The Iron Lady portrays an England beset with social, political and economic strife. Strikes, food shortages, racial conflict played against the pomp and ceremony of the Silver Jubilee. By the late 1970s, with the Winter of Discontent eroding into the English people’s traditional resilience, the Conservative Party swept to power, winding back welfare programs and cracking down on industrial unrest. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher asserted that there was no such thing as society, only the individual. It was into this tumultuous environment that multi-racial ska band The Specials were born in 1977. The Specials came from the same sub-cultural and political melting pot as punk, first challenging the staid post-war institutions that had come to suffocate English society, and subsequently firing rhetorical bullets at Thatcher’s brutal social and economic policies.
Lynval Golding, guitarist and founding member of The Specials, describes it as ‘strange’ to see the events of his youth portrayed on the big screen in The Iron Lady. In fact, Golding says when he thinks back to his early days in The Specials, he’s immediately drawn to the images shown in the movie. “My recollection of that time is seeing part of it on the big screen in The Iron Lady,” Golding says. “We played a gig in 1979 that’s shown in the film, although we’re not actually on the soundtrack – our songs would never be used in that film!” he laughs. “But I can remember the miners strikes and all the unrest that’s shown in the film. There can’t be many bands that can go back to their roots in that way!” Golding says.
Golding was born in the then-English colony of Jamaica in 1951. A few years later his family migrated to England, where they settled in Coventry. In 1977 Golding, Horace Panter – also known as Sir Horace Gentleman – and Jerry Dammers formed The Coventry Automatics, which eventually morphed into The Specials. “Jerry Dammers got the band together originally, and I was the first member,” Golding recalls. “And then Horace Panter joined. But we were the original three members.”
The Specials were soon joined by Silverton Hutchinson (who left early in the band’s career), Neville Staple, Roddy Byers and Terry Hall. Dammers had already sowed the seeds of the band’s political stance, which would subsequently become a significant ingredient in the band’s public and musical image. Ska had its roots in the Caribbean islands, most notably in Staple and Golding’s home country of Jamaica. While England wasn’t the only country with colonial interests in the Caribbean, the concentration of post-war Caribbean migration toward England meant that it became the focus for the fledgling European ska movement. “The ska in the band came from me and Neville,” Golding says. “I think The Specials played a huge part in educating people Europe about ska music, and reggae,” he says. While paying tribute to Bob Marley’s efforts in bringing reggae to the attention of the world, Golding has a surprising nomination for his own favourite band. “When we were touring in Europe we played with AC/DC,” Golding recalls. “They’re my favourite, favourite band! We did a gig with Bon Scott just before he died. It was absolutely fantastic!”
The other critical influence on The Specials was The Clash. Joe Strummer had been to see The Specials play in 1977, and suggested them as support act for The Clash shortly after. The tour introduced The Specials to an audience well beyond their Coventry roots, and led eventually to The Specials’ nation-wide popularity. “The Clash tour probably gave us our audience,” Golding says. “It proved to us that we could crossover. I don’t think that without Joe Strummer and Mick Jones there would be The Specials. They are just fantastic guys.”
Jerry Dammers formed the Tru-Tone label in 1979, which released The Specials’ debut single, Gangsters. The Specials had already adopted the pork pie and suit look adopted partly from the mod sub-culture – of which Dammers had once been a member – and partly from Golding and Staple’s own Caribbean roots. “Back then when I was leaving Jamaica, you’d have your best clothes on – you’d be wearing a suit and looking very nice. You dressed up in your best clothes,” Golding says. “So dressing up like did was part of my roots.”
The Specials went on to release a series of successful singles, including a re-worked version of Dandy Livingstone’s Rudy, A Message to You (re-titled A Message to You, Rudy), Too Much Too Young and Ghost Town. The Specials also formed a strong bond with Los Angeles girl punk band The Go-Gos during the latter band’s European tour in 1980.
Specials singer Terry Hall would go on to write Our Lips Are Sealed with Go-Gos’ guitarist Jane Wiedlin (in addition to becoming the Go-Gos’ most successful single, the song would also be recorded by Hall’s post Specials band, Fun Boy Three). Golding is circumspect, almost coy in describing the relationship between The Specials and Fun Boy Three. “In this wonderful world we live in we’ve got guys and girls,” Golding says cryptically. “Terry Hall wrote this wonderful song with the Go-Gos called Our Lips Are Sealed – that song says a lot. Let’s just say it was a great combination,” Golding cackles.
The Specials were at the forefront of Rock Against Racism, a project instigated in the punk and ska music community to stem the rise of racism, and to counteract the insidious influence of right-wing rhetoric in the punk movement. 30 years on, and Golding says England has evolved since that time for the better, though he’s regularly disappointed with what’s seen as a return racist commentary. “England has become a multi-racial country, and there’s no doubt a multi-racial band helped stop racism” Golding says. “England has become the world, and that’s a good thing. I think if we can put together all these people in the one country, then that’s a good thing. England is no longer just white – and that’s a good thing,” he says. “But I’m also very saddened that racism is being used, even on the football field. I’m a big football fan – I follow Chelsea. I’ve gone to games where there’s been lots of racism directed at players on the pitch. I am really embarrassed when there’s this chanting at black players on the pitch – calling them ‘black bastard!’ I was at a game when someone was calling the black players black bastards, and then he turned to me and said ‘I’m not talking about you – I’m just talking to the players. How can it not be about me as well?” Golding asks rhetorically.
In the early 1980s, and with internal tensions rising, the members of The Specials went their separate ways. Hall, Staple and Golding formed Fun Boy Three (including collaborating with the members of Bananarama) while Dammers pursued his own political agenda under the moniker The Special AKA, including chart topping Free Nelson Mandela. Over the next 20-odd years the members of The Specials participated in the occasional part-reunion and one-off project. Golding says the seeds of The Specials’ 2009 reunion – albeit without Jerry Dammers – began when Golding tried to organise a 25th anniversary tour. With the various members spread around the world – Staple has lived in Los Angeles for many years – logistics proved a significant problem. “I tried getting everyone back together for the 25 year anniversary,” Golding says. “But it took five years to get everyone back together. But once we did manage it, it’s been fantastic to play again.”
The ongoing absence of Jerry Dammers – guitarist, principal songwriter and arguably the band’s political protagonist – has been something of a sore point. While Terry Hall was quoted in the English music media a few years ago as saying the door was open for Dammers to return, Dammers has publicly criticised The Specials’ reformation, claiming he had no option but to decline to participate. Golding is disappointed Dammers hasn’t been involved, but says it was unavoidable, given Dammers’ refusal to agree to the other members’ idea for the reunion tour. “Jerry Dammers isn’t playing with this lineup. We couldn’t agree with his idea with what to do with the 30th anniversary tour. There are lots of members in this band, and it’s a democratic decision. That’s the thing about democracy – you have to go with the majority decision,” Golding says.
But right now Golding’s immediate frustration is with the change in weather he’s just been confronted with after returning home to his adopted hometown of Seattle. “I was in Jamaica over Christmas, and I’ve just got back to Seattle. When I was in Jamaica, the weather there is absolutely beautiful,” Golding remarks in his Jamaica-via-Coventry accent. “And then I got off the plane in Seattle, where I live now, and it’s raining. It’s absolutely terrible! All this rain reminds me so much of England!” he laughs. “I’m so looking forward to coming back to Australia – I absolutely love it. I’ll make sure I leave all the bad weather behind!”
BY PATRICK EMERY
THE SPECIALS play Byron Bay Bluesfest, taking place from Thursday April 5 to Monday April 9. They also play the Palace Theatre in Melbourne on Thursday April 5.