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Album: The Specials - Protest Songs 1924 - 2012 | reviews, news & interviews

Album: The Specials - Protest Songs 1924 - 2012

Album: The Specials - Protest Songs 1924 - 2012

Raw, spirited covers set featuring well-chosen songs of dissent and satire

The Specials: flying the red flag

When The Specials returned with their chart-topping 2019 album Encore, it was a wonderful surprise. As well as being their first in nearly four decades (excluding material by alternately named intermediary incarnations), it proved they were more than an endlessly touring heritage night out for ageing rude boys.

Critics of their reappearance on the tour circuit claimed they were washed up without the band’s original driving force, Jerry Dammers. Encore, full of musical pep and socially conscious vim, proved this was not the case. Protest Songs 1924 – 2012 is an apt sequel.

With the band now containing three of the original Specials, Terry Hall, Lynval Golding and Horace Panter, it’s a covers collection of songs that rage against racism and inequality. The vibe is somewhere between Pete Seeger-led Civil Rights protest pop-folk of the pre-Beatles Sixties, the return-to-raw-production-values ethos of Johnny Cash’s American series, a pinch of rockabilly, and, in spirit, Chumbawumba’s English Rebel Songs 1381 – 1984. It is not a ska record.

Lyrically, the chosen songs are impeccable; the well-known, including a French café twist on Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows”, but more especially the unfamiliar, such as the viciously on-point campfire strum “I Don’t Mind Failing in This World”, originally by Seeger pal Malvina Reynolds (“Don’t mind wearing ragged britches/Because those who succeed are sons of bitches”). The intimate, pared back production works well. The Golding-fronted, rough acoustic take on Bob Marley’s “Get Up Stand Up” is a case in point, an overheard song given unprocessed folk club authenticity.

There are missteps – the jolly, comic rock’n’roller “My Next Door Neighbour” is forgettable – but, for the most part, Protest Songs’ variety, purposefully bare production, and untampered rebel attitude are an unexpected tonic, from the clap-along call’n’response anthem “Aint’ Gonna Let Nobody Turn Us Around” to a music hall hoedown take on Rod McKuen’s anti-Vietnam corker “Soldiers Who Want to be Heroes” (“Soldiers who want to be heroes number practically zero/But there are millions who want to be civilians”) The Specials channel their righteous rage in a way that suits their age and heritage, as well as the times we live in.

Below: Watch the video for The Specials' cover of The Staples Sings "Freedom Highway"

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