With Terry Hall’s passing, Rob McNeil recalls how, for him, The Specials captured a defining moment in the integration of young black and Asian immigrants, with the white British youth of the time.
While many of the landmark moments in UK immigration are well-documented, equivalent moments of integration are harder to recognise. Integration might not have the geopolitical ‘bang’ of the arrival of HMT Empire Windrush in 1948 or the expulsion of Ugandan Asians in 1972 or the expansion of the European Union in 2004. Instead, they occur in more intimate moments, when apparent differences between people are eclipsed by their shared enjoyment or agreement.
Sometimes, though, we can pinpoint critical moments. For me, at least, the formation of The Specials was one of those moments. A point in British integration that is still deeply felt today. The loss of front man Terry Hall – whose untimely death at the age of 63 was announced yesterday – sees us bid farewell to one of the key symbols of a changing British society in the late 20th century.
For those who are not familiar, The Specials, were a ska revival band formed in Coventry in the late 1970s by an integrated group of white and black musicians. Neville Staple joined Hall on vocals, Jerry Dammers was the lead songwriter and keyboard player, Lynval Golding and Roddy Radiation played guitar, Horace Panter and John Bradbury formed the rhythm section and Dick Cuthell and Rico Rodriguez supported on horns. The Specials also created 2 Tone Records, an independent record label, that became an icon of the togetherness of multicultural youth in the 70s and 80s.
Their take on ska and rocksteady, (the early reggae sounds that had been introduced to the UK music scene by Jamaican immigrants in the 60s) were infused with the energy of punk, delivering witty, street-level, political savvy into the eardrums of a generation of kids at a time of economic decline and the rise of far-right groups such as the National Front.
Ska had been the soundtrack to the earlier skinhead scene of the 60s – a scene that ironically, considering how it would be corrupted, had been one of the first multicultural youth movements in the post-war UK – bringing together Caribbean immigrant youth and their white working-class neighbours to skank happily together. By the mid-late 70s, though, skinhead culture had become symbolic of racism, neo-Nazis and football hooligans.
Throughout the 70s Britain was still struggling to come to terms with the collapse of the British Empire and its declining influence in the world, after centuries of imperial dominance. Rising unemployment, industrial unrest and rapid demographic and cultural shifts in many towns around Britian fed narratives of competition from immigrants and a rise in racism. This mix of prejudice and poverty was unbearable for many: a powder keg that would explode into race riots.
But through all this bubbling tension, processes of integration had been quietly occurring in school playgrounds, youth clubs, nightclubs and record shops. A new generation of British-born black and Asian kids, along with their white peers, were developing new and more complex British identities. These were the kids born in poorer areas of Britain in the late 50s and early 60s, who had been dispatched off to schools where their contemporaries came from different backgrounds. White, black, or Asian, they were hearing the same sounds, visiting the same hangouts and, quite simply, becoming friends.
The formation of The Specials in Coventry in 1977 was emblematic of integration: black and white youth coming together to make music for pleasure, not initially as a statement of revolution. Yet in doing so, they helped to crystallise a new Britain, formed of a complex and messy history and the sum of many identities.
Despite The Specials covering many classics of the ska genre, the band was not a pastiche of music from elsewhere, but a deeply British sound. While most of their original lyrics were written by their founder Jerry Dammers, it was Hall’s deadpan and inescapably English delivery that gave them a bite and suppressed menace.
The Specials were not the only musical force pushing a new form of Britishness into the public imagination. This was the time of Rock Against Racism and wider youth movements. But The Specials – and the two-tone movement more widely – encapsulate a shift in migration perspectives that came from the streets and Britian’s youth: an anger, a humour and a clear-eyed understanding of the nation as really was, rather than as the old-guard or idealistic dreamers believed it should be.