Thursday, February 01, 2007

"It Doesn't Make It Alright" / The Specials

When the Specials' debut album landed on my turntable in late 1979, it came with the only imprimatur that mattered to me that year -- Elvis Costello had produced it. Though it came on a legit label, Chrysalis, the black-and-white album cover looked homemade, with its checkerboard motif and the muddy photos of a multi-racial bunch of players, kitted up in skinny ties and narrow-brimmed fedoras. I considered myself a reggae fan, but it had never occcurred to me before that you could graft reggae onto punk, let alone throw in a ska organ and horn section. But as soon as I heard it, I knew it WORKED.

And like their mentors, the Clash, the Specials weren't afraid to dish up some politics while they were at it, even if it meant that racist agitators showed up at some of their early gigs to turn them into slugfests. But really, how could anybody be offended by this earnest plea for tolerance? Nothing could be less aggressive than these laid-back reggae rhythms, the offbeat guitar strums and organ riffs, the meandering bassline (granted, the drumbeat does morph into a bit of a bash-up at the end of every chorus). But I never doubted how sincere these guys were, with those inarticulate Midlands-accented vocals, not to mention the deliberately unglossy production values -- Elvis learned from the master, Nick Lowe, how to keep a record sounding authentic and fresh and honest.

We're not talking sophsiticated arguments -- these lyrics are simple and heartfelt: "Some people think they're really clever / To smash your head against the wall / Then they say "you got it my way" / They really think they know it all / It doesn't make it alright." This is the puzzled outlook of a kid who's been there on the street, and who could argue with that? Only people who like smashing heads against a wall. And the Specials -- or rather, organist Jerry Dammers, who wrote this song (with M. Harrison and D. Goldberg, according to the label) -- even have some insight into the psychological make-up that leads to hate: "Just because you're nobody / It doesn't mean that you're no good . . . It's the worst excuse in the world." You don't have to be a sociologist to understand the frustration that's made street punks throughout the centuries lash out because their own lives were such crap.

It isn't until the third verse that this becomes specifically about race: "Just because you're a black boy / Just because you're a white / It doesn't mean you've got to hate him / It doesn't mean you've got to fight." The Clash had already predicted that Britain was going to blow up in racial riots in their 1979 track "The Guns of Brixton" (long before Brixton finally erupted in April 1981). But anybody who listened to this Specials album, too, already knew there was hate simmering in Britain. I have to be honest -- this song is pretty mild, compared to "It's Up to You" and "Concrete Jungle" and "Too Hot" (the whole first side of the LP, actually), which was a bit of an eye-opener to us in the States, who'd always thought we were the only country in the world with civil rights problems.

Okay, the Specials were kinda asking for skinheads and rude boys to mix it up a little. But the skinheads never had a band like the Clash or the Specials or the English Beat explaining their point of view to me, so I've gotta go with these guys. After all, blacks and whites could play together in this band just fine. Nearly three decades later, this song's message still matters.

Song sample:,,167155-1237268-WMLO,00.html


Anonymous said...

You're right, this was a great song. And coming from a small village in England - where I was instinctively an open - minded, accepting person, but very naive - this song and album mattered to me.

And you're right about Mr McManus. And also Basher Lowe.

I saw all these people live for the first time in 1979 - happy days!

Julie said...

I still enjoy this album, and this is one of my favorite tracks.