The Specials: Protest Songs 1924-2012 – still railing against injustice

Coventry’s ska heroes are back and taking a stand for Black Lives Matter

Protest Songs 1924-2012
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Artist: The Specials
Genre: Traditional
Label: Island

Legend has it that when Bristolian trip-hop star Tricky was flown to New York to DJ, his entire set consisted of him playing the first Specials album from start to finish. Tricky dismissed the promoter’s complaints by insisting it was the greatest album of all time.

That eponymous 1979 debut, produced by Elvis Costello, was a total game-changer, a never-bettered high-water mark for the ska revival. Between 1979 and 1981, The Specials had seven consecutive Top 10 hits, including Ghost Town, a summer No 1 that addressed urban decay while riots raged across the UK after Brixton burned. White-power skinheads ran amok when The Specials attempted to play an anti-racism concert in their native Coventry.

Forty years later and the picture is depressingly familiar. A third of the population of Coventry identify as non-white British, while 69 per cent of the city’s electorate voted to leave the EU in 2016. There are just three remaining original Specials: Terry Hall, Lynval Golding and Horace Panter. Jerry Dammers (who also founded the band’s label, 2 Tone Records) hasn’t been involved in years and John Bradbury died in 2015. But they still resonate as one of the most important British bands around, performing alongside Blur and New Order at the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.

Emboldened by Black Lives Matter, The Specials have chosen to take a stand on their ninth studio album. “The urge to rail against what is wrong with the world and suggest how it could be better is as old as song,” they outline in a statement. “The Specials have a history of protesting and fighting for justice and equality.”


The core philosophy of this group is clearly identical to the band who wrote Nelson Mandela. Among others, they tackle songs by Bob Marley, Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, The Staple Singers, Talking Heads and Leonard Cohen. The dominant mood and style is folk – a little surprising for a band that once spearheaded ska. It’s also interesting that the vast majority of these songs are of American origin, unlike a similar album by Chumbawamba called English Rebel Songs 1381-1984.

It’s a mixed bag, but it when it works it soars, such as a terrific version of Listening Wind by Talking Heads. Contrast that with the disposable honky-tonk of Freedom Highway by The Staple Singers, which opens this collection and certainly doesn’t.

DJ Tricky probably won’t be playing Protest Songs 1924-2012 in its entirety anytime soon, but this is still a pertinent release from a band who steadfastly refuse to roll over and die, or put up with the deplorable racism and ignorance of our frighteningly fragmented world.