The Specials: Encore review – a chequered mix of great and so-so | Alexis Petridis's album of the week

Amid disputes over the group’s authenticity, Terry Hall, Lynval Golding and Horace Panter are best when sounding both anthemic and doom-laden

An interesting question hangs over the first album by the Specials since their reunion in 2008: is it actually an album by the Specials? Singer Neville Staple and guitarist Roddy Byers have left, and drummer John Bradbury died as sessions for the album began in 2015. There are fewer members of the band’s classic lineup on Encore than there were in the version of the Specials that sporadically toured and cobbled together albums of ska covers in the 90s. Still, there are more members of the classic lineup here than on In the Studio, the 1984 Special AKA album commonly regarded as canonical.

The Specials: Encore album artwork

But then, In the Studio was helmed by Jerry Dammers, the architect of the Specials and the 2-Tone movement. According to a recent feature in Mojo magazine, he attempted to legally prevent the current incarnation of the band from releasing new music, believing that it would besmirch the legacy of arguably the most influential British band of their era. What you think of Encore’s very existence depends on whether you believe the soul and spirit of the Specials rests with Dammers, or with Terry Hall, the lead vocalist on almost every one of their hits: a parlour game that can keep ageing rude boys and girls arguing for hours, never getting any less depressing.

Under the circumstances, the obvious thing for Hall, guitarist Lynval Golding and bassist Horace Panter to do would be to release an album in the image of the music that made the Specials’ famous: see, it wasn’t all Jerry, we can do it without him. If Encore scrupulously avoids the frantic ska-punk sound of their 1979 debut, there are certainly moments that feel like deliberate evocations of the band’s past. With its mournful trombone solo and tension-ratcheting pile-up of queasy jazz chords, single Vote for Me is hardly coy in its attempts to get the listener to think of Ghost Town. A version of the Valentines’ 1967 single Blam Blam Fever – already covered by the ersatz Specials on the largely forgotten 2000 album Skinhead Girl – is the kind of dive into the ska archives that formed the basis of the band’s early repertoire. You can understand the logic behind adding The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum (the debut single by Hall and Golding’s post-Specials band the Fun Boy Three) to their repertoire, but it feels strangely restrained and polite recast as a kind of dub tango. And particularly when compared with the original: the early Fun Boy Three’s bleak, experimental sound still stands as a stark reminder of how weird the charts once were.

Encore is at its best when it leaves the Specials’ past behind and faces forward. A cover of the Equals’ Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys is a tip of the hat to Eddy Grant’s pioneering multiracial band, and unlike anything the Specials have released before, offering impressively taut funk in the place of Jamaican rhythms. There’s something appealingly odd about the music that supports Hall’s examination of his struggles with mental health on The Life and Times. Featuring a vocal from Saffiyah Khanthe woman photographed facing down a member of the EDL at a Birmingham demonstration, wearing a pitying smile and a Specials T-shirt – a dubby version of Prince Buster’s 10 Commandments also puts some distance between the 2019 Specials and their past.

The Specials: Vote for Me – video

Held up as paragons of virtue thanks to their staunch anti-racism, the original Specials were a trickier prospect than their canonisation suggests. Perhaps the kindest thing you can say about their attitude to women – as expressed on Little Bitch, Too Much Too Young or Hey Little Rich Girl – was that it tells you a lot about men of their era, including the ostensibly right-on ones. Whether you view Khan’s evisceration of Prince Buster’s original lyrics to 10 Commandments – which make Little Bitch look like something by Andrea Dworkin – as atonement or not, it’s hard not to be moved by its righteous fury and the dubby backing track. The same is true of BLM, on which Golding offers a potent, unflinching portrayal of racism across the decades, over more muscular funk-rock.

The final track, We Sell Hope, hits what you might call the classic Specials’ emotional sweet-spot – sounding simultaneously anthemic and doom-laden was always among their neatest tricks – with an impressive effortlessness. A solemn reggae ballad, decorated by vibraphone, it never feels like it’s trying too hard to recapture old glories. It’s an unequivocal triumph on an album that mixes the great and the so-so, the former outweighing the latter enough to appease fans, if not, one suspects, ex-bandmates. And We Sell Hope’s title fits: while it plays, the Specials sound like a band with a future, not just an illustrious past.

This week Alexis listened to

Working Men’s Club: Bad Blood
There’s a real alchemy to how this Yorkshire trio take well-worn ingredients – the Fall, Gang of Four, NY punk-funk – and it turn it into something more than the sum of its parts. An effervescent debut single.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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