English two-tone legends The Specials are probably best known for infusing Jamaican ska with elements of punk rock on their pioneering 1979 self-titled debut album.
Produced by Elvis Costello, the 14-track mix of originals and covers not only served as ground zero for a new hybrid of styles, it actively sought to rail against the rise of racism and classism, while also unequivocally promoting equality.
So it’s not much of a surprise that the band, anchored by founding members Horace Panter, Lynval Golding, and Terry Hall, is doing the same exact thing four decades later.
What is surprising, however, is that The Specials’ third album, February’s Encore, took more than 38 years to arrive.
In fairness — and really, since the beginning — The Specials lineup has been anything but stable. The original version of the band split just a handful of years after starting.
It wasn’t until they reunited 10 years ago (for their 30th anniversary) that Panter, Golding and Hall started performing together again. But even then there was talk of a new album.
“When we first got back together,” said Panter from a recent tour stop in Oakland, “we thought we’d just do it for a year. But the whole thing just kept going. We finally fleshed out some ideas in 2015, but shortly after our drummer (John Bradbury) died. That knocked us for six. It was 18 months before we could get back on our feet again. But last year we said it was about time that we finally did this.”
Encore marks the band’s first set of new material with main vocalist Hall since 1981’s classic single, Ghost Town. And much like their legendary debut, the new album features a couple of nicely handpicked covers. More importantly, all of its songs continue to unapologetically support the band’s egalitarian manifesto.
A quick scan of Encore’s track listing, with song titles like B.L.M., Blam Blam Fever, 10 Commandments, Breaking Point, and We Sell Hope, reveal its message long before a single note is played — although Panter admits it wasn’t planned that way.
“There was no ground strategy,” he said. “Unfortunately, injustice is timeless. Cars and girls were fine for Chuck Berry, but that just ain’t us. But you also don’t want things to revert to a polemic or finger wagging. We’ve always just expressed how we felt and we want the audience to make up their own minds.”
So far, the audience has ruled in favor of the veteran act. The entire two-and-a-half-month leg of the band’s recent European tour was sold out and Encore made its way to the top spot on the UK album charts.
And things are just as good Stateside. This week, Los Angeles declared May 29 as Specials Day in the city. Despite acknowledging the strength of the band’s career-long fan base in Southern California, it’s an honor that Panter has a hard time getting his head around.
“It’s bonkers,” he said. “It’s the last thing I would have expected, but it’s incredible, wonderful, and a little bit ridiculous. But I still live in this small city (Coventry) in the middle of England, so to be part of a band that gets a day in a city like Los Angeles is quite an honor.”
The band has shows booked until December. And considering the time it took Encore to arrive, they aren’t ready to make any firm commitments about the future.
But one thing is for sure — a good time is being had by all.
“It’s absolutely brilliant,” said Panter. “I’m 25 again. You hit the stage and it’s ‘1,2,3,4’ and everything’s fantastic. People are singing both old and new songs back to us and that’s very gratifying.”
It may have taken 40 years, but The Specials appear to have found their true groove again. The juxtaposition between their upbeat style and socio-political message has never been more in balance, and at least for now, shows no signs of slowing down.
“It’s as much a celebration as it is a mission,” said Panter. “Back in the day it was a mission, perhaps even to the detriment of other ideas, whereas now, the two are nicely balanced. It’s a not a political rally, it’s great fun. But it makes you think as well.”
The Specials — 40th Anniversary Tour
When: 7 p.m. May 30 & 31
Where: House of Blues, 1055 Fifth Ave, Downtown