The Specials

On November 14, 1940, Germany’s months-long air raid better known as the Coventry Blitz reached a brutal climax, razing over 4,000 homes and killing hundreds in the English city. The Luftwaffe struck overnight, using the light of the full moon to sight their targets and cripple the industrial stronghold. Within hours, one-third of Coventry’s factories were leveled. Great chunks of the Daimler plant, birthplace of the first British car, were reduced to heaps of brick and dust. The once-sturdy town, the automotive hub of the West Midlands, was scattered about in smoking piles by morning. The German code word for the raid borrowed a name from one of Beethoven’s most famous works: Mondscheinsonate, or “Moonlight Sonata.”

After the war, recovery was incremental. Estates emerged on the city’s perimeter and apartment towers rose from the ash. As auto factories were rebuilt, Coventry reclaimed its status as “Britain’s motor city.” Car manufacturing boomed, peaking alongside Detroit in the 1950s and ’60s. Shopping centers and multi-tiered parking garages signaled the rise of post-war leisure. It was a boxy, cinder block vision of the future, but a glimpse forward nonetheless.

And then the city was leveled once more—by a much quieter force, lacking shape and purpose. A nationwide recession crept in, stripping Coventry of its core industry; between 1974 and 1982, local jobs in manufacturing were slashed nearly 50 percent, and the resuscitated city center decayed. Youth gangs roamed the streets, which were often lined with shuttered shop windows. Coventry’s second decline couldn’t be measured in rubble mounds. The debris was invisible and ambient—a sour but fertile soil that sprouted one of England’s most vibrant music scenes.

Unlike Motown, which coincided with Detroit’s economic surge, the Specials and 2 Tone burst from Coventry’s crumbling infrastructure. Christened by bandleader and organist Jerry Dammers, the 2 Tone genre was a bubbling concoction of Jamaican ska and snide, stripped-back punk. By the early 1970s, scores of people had relocated from the West Indies to Britain, many settling in the Midlands city. Some Jamaican-born Coventry residents would throw sound system parties, stacking speakers in great towers and blaring roots and rocksteady into the night. The cross-pollination of effervescent ska rhythms and blue-collar malcontent was inevitable.

Dammers was the son of an Anglican minister, but he devoted his life to a different trinity: the Beatles, the Stones, and the Kinks. He devoured records from Motown and Stax, and started writing songs at the age of 10. As a teenager, Dammers got hooked on radio hits like Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites” and “Liquidator” by the Harry J All Stars. Cobbling together the Specials was a circuitous, multi-year phenomenon. The group was first known as the Automatics, and then the Coventry Automatics, and then the Special AKA, before their shorter, more sensible moniker was adopted. The lineup came together in pieces. At 15, Dammers played drums in his first band, Gristle, which included future Specials lead guitarist Roddy Radiation (née Byers). He met bassist Horace Panter while studying art at Lanchester Polytechnic. The two students shared a love of reggae and mischief. “We used to wreck the hippie parties, play Prince Buster records,” Panter once said of his early antics with Dammers. After college, Dammers played in a cover band, but longed to record his own music, a souped-up fusion of Jamaican pop and British grit.