When The Specials arrived on the scene shortly after the punk explosion there was something truly, well, special about them. The band were at the epicentre of the much-renowned 2-Tone movement and alongside their compatriots, Madness and Selecter, they championed racial unity and understanding.
In 1979, they took their message to national TV as they appeared on The Old Grey Whistle Test. A champion of pushing new music, the show was the perfect fit for the band’s speakerphone ska.
At the time, The Specials were a picture of youth in the inner city. Comprised of Terry Hall and Neville Staple on vocals, Lynval Golding and Roddy Radiation on guitars, Horace Panter on bass, Jerry Dammers on keyboards, John Bradbury on drums, and Dick Cuthell and Rico Rodriguez on horns. It was a multi-racial and multi-talented group.
They were a crucible of talent and musical genres. While they clearly kept aligned to the rocksteady and ska sounds of the ’60s, including their clothes, they also brought the feverous energy of punk. Having started in 1977, it’s unsurprising that the band would be influenced by genre’s three-chord fire but it was their cultivated message that felt most prevalent.
After not convincing many labels to check out the new ska sound, the vast majority of them still so preoccupied punk, Jerry Dammers decided to create his own record label to put out the band’s records; 2-Tone records was born.
Changing their name to the Specials, the group recorded their eponymous debut album in 1979. It’s an album which was also produced by Elvis Costello. On it, was a cover of ska legend Dandy Livingstone’s ‘Rudy, A Message to You’ (slightly altering the title to ‘A Message to You, Rudy’) and also had covers of Prince Buster and Toots & the Maytals songs from the late 1960s. It was a reflection of the past in the future’s shiny mirror.
But while having a strong message is integral to a great band, what’s even more important is ensuring that your audience hears the message. The Specials were a massive act in their native Coventry and a big act on ‘the scene’, but they needed a national stage to speak their truth.
That came when BBC stalwart and musical gem The Old Grey Whistle Test offered the band a spot on their now-famous late-night show on BBC 2. Created in 1971 following the demise of Disco 2 the show was committed to bringing the youth of Britain “non-chart” music, an ethos which brought the best of the alternative scene to the masses.
Apart from being committed to alternative tunes, OGWT also found a special place in people’s hearts because of the band’s performances. Unlike other TV shows of the time, OGWT preferred acts to perform live, with the theory being a live show would resonate more resolutely with audiences. And they were right.
When we look at this video, the power of Neville Staples and Terry Hall as one messenger is clearly defined, the beat produced by the band is infectious, and the sentiment of the performance is effortlessly preserved. This is perhaps one of The Specials’ finest ever performances.
Watch below as The Specials perform ‘A Message To You Rudy’ on the Old Grey Whistle Test, 1979