Category Archives: ska

Take it or leave it (1981)

Tricky, a British musical treasure in his own right, summed up the early 80’s musical landscape perfectly, when he stated that The Specials & Madness were his generations Beatles & The Stones. They were also mine, as a pre-pubescent just getting the first rush from music. His comparison does not hold up to too much scrutiny (The Beatles & The Rolling Stones worldwide success and cultural impact are unmatched and never likely to be equalled). But in an era where there were other bands loosely affiliated post-punk, it is arguably Madness & The Specials who have the edge, having that star power, the presence, the tunes, over The Beat or The Selector or many of the other 2-Tone / sort-of-mod-sort-of-skinhead bands that emerged in their wake.
Following the success of their first 2 albums and a string of singles that, while never getting to number 1, regularly made the top 10, plus a strong visual identity boosted by their effective use of music videos, Madness did something that many great bands had done before – they made the band movie.

The Specials had their own movie (of sorts) out in 1981, called ‘Dance Craze’ (a celebration of the 2-Tone / Ska revival scene, the film was largely concert footage, including Madness). Madness were going to do a film that was more personal and all about Madness. Self-funding to the tune of 20,000 quid per band member, plus cash from their label, Stiff, they were unencumbered by expectations from movie studios or financiers. ‘Take it or leave it’ is a film about the origins of Madness, how they came to be, covering a relatively short period of time (1976 to the then present 1981).

The film covers the difficult early beginnings of the band, as wannabe pub band ‘The Invaders’, with their out of tune and out of sync takes on rock n roll standards. As the band comes together you get a feel for the trials and tribulations of bands as they search for the right configuration of players and personalities until the ‘chemistry’ is achieved. As far as the acting goes, it is safe to say that if you are uncomfortable with naturalistic performances this is one you need to miss. Or go in with an open mind.

There are varying degrees of nasally London accents, some of the time mumbling into their chests, and one or two of the actors are clearly embarrassed at the whole process. But i think this adds to the charm. Mike Barson (aka Monsieur Barso), the keyboard player and de facto leader and driving force comes across as belligerent and hard work. Apparently his characteristics were exaggerated for the film but it’s to his credit that he is willing to portray himself in an unflattering light. Suggs comes across as a bit cheeky, Lee as a bit of a loose cannon and a bit dodgy, Bedders looks and sounds about 12 and you are rooting for Chrissy, if only for the fact that he has a wife and baby in a flat to look after (in another bit of artistic licence, there was actually no baby, only a wife in Chrissy’s life at the time.)

There is some footage of the Dublin Castle venue, a crap fight with some skins (probably to put to bed any discusion that they were a band for bonehead-type skins), and some great scenes that are a validation of the fashion of that subculture and era (Harrington Jackets, Ben Sherman, Doc Marten Boots, that green bomber jacket that Woody loved to wear).

Personally, the big pay off is the footage of them playing live, when you get to see Madness at their jittery, bouncing best. All that pent-up, awkward energy, channelled into 3 minute mash-ups of ska and new wave and jerky, jumping bodies, it’s a reminder of why Madness were such a potent visual and audio force over 30 years ago. Their early years are where their potential was still being brought out, their youth and energy undimmed, and ‘Take it or leave it’ (thankfully) captures them before they started maturing into a better songwriting band, but with that maturity went some of the early teeth bared, fist clenched punk attitude.

As a document of how a thousand bands try to strive and evolve, it captures the frustrations and funny moments well. As a British social document, it gives some insight into a subculture in early 80s britain, as well as brief glimpses into life on the dole and the struggle of working class young men trying to achieve something more, something better. As a British film it has that early 80’s glom and greyness about it, that captures a mood and a time. As a portrayal of a well loved British band, it’s an honest and entertaining 90 minutes. When they finally emerge as Madness, and you hear ‘Bed and Breakfast Man’ or ‘One Step Beyond’ you will be reminded of why you loved them first time around.

Dance Craze shopfront and instore promotion at HMV Oxford Street (1981)

These are photographs of the HMV Oxford Street, promoting the ‘Dance Craze’ album. The photographs are assumed to be taken circa winter / spring 1981. Only 3.49 for the album!

Images courtesy of a brilliant blog called ‘Voices of East Anglia’;

‘Dance Craze’ was a documentary film capturing the 2 Tone phenomena at its peak, and comprised of live concert footage of the main bands of the movement. .

Here is the first part of the documentary;

Also, to accompany the film, a soundtrack was released, comprising many of the songs played in the film. The album contains 15 tracks, as opposed to the films 27 tracks. Notable absentees from the soundtrack include ‘On My Radio’ (a chart hit for The Selector) and ‘The Prince’ (the first single from Madness).

The soundtrack album listing was as follows;

Side One
“Concrete Jungle” – The Specials
“Mirror In The Bathroom” – The Beat
“Lip Up Fatty” – Bad Manners
“Razor Blade Alley” – Madness
“Three Minute Hero” – The Selecter
“Easy Life” – The Bodysnatchers
“Big Shot” – The Beat
“One Step Beyond” – Madness

Side Two
“Ranking Full Stop” – The Beat
“Man At C&A” – The Specials
“Missing Words” – The Selecter
“Inner London Violence” – Bad Manners
“Night Boat To Cairo” – Madness
“Too Much Pressure” – The Selecter
“Nite Klub” – The Specials

The album chart statistics for ‘Dance Craze’ are below, courtesy of;

Artist: Original Soundtrack
Title: Dance Craze
Type: Album
Entered chart on 14/02/1981 at #7
Most recent chart entry on 23/05/1981 at #61
Chart Appearances: 15
Highest Position: 5

The Specials – from despair to here

It is great news that The Specials are reforming to play some live dates again this autumn. Why shouldn’t they cash in? Potentially seeing a sizeable proportion of a gig consisting of 50 year old men in Harrington Jackets has got to be worth the admission price alone. They also produced some of the most politically charged working class music in the last 50 years, while managing to get the message across to a whole cross-section of the UK by also being fantastically gifted musicians, and in Terry Hall, a unique vocalist. They had No.1 singles that challenged the Thatcher vision of Britain (‘Ghost Town’) and could produce B-side tracks that were better than most bands A-sides (‘Saturday Night, Sunday Morning’, ‘Why’). The 2 albums (‘The Specials’ and ‘More Specials’, they produced still stand up today, they had their own iconic record label (2 Tone) and even released classic singles as stand alone works (ie they didnt end up on albums) such as ‘Rat Race’ and ‘Ghost Town’. Their influence was not only confined to the UK, with bands such as Rancid and No Doubt confirming the Coventry bands influence on them.

They also looked amazing as a band – dressed smart, dressed to compliment each other, and when they played, they moved as one – check this out;

Looks like Mike Barson from Madness took some sartorial cues from Jerry Dammers – the Crombie overcoat, shades and tall hat (fez or otherwise).

Yup, everyone else has pretty much done it – The Beat nearly did it thanks to the help of music channel VH1 and their ‘Bands Reunited’ programme, but David Steele and Andy Cox were having none of it. Madness do it all the time, so I think this reunion should be celebrated. I reckon it is going to be a dignified celebration of one of the best British bands.

Here is the news – The BBC confirm The Specials are back.
Official site of The Specials
Wiki entry for The Specials
Official Youtube channel for The Specials – lots of videos!!!
Great fan site including a transcript of the recent MOJO magazine feature by Alex Petridis