The Specials Talk Reunion Album & Recording With Viral Activist Saffiyah Khan

The Specials
Courtesy of Island Records

The Specials

The Specials didn’t need anyone to validate Encore (Feb. 1), their first album of new material since 1980 or 1998, depending on how you count. Even with only three of seven original members still in the fold, the British ska veterans find themselves in a world wracked by racism, xenophobia, and other issues they battled with weaponized dance music 40 years ago. A bat-signal with their logo should’ve have gone up the second the Brexit vote came down.

But if The Specials were looking for someone to reaffirm their relevance, they couldn’t have found anyone better than Saffiyah Khan, the 21-year-old half-Pakistani, half-Bosnian activist and model from Birmingham, England, who gives the album’s most incendiary performance.

Khan guests on “10 Commandments,” a female response to Jamaican ska legend Prince Buster’s 1967 track of the same name. Buster’s original is a hyper-sexist rant in which he orders womenfolk to obey him, caress him, forgive his transgressions, and promise not to cross him, lest they incur a violent wrath they’ll surely deserve. Khan is not impressed by his machismo.

“Thou shalt not listen to Prince Buster or any other man offering kindly advice in matters of my own conduct,” Khan declares in her first commandment, speaking with icy cool atop a frigid dub-reggae groove. If you know anything about Khan and her remarkable rise to fame, it’s easy to picture her facial expression as she drops her feminist bombs.

Khan became a viral phenomenon in April 2017, when she was photographed standing face to face with a leader of the far-right English Defense League during one of their rallies in Birmingham. In the photo, Khan grins calmly as the man stares her down, radiating hatred, seemingly ready to pounce. Khan didn’t go to the demonstration looking for trouble, but when members of the staunchly anti-Muslim EDL surrounded a woman in a headscarf, she had to step in.

While all this was going down, Khan was wearing a Specials t-shirt beneath her denim jacket. It’s plain as day in the photos of her smiling as she’s led away by police. Khan discovered the band via the Internet as a teenager and soon learned that her father had grown up with their music back in the ‘80s. Both father and daughter were drawn to The Specials for more than just the infectious energy of hits like “Gangsters” and “Too Much Too Young.”

As leaders of the 2 Tone label and movement in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, The Specials sought to unite black and white kids through music. The septet featured a nattily dressed multiracial lineup and raucous sound built from English punk rock and Jamaican ska. They made pop with purpose, and for a couple years, as racial tensions flared up across England, they were the hottest thing on 14 legs.

“The Specials, for me, reignited the idea of honor and unity being intrinsic to all anti-racist struggles,” Khan tells Billboard. “They are living proof that such politics will stand the test of time and transcend religions and colors.”

 Ben Birchall/PA Images via Getty Images
Saffiyah Khan speaking at a Labour rally in Birmingham, ahead of a speech by party leader Jeremy Corbyn, on the General Election campaign trail

After photos of Khan’s standoff exploded on the Internet, Specials rhythm guitarist Lynval Golding reached out and invited her to a show. “My family loved it, and my dad teared up when we went to meet them after,” says Khan. “Lynval did a little shoutout for me during the set. My family, being as unhip as possible, did all the pointing and the waving, at which point I pretended I didn’t know them.”

Meeting Khan also made a big impression on Golding. “She was thanking us for inspiring her, and I was like, ‘Thank you for inspiring us,’” he says. “We got the band together 40 years ago, and that means a lot: It wasn’t wasted time. The Specials’ music literally touched a young 20-year-old girl. This is what it’s all about.’”

A few months later, Specials lead singer Terry Hall reached out to Khan with the idea appearing on their new album, the first to feature his vocals since the group’s 1980 sophomore effort, More Specials. (In the ‘90s and ‘00s, Hall-free iterations of the band released three covers LPs and one disc of original material, 1998’s Guilty ‘til Proved Innocent.) Khan may be the type of person who’ll stand fearlessly in the face of hatred, but she admits to being extremely nervous about rocking the mic alongside her heroes.

“If you put that job before any Specials fan, you'd probably get the same response,” says Khan. “It was one of the single most overwhelming tasks I've ever been set, and even now that I’ve written the lyrics, I don’t feel like I've done them justice.”

Khan agonized for weeks over her commandments, only to finish them up the night before the London recording session. Hall made a few last-minute edits, and she nailed her vocal in a couple of hours. Khan need not worry the finished product: Her performance is angry, assured, and at times funny, like when she blasts “pseudo-intellectuals on the Internet” and warns catcalling dudes on the street that she’ll catcall them right back.

“We said, ‘We’ll lift you up on our shoulders and let you say what you want to say—it’s your time to shout now,’” says Golding. “We gave her room to do her thing. I’m really pleased with the way she went about it.”

“10 Commandments” is one of three spoken-word songs at the heart of Encore. Given that Hall, Golding, and bassist Horace Panter are the only original Specials along for the ride, it’s reasonable for even hardcore fans to be skeptical about the project. But the remaining trio delivers a sharp, mature, musically surprising album that’s appropriate for the times and respectful of 2 Tone’s legacy. And they do so with a fair bit of talking.

On the wah-wah-powered funk-ska workout “B.L.M.,” Golding tells his life story beginning with his father’s move from Jamaica to England in the early ‘50s. This was a time when Great Britain was encouraging people from its Caribbean territories to come over and help rebuild the country after World War II. But Golding’s father arrived to find signs reading “No Dogs, No Irish, No Blacks” in boarding-house windows. As we learn, Golding received a similar welcome when he came over from Jamaica in the ‘60s. By the final verse, we’re in Golding’s current home, America, where the racial slurs are different but the same ugly story old plays itself out.

Sexism and racism are obviously hot topics in the age of Trump and Brexit, and perhaps not coincidentally, so is mental health. Hall speaks about his struggles with bipolar disorder on “The Life and Times (Of a Man Called Depression),” a rubbery lounge-pop tune punctuated by nervy brass straight out of More Specials.

Hall tells his tale with warmth and candor and none of the frosty deadpan he was known for back in the heyday of The Specials. The song speaks to the progress he’s made since finally being diagnosed as bipolar following a suicide attempt in 2004. He refers to himself at one point as “a clean, mean, medicated fight machine.”

“I’ve been with him for the last 10 years, and I can look at Terry and tell whether he’s going to have good day or a bad day,” Golding says. “That’s how close we’ve become.”

“It’s really nice he’s been honest [in his lyrics] about what he goes through,” Golding adds. “I’m the closest to him. I’m the only one that goes to visit him at his house. Because he doesn’t answer his phone. I’m just so blessed to work with a guy I consider one of the best. Most of the lyrics on the records are Terry’s work. He’s an amazing lyricist.”

Golding seems to have willed Encore into existence, just as he did the reunion that reactivated The Specials as a touring band in 2009. As the driving force a decade ago, Golding succeeded in getting five of his six former bandmates back into their black suits and pork pie hats. Alas, he was unable to secure the participation of Jerry Dammers, the eccentric keyboardist and songwriter who masterminded the group.

“Me and Jerry were the closest,” says Golding, recalling how he and Dammers worked together on a still-unreleased song called “The First Victim of War” prior to the reunion. “I thought Jerry would be the first one I’d get back on board. I love the man, and I wish he could’ve been back with us. He’s very, very difficult. I tried, I tried, I tried. In the end, I decided we’ve got to play music for the people. We’ve just got to move on, you know?”

Golding maintained that attitude when vocalist Neville Staple left in 2013 and guitarist Roddy Radiation followed a year later. (Golding cites personal issues for Roddy’s departure.) Drummer John Bradbury died in 2015, but not before he, Golding, and Panter began demoing tracks for a new album. One of these songs became “Vote for Me,” the lead single off Encore. A far cry from the amphetamine ska of the band’s heyday, the song is sophisticated dinner-party reggae with a simple question for politicians of the world: “If we vote for you do you promise / to be upright, decent, and honest?”

“It’s so appropriate now for what the world is going through,” says Golding. “One thing I love is that we’re just asking questions. On that song, the way we put it across was, ‘Let’s talk to each other, not shout at each other.’’’

The same is true of “Embarrassed By You,” a slightly more aggressive reggae tune wherein Golding views the resurgence of British fascism as a personal affront to the band: “We never fought for freedom for nasty little brutes like you / to come and undo the work we do.” And so The Specials fight again, optimistic despite it all. Golding says the message of Encore really boils down to the title of the closing track, “We Sell Hope.”

Musically, the aim with Encore was to pick up where The Specials left off with their landmark 1981 single “Ghost Town.” It was the final recording before Hall, Golding, and Staple left to form the new wave group The Fun Boy Three, spelling the end of an era. (Encore includes a cover of the 1981 Fun Boy Three Hit “The Lunatics.”) With its disquieting horn blasts and howling background vocals, “Ghost Town” captured the mood of England on the brink. It reached No. 1 in the U.K. as race riots erupted across the country.

Following “Ghost Town” would be difficult even with Dammers still working his magic at the keys. Golding credits Nikolaj Torp Larsen, the Danish keyboardist who’s been filling Dammers’ loafers since 2009, with helping to maintain The Specials’ distinctive ska-and-beyond vibe. Larsen produced Encore alongside Hall, Golding, and Panter and co-wrote all of the new material.

“Nikolaj is an absolute genius,” Golding says. “The work we done with Jerry was fantastic. We were really fortunate we could meet another young guy with Nikolaj. It’s like winning the lottery twice. It doesn’t happen.”

Encore arrives at the start of a year marking 2 Tone’s 40th anniversary. Given that the movement’s other three flagship bands—Madness, The Selecter, and The English Beat—are all still active in one form or another, Golding says there’s a chance for some joint performances later in the year.

“It’s something to celebrate: a youth movement that lasts 40 years,” says Golding. “It would be an amazing thing. But you know what it’s like. There’s always debates and discussions. If we can sit down and not drink too many beers, but have cups of tea with no sugar, we can come to some agreement for the people, for the fans.”

News of any 2 Tone 40th anniversary concert would surely spark new debates about what the label achieved all those years ago—and whether it’s really possible for music to change the world. You can guess what Saffiyah Khan thinks about that last question.

“All music and art can make politics, love, struggles, etc., tangible and human and accessible,” she says. “Accessible mediums are the key to all mass movements.”