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What makes a protest song? The Specials should know. First time around, back when the 70s were lurching into the 80s, they sang of racism, war, unemployment and the rough edges of urban life, and never in the same way twice. As the multiracial flagship of the 2 Tone movement, they made a political statement every time they stepped on stage. June 2021 saw the 40th anniversary of their last and greatest protest song, Ghost Town, a record that will retain its eerie power as long as there are concrete jungles, empty dancehalls and desperate spasms of violence.
It's fitting, then, that in 2021 the Specials are releasing Protest Songs 1924-2012, an unpredictable collection of unique takes which celebrates the long history and endless versatility of the form, from folk to post-punk, from righteous uplift to biting satire, and from Kingston to Alabama. It’s a potent reminder that there are no fixed rules to templates for a protest song. All that’s required is the combination of something that needs to be said with music that needs to be heard. “People have been using music as a vehicle for protest since time immemorial,” says bass-player Horace Panter. “Injustice is timeless.”
The album grew out of a very strange period during which, as we all know, nothing went according to plan. In February 2020, Horace got together with Terry Hall, Lynval Golding and co-producer Nikolaj Torp Larsen to start work on a reggae record — their first album since 2019’s chart-topping Encore. Within days, though, Lynval and Nikolaj fell ill with what they later realised was Covid-19, closely followed by Horace.
The album was put on ice as Lynval flew home to Seattle and Terry was unable to write lyrics. “Terry has to go away to write songs,” explains Horace. “He needs that physical separation from his house just to concentrate on the work and of course he wasn’t able to do that. It was weird for a good three months.”
During the first lockdown, the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis radiated shockwaves of protest and debate around the world. So when the band were able to meet again over the summer, Terry suggested that they make a different kind of record as a response to recent events.
“2020 was the year of protest, wasn’t it?” says Horace. “It was in the air. The hardest part of the whole record was deciding what songs to use.” Following the musical liberation of Encore, genre was no obstacle. Each song demands a different arrangement or tone of voice. “We thought, let’s throw out the musical constraints of the Specials. There’s not a tonic suit or Fred Perry in sight. We don’t want to deny our past, because that enables us to do what we do now, but we have our own creative minds to make up.”
The trio started by picking some personal favourites. The Mothers of Invention’s Trouble Every Day appeared on 1966’s Freak Out!, the first album that Horace ever bought. The apocalyptically sardonic Everybody Knows is by Leonard Cohen, one of Terry’s heroes, while Lynval was keen to sing Bob Marley’s deathless rebel song Get Up, Stand Up. Terry and Horace were both huge fans of their contemporaries Talking Heads, hence Listening Wind from Remain in Light.
Great protest songs may spring to life in a specific time and place but they hit upon a larger truth which enables them to resonate across the years and miles. “Trouble Every Day was about the Watts riots in 1965 but it immediately came to mind with what was happening in 2020,” says Horace, turning to an example from the Special’s own catalogue. “People in every major city in England think that Ghost Town was written about them.”
The Specials didn’t want to stick to the acknowledged classics, so they spent months combing YouTube, Spotify and books for songs they had never heard before, or had long forgotten. Certain themes emerged organically. Racism, of course, from Big Bill Broonzy’s angry 1938 blues Black, Brown and White to the Staple Singers’ stirring Freedom Highway, written for the marches from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. The Dixie Jubilee Singers first recorded the spiritual Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Us Around in 1924 but it was the civil rights movement that tweaked the lyrics and made it an anthem. Soldiers Who Want to Be Heroes is another example of a song that found its true calling after the fact. Written by the poet Rod McKuen in 1963, it was rerecorded three years later, during the dog days of the Vietnam war.
Folk singer Malvina Reynolds, best known for Little Boxes, provides two spiky odes to the contributions of ordinary people: I Live in a City and I Don’t Mind Failing in This World: “Don’t mind wearing the ragged britches/ ‘Cause those who succeed are the sons of bitches.” And because the Specials have always had a taste for black comedy, they’ve chosen two deliciously cranky songs of complaint by bluesman Jerry McCain (My Next Door Neighbor) and Wild Thing writer Chip Taylor (Fuck All the Perfect People). “Terry said, ‘I’ve found this song, listen to this,’” Horace remembers. “We all sat there open-mouthed.”
In May 2021, the Specials reconvened at Eastcote Studios in west London with their regular bandmates Nikolaj Torp Larsen on keyboards, Kenrick Rowe on drums and Steve Cradock on guitar. Hannah Hu, a young singer from Bradford, fronts Listening Wind and sings back-up on Freedom Highway and Everybody Knows. “We hadn’t played for a year and a half so to be all be playing in a room together at the same time was an absolute joy,” says Horace. “It was a big deal.” All being well, they’ll be back on the road from 28 August, putting songs from the new album in dialogue with their own.
It's human nature to feel like the problems we are dealing with right now are unique and unprecedented but we usually have more in common with previous generations than we think. The urge to rail against what is wrong with the world and suggest how it could be better is as old as song. Protest Songs 1924-2012 is an idiosyncratic version of that history, born out of extreme circumstances and guided by the personalities of Terry, Horace and Lynval. The story continues.
The Specials – Still Pissed Off.