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"Thou shall not tell a girl she deserved it"

The Specials
D'Arcy Briggs

February 14, 2019

Review of Encore, by The Specials

The Specials have been around in one form or another since 1977, and are often seen as the largest group of the 2 Tone movement. In fact, the movement itself was named by Specials’ keyboardist and label founder, Jerry Dammers, who wanted to defuse and destroy the racial tensions within Thatcher’s UK. The group featured black and white musicians, from Jamaica as well as the UK. Becoming active the same year as Rock Against Racism launched, anti-racism and standing against groups like the National Front were always an important part of their message. Their sound is a blend of ska with mod and punk. Hits like “Ghost Town,” “Free Nelson Mandela,” and “Too Much Too Young,” are just a few of their chart-topping hits. With all that said, the announcement of a new original album came as a bit of a surprise to fans. Their last album of original material was 1998’s Guilty 'til Proved Innocent!, and an album featuring Terry Hall as vocalist hasn’t been seen since 1980’s More Specials. Can The Specials still deliver topical and unifying music in 2019?

What’s most impressive about Encore is how relevant and contemporary it sounds for an album reaching into the band’s back catalogue of sounds. Listeners not only get some high quality ska and reggae, but sounds that members of the band have pursued in other projects such as funk, spoken word, and pop. The Specials tackle Brexit, sexism, austerity, Tory rule, and Black Lives Matter on their latest album. It’s an incredibly pointed yet accessible release. The lead single and video for the album is “Vote for me,” a down-tempo ode to untrustworthy politicians that Hall delivers in his trademark gloomy disposition. The track is directed straight at Theresa May and the ongoing austerity her government continues to take. The chorus drones listeners with “There are no rocks at Rockaway beach / And all that glitters isn't gold,” only adding to the song’s dreary tone. One verse in particular hits heavy with “You're all so drunk on money and the power / Inside your ivory tower / Teaching us not to be smart. / Making laws that serve to protect you / But we will never forget that / You tore our families apart.”

The song’s video serves an equally bleak outlook on the world, with an art direction somewhere between Monty Python’s animated shorts and an existentialist nightmare. News footage of Thatcher-era and contemporary protests are featured before a pastiche of social decay, crime, and protest carry on for the rest of the video. As the camera slowly pans by to the video’s end, the crowds slowly raise their heads to the audience, perhaps realizing their own collective power. Both Thatcher and May are echoed in the video, and more directly mentioned, are the ongoing shootings and killings of racialized youth in the UK such as Christopher Alder and Mark Duggan. Two more tracks that deserve some attention of their own are the funk-driven “BLM,” and the dub-reggae piece “10 Commandments,” both of which are spoken word and highlight the necessary political direction the group has taken.

“BLM” is guitarist Lynval Golding’s history of racism as seen through personal experience. We begin with his father, who was a member of the Windrush generation, the name given to African-Caribbeans who followed the call of employment and citizenship following the devastation of World War 2. “The year was 1954, you know / Sir Winston Churchill shout across the Western islands / He said, ‘Come, help us rebuild this country devastated by war"’/ And so anyway, my father set sail upon the wind rush, born for a new life.” Each verse ends with a thematic closer, with this one ending “He'd knock on door after door after door / But the sign on the window kept saying the same thing / ‘No dogs, no Irish, no blacks’ / Welcome to England.” The following verse details Lynval’s travels to be with his father and attend school. It ends with school boys throwing racial slurs towards him. “‘Are you talking to me? / Are you talking to me?’ / Boy, welcome to England.” In the mid-90’s, Lynval moved to Washington state. “In 1994, I move again / The land of the free, the home of the brave / The United State of America.” The verse details how racism followed him halfway around the world. “When she heard my accent, she said / "Oh, you're not from here, you're not one of them" / "One of them?" I said, "You mean me being black? / Well ma'am, let me tell you something right, I am black!” BLM, while musically not The Special’s standard fare, is an amazingly personal and important track.

“10 Commandments” is the other heavy hitter from the album, featuring Saffiyah Khan on vocals and is a response to Prince Buster’s incredibly sexist track by the same name. Khan came into the public eye 2 years ago when she famously smiled-down an EDL protester at an event in Birmingham. Certain angles of the instance show that she was wearing a Specials t-shirt. With this known, the band quickly offered her tickets to their performances. Unrelated, The Specials were combing through their back catalogue of music to find inspiration for their new album. The band has done covers of Buster’s work and has even sampled them in their own hits."But Ten Commandments has not travelled very well, and from listening to it again it felt important to do a contemporary version,” he says. After playing around in the studio, they realized they needed a woman to speak in her own voice on the track. Saffiyah was contacted and the new “10 Commandments” was recorded.

The entire length of the track is amazing, but one verse in particular directly targets the 2018 Irish rape case in which a 27 year-old man was found not guilty and the defense lawyer called into question the victim’s choice of underwear, saying "You have to look at the way she was dressed. She was wearing a thong with a lace front." Khan announces “Thou shall not tell a girl she deserved it / Because her skirt was too short / She walked home, streets lights illuminating her as a target / But she started it, because she looked at him / And he finished it 'cause he wanted to / And they'll bring out her skirt as Exhibit A before the judge.” From start to finish it’s a great song, ending with “But I shall be seen / And I will be heard / The commandments of I, Saffiyah Khan.”

Encore continues to deliver powerful protest music for 2019. It speaks heavily to the most important issues we’re facing today, while also echoing the anti-racist and anti-Thatcher history of the group.

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