True innovators of the punk era, The Specials began the British ska revival craze, combining the highly danceable ska and rocksteady beat with punk’s energy and attitude, and taking on a more focused and informed political and social stance than their predecessors and peers.
The band was originally formed in Coventry, in 1977, as the Coventry Automatics and later the Special A.K.A. by songwriter/keyboardist Jerry Dammers, with Terry Hall (vocals), Lynval Golding (guitar, vocals), Neville Staples (vocals, percussion), Roddy Radiation (guitar), Sir Horace Gentleman (bass), and John Bradbury (drums). An opening slot for The Clash stirred up interest with the major labels, but Dammers instead opted to start his own 2-Tone label, named for its multiracial agenda and after the two-tone tonic suits favored by the like-minded mods of the ’60s. The Dammers-designed logos, based in ’60s pop art with black and white checks, gave the label an instantly identifiable look. Dammers’ eye for detail and authenticity also led to the band adopting ’60s-period rude-boy outfits (porkpie hats, tonic and mohair suits, and loafers).
The Specials debuted with the “Gangsters” single, which reached the U.K. Top Ten in 1979. Soon after, hordes of bands and fans followed in the same tradition, and the movement reached full swing. Over the next several months, 2-Tone enjoyed hits by similar-sounding bands such as Madness, the (English) Beat, and the Selecter. Late in 1979, the band released its landmark debut album, The Specials, produced by Elvis Costello. They followed with several 2-Tone package tours and a live EP, Too Much Too Young (confusingly credited to Special A.K.A.). The title track, a pro-contraception song, was banned by the BBC but reached the number one spot in the U.K. At this time, the band switched musical directions, releasing album number two, More Specials, with a new neo-lounge persona. Signs indicated that the movement was fading and 2-Tone began to experience financial troubles. Nevertheless, a film documenting the 2-Tone package tours, Dance Craze, as well as its companion album, saw considerable success.
“Ghost Town,” one of the band’s most significant singles, was issued in 1981 amid race-related unemployment riots in Brixton and Liverpool. The song jumped to number one, but the band was falling apart. Hall, Staples, and Golding left to form Fun Boy Three, leaving the band without its trademark voice. Dammers held on, reverting back to the old name, Special A.K.A., and enlisted a new vocalist, Stan Campbell. After several years, they returned with In the Studio in 1984. They managed a few hits, including “Racist Friend” and “Free Nelson Mandela,” but the album stiffed. The band’s final single, “What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend,” failed to break the British Top 40. Dammers dissolved the unit and pursued political causes such as Artists Against Apartheid.
Shortly after the official breakup, various members of the band joined up with other ska revivalists (English Beat, etc.) to form a touring unit named Special Beat. By the mid-’90s, in response to the third wave ska revival, a Dammers-less version of the Specials reappeared with a series of shameful cash-in albums: Today’s Specials (1996) Guilty Til Proved Innocent! (1998), and Conquering Ruler (2002). The Specials reunited again in 2008 (still without Dammers) and toured until 2015, when John Bradbury, the backbone of the 2-Tone sound, passed away in December at the age of 62. Trombonist Rico Rodriguez had died three months earlier, on September 4. He was 80 years old.
However one might describe their music, the Pop Group most certainly were not a pop group, and while they rose to popularity as the first wave of British punk had yet to break, they weren’t really punk either, through their aggressive fusion of funk, noise, dub, free jazz, proto-punk, post-beat poetics, and untold volumes of forbidden knowledge could probably have only coalesced in 1977, a time when the rules of rock and its subgenres seemed to have been temporarily suspended in the U.K.
The Pop Group were formed in Bristol, a city in Southwest England, in 1977 by Mark Stewart, a young man with eclectic tastes and strong opinions who was impressed by the fierce energy of punk but felt the music was too conventional for his liking. Originally hoping to form a funk band, Stewart teamed with guitarist John Waddington and bassist Simon Underwood, two mates from school who were kindred spirits when it came to music. It soon became clear that the new band wasn’t going to be a conventional funk outfit between Stewart’s expressive ranting and Waddington’s jagged guitar lines, and with the addition of guitarist Gareth Sager and drummer Bruce Smith, they adopted the sarcastic title the Pop Group. The Pop Group’s ferocious live shows earned them a powerful reputation, and they landed a deal with Radar Records, releasing their debut single, “She Is Beyond Good and Evil,” in March 1979.
A month later, the group issued its first album, Y, produced in collaboration with U.K. dub master Dennis Bovell; the album received enthusiastic reviews but poor sales, and Radar soon severed ties with the band. Undaunted, the Pop Group partnered with the adventurous U.K. indie label Rough Trade; they also welcomed a new bassist, Dan Catsis, replacing Simon Underwood. The Pop Group’s first release for Rough Trade, arriving in shops in November 1979, was the single “We Are All Prostitutes,” backed with the singularly uncompromising “Amnesty International Report on British Army Torture of Irish Prisoners.” The 7″ reached number eight on the U.K. indie charts, and March 1980 brought the second full-length LP from the Pop Group, For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder?
Almost immediately after the release of the LP, the Pop Group dropped a split single with the all-female punk/dub band the Slits, but internal squabbles and disillusion with the U.K.’s conservative shift after Margaret Thatcher became prime minister led to the collapse of the band in early 1980, shortly after the release of a collection of demos, live recordings, and radio sessions, We Are Time. Mark Stewart would go on to a lively career, releasing many solo projects and working with the groups the New Age Steppers, Mark Stewart + Maffia, and Tackhead, while Waddington recorded with Maximum Joy, Sager joined Rip Rig + Panic, Underwood worked with Pigbag, Smith played drums with African Head Charge, Public Image Ltd., and The The, and Catsis recorded with the Blue Aeroplanes.
In 2010, Stewart re-formed the Pop Group for a concert tour, joined by Gareth Sager, Dan Catsis, and Bruce Smith. In the next several years, the Pop Group played occasional live shows and Stewart announced they were working on an album of new material. In 2014, the band reissued We Are Time, and assembled another LP of live recordings and studio outtakes, Cabinet of Curiosities, in addition to announcing a North American tour. In early 2015, a good 35 years after their last studio album, the new record Citizen Zombie was released with production from noted audio engineer Paul Epworth. The band posted the title track online before the release of the album. Citizen Zombie was followed by more reissues of the Pop Group’s classic recordings, including new editions of For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? and the “We Are All Prostitutes” single. In mid-2016, the Pop Group released another archival project, a collection of live recordings titled The Boys Whose Head Exploded, and the suddenly prolific band dropped a new studio album a few months later. Honeymoon on Mars, which arrived in October 2016, included production assistance from U.K. dub master Dennis Bovell and Hank Shocklee, who worked with Public Enemy on several of their classic albums.