#22, "Gangsters," The Specials (1979)

I’ve mentioned before that I’m getting to the point where these are getting tough to do. I mostly blame fatigue and the amount of time invested in each post but I’m also running out of things to say about music. Nonetheless, I carry on. 


These write ups are particularly a problem when they appear on an album I’ve already posted about. See, less than a year ago (like in March or something like that?), I posted my top ten albums from my teenage years and while most of them were ha-ha/do-you-remember, Sublime’s-40-Oz-to-Freedom-type selections, but others of them were actual good’uns that I carry along as favorites to this day. One such is the Specials’ self-titled debut album. So I’ve already talked a lot about the Specials and probably even said stuff about “Gangsters” in that post because it is so good. And this is the whole reason I couldn’t write this post yesterday, I just looked at it on the list and sighed. 


BE THAT AS IT MAY, I do love “Gangsters” and it belongs right here at #22, no question. Regarding my Green Day post, Pete acknowledged that when I explained it, it made sense that Green Day meant so much to me, but I would never put it on. “Green Day isn’t a mood,” I said. I hear it and I think of the past and it’s nice. When Pete puts it on, I’m not unhappy. While I don’t regularly listen to stuff I listened to in high school, the Specials is a* major exception. It does have a hint of nostalgia, but it makes sense in my present context. Maybe because Two-tone overlaps with Post Punk, stuff I’m presently into? I listen to the Specials’ contemporaries** on a regular basis, I think it would be weirder to exclude them from my regular repertoire. 


*Another major exception is Operation Ivy, about whom I also posted twice. I don’t know why that post felt so easy compared with this one, but I suspect because it was a few weeks ago and I was fresher. I’m a different person now and I’m very, very tired. 


**Regarding Spotify’s algorithm, what the fuck is up with them and Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life????” It came on “Gangsters” radio while I was listening for inspiration for writing this post. What does Iggy solo and the Specials have to do with each other? Spotify thinks every song recorded before 1990 is similar to “Lust for Life” because it is played on the algorithmically-developed playlists for every song, every album I ever listen to. It has ruined this song for me, which is kind of nice because dead things like radio and MTV used to do this to songs, too. See also “Roadrunner” by the Modern Lovers. 


Quick summary of that post from March or whatever, I mentioned that in high school I was very much into the whole ska thing, to the point where Pete used to call me Skagirl to his friends and well-wishers and eventually wrote a song to immortalize the nickname:

I also mentioned that while many other bands that played ska, particularly in the mid-to-late 90s have earned their spot as music history’s objects-of-ridicule, it’s really a shame that a ton of really great artists get unfairly lumped in with them. I almost got a Two-tone tattoo, ska shows in the late 90s were really fun, my best friend got on stage with California first-wave revival band Hepcat, etc. I also mentioned that you should watch the video for “Gangsters,” which I’ve linked here, so if you haven’t yet, I’ve made it very easy for you. 


I don’t understand these bands in their time. I can’t get a handle on exactly how big a lot of these bands were because things were so different before the mid-80s. Pete and I talk about this a lot, where you could be a very popular “cult” act and eek out a decent living without reaching Taylor Swift-levels of super stardom. The best example of this contrast exists within David Bowie’s career, where he was very popular and very successful before he released Let’s Dance and it’s hard to imagine someone selling out the Nassau Coliseum on consecutive performance nights being able to “sell out” but he did. Similarly, it’s hard to picture enough people being interested in the Specials that they’d endure for 40 years in such a niche genre, but here we are. 


Related, I am going to go out on a limb and admit* that I didn’t know this song was mostly a cover until I started reading about it in the last couple of days. It’s a bit of a cheat because it’s a cover of a mostly instrumental, first-wave ska song that the Specials added lyrics to. I’m prompted to wonder again, how aware general American and British audiences were about these great artists coming out of Jamaica in the 1960s. I mean, obviously music nerds who are moved to revive a musical genre from 10-15 years prior and across an ocean would be aware, but the awareness of the general audience is less clear. When researching my post about “Israelites,” I learned that it was a top-ten hit in the United States. This is weird! I don’t think my mom would have heard of it? I hadn’t heard of it until as I mentioned, the commercials for the Pure Reggae compilation hit the airways. ANYWAY, this is actually the second Prince Buster ~cover on my** list, to include Madness’ “One Step Beyond.” I guess I’m a fan. 


*Earlier this week, Pete posted about “Don’t Change” by INXS, my household’s Song of the Week, saying he hadn’t heard it until recently and SEVERAL people were like “whuuut, you haven’t heard that song before??” which is in any context kind of a dick move. I like what he said “I try to hear every song ever made but I sometimes drop the ball and will do better from now on,” which is the best response. All I ask is that you not be that guy. 


**The original version of Shaggy’s “Oh Carolina” is also Prince Fucking Buster. So it’s just two on my list, but could be as many as like five on someone else’s because Madness went to that well more than once.


The lyrics the Specials added to the Prince Buster instrumental are based on a true story from when the Specials were on tour with the Clash* and the Specials were blamed for some damage to a French hotel room. Stories about the incident are very vague and indicate that the damage was done by “another English band.” Does this imply that the Clash is responsible? It’s concerning. The Specials, who had not released so much as a single at this point (“Gangsters” was their first), were forced to pay for the damage and the police were involved. This is so weird because I never would have gotten any of this from the lyrics. Who are the “gangsters” we are referencing here? Is it the cops or are the cops working on the behest of gangsters? I also have never really heard of a French gangster. That could just be my ignorance. Maybe they were just trying to make the song sound cooler, which: mission accomplished. The interjections (in the spirit of the first wave that inspired “Gangsters”) throughout the song don’t shed any light either. “Bernie Rhodes knows don’t argue” is a reference to their sleazy manager (who I guess was unhelpful during this incident) and “don’t call me scarface”** is from the original. 


*What I wouldn’t give to have seen them on THAT tour. 


**Pete misheard this lyric as “don’t call me ska face,” which still makes me giggle. 


As I mentioned before, the music video is a favorite of mine. It’s just black and white footage of the band performing on a soundstage and they’re looking very serious and very intense and they’re all dressed very well. It seems like the kind of early music video that the band didn’t really want to make and nobody had any ideas for it, so they threw this together. The star of the video is the attempt to spruce things up by employing some of the best camera tricks a low budget, late-70s production had to offer. Which is to say there is ample use of the four-panel split screen, two of which display different angles of Terry Hall, the other two displaying other band members, dancing sort of on beat, the errors I blame not on the band members but on the production team for failing to sync properly. It’s good. The costar is the shiny faces of the band members who’ve clearly been dancing in an unventilated room for several hours by the time they shot without a competent makeup person on set. Regardless, it’s 100% badass and ended up setting 100% the appropriate tone.