Thursday, 7 October 2010
31 In The Studio - Special AKA
Tracks : Bright Lights / The Lonely Crowd / What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend / Housebound / Night On The Tiles / Nelson Mandela / War Crimes / Racist Friend / Alcohol / Break Down The Door
This was bought in Manchester during the summer break and like the Talk Talk LP had been eagerly awaited. This one was even more of a disappointment because the singles I already had were by far the best tracks on the LP and I've rarely played it since.
In a way this was the Chinese Democracy of its day. The original Specials had fractured even while their masterpiece Ghost Town was still at number one hence Terry Hall's strange smirk when they performed it on Top Of The Pops. Hall took toaster Neville Staples and second guitarist Lynval Golding into the Fun Boy Three while at the same time guitarist Roddy "Radiation" Byers feeling unwanted by the group's mainman, keyboardist Jerry Dammers quit to form his own group. Dammers responded by reverting to the original name The Special AKA with the remaining rhythm section bassist Horace "Gentleman" Panter and drummer John Bradbury. They released a couple of quick singles as a backing band for Specials associates Rhoda Dakar and veteran trumpeter Rico Rodriguez in 1982 between which Panter also decided to leave the band.
The fact that Panter's playing survives on three of the tracks here indicates that an early start was made on this LP but nothing emerged until the very end of 1982 when the single "War Crmes" was released, unveiling a new line-up with Dakar and Stan Campbell as co-vocalists. That bombed completely for reasons which we'll come to below then there was nothing until September 1983 and the double A-side "Bright Lights / Racist Friend". That at least restored them to the Top 75 but again it was six months before yet another single "Nelson Mandela" came out and became a Top 10 hit.
Finally the album , with its very dry title and cover shot came out in July 1984. In the time it took to record, the Fun Boy Three had released two albums and split up hence the re-appearance of the partially pardoned Golding as a backing vocalist on a couple of tracks. Things had moved on - Frankie were 1 and 2 in the singles charts and 2-Tone's heyday was long over. The Beat and Selecter had split up and Madness had little left in the tank. The album failed to crack the Top 30 and disappeared after only three weeks on the chart. The release of another single "What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend" failed to revive it. This left Dammers £200, 000 in debt to the parent company Chrysalis and so scarred by the experience he effectively called time on his career as a recording artist, devoting his time to political activism , DJ work and avoiding reunions of the original band. 2 Tone itself was wrapped up the following year after a couple more obscure singles. The label which had seemed such a vital force at the turn of the decade expired almost unnoticed.
So what went wrong ? I actually think that if this LP had been put out by a new band (and arguably it was) it would have been applauded for its ambition and scope , encompassing soul, jazz, reggae, bossa nova and African music. Instead the reaction was "We've waited all that time for this !". The legacy was heavy - I think the run of 7 singles by the original band was the greatest ever - and this LP just wasn't strong enough to bear the weight.
The departures took a lot out of the band. There are no rock dynamics at all with Byers out of the band; his replacement John Shipley (from 2 Tone also-rans The Swinging Cats) is a scratchy rhythm player and unobtrusive throughout the album. While not entirely absent , the humour suffers from not having Hall and Staples to deliver it. Most of all the kinetic energy that made the original band so exciting has gone; even the most aggressive songs here sound laboured by comparison,
So we start with "Bright Lights" a tale of a naive lad disillusioned by what he finds in the big city. Musically it's best described as mid-tempo funk pop with Dammers' trademark doomy organ chords and Dick Cuthell's horns laid on top. When released as a single in 1983 it gave us the first chance to assess the new vocalist Stan Campbell and he's ceratainly impressive here delivering his own tale of seeking fame and fortune and all too prophetically failing to find it. The song marries humour with the sarky reference to Wham ! in the first verse and serious politics with the reference to Colin Roach, a dubious black suicide in police custody which happened earlier that year.
It's a good opener to the album and is followed by "The Lonely Crowd" which covers the same territory as Soft Cell's Bedsitter with Campbell , sounding very like a higher-pitched Seal, finding that a heartless throng offers little more comfort than the TV. It's now that the album starts betraying its long gestation, there's simply too much going on in the music with Dammers' gamelan-influenced organ breaks , Andy Adreinto's freeform sax and the switch from a sludgy dragging beat to light jazz. The song with its melodically weak verses just isn't sturdy enough to bear the weight.
"What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend" is a Dammers solo composition, retains Panter's work on bass and sounds very much like it was originally written for Terry Hall to sing. Instead we have the dubious benefit of Dammers himself in a tuneless falsetto (he was surely kidding himself when he released it as the final single) singing lyrics which are less amusing than the title. The music is light jazz pop with plenty of horn work from Dick Cuthell and Rico and it might have worked with Hall doing the vocal but we'll never know.
"Housebound " is another Dammers solo composition which on the surface is a surprisingly unsympathetic song about agoraphobia but was actually a pop at Terry Hall's initial difficulty in coping with recognition on the street. We change vocalists again with ex-Bodysnatcher and Dammers's squeeze Rhoda Dakar taking the lead. Dakar had been hanging around the original band since the Bodysnatchers split (and soon reformed without her as The Belle Stars) causing speculation that she was a factor in the original group's demise. The hard-faced Dakar can sing in tune but has a chilly tone which only makes the song more unpleasant with its taunting chorus. Musically it's a strange blend of bossa nova piano and jungle rhythms with Dammers and Shipley seemingly trying to ape the Fun Boy Three on percussion. It's probably the most mean-spirited song in my entire collection.
"Night On The Tiles" written by Shipley and Dammers is the most recent composition and accordingly the furthest removed from their ska roots. This bossa nova track is Shipley's chance to shine with a spindly electric line snaking its way through the furiously strummed acoustics. Dammers's organ is barely audible and Lynval Golding's presence on backing vocals isn't detetctable. Strangely the horns on the track aren't credited on the sleeve apart from Andy Aderinto's sax. He gets two solos, the second being the more palatable. Campbell takes the lead but sounds clumsy here not having the dexterity to match the music. He dreams of escaping a prison for a night on the razz ; the female chorus suggesting it's a metaphor for marriage, a sequel to Too Much Too Young perhaps.
Side Two begins with the new group's most famous song and only Top 10 hit "Nelson Mandela". For this one they were joined by a starry cast of backing vocalists including Golding, guest producer Elvis Costello , erstwhile Beatsters Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger and singing trio Afrodiziak (who included future Soul II Soul vocalist Caron Wheeler). It still comes across as a strange record kicking off with a stop-start a capella rendition of the chorus followed by a trademark mournful horn line from Dick Cuthell then it suddenly becomes a joyful highlife record with David Heath's flute prominent in the mix. The song, a plea for support for the cause of freeing the jailed ANC leader as a prelude to dismantling apartheid has long since been superceded by events but was credited with raising Mandela's profile in the West and eagerly adopted as an anthem by the ANC. Ironically it also became the group's swan song as Campbell walked out of the group immediately after filming the video. He was coaxed back to appear on Top Of The Pops when it became a hit but didn't travel to Newcastle for The Tube so Costello and Afrodiziak did the lead vocal on that appearance. In recent years Campbell's appearance on this has taken on a sad irony for he himself is now banged up indefinitely in a mental hospital after abducting and assaulting teenage girls. He got a solo deal with WEA after this but when his album failed he went into a mental decline eventually sleeping rough and becoming a serial sex pest. In 2002 he was committed to a psychiatric hospital. Nelson has yet to make a record about his plight.
"War Crimes" was the single that announced the new line up (although it's Panter's bass which means the music must pre-date the lyric) in December 1982. A coal black lament about the Shabra-Shatila massacre in Beirut earlier that its failure to make the Christmas charts was predictable. Curiously, the Fun Boy Three were doing much the same thing with their single about the Troubles "The More I See The Less I Believe" which was similarly bereft of festive cheer. I bought the single despite not being a supporter of the Palestinian cause; Dammers's equation of the massacres with the Holocaust demonstrates a very dodgy sense of proportion. The main plus point is an achingly beautiful melody played on a rinky-dink organ which punctuates the verses. Dakar and Campbell sing not quite in harmony which may be deliberate for eerie effect before the song climaxes with strangely Sting-esque "ey-ohs". At least that was the single's climax ; here there's another two minutes worth of mainly instrumental coda which allows violinist Nick Parker (this is the only track not to feature any horns) to improvise but doesn't really improve it.
"Racist Friend" is almost certainly the oldest track as it retains some guitar work from Roddy Byers; his stabbing power chords a ghostly echo of past glories. Musically too it harks back to the old days being light reggae with horn work reminiscent of Uptown Ranking . Again I don't agree with the lyrical sentiment , an instruction to carry out a PC-purge of one's address book which even the right-on Helen found too hectoring. On the other hand the music is irresistible especially the drowsy organ and Cuthell's flugel horn which hint at a sadness in the process which makes the lyric more palatable. Dakar , Campbell and the otherwise underemployed Egidio Newton trade vocal lines in a way which makes the song seem less repetitive than it actually is.
"Alcohol" again features Panter on bass and has seemingly deliberate echoes of Ghost Town in the organ sound and ominously descending guitar work but the spell is abruptly broken by a burlesque horn riff and then a woefully off-key lead vocal from Dakar whose limitations are thoroughly exposed here. The lyric concerns addiction to heroin and alcohol but doesn't say anything partticularly new and sounds condescending rather than concerned.
"Break Down The Door" the final track gives Campbell a last chance to shine on a track he co-wrote with Dammers and Bradbury. Campbell gives an impassioned performance sounding like Sam Moore with an appropriately Stax-like arrangement to which Bradbury adds a modern sheen with some sneaky synth, that instrument's only appearance on any Specials record. The song's another plea for personal freedom but for all Campbell's ferocity it's not a great tune and Dakar's drony backing vocal is a minus; she's outstayed her welcome by this point.
Listening to it again with the singles in their proper context it doesn't seem so bad and probably deserved to do more commercially than it did but Dammers' perfectionism and inability to keep his singers on side eventually did for him. It's a fascinating record but not a brilliant one and that's what he needed .