Thursday, 16 May 2019

The Special AKA ‎– In The Studio (1984)

Style: Ska, Rocksteady
Format: CD, Vinyl
Label: EMI Music France, Two-Tone Records, Chrisalis

A1.   Bright Lights
A2.   Lonely Crowd
A3.   House Bound
A4.   Girlfriend
A5.   Night On The Tiles
B1.   Nelson Mandela
B2.   War Crimes
B3.   Racist Friend
B4.   Alcohol
B5.   Break Down The Door

Bass – Gary McManus
Cornet, Flugelhorn – Dick Cuthell
Drums – John Bradbury
Guitar – John Shipley
Piano, Organ – Jerry Dammers
Saxophone – Andy Aderinto
Trombone – Rico Rodriguez
Vocals – Rhoda Dakar, Stan Campbell
Backing Vocals – Caron Wheeler, Claudia Fontaine, Edigio Newton, Naomi Thompson

No artist has ever announced their arrival quite like the second incarnation of the Specials, in early 1982. The Special AKA, as they were now known, were in an invidious position. They were challenged with following up an epochal No 1 single, Ghost Town, with a record that would also introduce the world to a new version of a band who were so successful and influential that they spawned an entire youth cult in their wake – every member of the Specials except drummer John Bradbury had mutinied against the leadership of chief songwriter Jerry Dammers in the wake of Ghost Town’s success. In what you have to describe as a pretty radical response to this challenge, the Special AKA released The Boiler, a jaunty, six-minute instrumental over which singer Rhoda Dakar delivered a spoken-word monologue about a rape. Challenging is an overused adjective in rock criticism, but it genuinely fits here. The Boiler was a single that defied anyone to listen to it all the way through. Once you’ve heard the track’s final minute, consumed with Dakar screaming and sobbing, you never want to hear it again.

Steeling yourself to sit through The Boiler 33 years later – it appears on the second CD of this expanded reissue of the Special AKA’s sole album – you boggle at the fact it actually made the top 40. It’s tempting to say that you couldn’t imagine any band in the Special AKA’s position doing something like that now, but in fairness, you couldn’t really imagine a band in the Special AKA’s position doing something like that then. The Boiler served notice that they were going to be a far less immediate prospect than the band that had come before them, with their unbroken string of top 10 hits and the youth cult that had formed in their wake. 
And so it proved when they released In the Studio in 1984. While it didn’t contain anything as wilfully harrowing as The Boiler, its worldview was so bleak as to make previous Specials albums – no barrel of laughs themselves – seem like the height of giddy gay abandon. There was war and racism, concentration camps and the case of Colin Roach, a 21-year-old black man who died mysteriously in Stoke Newington police station in 1983. London is depicted as a horrifying dystopia, with “thousands of policemen all over the street”. You can’t go out and enjoy yourself: “There’s nothing going on and on/ Did someone cut the atmosphere with a knife?” complains the partygoing protagonist of The Lonely Crowd. “Do you call this life?” And you can’t stay in, lest you end up like the central character of Housebound, “looking at the world through lace curtains … scared of walking down the street.”

Romantic relationships are depicted either as a prison (Night on the Tiles), or a source of the kind of self-loathing duplicity found on the blackly comic What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend. You can’t even have a drink without being confronted by the “untold misery” caused by booze. The album’s best-known song, Nelson Mandela, is its most atypical, a solitary moment of exuberant protest on an album that otherwise seems utterly crushed by life: “You’ve got to do what you want to, you’ve got to get out,” as the closing Break Down the Door puts it, “but you can’t, because you’re up to your neck.”

It ought to be unbearable. Indeed, the Special AKA’s record company clearly thought it was. They declined to promote an album Dammers had allegedly spent a fortune recording, presumably in the belief that no amount of advertising could convince people to listen to something so austere and folorn, a belief perhaps bolstered by the icy commercial reception afforded to two further singles, War Crimes and Racist Friend. 
The latter was In the Studio’s solitary misstep: repetitious and chorus-free, it keeps solemnly hammering its message home until it sounds like it’s talking down to the listener, as if lecturing a particularly dim child. In every other respect, the Special AKA’s record company was wrong: In the Studio is utterly compelling. In theory, Dammers’ increasingly jazz-inspired new music should have fit with the times. In 1984, plenty of pop artists were dabbling in jazz, from Sade to the Style Council, Everything But the Girl to Matt Bianco. The thing was, none of them were making music that sounded remotely like the contents of In the Studio. Dammers’s collision of jazz, reggae and soul was deeply idiosyncratic, full of strange chords sequences and unexpected shifts in key, packed with weird ideas that somehow worked. Having availed himself of a trio of great vocalists in Dakar, Stan Campbell and Egidio Newton, Dammers elected to sing What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend himself in a bizarre, quavering falsetto, adding a weird pathos and uncertainty to the song’s stridently bitter lyric. Over a discomfiting, jerky rhythm, the music on Housebound gets gradually more and more dissonant as the song progresses, as if the whole track is spinning off its axis. While most of his contemporaries were deploying jazz influences as a kind of shorthand for cool, anti-rock sophistication, Dammers was using them to vividly paint a series of nightmares: the claustrophobic flurries of discordant brass that hem in Campbell’s vocal on The Lonely Crowd; the unease created by the 5/4 rhythm of War Crimes; Alcohol’s marooning of a sleazy horn section over a rhythm that’s equal parts reggae and cheap synthesiser preset; Ma Rainey’s Moonshine Blues relocated to the bar of a grim hotel.

The experience of making In the Studio and its subsequent commercial failure seemed to break Dammers: he’s made plenty of wonderful music since, but never released another album. In the 31 years since its release, the Specials have long been elevated to national treasure status, enshrined in the popular imagination as purveyors of party-starting ska and saintly politics. But nostalgia has a habit of rose-tinting the past, and from the start, the Specials were a more complicated and awkward proposition than their latterday image suggests. They frequently made music that could kill the liveliest party stone dead: the run of singles that starts with Do Nothing and ends with Racist Friend might well be the dourest in rock history. There’s nothing saintly about the sour misogyny of Little Bitch, or the nastiness of Too Much Too Young’s sneer at young mothers. As complicated and awkward as you like, In the Studio sounds less like the noble failure it was held to be on release and more like the perfect coda to the Specials’ career.
Alex Petridis / The Guardian

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