SXSW Interview: The Specials
Wed., 10:50pm, Mohawk; Thu., 11pm, Hype Hotel; Fri., 12:30am, Stubb's
"We felt a bit like a gang," supposes Specials guitarist Roddy "Radiation" Byers, of the days his now-reformed band ruled Britannia with a punk/reggae hybrid the Clash coveted.
Late-Seventies England was rife with "unemployment, racists and general discontent," Byers continues. "Which, as we were surrounded by it, became the subject matter for our songs."
Indeed, the Specials rolled ganglike, with a black-and-white lineup and music. Songs reflected British reality while still offering hope and high spirits. They did it in sharp suits and pork pie hats, echoing the lean, dandy look of both hard Mods and Jamaican rude boys. They called it 2 Tone, or ska. As UK punk historian John Robb notes, "Ska had the chart hits that punk often failed to get. For a brief period of time, the Specials were the key band in the UK."
Stateside, ska mostly registered as punk-related party music, probably due to Specials leader Jerry Dammers not being "keen on U.S. capitalism," as Byers puts it.
"If the Specials concentrated on breaking the States, we would've been more than just a cult band who inspired No Doubt, Rancid, etc."
Reunited minus Dammers in 2009 – "Terry Hall seems to be the new leader," says Byers – the Specials (also minus ailing singer Neville Staples) have enjoyed packed halls worldwide upon their return.
"The Specials was and is very hard for any of us to get away from," admits the guitarist. "But we've made new friends and fans in the last five years. Which goes to show that our music and message is still relevant in today's world."