read a lot of poetry and listen to a lot of dub, so you’d think I’d know something about Dub Poetry, a type of oral poetry performed to a reggae rhythm that originated in Jamaica in the 1970s, flourished in England and parts of Canada throughout the 1980s, and, depending on who you ask, is either a by-gone relic or a flourishing poetic force. But the depth and breadth of my ignorance cannot be overestimated.
What I know of dub poets and their works I’ve learned since I first interviewed Eric Doumerc about his book on Jamaican music in England. Since then, I’ve listened to hours of works by Linton Kwesi Johnson, Jean Binta Breeze and Micky Smith, but I’m far from considering myself even slightly informed. And as a white American, it could be argued that I will never truly understand the importance of this poetic form or its powerful messages, many of which deal with the realities of life as a Black person in a racist world. Yet dub poetry is so compelling, so rich and layered, that I have to learn more. And thanks to Dub Poets in Their Own Words, my teachers are the poets themselves.
The book consists of interviews with ten influential poets whose combined works span the 40+ years of the genre, arranged thematically starting with the pioneers and moving through the decades to today’s leading dub poets. Doumerc sets the stage with an introduction that provides an overview of dub poetry, pointing out its groundbreaking strengths as well as the stylistic and content criticisms it has received. He notes that a few of the poets who helped develop the genre question its purpose today, but this simply shows that the genre is deep and vibrant enough to outgrow its original—and possibly too narrow—role.
Each interview starts with a short artist bio, then follows a question/answer format that allows the poets to speak for themselves, sometimes answering the questions directly, sometimes using them as a springboard to discuss something they find more interesting. Doumerc knows the genre, and his focused questions always return the conversation to the poems themselves. A Google search will connect you to some of the poems mentioned (videos, sound recordings or links to poem anthologies online), but some that are mentioned bring up no search results at all. That becomes a problem when the poets’ responses require a careful reading of the poem itself. For example, in his interview with Moqapi Selassie, Doumerc asks if “Batty Bwoy Bizniz” is a homophobic poem. The poet says it’s not, and proceeds to recite the poem for Doumerc as evidence, yet we, the readers, don’t get it transcribed. All we’re left with is the poet’s assertion, and there’s no follow-up by Doumerc to help clarify. Without easy access to the poem—and to other poems referenced in the book—it’s impossible to judge. And that may be the biggest challenge to studying dub poetry. It’s an art form that needs to be heard, and unless you’re in London, Kingston or, believe it or not, Miami, you may never hear it live.
Every poet in the book has something interesting to say, some insight that made me stop and ponder, but I think I was most surprised by Malachi D. Smith, a dub poet who was a police officer in Jamaica before moving to Miami and joining the force there. It’s an unusual combination to say the least, and that alone means I’ve got to give him a long listen.
The true star of Dub Poets in Their Own Words is a woman who isn’t interviewed—Louise Bennett, better known as Miss Lou, the influential and much-loved poet, educator, entertainer, comedian, folklorist, scholar and television personality whose Saturday morning show, Ring Ding, inspired a generation. In their interviews, the poets call Miss Lou the “godmother” of dub poetry and a “shero” who introduced them to the beauty of the spoken word, specifically how it was spoken in Jamaica. I’d love to know what Miss Lou would think of the movement she unknowingly(?) launched.
What’s the future of Dub Poetry? Has it served its original purpose of awakening consciousness and turning a bright light of the problems Blacks face in every society? Is it, as the dub poet Mbala suggests, too repetitive and too cliche? Or, as Moqapi Selassie said in a 2017 interview, confined by some to the annals of history, lacking any young dub poets? Or is it as strong today as Oku Onuroa claims, “bubbling” in Jamaica along with other forms of spoken poetry? Perhaps, as poet Klyde Brooks said to Doumerc after his interview, as long as there is one dub poet alive and performing, dub poetry is alive.
In his interview, Malachi D. Smith says that, “the dub poet still has to be mission-oriented, must advocate for the oppressed and disposed of earth, must paint and see for the blind, must speak for the tongueless, must dance for the danceless, must be an endless warrior against injustice, must be a healer, must be a trouble-maker, must be a peacemaker.”
Dub Poets in Their Own Words shows why the world needs more dub poets.
I had never heard of The Specials living in Jamaica. I discovered them when I moved to New York. Rob Kissner (bass) showed their music to me. It was easy to appreciate the 2nd wave of Ska, after being familiar with the 1st wave for so long.
The Specials give us the stamp of approval to be flexible and unique in our sound. They have songs that are not quite ska, not quite reggae. And so do we. We have followed in their footsteps by creating a quirky, distinctive version of traditional Jamaican music. They showed us that it is OK to have a unique sound.
Favorite tracks: “Do Nothing” and “Friday Night/Saturday Morning.”
I think it was 20 years ago in a reggae-ska comp. “A Message to You Rudy” and “Too Much Too Young” were included in that CD. It was a blast for me.
For me as a bassist, Horace’s bass riffs influenced my style. I learned to play all the lines of their first album, one by one, then I started to dig in the ska music deeper and deeper. When we started our band, Les SkartOi!, we did covers from The Specials just to have fun and learn ska music.
We have an E.P. called “Fighting on the Dancefloor” [a line from Ghost Town] “Ghost Town” is a great song with heavy loaded lyrics. One of my favourite tracks including many others.
I first heard them I was about 11 when they first came out and I was starting to get rude. The 2 years went fast and everyone I know had a tonic suit and loafers or docks and monkey boots. You had to have a Fred Perry and your hair had to be shaved.
By the time I was 13, “Ghost Town” was out and it said it all about where we were from. I am a Leicester boy and proud of it. Little did I know I would be playing for them later in life. Dream come true.
Favorite track, “Pearl’s Cafe.” It’s hard, there are many. Very proud of the boys for the new LP.
I honestly don’t remember when I first heard The Specials. It seems like they’ve always been with me. I don’t think I experienced them like most people did. They weren’t my first foray into ska. I found them after I had already heard ska from other bands. My first experience of ska was The Beat, so I likely found them shortly after that, in the mid to late 90s.
They had a big impact on my philosophically because when I saw them perform live, I witnessed that there was no separation between audience and the band. The audience went up on stage and danced with them. Neville Staple came down into the crowd and danced with them. You have to understand that this was a very big deal then. Sure, it happens all of the time now, but then, it was incredible to see that there was no hierarchy in the way we experience music. It’s all a collective—a musical communion— and to me, that is the essence of ska. The Specials brought that element to ska in their own way through this expression.
Hands down, favorite track, “Ghost Town.” Doesn’t even come close for me. I have written pages and pages in my books on this song. Not only do I love it because of the significance, culturally, but it is just such a kick-ass song. Sultry, haunting, captivating.
And I want to give a shout out to my favorite song on their new album, even though it is a cover. “Blam Blam Fever” is a killer version of The Valentines’ “Gun Fever.” They did a fantastic job, and man, how relevant this song still is—in America, anyway. Could be our new anthem.
I first heard the Specials in California in the 90s. Can’t say they had any impact on my playing, but I was impressed with the show and as a Jamaican, a little surprised to find so much popularity for Ska/Reggae in the states.
I first heard “Ghost Town” on LA’s first alternative radio station, KROQ, when I was a kid … maybe about 6-7 years old. Loving their music, from hearing it on the radio through my older sister, changed everything for me in the trajectory of my musical future. The Specials were the catalyst that took me down the musical rabbit hole that opened my world to the most important musical influences in my life. They have guided for a career that would eventually span 23 years in ska. Here’s how the rabbit hole went: Through hearing “Gangsters,” I found Prince Buster. Obsessing over every word printed on my sister’s vinyl copies of “the Specials” and “More Specials,” I found The music of Elvis Costello (who’s early writing influenced my own deeply) and Two Tone records. Pauline Black and the Selecter, the Gogo’s, The Pretenders and the Bodysnatchers: they inspired who I would eventually become as a woman in ska. “A Message to you Rudy” took me to Dandy Livingstone. The list goes on and on. Then I got to know Neville and we became friends in 1998. We did the Warped Tour together. I still have to pinch myself whenever we reconnect when I’m in the UK.
Favorite track: That’s a very hard decision to make, as the self titled album has too many great songs to choose only one. “Do the Dog”? “Blank Expression”? “Too much too Young”? “Monkey Man”?
I lived in Japan for 3 years in the early 1990s and found a record shop in Tokyo that only sold ska. The guy running it gave me records by Operation Ivy, Voodoo Glow Skulls, and The Specials and I was hooked from then. I still have dreams of that record store nearly 25 years later.
Their music has been a total inspiration since the first note, especially the way that they spoke out against the National Front and racism. It’s absolutely terrifying that these kinds of hate groups are once again gaining a foothold in the 21st century. Dicky Barrett from The Mighty Mighty Bosstones called ska “a musical superhero” because it helps in times of turmoil, like Jamaica in the 1950s or Margaret Thatcher’s England. Ska is the hero we need in the age of Donald Trump and Brexit.
On a personal note, we have been running ska festivals in Virginia for several years and I know that we only do that with a steady diet of The Specials over the years.
Favorite tracks: “B.L.M.” and “Embarrassed by You” off Encore are quickly moving up the list for me. Lynval is amazing on the new album. “Doesn’t Make It Alright” and “Concrete Jungle” are two of my all-time favorites.
I first heard The Specials in 1982 or 1983. I got a cassette of More Specials. And then copied a cassette of the first album off someone else’s vinyl. I got into two tone as it was dying in Europe but it was just picking up in the States with Madness and the Beat having hits.
It turned my head around. I listened to The Specials probably every day or at least multiple times a week for 3 years. From 1983 to 1986. Their songs were my anthems. They took me away from being a lost, unhappy suburban kid, and gave me purpose. The fact that you could dance to it, or at least I could in my own lumbering way, made it more total. It was mind and body. In terms of impact it’s been ubiquitous. The Specials’ edgy sound. The mix of positive political messages with music you could dance to. The original self reliance idea of starting your own label.
Favorite track: “Hey Little Rich Girl.” I have a lot of favorites but that one spoke to me first. I heard their second album first. I went to school with a lot of rich girls. It was the 80s in southern California. So lots of day-glo, shoulder pads, and horrible hair. Empty privileged attitudes towards life. And this song seemed to be a perfect antidote to them.
I first heard The Specials in 1979 or 1980. They were then beginning to become popular in France, along with other bands like Madness and UB40.
The Specials had a great impact on my life. They revealed to me the existence of Jamaican music as I was intrigued by the rhythms they were using in their music and the great covers like “Monkey Man” and “A Message to You Rudy.” Thanks to their music, I discovered Jamaican ska and later reggae.
I’ve got many favourite tracks by The Specials, but if I had to narrow it down to just one, it would definitely be “Do The Dog,” from the first album. Terry Hall’s delivery is just fantastic and the musicianship is great. A close second would be “Too Much Too Young.”
I don’t remember exactly when [I first heard The Specials], probably the mid 90’s when I was getting into Ska. Like many people I first noticed their catchiest tunes like “Message To You Rudy” and “Monkey Man.”
They sill are having an impact, Lynval Golding lives here in the Seattle area now. I have seen him play several times with his band Gigantor, as well as seeing him play guest spots with other local bands. I also have seen The Specials several times when they have played in our area.
It’s hard to pick a few songs songs without naming half of their entire catalog, so I will stick with their newest album. At this point my top songs from it would be “Breaking Point”, “Embarrassed by You” and “Vote for Me.”
I graduated in 1988 so my first exposure to The Specials was thanks to the backing track to high school parties in the 80s.
Our first show was in 1990, kind of the front side of the second wave. Since then we’ve been driving around in circles, trying to write catchy songs, inspired by the ones we heard on those first three Specials albums, while trying to match the live energy we heard on those live bootleg recordings.
I can’t pick just one favorite. Over the years, as a band we’ve become well versed in covering The Specials’ songs. Whether finding or missing the mark it never hurt to try to learn some masterful songs. The one that I long to do right is “Friday Night, Saturday Morning.”
Darren Reggae, DJ, record seller
I first heard The Specials in the 8th grade in 1988. “Nite Club” was the first one that stood out at a skater party. The Specials were one of the bands key into getting me into 2-Tone Ska.
I first heard The Specials in 1978 when I was just finishing university. The big track of them was, obviously, “Ghost Town,” which was a number one hit, but I really like the new album. Had to get that in. I think people expecting a two-tone album will be disappointed, but I think the level of social commentary is great, and that’s something that I really like about two-tone. So, it’s really good to see people talking about ska music again, 40 years after their first success. It’s awesome. I think it’s a great album.
The Specials weren’t my favorite two-tone band. That accolade has to go to The Selecter. I’m a big fan of Neol Davies. I liked Pauline on stage. They also wrote most of their own tunes, and the musicianship in that band was really excellent.
I always liked listening to Enjoy Yourself from them. Normally they would play that in the encore, because it’s a great tune. [As for a track off the new album] Well, a lot of it … they have some covers on there. We’ve been listening to it in the van. I’m going to listen to it at home with some good headphones when I get back [off tour]. I think the record is good and people should cut them a lot more slack.
I first heard The Specials at a punk house when I was a teenager, probably around 18. They had, and have always had, a major impact on my music. They will always be one of my favorites. We cover quite a few tunes by them, even have “Do Nothing” recorded with our single “Wait & See.” They taught me how to think outside the box musically, not every song is a ska song, they always knew what genre fit with their lyrics.
My favorite Specials track is “Rat Race.” Always has been and probably always will be. They lyrics spoke to me as a kid, reminded me that I didn’t want to get stuck in a mundane 9 to 5 working for some asshole. That song is a huge reason as to why we’ve pushed so hard as a band.
I remember first hearing The Specials as a young kid in the back of my mum and dad’s motor.“A Message to You Rudy” came on the radio. It obviously stuck with me.
The Specials have had a huge impact on our music. I became obsessed with the Dance Craze movie a few years back and it played a big part in inspiring me to start my own Ska band. And of course since then, getting Neville on board for “Suburban Ska Club” has played a big part in our growth as band. It’s been an honour to work with him and he’s now a dear friend.
I first heard The Specials when I was a kid, maybe 8 years old, combing through my dad’s vinyl collection. He was a huge Elvis Costello fan and bought the first record on a whim simply because he had production credits on it. It was a happy coincidence because it was a true introduction to two-tone ska for me.
I’ve heard that the band wasn’t all that happy with Costello’s contributions to their first record, but for me as a fan of both, I think it’s exciting to have a collaboration of two fairly different musical backgrounds and watching them collide. We try to carry that mentality in Party Like It’s…, and to inject our songs with a fresh vibe and unique influence so it doesn’t feel like every song has the same ska element, but it’s all rooted in the same place.
My personal favorite Specials song is “Little Bitch.” We went through a phase where we used to cover that song and we really should bring it back.
It must of been around 1984-85. I was a junior in high school in West Orange, NJ (a quiet suburban town outside of NYC) and was in LOVE with The Police! I had every album and listened to them (and other 80’s New Wave) constantly. One day I was at the local department store and was browsing the “bargain bin” and saw this album cover that stopped me in my tracks: Black AND white musicians wearing cool suits and hats. Black and white photo. They weren’t even looking at the camera but they looked COOL. Something about the body language. I knew nothing of “ska”, just reggae and the stuff The Police were doing. $5.00?! [$5 in 1984 is equivalent to $13/€11.5 today] No questions about that. I bought it and took it home. As I listened to each track, I fell deeper in love with the sounds and the political messages. NONE of my close friends really got into it initially but my constant playing won them over.
After a month of constant listening, I decide that I want to be a US representative of Two-Tone here in New Jersey. The only problem was that I didn’t have any of the gear and couldn’t find it anywhere at the time. It wasn’t until I started college the following year that I was able to go to NYC and dig around the vintage clothing stores and find my black blazer, my “The Specials” tee shirt, black jeans and black brothel creepers. I “officially” became a self-proclaimed “Rude Boy” in 1987. Almost everyday, you could see me walking around the campus of Rutgers University in full Rude Boy Uniform. I found out later that on my way to NYC on day on the train, my best friend and musical partner in crime, Marc Wasserman, saw me and commented that he hadn’t seen a Black rude boy in person before! It would be another year until we met again to start our first band, Bigger Thomas [featuring Chris Malone, interviewed below]. When Marc and I met, all the Two Tone bands were our reference point but The Specials were our guiding star. The music, clothing and attitude was all inspired by these cool guys from Coventry.
It’s really hard not to love everything off the first albums since that was my first exposure to them. It’s like that first girlfriend you ever had or that first kiss. Nothing can compare! However, as my love affair continued with the band, I found myself drawn to the the “More Specials” songs more and more. One of my absolute favorites is “Stereotypes” because of the amazing storytelling and the “Part 2” with Neville chatting. I especially liked the line: “I don’t need no speed to make me go fast/just give me likkle 45 and 33/buy me my stereo I want to be free/stereo”. That line pretty much summed me up at the time. “Man at C&A” and “Do Nothing” round out my top 3 for the blunt political commentary in the first song and the hilariously sad social commentary of the second. Terry Hall wraps up the world view with 6 LINES! Take a look:
The man in black he told me the latest Moscow news about the storm across the Red Sea
They drove their ball point views I’m the man in grey, I’m just the man at sea And I don’t have a say in the war games that they play The Mickey Mouse badge told the Ayatollah at his feet You drink your oil you schmuck, we’ll eat our heads of wheat
If you watch them perform this in the movie “Dance Craze,” you can feel Terry seethe along with Neville’s warning of “nuclear attack.” All of this over a punky, dirty reggae beat. Amazing!
“Do Nothing” is even better:
Each day I walk along this lonely street Trying to find, find a future New pair of shoes are on my feet Cause fashion is my only culture Nothing ever change, oh no Nothing ever change People say to me just be yourself It makes no sense to follow fashion How could I be anybody else I don’t try, I’ve got no reason I’m just living in a life without meaning I walk and walk, do nothing I’m just living in a life without feeling I talk and talk, say nothing
To, basically, critique your current fan base? To call out the poseurs who follow you and your music? Brilliantly bold and self-aware. This is why I will ALWAYS love The Specials!
The short answer would probably be 1998. When I was 15 and I had just joined my first band on trumpet, The Jimmy Kickers. The guitarist, James Doyle (later of The Fad / The Forthrights) let me borrow a copy of The Specials singles collection. At the time I was still very new to ska music and had only really had exposure to our local scene on Long Island (eg. Edna’s Goldfish, the Scofflaws, Spider Nick and the Maddogs) and whatever bigger bands would come through on tour. In 1998, my parents finally got a computer and modem that could access the internet. One of the bands that would inevitably come up when you searched “ska” was The Specials. Songs like “Message To You Rudy,” “Nite Klub,” “Concrete Jungle” and “Gangsters” were staples of my playlists. It was from there that a young 15-year old band geek really started to discover how deep the ska music rabbit hole went.
I didn’t zero in on The Specials as the iconic band that they were until a few years later when I was in college. Not because I didn’t like the band, but because I was just so overwhelmed! As a kid in my mid teens I was still trying to piece together how all of these bands fit together under the broad heading of “ska”. My first real exposure to The Specials was seeing Neville Staple’s Specials in Las Vegas in 2003. Suddenly everything clicked. I obsessed over the first two Specials records. I joined Spider Nick and the Maddogs in 2003 because they were playing the type of music closest to that 2 Tone sound on Long Island. The themes of anti authoritarianism struck a chord with me, and continue to influence my views, musical tastes and the music I make with The Pandemics today.
The Specials were also a huge influence on 2 other bands I played with such as Bigger Thomas and Roger and The Rudie Crew [featuring Roger Apollon, Jr, interviewed above]. One of my proudest, favorite memories was linking up with Roddy Radiation. Roddy was kind enough to ask us to back him
Recently I realized I couldn’t live another day without an original recording of Theophilus Beckford’s “Easy Snapping” on Coxson Records. And I knew right where to find it. Darren Reggae has been collecting ska and reggae records since 1988. Before that, he honed his collector skills tracking down other style records, cassettes, old coins and Silver Age Marvel Comics. His first ska purchase—The English Beat’s “I Just Can’t Stop It” in 1983—was close to accidental. It wasn’t until ‘87 that he learned about ska from fellow skateboarders and skins. He got hooked on The Specials, rediscovered The English Beat’s other releases and, eventually fell hard for The Skatalites. Today, Darren describes his record collection as an organized hord, with more than 8,000 45’s and 1,200 LP’s. (Add to that his extensive collection of 80’s Pop, Alternative, Goth, Metal, Soul, Mod and some Surf.)
Easy Snappin’ – Theophilus Beckford
And he’s continually adding to that hord. “Records arrive at least a few times a week. Today, 27 60s-70s 45’s arrived. Including The Uniques “Girl of my Dreams” backed with Slim Smith “Love Power.”” As for his Holy Grail of 45s and albums, “Probably the toughest question for me, but for 45s, The Bleechers “Come into my Parlor” backed with The Melotones “Dry up your Tears” on UK Upsetter, 1969, and for LPs, Laurel Aitken: “Says Fire” LP on UK Doctor Bird, 1969.”
Ready to start your organized hord?
Darren Reggae’s Battle-proven Tips for the Novice Record Collector
What to collect: I suggest the collector decide what kind of collection they would like to have. I collect whatever I find within the “sounds” I like. If you like 1960s ska and that is all you want to collect, go for it! I mainly collect late 50s-mid 70s Jamaican jazz/R&B, pre-ska, ska, rocksteady, skinhead reggae, reggae and some calypso. Also 2-Tone, 2-Tone era ska, 80s-90s ska and some newer stuff as well. I have a lot of niche sub-collections. I like oddities. Non 2-Tone ska bands and bands that played one-off or just a few ska songs are probably my favorite niches. Decide whether you want to collect to own or collect to DJ. Or both. I say this because it will help you decide how to form your collection. Decide what is important—owning perfect copies or not so perfect copies? Do the record’s playing surfaces have to look perfect or just sound good? Does it need to play without skipping, without noise to DJ? I’m a Collector/Selecter/DJ type. I feel records are meant to be played and heard, so I take every opportunity I have to play records to the public. I do a monthly DJ night and several special events and concerts each year.
Price: There is no set price, but there is a market price. Use popsike, ebay and discogs to see what records are selling for. Also see what they actually sold for. Common records are attainable for $5 or $10. Modern bands sell records at concerts from $5-$20 usually. The condition of the record can also allow for more affordable records. But be aware, I have seen cracked records sell for $200+ because of rarity. Also, “blank” records can allow for more affordable finds. Sometimes they’re unknown to the seller or simply because the label copy is more in demand. “Jamaican Blank” records are 45’s and LP’s made with Blank Labels that were released and sold before the label copies were produced. Very similar to Promo/Pre-Radio copy in the USA. In many cases label copies had altered or removed labels to conceal the identity of the record, preventing other DJ’s from knowing what song they were playing. Competition was high and the DJ with the in demand sounds resorted to this. Others merely scratched off the titles and artists.
Condition: Deciding if you buy everything you come across or hold off for a better copy? Depends on the person. Are you a collector and just want to have it for your collection, or do you want a great sounding copy, too? Keep in mind that Jamaica and England produced most of the reggae records in the 60s and 70s. The English records are usually high quality, so condition is based largely on how the record was stored/handled/used during its existence. Jamaican records, unfortunately, were not made with the same quality, often misaligned, pressed with noise, manufacturing warps, pressing imperfections, and wrong labels. [Vintage 5-minute video on how records are made] Goldmine is the standard online reference for grading condition. I usually provide my own, much more detailed description of condition online. Remember, grading condition is an opinion, and buyer beware with online buying. Not all sellers are accurate or share your opinion of what meets a condition grade. And some have been outright deceptive.
Buying online: The pros are that it’s convenient—you can use all kinds of filters to search for precise or broad ranges of what you are looking for—it’s easy, fast and global. The cons are that the condition is not always as stated, shipping charges that are often expensive, the potential for lost/damaged records, sellers’ return policies and other possible deceptions.
Buying in stores: The pros are instant purchase, visual and audio sound checks, no shipping charges, employees who can give recommendations and that you can discover new music by accident. The cons are a smaller selection, you have to physically go to the store and, for those who are impatient, you have to dig! I shop record stores with mixed results. I guess it depends on where you live and what is available. Soul records are all over the place in Chicago while reggae and ska are not. I visit record stores in different cities, also with mixed results. If there is no reggae section, check the World, Soul and Jazz sections, too. 2-Tone and later are often filed in with pop.
Buying at record shows: Are Record Shows worth attending? Yes! I actually set up a booth as a seller in Chicago at least a few times a year, at ska shows and I’ve set up at The Super Nova Ska Festival two years as a vendor. As a buyer, I have found records before. Like shopping at a record store, it depends on the dealers who are there. My sale boxes blow people’s minds!
Buying “lots”: Several people I know have bought “lots” of 100 or 200 records from sellers. These often claim to be what they’re not. I buy individual records from people I know and trust. Buyer beware. And before you ask, my sources will remain secret!
Boss Sounds by Marc Griffiths
Trading: I suggest you only trade with people you know and trust. [See above]
Storage: At the very least, records should be stored vertically, at room temperature, away from any heat sources and out of any sunlight. Ideally in a sleeve (plain paper or picture sleeve), in an outer plastic sleeve and in an acid-free box or other storage box.
Resources: Most of the best books are out of print, such as Boss Sounds by Marc Griffiths. I use Discogs a lot. Facebook is loaded with groups, some public and some private. There are other online forums such as Pama Forum and 45 Cat.
Have patience: My collection was started over 30 years ago and is still going! I find records daily. There is so much out there.
You can connect with Darren on Facebook and on his ebay site. But if you’re looking for a copy of Theophilus Beckford’s “Easy Snapping” on Coxson Records, I may have just bought it.
Darren’s Ultimate* It’s-better-on-vinyl Playlist:
By no means was it easy to limit myself to this list! – DR