The Specials – Gangsters

22nd September 1979 · 1970s, 1979, Music, Reggae, Two-Tone, UK Reggae

Reggae and Punk were natural partners, linked by their outsider credentials, exemplified by Coventry band The Specials and the Two-Tone explosion of 1979.

By 1979 the first wave of punk had died and the amphetamine-fuelled mania of those early days was metamorphosing into post-punk, with the likes of The Cure and Joy Division bringing a new intensity to what had once been the primal sound of angry youthful rebellion.

Enter The Special A.K.A., a mixed-race collective of working-class lads from Coventry, whose live performances harnessed the fiery energy of punk with the effervescent exuberance of Jamaican ska.

Bringing black and white together both in its checkerboard iconography and its strongly anti-racist lyrics, Two-Tone was a movement whose timing was perfect for reggae-literate punk fans looking to move on, fired up by growing political awareness via the messages of Rock Against Racism.

Gangsters, their first single, was a (not-so) jocular put-down of The Clash’s manager (hence the opening “Bernie Rhodes knows – don’t argue”) following an incident when The Specials, on tour with them in France, were blamed for damage to a hotel caused by his charges.

They got their own back in style with the song that kick-started their career. This clip, from an early hometown gig in Coventry, really captures the excitement of seeing The Specials onstage at that time, which I was lucky enough to do several times. It hadn’t dwindled by the time they re-formed in 2009 and played one of their old haunts, the 100 Club in Oxford Street, London.