Enjoy yourself. It’s later than you think.
I have a rare CD version of Ultra Modern Nursery Rhymes, a lesser known album by Specials front man Terry Hall, who died yesterday. The title track seems thematically inspired by David Bowie’s Kooks. Both are about a dad advising his kids not to get stressed by the expectations society places on them.
I grew up with The Specials. I vividly remember the black & white chequered cover on the audio cassette of their debut album. That was before CDs. To find Ultra Modern Nursery Rhyme back in 1990 I had to place a special order. Now you just download.
Their eponymous debut album shot them to fame. It’s a classic. Brimming with the energy of ska rhythm and deep bass, punctuated by brass. The originality of songs like Stupid Marriage and Too Much Too Young – lyrical cautions against teenage pregnancy.
Their articulate nihilism is expressed in Man at C&A – the helplessness against world events and uncaring politicians. Women forced into sex work in Hey Little Rich Girl. The simple sadness of watching an ageing woman clinging to her youth in Pearl’s Café. The alcoholism decried in Stereotype. The Specials were not just angry young men.
And, of course, Ghost Town. If you lived through the Thatcher years, you know this song. Never has there been a more accurate musical social commentary. Government leaving the youth on the shelf.
They could have been the band of 2022. The stalking terror of knife crime articulated in Concrete Jungle. The song Too Hot. The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum should be Liz Truss’s theme song.
“Nothing’s changed! When we wrote it we had Reagan and Thatcher and we thought things couldn’t get worse. Now we’ve got Trump and May!” said Terry Hall in a 2016 interview.
Lunatics was Hall’s first post-Specials track, with the new band Fun Boy Three. He’d started writing it before splitting from The Specials with Neville Staple and guitarist Lynval Golding.
The Specials only had about 18 months of fame before they split. Five top 10 singles and two No 1s in under two years. Hall speaks of the pressures they were under. Being targeted by the far right. The National Front turning up and Sieg-Heiling at them on stage. The violence at the gigs, which led to him being arrested, charged and fined for incitement.
“Getting picked up at the airport was a drama, checking into the hotel was a drama, leaving the hotel was a drama. You couldn’t get any space, not even for an hour or two, because wherever you went there were these lads who’d travelled 9,000 miles to see you live and didn’t have anywhere to stay, so you had to put them up in your room and then you had to sit up all night with them. Talking about the f**king Specials.”
I can’t talk about the Specials without Jerry Dammers. Their artistic inspiration and lead songwriter. In fact, it’s Jerry Dammers GCOT. That’s Grand Companion of OR Tambo. Now that’s one honour I’d salute. Dammers was awarded it for his anti-apartheid work, including writing the song Free Nelson Mandela, another staple of my teenage years.
The Specials’ It Doesn’t Make it Alright is an explicitly anti-racist anthem. Their legacy lived on when in 2017, 20 year old Saffiyah Khan calmly smiled while staring down an EDL thug. The photo of her wearing a Specials t-shirt went viral.
Hall spoke about his mental health. He’d suffered horrific child sex abuse at the hands of a teacher, and sang about it in Well Fancy That.
“It got to a point where I didn’t have a choice – and it’s done me so much good,” he said. “Talking about mental health problems is a conscious decision. It’s something I want to share with people.”
Seeking help seemed to make a difference. He was much happier with his later musical collaborations. And life in general.
“I also bloody love being 60. I’ve wanted to be 60 since I was in my twenties. I’ve always thought I’d make my best music in the years between 60 and 70.” Sadly, he died aged 63.
As Terry Hall himself sang: Enjoy yourself. It’s later than you think.