Sunday Morning: A Message To You Rudy

Remembering one of the great ska bands.

The recent success of such skacore bands as Sublime and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones as part of the most recent ska revival has sparked periodic conversations at the Addicted To Noise office about both the current revival, and the first one, which began in England at the tail end of the '70s.

I have found that some generally knowledgeable music fans think that ska has been popular in the U. S. for ages, and that the recent chart appearances of Goldfinger, the Bosstones and others has no significance other than for those bands currently in vogue.

Not so.

Ska, like punk in America during the later half of the '70s and '80s, was an underground phenomenon until the '90s.

While ska caught the attention of large numbers of British youth nearly two decades ago when The Specials kicked off the "two-tone" movement by not only recording records that wedded the rough and tumble Jamaican ska sound to a (then) contemporary British sensibility, but by launching the 2-Tone label, here in the U. S. ska didn't connect with most music fans. In San Francisco at the time, The Specials played to about 1,000 people at the Warfield Theater on their first American tour. Elsewhere, they were lucky to fill a club.

Albums by The Specials and the English Beat didn't sell here, and only the novelty pop of Madness eventually translated into the hit, "Our House," a less than glorious moment for what was, at the time, the coolest sound since punk.

As one who had dallied in Jamaican music for years, checking out Toots and the Maytals' first American club dates in the mid-'70s, digging into reggae and ska by everyone from the Heptones and the Mighty Diamonds to the Wailers, I welcomed a British remaking of ska, and bought an import vinyl copy of The Specials, the group's first album, as soon as it was available here in 1979.

The Specials is a rather remarkable album. I became reacquainted with it the other day, when I came across a CD version in one of the record stores, Rocket Records, that I frequent.

For anyone who is currently rockin' to skacore, or who has appreciated the ska tracks recorded by modern punks like Rancid, The Specials is a must-have album. Produced by Elvis Costello at a time when Costello was one of the most vital artists in England, the album includes such timeless songs as the opener "A Message To You Rudy" which uses classic ska elements (rhythm, horns) to deliver a message to a punk to wise up or end up in jail.

The Specials, who grew up on punk, mixed social and political commentary into their infectious dance tracks. The message and the medium were one in the hands of the group, and just as the Clash could not imagine making rock 'n' roll that didn't challenge the status quo, so The Specials too needed to really say something. But they also never forgot that rock 'n' roll is about having a good time and making a ruckus.

One of their greatest songs, "Too Much Too Young," warns a young woman: "You've done too much/ Much too young/ Now you're married with a kid when you could be having fun with me."

The Specials, as you might have noticed, are mostly back together again, have a new album due soon and having been showing up on stage with various skacore bands.

I doubt that they'll ever again makes records as vital as The Specials, and their later masterpiece, 1981's "Ghost Town," but I hope they can reach a contemporary audience who will appreciate them both for their music, and for being at the very forefront, leading the charge so long ago that has resulted in the ska sound reaching American airwaves.

Hear that, Rudy. [Sun., Dec. 7, 1997, 9 a. m. PST]