The Specials: Protest Songs 1924-2012 review
By Wyndham Wallace | October 25, 2021
Such was the excitement surrounding Terry Hall’s return to The Specials for 2019’s Encore that they swiftly reconvened in early 2020 to begin a new album. This – for obvious reasons – is not that album, and, by the time they gathered in September, with COVID’s second wave incoming, it was clear recording in the familiar fashion remained impossible.
So, suffering lockdown fatigue, but inspired by demonstrations about George Floyd’s death, they instead planned a fourth covers album.
This time – just as the band needed something on which to focus – the songs themselves would have a focus, too. Protest Songs 1924-2012 gathers a dozen such compositions and demands fans see it more as a continuation of the band’s social politics than their musical style.
This takes some readjustment: there’s little sign of, for instance, ska here – except, perhaps, the loose rhythms of Big Bill Broonzy’s 1938 tune Black, Brown And White – and few could have predicted Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows would appear, especially not so convincingly, nor Frank Zappa’s Trouble Every Day. The Specials, however, have always been by nature a broad church.
Of course, more obvious choices are present, especially Pop Staples’ civil rights anthem, Freedom Highway, with The Staples Singers’ gospel switched for a similarly instinctive rock‘n’roll arrangement, though often little more than voice and drums.
From the same era, Ain’t Gonna Let Segregation Turn Us Around (Don’t You Let Nobody Turn You Around) takes an African spiritual popularised on marches and speeds it up for shorter attention spans, its vocals and handclaps periodically punctuated by bursts of organ, guitar and drums, while Rod McKuen’s gritty pacifist song Soldiers Who Want To Be Heroes gets a welcome revival, too.
Two tunes by Malvina ‘Little Boxes’ Reynolds are also unearthed, the loaded I Don’t Mind Failing In This World and, enhanced by banjo, I Live In A City, while this country styling is maintained for Chip ‘Wild Thing’ Taylor’s Fuck All The Perfect People, written in 2012.
More controversial, though, is Listening Wind, Talking Heads’ tale of a terrorist defending his land from foreign exploiters, delivered here with minimal percussion and mournful horns, while an acoustic rendition of Bob Marley’s Get Up, Stand Up rounds things off quietly. We’ve never heard The Specials like this before, but they’ve used their time wisely.