Tag Archives: jerry dammers

WALT JABSCO KNOWS. DON’T ARGUE

As the Seventies turned into the Eighties and the violent but brief flame of Punk had all but burned out, the coolest sounds morphing into the pop charts from the underground stemmed from the contemporaneous revivals of Mod and Ska. Nowadays, these records  tend to be lumped together (especially in Father’s Day compilations) but they were really two very different movements who did not always see eye to eye.

This is a story of just such a difference of opinions.

Let’s start with “just who is Walt Jabsco?”

You’ll know him as the 2-Tone Man who appeared on the sleeve and label of all early 2 Tone record releases. The design came from Jerry Dammers himself with help from Specials bass player, Horace Panter, and designers John Sims & David Storey and you know it now from the sharp suit, the shades and the pork pie hat but it was actually based on a photo of Peter Tosh from an old album called “The Wailing Wailers” – that’s him on the right; aloof and super cool, dwarfing Mr Marley in the middle.

The first release on Two Tone was of course, the definitive “Gangsters” by the Special AKA, which is still one of the most feverishly exciting debut singles ever made. It borrows from Prince Buster’s seminal ska classic “Al Capone” and twists it to a more personal theme.

The band had been on tour in France and were held accountable for damage in a hotel for which another band (allegedly The Damned) had actually been responsible. Their guitars were confiscated, the police were called and a terrific hit single was born that told their story.

The intro about “Bernie Rhodes knows. Don’t argue” was a reference to their then manager the legendary Bernie Rhodes who also looked after The Clash and was apparently a king-size spouter of bullshit.

The record was originally released in May 1979 in a limited run of 5000 which were stamped by the band themselves and then distributed by Rough Trade. Not many have lasted the course of time. I’m happy to say that mine has.

In the summer it gained its full release, having been made record of the week by David Jensen – later it would justifiably become NME’s Record of the Year in a year of tremendous competition – 1979 saw “London Calling”, “Brass In Pocket” and “Good Times” to name but three. We then witnessed one of the most iconic and photogenic gatherings on Top Of The Pops as the sharp-suited, multi-racial,  full-on yet slightly detached Special AKA burst into our collective conscience, all bounce and menace, propelled by Roddy Radiation’s spitting guitar.

The B-side was credited to The Selecter but this was not the band we know but a recording from a sideline of drummer John Bradbury’s together with Neol Davis. The remnants of this recording unit would form the actual Selecter when they brought in the fabulous Pauline Black as vocalist. In the meantime, this version of The Selecter left us with the kind of eerie and brooding please of instrumental exotica that would so later fascinate Jerry Dammers as his Two Tone vision moved away from just being about the Ska Revival.

Dammers was very much the mastermind of 2 Tone and used its startling imagery as a mark of quality. Throughout the end of 1979 until the summer of 1981 and the Specials’ dissolution as “Ghost Town” reached number one, the sound of 2 Tone ruled the airwaves and Walt Jabsco’s appearance on a sleeve – or the paper labels that all singles were given for their first run (it will come as little surprise to my fellow anoraks that I naturally have a full set in this rarer format) – signified a recording of interest, vitality and a downright good time.

Madness and The Beat famously launched their careers here and collectors now hunt down the Bodysnatchers, the Swinging Cats and of course The Selecter to hear the full gamut. Dammers guarded the legacy of 2 Tone preciously and this caused problems with many of the label’s charges and, indeed, his own band – for whom he remains the only dissenting member of the now-reformed group. His changes of direction brought new bands such as The Higsons and The Friday Club onto the roster but failure loomed (which makes these really quite hard to get hold of now) and by 1984, only really the Special AKA now without their former frontmen were gaining any traction and that was running out.

However this forthright adherence to his vision brought him into conflict much earlier on. This time Mod band, The Lambrettas were his target.

The Mod revival had also cropped up around 78-79, largely on the back of the release of the excellent “Quadrophenia” which had been an accurate depiction of Mod Culture in the mid-60s as brought to life by The Who’s album of the same name. This revival had really ended up being the catalyst for the success of The Jam and to a lesser extent Secret Affair and The Truth – again it felt an antidote to the bloated nature of 70s Rock but also, to be honest, the grubbiness of punk, with its smart fashion and cool outlook. It was a fairly Southern based movement (like the original) but coincided with the Midland-based Ska breakout (Madness notwithstanding).

Of course, there was overlap but Mods were not Skinheads and whilst the twain would meet – it wasn’t often.

Now, at this juncture, I think it’s fair to say that most of us believe that cover versions can be better than the originals – Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” exhibit A – but you might be surprised that one of my favorites to fall into this category is the swinging ska-like “Poison Ivy” by Mod cash-ins The Lambrettas.

It’s a record that can still get a floor bouncing and had more energy than most of its predecessors and I include a version by the Stones – so I must be serious.

Now, to be fair, the band came from the hallowed Mod ground of Brighton and would go on to deliver a surprisingly accomplished album, “Beat Boys In The Jet Age” – all of which was even more surprising when you consider they were released on Rocket Records, Elton John’s label.

The band and label though it would be a fun idea to release a version of their chart-bound hit under the monicker of “Two-Stroke Records” which was a nod to the Mod obsession with scooters. They also featured a cut-out stenciled Mod to mimic 2 Tone’s Mr Jabsco, complete with checkerboard banded motif.

The irascible and protective Dammers apparently blew a gasket and a vehemently worded ‘cease and desist’ instruction was swiftly sent out to all parties concerned.

And thus, yet another collector’s rarity was born.

SOCK IT TO ‘EM J.B.

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In the midst of the sad losses of David Bowie, Glenn Frey and Lemmy, slightly blurred in the post-Christmas news cycle was the sad loss of The Specials’ drummer, John “Brad” Bradbury at the age of 62. This of course, followed the passing of their equally likeable trombonist Rico Rodriguez, earlier in the year.

The Specials have a very special (pun intended) place in the hearts of music fans. They ushered in the Two Tone movement that brought together the roots of ska and punk and created a sound and style that was a very British hybrid of influences.

And yet, when we look back, the Specials in the classic line-up were only really with us as a musical force for barely two years.

The first album, “The Specials”, is much loved and much played. It is, along with the first Selecter, Madness and The Beat albums,  the very definition of the UK Ska sound that swept the country at the end of the seventies. It was deliberately multi-racial, politically motivated and angry. All laced with dryness and irony. Very 1979.

Less discussed is the second album “More Specials” which is far more of an oddity and less easy to categorise. The ska influences are there but only sometimes as the album most certainly branches out into a huge number of areas and largely driven by the unique, manic and esoteric direction of founder, Jerry Dammers, who seemed to have soaked up a myriad of different themes – not least the lounge exotica of Esquivel and space-age meanderings of 60s producer and eccentric, Joe Meek.

I should, perhaps contrarily, start with the bonus disc – called “More Extra Specials” – which rounds up singles, B-sides and rarities covering the period just preceding the album’s release and the group’s demise in summer 1981. I kick off the review here because much of The Specials’ very finest work is here. Starting with Roddy Radiation’s acerbic “Rat Race” which bashes students and their “sacred college scarves” long before it became a recognised pastime.

There’s two brilliant BBC sessions of “You’re Wondering Now” and the rock n roll classic “Sea Cruise” led by the delightful Rico which capture the band at full throttle. Then the single-entendre politics of the cover of “Maggie’s Farm” which acts as a counterpoint to the anthem to decidedly average Britain “Friday Night Saturday Morning” – think Pulp’s “Common People” fifteen years earlier. It has all the dreary and dark details of Jarvis Cocker’s masterpiece.

However, despite all of these superb treats, none is finer than “Ghost Town” – presented in its full and little heard extended version The legend of the song and its timing with the Toxteth riots is only matched to its place in the band’s history when as Britain’s number one, they appeared on Top Of The Pops, tense, fraught and obviously at odds with one another and promptly split up backstage.

You may think it hugely familiar but because of its intricate layering, the record’s impact is never diminished. Its brooding violence portrayed as inertia – especially in the demented “yayaya” chorus of Rhoda Dakar. The full version just heightens the unique atmosphere of threat and tension set to a Clash-like dub backing and the echo of Rico on trombone.

It is rightly celebrated  because there has never been a 45 like it before or since.

Which brings us to the album “More Specials” itself which seems a contrast to their other ‘bonus’ work of the time which is taut and direct because it is a deliriously ramshackle affair, alternating between the more familiar ska of side one and the spooky space-capades of the reverse. This variety seems to be the manifestation of the competing attitudes that had broken out between the band at this time, which ultimately were to tear them apart.

To open, we are on familiar territory with a cover of the ska classic “Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think)” which in itself was a cover of an old 40s favourite – as so many bluebeat numbers were – this time by Guy Lombardo.

It’s interesting to compare its exuberance and laconic humour (“Hi I’m Terry… and I’m going to enjoy myself first”) with the far darker and slower closing version – backed by the GoGos – which is so obviously intended to be ironic. It also has a sense of finality about it – one more time and that’ll be it.

Interestingly, some of the songs bear the mark of a band who have come across success and has led them into a world they had previously not known. Perhaps the best example is “Hey Little Rich Girl” which has all the scorn of the Stones’ “19th Nervous Breakdown” although “Stereotypes” has the kind of barbed observation of which Ray Davies would be proud.

That said the more rambling “Stereotypes Pt 2” is a lost stoner’s classic.

There are two vivid glimpses into the experimental psyche of Jerry Dammers as he produces two bizarre and discordant lounge part-instrumentals in “Holiday Fortnight” and, particularly “International Jet Set” designed so obviously to unnerve the unwitting listener – it feels like another of their rug-pull jokes.

“Pearl’s Cafe” is obviously designed to try and shock us with its punkish “it’s all a load of bollocks” refrain but it does backfire as a sort of childish attempt to be noticed and lacks the charm that the opening of the song seemed to hint at.

This is the only wrong footing however, and I would forgive just about anything for “Do Nothing” which was remixed with strings for its single release. It is a song that is as much a product of its time as “Ghost Town”. It is a song of boredom, desolation and hopelessness – which for Thatcher’s disenfranchised was probably all too accurate – but set to one of their best ska originals including another resounding Rico solo.

It also spawned one of the classic Top Of The Pops performances where just prior to Christmas the band all turned up in festive jumpers, chewed gum and looked as though they were the coolest gentlemen on the planet despite giving the production crew several heart attacks, not least by swapping their bassist, Horace Gentleman for the Beat’s Dave Steele – they were also appearing on the show.

The political nature of the time – this occasion, the Cold War nuclear threat – gives us one of the album’s real highlights in “Man At C&A” which has a real sense of musical apocalypse about it. It’s fiendishly sinister.

Finally, we should return to the subject that prompted this reappraisal, the sad death of John Bradbury, who with Horace Gentleman provided as tight a backing as you could get for a rhythm section. This was particularly noticeable on an album of so many differing styles and with such an obvious (but joyous) lack of organisation. Try the spirited Northern Soul cover of “Sock It To ‘Em J.B.” as an example of the dexterity of the Specials’ backline.

“More Specials” is a curious piece. It’s ragged and dangerous and obviously, in hindsight, carries the mark of a band stretched to their limits by two years of constant performance in studios, on screen and especially on the punishing road. Yet it has moments of real brilliance and moments of real peculiarity which makes it such an enjoyable listen after all these years. It also hints at the genius of Jerry Dammers and the lack of another true creative outlet for him in the coming years – made manifestly more obvious by his refusal to end the bitterness of the split and return for the reunion.

They were very Special after all.

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