1990’s Chicago was not Thatcher’s Britain of the 1980’s. The music of The Specials, while of a specific context, still contained elements which would resonate quite loudly across the sea of time and space, and allowed kids of the future to vibe with their music and message.
I was one of those kids.
Terry Hall, one of the voices of The Specials and one of the most important performers in the punk and ska subcultures, died last week. There’s plenty of great tributes to him. This isn’t one to him per se, but to what he helped create and its lasting imprint.
“You’re gonna have a nasty accident,
You’re going home in a f*cking ambulance,
You’re gonna get your f*cking head kicked in!
I’m going out tonight
I don’t know if I’ll be alright.
Everyone wants to hurt me,
there’s so much danger in the city”– The Specials, Concrete Jungle
1990’s Chicago, by now my adopted home, had a sprawling terrain in its geography, politics, cultures, clubs, crews, and gangs. Trends never seemed to go away in Chicago, its massive size just allowed for them to find some corner (metaphorically and physically speaking) and morph into some new Chicago style subcult. Everything you wanted could be found. And violence was never too far away. The rough urban environs seemed to breed danger at all turns. It was menacing but to a young punk bootboy it was also something to get lost in, maybe carried away in. Not like mindless sh*t, although that did happen on occasion to be honest. But fighting was a real thing and backing down wasn’t always the first or easiest option. I hated, and still hate violence, but it was just something around you and that had to be contended with which may mean you just find yourself in that mix and not always in a purely defensive posture.
By mid 1990’s, a quarter of a million jobs had been lost in Chicago. Deindustrialization and closures of the steel mills, stock yards and large-scale manufacturing via the program and policies of neoliberalism had taken a devastating toll on the working classes. And especially hard hit were the South and West Sides of the city. Black and Latino communities faced the brunt of the crisis but so too did white working-class peoples. Into this stepped various Klan and Nazi groups trying to take advantage of the condition. Episodic struggles against this racist agitation and violence were common. The city’s ruling classes left whole communities to face what was tantamount to oblivion, with police acting as semi-autonomous terror squads enforcing control, which led to a mass carceral program as well as a situation of the routine kidnapping and torture of Black men.
The city itself was characterized by mass housing projects: Cabrini Green, the Robert Taylor Homes, the Ida B Wells Complex, the Henry Horner Homes. These may have been utopian plans for inner-city communities but they would lead to human warehousing and inner-city violence on a generational level.
I found myself stepping into this Concrete Jungle and every f*ckin’ bit of it was exciting, overwhelming, challenging, terrifying. And, to be honest, I loved it. Not the horribleness of it, that was to rage against, but the overall dynamic was a force to motivate and move me and my networks of accomplices. And move we did.
I’d come to Chicago at 21 years of age for ostensibly political reasons with the Anti Racist Action movement (ARA) soon becoming a main focus. Within weeks of my relocation to Chicago, The Specials, or at least a version of them, played as part of their comeback tour. This was during the 1990’s ska revival. To be honest, revival may be stretching it. The ska punk craze was on again – think Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Dancehall Crashers, No Doubt, Rancid – which at this point was a generation removed from the Two-Tone period of 1980, let alone the original Jamaican ska of the early 1960’s, the music that traveled with Jamaicans to England and the broader Isles. This revival was good on a lot of fronts. Groups like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones took ARA on tour and helped promote the movement. The whole scene’s political attitudes and orientation was positive and had at its center an in your face multi-racial/anti-racist stance. But musically, well, I was not that big on the “skacore” stuff and kinda stood outside of it for legit and not very legit reasons. I may have been a little too uptight, angry, and oh so serious. But all that to the side, it was a hot June night and it was The Specials playing and it seemed perfect as a welcome to this new home of mine.
The original debut by The Specials was this punk reggae ska mix with massive cues from groups like The Clash and an affinity with Belfast’s Stiff Little Fingers. It was the voice of Black and white youth, together, against the bleakness of their era brought upon society by the political classes and harassment and repression by police. It was a call for racial unity in the face of attacks by the neo-nazi National Front and its fascist football hooligans and bully boys. It said have fun while your young, but also look at the bigger picture and be active in determining your own life. The sound, well, the sound production had a trebly tone which at times seemed like it was being played in a tin can with Terry Hall’s sing-song shouting and rapid-fire yelps, all creating this desperate sense of fighting to break out. It all just projected poignancy, immediacy and anger.
The Specials band of ’96 was not this. They were more mature. It was a Specials bringing new influences like dancehall reggae, hip hop and pop, with Judge Roughneck Neville Staples taking over full vocal duties. But here to, it was great. We don’t need staid retro, we need music that speaks to the times and reaches for relevancy, makes you move and inspires you. It’s not about ditching influences, but it’s about bringing them into the modern. It’s about making the connection between the feet, the heart and the brain. I think The Specials were onto this. Still, they played the classics and it had the venue dancing, sweating, putting arms around complete strangers and singing along. You felt energized and alive. For a few hours you enjoyed yourself, before venturing out into a world which seemed bent on doing its youth harm.
In short time, our campaigns with Anti Racist Action were to get more intense. A nazi group had one of its lieutenants go on a multi-state shooting spree wounding and killing several people. We gathered our forces and went into a long fight to expose, confront and smash the nazis. Music, culture, and politics would be part of our program of solidarity and resistance to the fascists. Specials’ cuts could always be heard as part of a broad and varied soundtrack to this anti-racist struggle. It seemed like every car ride across country had a Specials cassette in the glove compartment, and you bet it got listened to. Because when you listen to those earliest cuts, even now, there’s still an immediacy, an urgency, a message to you. The Specials were having a conversation with you, with us. (See https://youtu.be/rA2-6ZlOXeg).
So, we’ll keep the Specials playing as long as we gotta face the fascists and threats of the Concrete Jungle.
The author in Chicago’s long closed Redline subway tunnel, 1996