July 1999

The Specials - Blue Plate Specials
DCC/Big Ear Music EAZ 4018
Released: 1999

by Steven P. Ragland

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality **1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****

[Reviewed on CD]As with great reggae, it’s hard to listen to top-quality ska and not get up and dance -- or at least tap your feet a bit. There’s no doubt that when it comes to the best ska has to offer, The Specials are it. Formed in Coventry, England in 1977 and spearheaded by Indian-born Jerry Dammers, The Specials introduced the UK to the Jamaican musical mix of -- as the liner notes put it -- "mento, r&b, jazz, and boogie-woogie." The band toured with The Clash in the late '70s and then in 1979 founded the 2-Tone record label, which later signed such bands as The Beat, The Selecter, and Madness (which brought ska to the US charts). 2-Tone refers not just to the black and white fashions favored by Rudeboys and Rudegirls (as ska devotees were known), but also to the multiracial make up of bands like The Specials and the racial-justice politics they espoused.

Blue Plate Specials is a 15-track collection of well-known songs such as "Gangsters" and "Too Much Too Young," coupled with older, less familiar romps like "Rock and Roll Nightmare" and "Jay Walker," recorded when the band was known either as the Coventry Automatics or The Special A.K.A. These are songs from the original lineup, before singer Terry Hall and two others left in 1981 to form Fun Boy Three and before Dammers recorded "(Free) Nelson Mandela" with new bandmates under the old moniker Special A.K.A.

Nine of the Blue Plate songs are on the band’s Elvis Costello-produced eponymous debut, which spawned the hit "A Message to You Rudy." While that great track is not on this collection, you won’t miss it a bit. The disc starts off, appropriately, with "Gangsters," the band’s first UK Top Ten, and the first hit issued by the 2-Tone label. This song, a scathing commentary on the music industry, is classic ska, with Roddy Radiation’s edgy guitar and Terry Hall’s fabulous vocal delivery backed by Neville Staples booming echoed chants (think "One Step Beyond" with a punk attitude).

The energy level of the live recording increases as "Gangsters" flows right into "Do The Dog," an attack on National Front skinheads and other racist "pinheads." The Specials addressed social issues besides race relations, as the birth-control anthem "Too Much Too Young" demonstrates a third of the way through this great disc. Next up is "Little Bitch." I defy anyone to sit still while listening to this one. Feet will be tapping and heads will be bobbing.

Another gem is "Concrete Jungle," which clearly reveals the band’s punk influences. I can picture The Clash rushing onto stage and breaking into "Police and Thieves" after The Specials got the crowd roaring with this one. Life is unfair for not placing me in London in the late '70s. The instrumental "Wake Up" serves as a fine dénouement for the collection, and leaves me wanting more. I guess I’d better go CD shopping tomorrow.

Despite my giddiness, Blue Plate Specials is not for everyone. The recording, though remastered for compact disc, is crude, and a couple of the tracks from the band’s early days as the Coventry Automatics/The Special A.K.A. will likely appeal only to ska converts. But, if you’re a fan of The Specials, Madness, Bad Manners, or any of the current "third wave" ska bands, you’re bound to enjoy it. Those who appreciate ska-punk, such as the talented bands Sublime and Rancid, or even the less compelling No Doubt, should also check it out. You’ll see where these guys got their inspiration.

Finally, there is something exhilarating about Blue Plate Specials. Although the recording is rough, the edginess actually adds to the ambiance. This disc captures a very exciting band at their height. You can sense these Rudeboys are going places and will take modern music along for a glorious ride.