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‘Protest Songs 1924-2012' by The Specials

Review

Fresh out from The Specials is a new album called ‘Protest Songs 1924-2012'.  It was conceived impulsively and in reaction to their frustration at not being able to work together as they wished (they had convened in February 2020 to begin planning a new album and within a week members had started falling victim to COVID19). They took into account the general "paranoia and mass unrest" and then the specific protests sparked by the George Floyd murder and decided to respond to what they saw & felt around them with an "interim project, for our sanity as much as anything else" (I get the distinct feeling that it was cathartic for them in working out their contemporary feelings) and so was born the project of covering protest songs of the last century.

Despite the colossal weight of evidence of forty years, (too) many people feel happiest labelling the band as a "ska band". In fact even the briefest glance at their work would tell you that they moved away from this immediately after their first album (in the words of Jerry Dammers: "ska was just a launching point. I didn't want us to end up like Bad Manners"). Certainly the band has returned to ska sporadically in that period (there's a bit on ‘Encore', their previous release). However if you want a more accurate description of the band since its inception, then "protest band" fits much better. Maybe this was always what they needed to do (despite all the great original protest songs they have written: again not least on ‘Encore').

The second point I'd like to make about the album in general is to hark back to how educational bands like this one have always been to the likes of me: we'd discover new artists through our favourite artists covering them, talking about them or especially playing them over the PA before & during gigs (quite apart from The Specials in this respect, I learned so much from people like the Clash and Elvis Costello, perhaps not uncoincidentally both early collaborators with the Specials).

Quite a lot (around 50) of protest songs were considered, but the dozen which emerged from the process of selection have tended to avoid the best known: quite possibly only The Wailers' "Get Up, Stand Up" will be immediately familiar. Of the others, some with a blast of instant hindsight make obvious connections: the Staple Singers, or Big Bill Broonzy for example (and it's great to hear the band tackle the blues: a form bassist Horace Panter is so well known for playing in outside the group). Others are, as I said, pure education. We all know "Wild Thing" & you may know it was written by Chip Taylor. Like me though, you probably didn't have any inkling of his 2012 track "Fuck All the Perfect People". We also get two songs written by Malvina Reynolds (who wrote the well known folk song "Little Boxes") plus contributions from both Leonard Cohen and the Mothers of Invention. To me, most intriguing was a radical reworking of the 1980 Talking Heads track "Listening Wind": certainly not what I'd  have thought of as a protest song until this recording revealed it to me. It's also of course linked through the person of David Byrne to the superb 1983 Fun Boy Three album ‘Waiting' on which he acted as producer. (A second FB3 connection is a live (from the 2019 Coventry Cathedral gigs) version of "The Lunatics (Have Taken Over The Asylum)" which concludes the album, along with one of "We Sell Hope", both also on ‘Encore' and which fit really well into the album's overall theme).

This is no ska album & frankly the band sound liberated from that weight of expectation.  If the Wailers song (sung with characteristic passion by Lynval Golding) and the reggae-ish arrangement on the Talking Heads song (hats off to guest vocalist Hannah Hu) head in that direction very slightly, then it's because in both cases it's the right sound to convey the messages. Otherwise, we get many chances for the excellent musicians to flex their skills and interests in service of the songs. There are moments of barely constrained anger and others of deep beauty and pathos.

Over the years Terry Hall's voice has developed (no doubt the very many genres he has now sung in have helped along with physical processes) and he is in his element here. I'm not sure any rendition of a Leonard Cohen song would have worked this well back in 1980. If the petulant punk style he brought with him from Squad in 1978 has long since gone, then the sense of disillusion has not: all his accumulated experience since then seems only to have informed it more. I'm delighted to see that the band's mission statement for the album is "Still Pissed Off".

This really brings us back to where I started: this is a band who look at the world and tell it like it is: however uncomfortable that might be. The option of taking the easy route and pandering to expectations is one they have never taken. Every step they have taken challenged such things and they are still doing it.  It's with something of a sigh of weariness that I ploughed through the perhaps inevitable online posts from alleged Specials fans along the lines of "I've bought every Specials record but I ain't buying this one" (note this sort of thing appeared in depressingly significant numbers before the album had been played in public let alone released). A sort of 2021 version of the "love the music, hate the politics" nonsense of forty years ago from racists who thought they were fans of the band. If after all this time, you don't get what they are about, it's a little sad. There has even been a  precedent for this album back in 1980 when they confused some people by covering Bob Dylan's "Maggie's Farm" as a b-side to the "Do Nothing" single For me, covers album though it is, it does sum them up nicely.

It must be galling not to be properly understood (even a very complimentary Sunday Times review thought that ‘Encore' was called ‘Reward': not many marks for paying attention there) despite the clarity with which they express themselves. ‘Protest Songs 1924-2012' could not be clearer as to where the band stand and frankly if you don't stand with them on these issues then you are probably part of a problem. You even get their philosophy served up in the form of great music & I'll finish by emphasising that despite the depth of the feelings expressed, the band display optimism: not only is "We Sell Hope" a good point to end on, but even the most powerful of numbers include the uplifting: not least the Staples' opener (and single) "Freedom Highway" or the defiant Wailers song which makes it clear that success in the struggle is not only wished for but anticipated. Interim it may be, but stopgap it certainly is not.

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"2 Tone and Rock Against Racism" event

Review

In my recent review of the "Women Pioneers" event at Coventry Cathedral, I drew your attention to its companion event centring on the 2 Tone movement, Rock Against Racism and their roles in combating the rise in racism in the late 1970s. I was fortunate enough to attend that last evening.

Held this time in the ruins rather than inside (they were so lucky with the weather given the conditions earlier in the day), again it was put together magnificently by Helen Wheatley and her team as part of the Resonate Festival which she directs.

The films this time were the 1980 BBC "Arena" film "Rudies Come Back, Or the Rise and Rise of 2 Tone", a Tyne Tees "Alright Now" programme of the same year hosted by The Selecter and featuring superb (& unseen for 40 years) live performances by themselves and the Bodysnatchers plus "White Riot", Rubika Shah's award-winning film charting Rock Against Racism. I'm sure I've recommended the latter to you previously, but I do so again. I'd certainly do the same with the two TV shows, though unfortunately they are rather harder to see except at special events of this kind. The first two wholly and the latter partially were footage of the times and so brought an authenticity to the proceedings that mere hindsight talking heads could not: key members of the 2 Tone and RAR movements were recorded in the midst of creating them and of course we viewed them through the filters of knowing what came afterwards: the successes to some degree in attitudinal changes but also the awareness that however well intentioned and passionate they were, the struggles are still very far from over. Sitting in the middle of Coventry, it was hard not to feel pangs of nostalgia watching footage of long gone landmarks from the two television films and seeing the incredible energy and excitement of gigs of that time (both had superb Specials live action).

In the middle, author Daniel Rachel (and once again I'm sure I have recommended his superb book on these times & issues "Walls Come Tumbling Down": if you haven't read it yet, you ought to) chaired a panel discussion with Roddy "Radiation" Byers of the Specials (no stranger to this magazine), Jeff Perks who made the "Arena" film and Mykaell Riley whom you'll know  best from Steel Pulse but who also appears in "White Riot" and is Director for The Black Music Research Unit and Principal Investigator for Bass Culture Research at the University of Westminster.

As with the previous event, it was a boost to hear a panel being chaired so effectively with no ego nor diversions into showbiz anecdotage. The subject matter was kept firmly in focus & though I personally experienced that era, many of the revelations were eye opening, if chilling (you can possibly imagine what being in a black reggae band touring with white punk bands was like but in fact it was worse), not least samples of the underlying racist attitudes which helped sustain the problem: Jeff revealed that unlike today, "youth culture" was not welcomed at a BBC focused on the Proms and the subject matter he was trying to film which we now consider as fascinating and vital social history was sneered at as "gutter culture". However he did have the final word of the discussion and it was an important observation as to how he, as an objective observer, saw the movements the films were capturing as being a positive response to the evils of racism rather than trying to match them for negativity.

We are so lucky to have someone locally with the vision and the skills to put on events like these: to me listening to the records and attending the gigs always have been & always will be the main part of my engagement with music. However occasionally, music does spill out into the wider world, engage with difficult realities which impact upon the musicians and their audiences alike and try to effect change for the better. I learned a great deal through my involvement with 2 Tone and RAR and it was & remains an important aspect of who I am. I think much the same can be said for everyone else who did likewise. It was good to be reminded of those times & great to discover details I never knew, but the most vital part I think of such events is both to remind ourselves that these are not purely historical movements of archive and nostalgic interest but live and ongoing ones and to help raise awareness among younger music lovers with consciences that there is a backstory and that models from the past may be of contemporary value. I'm sure that is why Helen put it on & why her four guests supported it. There wasn't a trace of smugness in retelling what they had done, but a clear and continuing commitment to the values of 40 or more years ago, and like the very best musical performances, I think audiences recognise such values and integrity and respond all the more to it.

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"On Bass, Sir Horace Gentleman"

Just to remind you that if you have not yet visited Coventry Music Museum's amazing & extremely popular temporary exhibition, "On Bass, Sir Horace Gentleman", it is now in its final few weeks (if you have already seen it and want to see it again, the same applies of course).

As a result, the three unique pieces of artwork in the exhibition (the large piece of cassette art (which is pictured here as Horace handed it over to Pete Chambers BEM, the Museum's founder & curator, for the exhibition), the artfully decorated bass guitar and the large model of Horace's book) are now available for purchase for the discerning collector (please contact Pete at the Museum if you are interested).

Once Horace's exhibition has closed on 27th November, in the New Year, in its place will be another great exhibition: "Live & Die: A Celebration of The Enemy"
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