Can you remember what you were doing thirty years ago today? No, me neither. However, it was a monumental day in pop history, for on July 28th 1979 the debut single by a band called The Special AKA entered the UK chart. And the rest is, as they say, history.
The nation’s youth were enraptured like Monsieur Cantona’s seagulls following the 2 Tone trawler gobbling up Gangster sardines. Equally delicious morsels were to follow in quick succession; Madness’ One Step Beyond, Selecter’s On My Radio and Three Minute Hero, The Beat’s Tears of a Clown, The Specials’ Message to You Rudy….
…It fizzled out eventually, the impact of the incendiary first few months of 2 Tone could not be maintained. It could be argued that the movement was more important than punk, albeit with the acknowledgement that it would never have happened without punk having laid the groundwork.
Anyway, musings on the 2 Tone legacy are for another day. Today is all about one song, the one that started it all.
I can’t recall where I was when I first heard Gangsters, but I do know that I was immediately spellbound. It was probably on Radio 1, though it could have been on Top of the Pops. “Oh, they’re doing Prince Buster’s Al Capone” my aunt Penny said. I had never heard of Prince Buster, never heard of ska, never heard of Terry Hall or Jerry Dammers, but these seven blokes bouncing around inside our TV set were making one hell of a hypnotic noise.
The sardonic vocal by the chap in the stripey shirt, that hypnotic organ sound, like Booker T with his eyes spiralling like they do in cartoons to denote hypnosis (I refuse to write like Booker T on acid). The spangly guitar solo, the drum tattoo, razor sharp snare sound and sudden ending. Later, (about 25 years later) I came to realise exactly what he was singing; so many great lines, from Neville’s iconic Bernie Rhodes Knows, Don’t Hargue, to Why must you record my phone calls, are you planning a bootleg lp, and Catch 22 says if I sing the truth, they won’t make me an overnight star.
A young band, already jaded and hurt, singing about being exploited by management and the music industry with their debut single!
The Specials were (and remain) such an important band. As political as The Clash, with a more cogent argument. The march of Thatcher could not be stopped, but the poison of racism could. The best dressed band this side of the mid-60s Stones (and thus second best-dressed band of all time) with a live act as zestful as a Geno Washington soul revue. They made a real difference to the social fabric of this island.
And now thirty years on, Gangsters still has the power to hypnotise. My sister says the reunion gigs were astonishing (she’s been twice and is going again). Me, I’m sceptical, I don’t want to see a bunch of grandads knocking out a half-speed version of it (with or without the aid of Lily Allen). However, they deserve their payday and no reunion will diminish the magic of the ‘original’.
Just as each succeeding generation of teenagers eventually discover the wonder of Jimi Hendrix, I cannot believe any future teen could not fall under the spell of this song, albeit growing up in a very different Britain (or is it so different?) to the Britain of 1979.