I am uncertain how much traction the Specials had outside the UK, where they are rightly considered national treasures, riding a wave of energy since their most recent regrouping and reiteration. Now down to the core trio of Terry Hall on vocals, Lynval Golding on guitar and vocals, and Horace Panting on bass, here they are again aided and abetted by much the same cast who crewed 2019’s Encore, the touring of which had been rudely interrupted by Covid. Rather than sitting home and ruing, the band fired up their default setting of righteous indignation.
As a multiracial band in the English midlands city of Coventry, on the cusp of the 1980s, the Specials became famous, not just for their infectious bluebeat, but also as bastions in the burgeoning fight against racism, generally and in music, appearing, on occasion, on the Rock Against Racism platform. Their response to the George Floyd case last year, was to utilize lockdown and raid their record collections, putting together Protest Songs 1924-2012, a collection of covers which, in some way or form, cast a reflection on the circumstances that could allow such a thing to happen. Protest songs, one and all, if sometimes not necessarily appreciated as so, with about as eclectic a selection as could be, with source material including the unlikely triad of the Staples Singers, Frank Zappa and Leonard Cohen. The one style absent is of ska, the band’s erstwhile calling card and M.O., with any number other of genres embraced in its wake. If nothing else, this displays the broad grasp of musical strengths available within the Specials, yet without losing the strident declaratory croon of Hall, or, indeed, the collective identity. Ska or not, this could be no other band.
The album opens with the aforesaid Staples Singers, represented here by “Freedom Highway,” written in 1965 for the Selma-Montgomery voting rights march. Here it is given a chortling thrust, Hall’s unmistakable vocal supported by backing singer Hannah Hu. Much of the hard work here is taken up by the sturdy drumming of Kenrick Rowe, with one-note shards of mouth harp a constant in the backing. Which leads into perhaps the most surprising song here, Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows.” That Hall should be a Cohen fan is surprise enough, but this is a refreshingly simple take, an effective one, with elegiac piano, and brass undercurrents slowly joining in the fray. A word also for the subtle guitar counter melody, courtesy the presence of Steve Cradock, more often Paul Weller’s right hand man. Is it a protest song? Well, now that point has been made, somehow I wonder how that were not recognized before.
The next song is “I Don’t Mind Failing In This World,” written by Malvina “Little Boxes” Reynolds, performed as deliberately retro folk jazz, with some excellent double bass from Panter. As it plays, you can imagine a hint of calypso infiltrating the mood, this then fully taken up by Golding, as he picks up the microphone for a bit of West Indian tinted Big Bill Broonzy, with “Black, Brown and ‘White.'” Almost a nursery rhyme, perhaps it should be.
“Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Us Around” really wakes up the neighborhood, just as perhaps you felt the last couple of songs too cozy, lyrical sentiments aside. From 1924, this is the oldest song here, an a capella hymn of sorts when first released by the Dixie Jubilee Singers. Here, after the vocals and handclaps intro, the band inject some powerful wallop, paired fuzz guitar and bass taking the reins of the tune, ahead of a glorious Hammond solo. This is as good a time as any to mention the integral role of the band musical arranger and keyboards player, Nikolaj Torp Larsen.
From the oldest to newest, it is Chip Taylor’s “Fuck All the Perfect People,” a song the ‘Wild Thing’ pensman wrote in 2012, having visited a gaol in Norway. In fitting with the Specials’ overt inability to suffer gladly the realm of do-gooders, this comes across as a clarion call, decrying the over-knowingly “woke” of the world. Taken as a slow blues, Hall’s vocal is smooth and sincere in intent, as he decimates the sort of people who might admire this project more for its message than its music. Then from slow blues to jump blues, with a rousing version of “My Next Door Neighbor,” a rousing commentary on the curse of neighbors written by a Jerry McCain, a harmonica wiz contemporary of Little Walter. I am not sure if Hall’s voice is just a tad light for this sort of song, although, oddly, he does sound a little like Dan Hicks, who specialized in this format. The walking bass, the drums, the honkytonk piano and the scuttling guitar are just perfect, however.
So to Frank Zappa, a name we seldom see here, and here the Specials mutate effortlessly into the late ’60s trope of US garage-rock, with Cradock’s guitar again serving as a high point. “Trouble Every Day” is an early one, from 1966’s Freak Out!. How does it compare to the original? Remarkably similar, actually, given the widely different demographics. So now a reminder is needed of where else the Specials can go, with album highpoint, the horns and percussion heavy skank of “Listening Wind.” Featuring the lead vocals, this time, of Hannah Hu, the full horn section (trombone, sax and flugelhorn) is put to exemplary use, with additional percussion from an earlier 1982 member, Tony “Groco” Uter, and the 92-year-old Michael “Bammie” Rose. Very little else, bar some backing vocals, and it is perfect, an astonishing 70 years between Hu and Rose. A link to original Rastafarian music as well as to the percussion heavy style of The Fun Boy Three; can you believe it was a Talking Heads original?
More Malvina Reynolds, “I Live in a City,” then acts as a palate cleanser, again redolent of the precursors to reggae, this time maybe mento. And you are expecting more of the same, thematically at least, on seeing the name Rod McKuen next appearing, his songs now memorable for their mawkishness than much else. But this one, “Soldiers Who Want To Be Heroes,” vintage 1963 and pre-draft, is simply and bleakly effective, and gets the closest to country music that this Coventry band have ever strayed. OK, it is throwaway, with accordion, for goodness sake, however much you might pretend it melodica, but it’s a memorable throwaway.
Which sets us up for the album’s second highlight, a show-stopping rendition of the Marley classic “Get Up, Stand Up,” taken at a slow acoustic lope, redolent of Marley in “Redemption Song” mode. With little more than percussion and acoustic guitar, the words come to the fore, themselves sometime missed in the fuller arrangement by the Wailers. Wow. Just Wow. And what a way to end.
If Protest Songs 1924-2012 serves, as some have implied, as a stopgap to counter a mix of circumstance and a lack of new material, what a way to do it. This will be hard to follow, even should it be their much touted Jamaican reggae project, which had been originally planned for about now.
Protest Songs 1924-2012 Tracklisting:
1. Freedom Highway (The Staple Singers cover)
2. Everybody Knows (Leonard Cohen cover)
3. I Don’t Mind Failing In This World (Malvina Reynolds cover)
4. Black, Brown And White (Big Bill Broonzy cover)
5. Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Us Around (Dixie Jubilee Singers cover)
6. Fuck All The Perfect People (Chip Taylor & The New Ukrainians cover)
7. My Next Door Neighbour’ (Jerry McCain cover)
8. Trouble Every Day (Frank Zappa & Mothers of Invention cover)
9. Listening Wind (Talking Heads cover)
10. Soldiers Who Want To Be Heroes (Rod McKuen cover)
11. I Live In A City (Malvina Reynolds cover)
12. Get Up, Stand Up (Bob Marley & the Wailers cover)