Just for the record: Special times called for a special band
A fortnightly vinyl review
There’s a cherished seven single in a darkened corner of my record collection: a copy of Special AKA’s Nelson Mandela (Two-Tone Records) signed by the band’s leader and the song’s composer, Jerry Dammers. Over-familiarity may have stripped the song of much of its force over the years, but at the time of its release, in March 1984, it was considered a powerfully subversive anthem, a status undoubtedly bolstered by its banning here.
Outside of our borders though, the song was heard around the world, and became one of the great anti-apartheid rallying cries, its joyous melody and celebratory spirit being a polar opposite to the funereal tone of other “struggle” songs, like Johnny Clegg and Savuka’s Asimbonanga or Peter Gabriel’s dirge-like Biko. Working with original producer Elvis Costello, Dammers remade the song for Madiba’s 1988 70th birthday celebrations in London. Now titled Free Nelson Mandela (and released on offshoot label Tone Records), it featured lead vocalist Ndonda Khuze, a founder member of the ANC’s Amandla Cultural Ensemble, and trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, as well as other South African exiled musicians.
The song was later performed at Mandela’s 90th birthday celebrations in Hyde Park, London, in 2008, with Amy Winehouse on lead vocals. Mandela was in attendance and was a bit confused when Winehouse changed the chorus to “Free Blakey, My Fella”. It was left to then British prime minister Gordon Brown, sitting next to Mandela, to explain that Winehouse’s husband, the former drug-dealer Blake Fielder-Civil, was then in prison for assault. There was even more confusion when Winehouse went on to tell the crowd that her partner had a lot in common with Mandela because he too had been jailed.
I mention all this because The Specials, the group Dammers formed in 1977 to lead the British ska revival craze, combining Jamaican rocksteady and ska with punk attitude to take a more informed political stance than their peers, release a new album, Encore (Universal), in February next year. Cover art is entirely grey. As Horace Panter, the group’s bass player, told Mojo magazine: “We talked a lot about grey areas. Things you read about that aren’t fake news. Things used to be black and white, but [now] I don’t think they are.”
This, then, will be the group’s third proper album, and it comes 10 years after they reformed, but without Dammers, who has become something of a recluse. It also marks 40 years after the release of their bitterly angry but indispensable debut, The Specials (Two-Tone Records). Its follow-up, 1981’s less frenzied but more musically adventurous More Specials (Two-Tone Records), may have signalled a slight change in direction, but it was no less satisfying.
The single Ghost Town (Two-Tone Records), released later that year, was one of the group’s more potent releases, issued as it was during 1981’s race-related unemployment riots in London and Liverpool. It jumped straight to the top of the UK charts, but just as the group was breaking up, with principal vocalists Terry Hall, Lynval Golding and Neville Staples leaving to form Fun Boy Three. Dammers continued the group as Special AKA after enlisting a new vocalist, Stan Campbell. They released only one album, 1984’s bleak and dour In the Studio (Two-Tone Records), its only highlight being Nelson Mandela.
Those wanting an appetiser while waiting for Encore’s release should look out for Singles (Two-Tone Records), a compilation originally released in 1991, but reissued on vinyl in the UK last year, and more recently in the US. Chrysalis Records, Two-Tone’s distributors, will meanwhile be issuing a double LP set, The Best of the Specials, in January. The first two albums were also reissued on vinyl last year.
The 50th anniversary bandwagon rolls relentlessly onwards, a juggernaut of baby boomer nostalgia on 180g vinyl and lavishly repackaged for the boutique LP market. Latest to catch my eye is Fleetwood Mac’s five-LP collection, 50 Years: Don’t Stop (Warner Music), which should make for interesting listening as it is one of the few collections devoted to the group’s history in its entirety – from British psychedelic blues outfit to Californian pop aristocracy.
There was only one other collection that attempted this, the CD-only set, 1992’s 25 Years: The Chain, which was released shortly after guitarist Lindsay Buckingham left the group, leaving the Mac’s future uncertain. Buckingham rejoined again in 1997, but was kicked out shortly before the release of 50 Years: Don’t Stop earlier this month. (The group are now touring with Crowded House’s Neil Finn and Heartbreaker Mike Campbell in his place.)
Together with his then partner, Stevie Nicks, Buckingham joined the band in 1975. He seemed an unlikely addition to a jaded and fast fading group of bluesy rockers. But his obsession with meticulously arranged pop revived interest in the group, first with 1975’s Fleetwood Mac (Reprise Records, and not to be confused with the group’s eponymous 1968 outing on the Epic label), which did extremely well, thanks to its singles, Rhiannon, Say You Love Me and Over My Head, and then with 1977’s gazillion-selling Rumours (Warner Bros). This is the Fleetwood Mac that most fans know. Much of the first two LPs of 50 Years: Don’t Stop may be unfamiliar territory for them, but nevertheless well worth exploring.
THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION
Another 50th anniversary celebration, this time the dark louche masterpiece that is the Rolling Stones’s Beggars Banquet (ABKCO). The album launched the group’s second golden era, and was followed by a remarkable succession of LPs: Let It Bleed, the live set Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St. It was only with 1973’s Goats Head Soup that the Stones’ all-too easily sleazy image began to eclipse their achievements. Beggars Banquet was the last album to feature prominent contributions from the group’s co-founder, the slowly disintegrating Brian Jones. For all his drug problems, though, his contributions here make this album a sublime triumph, and a welcome return to their blues roots. Despite the voodoo ferocity of the opening Sympathy for the Devil, one of the Stones’ greatest songs, much of the album has an acoustic, almost country flavour.
Though recorded in June 1968, it took six months to be released following an almighty row with Decca Records over the cover art. The group wanted a photograph of an exceptionally grotty toilet with customised graffiti. The label dug in its heels, and in December, the Stones relented and the album was finally released in a plain white cover resembling an embossed invitation. Cynics were quick to point out that the Beatles had also just released an album with a wholly white cover.
The toilet cover was first used when the album was reissued on CD in 1984, and now appears on all other reissues. The original 1968 mono pressings with the white gatefold sleeve are now quite collectible, with near-mint copies trading hands at about R4,000 a pop. The new 50th anniversary edition includes both covers, as well as a mono mix of Sympathy for the Devil and a flexi-disc of an interview with Mick Jagger that was originally included in Japanese pressings of the album. It’s a pricey set, but there are plenty of other editions of Beggars Banquet out there.