The Specials: How to stay relevant in popular culture after 40 years

The Specials circa 1980 in New York City.

With their first album since 2001, and live performance with viral EDL opponent Saffiyah Khan, The Specials have shown their anti-racism message is still as necessary as ever in British society

Last night my dad and I had a conversation about The Specials. It’s interesting how you go about measuring a band’s legacy over the course of four decades. So many bands come out, make a statement, hit their peak and then gradually fade away. Though, that doesn’t seem to be the case with The Specials, who recently made an astounding comeback with a brand new record and live show crafted to tackle the discontents of modern Britain.

The record ‘Encore’ is loaded with sharp societal critiques, resembling an updated vision of the manifesto they set out in the seventies. Just as The Specials’ debut seamlessly brought together black and white music, these new songs seem intent on unifying the experiences of people from all walks of life.

Album opener ‘Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys’ boldly explores the notion of a ‘half breed world’ where people will move beyond the stereotypes of race. ‘BLM’ alternatively delivers one man’s tale of moving from Jamaica to Britain, recalling memories of last year’s Windrush crisis in which the government’s mistreatment of immigrant communities was so woefully exposed.

Set against bustling reggae and ska beats, these anthems for the disaffected have clearly made an impact, with The Specials finally scoring their first number one album. You can tell it’s popular seeing as my dad’s having to endure a wait of several weeks to get a repress of the sold out limited edition vinyl.

While ‘Encore’ sees The Specials looking forward, crucially they’ve managed to reach out to a younger audience this time round and not just their horde of long-time devotees. After Saffiyah Khan was famously photographed squaring up to an EDL protestor whilst wearing a Specials t-shirt, the band personally got in touch offering her a spot on their album.

The resulting track ’10 Commandments’ is a scintillating takedown of sexism in everyday culture, as Khan rails against ‘pseudo intellectuals on the internet’ and warns men she’ll catcall them back. As Khan took the stage at The Specials’ comeback gig to speak her truth, the generation gap between the performers faded away. Indeed, it’s remarkable to see the group’s message transcend the supposed boundaries between millennials and their elders, creating a more inclusive struggle against the social dilemmas we all face.

Essentially, The Specials’ comeback has been bang up to date in pretty much every way possible. It’s a lesson in how to stay relevant forty years after your breakthrough. The Specials haven’t lost the ideals that made them stand out in 1979, they’ve just focused them on a new set of problems for a new set of people. You can hear this adaptation on ‘Vote For Me’ as they tackle political injustice, you can hear it on ‘The Life and Times’ as they tackle male depression and toxic masculinity… The Specials have got their finger back on the pulse and you need to hear the results.

To see The Specials live check out their full list of tour dates...

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