Just as "Death Disco" started sliding down the UK charts in July 1979, another single shot in like a rocket: "Gangsters". The Specials' debut shares a surprising amount with PiL's single: a bassline that pounds against your ribcage like a heart full of fear, baleful vocals (singer Terry Hall modelled his glowering persona on Johnny Rotten), and a sinuous, snake-charmer melody that's almost like a cartoon version of Lydon's muezzin wail. 'Cartoon' is the key word, though. For all the lyrics' conjuring of menace and corruption ('we're living in real gangster times'), the Specials' manic exuberance made "Gangsters" pure pop.
The Specials - Gangsters 1979
Where Metal Box's featureless packaging refused image, The Specials' selftitled debut album revelled in it - the cover shows the seven members of the band looking super cool in pork-pie hats, thin ties and sharp sixties suits. PiL's matt-grey canister was starkly functional, a pointed exercise in demystification. But The Specials' black-and-white sleeve harked back to an older glamour: the monochrome period feel of the early sixties.
Despite The Specials' outward appearance of boisterous fun, their songs' worldview is strikingly cheerless. In "Nite Klub", the wage slaves piss away their pay packets with beer that already tastes like piss.
The Specials - Nite Klub 1979
"Too Much Too Young" starts as a taunting diatribe against an ex-girlfriend who's lost her youth to premature motherhood ('Try wearing a cap', jeers Hall), then turns rueful and almost compassionate for the lives they've both lost: 'You done too much, much too young/Now you're married with a son when you should be having fun with me'.
The Specials - Too Much Too Young 1979
"Stupid Marriage" is a marginally more jaunty take on the same scenario: Hall as the jilted boyfriend spying on his ex and her husband, then lobbing a brick through the bedroom window. This grim vision of matrimony as death trap - 'She's got him where she wanted and forgot to take her pill/And he thinks that she'll be happy when she's hanging out the nappies/If that's a happy marriage I'd prefer to be unhappy' - recalls The Who's "A Legal Matter" and kitchen-sink dramas like Up the Junction.
The Specials - Stupid Marriage 1979
The Who - A Legal Matter 1965
The song "Concrete Jungle", like PiL's "Chant" and Fatal Microbes' "Violence Grows", takes a snapshot of street life in 1979: a record year for racial attacks and muggings. Embellished with sound effects of breaking glass, "Concrete Jungle" is driven by a disco-style walking bassline that periodically accelerates to a panicked sprint, the protagonist gibbering, 'Animals are after me' and, 'Leave me alone, leave me alone'.
The Specials - Concrete Jungle 1979
Singer/producer Prince Buster was even bigger in Britain than he was in Jamaica: he released more than six hundred singles in the UK between 1962 and 1967, and toured frequenly, often escorted between gigs by a phalanx of scooter-riding mods. The Special upheld the mod tradition of worshipping Buster. "Gangsters" was loosely based on his "Al Capone", replacing the original lyrics with all-new words about the record business's sharks and shysters, but 'sampling' the skidding car-chase tyres from the original.
Prince Buster - Al Capone 1967
"Stupid Marriage" stole its courtroom scenario - The Specials' resident rude boy Neville Staple as Judge Roughneck meting out harsh sentences to rude boys - from Buster's "Judge Dread" hit of 1967.
Prince Buster - Judge Dread 1967
"Message to You Rudy", the Dandy Livingstone classic covered by The Specials, wasn't written from a 'conscious' standpoint, but it did counsel the rude boy to mend his ways: 'better think of your future'.
The Specials - A Message to You, Rudy 1979
Dandy Livingstone - Rudy A Message to You 1967
Madness outdid all the other ska revivalists with their debut single - their sole release for 2-Tone Records. On one side, a version of Buster's "Madness" made for an instant manifesto.
Prince Buster - Madness 1967
On the other, "The Prince" paid luminous tribute. 'A ghost dance is preparing', announces singer Suggs McPherson, a nod to "Ghost Dance", Buster's own homage to the sound system operators of his youth. "This may not be uptown Jamaica", sings Suggs, conceding that, 'although I'll keep on running, I'll never get to Orange Street' - a reference to the boulevard that was both Buster's birthplace and the centre of Kingston's music biz. "The Prince" sounds joyous, but its lyrics capture the poignant pathos of the mod dream - escaping the impasses of England through a massive projection towards black music and black style.
Madness - The Prince 1979
Prince Buster - Ghost Dance 1967