Last December my wife and I watched the Meryl Streep movie about Margaret Thatcher. It was a wonderful movie and Meryl Streep did an amazing job portraying Margaret Thatcher. I learned a lot about Thatcher’s life that I didn’t know before, and I admire Thatcher’s toughness and persistence in breaking through the male chauvinism of that era. Though I like Thatcher as a person, I never really liked her politics. From what I remember of that time, Great Britain was a mess, and I remember Thatcher’s policies being especially tough on the working class of that time. A response to the rage of many of the young who felt helpless in the face of the diminished economic prospects of the time was the punk and the ska musical movements. One of the great bands of that time were the ska band the Specials.
The music of the Specials can be best understood in the context of the economic crisis of England in the 1970s and 1980s. According to Wikipedia
When the Conservative Party led by Margaret Thatcher won the general election of May 1979 and swept James Callaghan’s Labour Party from power, the country had just witnessed the Winter of Discontent in which numerous public sector workers had staged strikes. Inflation was about 10% and some 1,500,000 people were unemployed; compared to some 1,000,000 in 1974, 580,000 in 1970 and just over 300,000 in 1964. Margaret Thatcher set about to control inflation with monetarist policies and change trade union laws in an attempt to reduce the strikes which had blighted Britain for so many years.
Mrs Thatcher’s battle against inflation resulted in the closure of many inefficient factories, shipyards and coalpits – mostly during her first four-year term in power. This helped bring inflation below 10% by the turn of 1982 (having peaked at 22% in 1980) and by spring 1983 it had fallen to a 15-year low of 4%. Strikes were also at their lowest level since the early 1950s.
However, it also resulted in unemployment reaching 3,000,000 by January 1982 – a level not seen for some 50 years. This accounted for some 12.5% of the workforce. Northern Ireland was the hardest hit region, with unemployment standing at nearly 20%. It exceeded 15% in much of Scotland and northern England, only falling below 10% in the south east. Even the 2,000,000 figure first seen towards the end of 1980 had not been reached in over 40 years.
By April 1983, Britain – once known globally as the “workshop of the world” due to its strong manufacturing base – became a net importer of goods for the first time ever, largely due to the loss of heavy industry under Thatcher. Areas of Tyneside, Yorkshire, Merseyside, South Wales, the West of Scotland and the West Midlands were particularly hard hit by the loss of industry and subsequent sharp rise in unemployment. The national average by January 1982 was around 12.5%, but in some of these regions it was approaching 20% and would remain similarly high for a number of years afterwards.
The mass unemployment and social discontent resulting from the recession were widely seen as major factors in widespread rioting across Britain during 1981 in parts of towns and cities including Toxteth in Liverpool and a number of districts of London. Four years later, in 1985, when the economy had been out of recession for three years but unemployment remained high, there was another wave of rioting across Britain, again with several parts of London being affected among others. High unemployment and social discontent were once again seen as factors in the rioting.
The Specials formed in the midst of this economic crisis and to address the racism that was found in many of the angry youths of England. Formed in Coventry, England, in 1977, the Specials were an integrated group of black and white musicians that consisted of songwriter/keyboardist Jerry Dammers, vocalist Terry Hall, guitarist and vocalist Lynval Golding , drummer Silverton Hutchinson, and over the years their membership would change. They formed at the same time as the Rock Against Racism campaign was going on to counter the growing racism of white nationalist groups among the young British youths. According to an article by Sarfraz Manzoor in the Observer
Thirty years on and it is not difficult to identify the legacy of Rock Against Racism. That influence was both political and musical. ‘It built a circuit of gigs and concerts on which a lot of bands cut their teeth,’ explains Ian Goodyer. ‘And these small gigs relied on the people in the grassroots getting involved.’ Such people include Paul Furness, whose RAR club in Leeds staged the only Rock Against Racism concert featuring Joy Division. The strategy of encouraging black and white bands to jam together paved the way for the ska revival, 2-Tone and multi-racial bands such as the Beat (who, according to Red Saunders, first met in Victoria Park) and the Specials.
‘We started out at the same time as RAR,’ Specials founder Jerry Dammers tells me, ‘so it was all part of the same thing and for me it was no good being anti-racist if you didn’t involve black people, so what the Specials tried to do was create something that was more integrated.’
At the core of much of their music is some sort of political message. Their song Doesn’t Make It Alright, for instance, criticizes the violent attacks on immigrants from the West Indies and Pakistan that were occurring at the time. Too Much Too Young criticizes teen pregnancies and promotes contraception and birth control. Racist Friend advises the listener to try to change the views of friends and family members who have racist views and to drop those friends if they refuse. Ghost Town commented on the unemployment and urban decay that was fueling a lot of the riots in England during the early 1980s. Free Nelson Mandela was a plea to free the imprisoned Nelson Mandela during some of the worst days of oppression of South Africa’s apartheid system.
I didn’t know any of this when I was young. I just liked the music. I was this nerdy kid who loved the Beatles and the Monkees, but I also liked the New Wave and ska music that many of my friends were listening to. I was lucky to have friends who were cooler than I was who were willing to lend me their cassettes and let me drop by their homes to watch the latest videos on MTV. I especially remember a girl in one of my math classes during high school. She had a punk haircut and work punk clothes, and she had a folder where she wrote all of the punk and New Wave bands that she liked. This girl was very smart and very nice to me. I sat in back of her, and she’d frequently talk to me, recommending albums to listen to and telling me about bands that I would have otherwise never heard of. After that class, I never saw her again, but I remember the music that she talked about. The Specials were one of the bands she especially liked.
Musicians throughout history have played a big role in commenting on society. The civil rights activists sang protest songs to lift their spirits during their protest marches. Folk singers like Woodie Guthrie sang about the plight of the unemployed and the homeless during the depths of the Great Depression. Rappers like Public Enemy told of the despair of the youths trapped in the inner cities during the 1980s and 1990s. The Specials are a part of that tradition, and many of the social issues that they dealt with in Margaret Thatcher’s England are still issues today.
A youtube video of the Specials performing “A Message To You Rudy”
A youtube video of the Specials performing “Too Much Too Young”
A youtube video of the Specials performing “It Doesn’t Make It Alright”
A music video of the Specials’ song “Ghost Town”
A music video of the Specials song “Racist Friend”
A music video of the Specials song “Free Nelson Mandela”