4xCD (2xLP to be released on Jump Up Records)
(Review by Steve Shafer)
At last, this is the 2 Tone 40th anniversary-related release that fans have been waiting for! While many of the key 2 Tone players are still too consumed with nursing past/present grievances to organize official 2 Tone concerts or make an effort to release rare or unheard material from the vaults, leave it to their progeny to do the heavy lifting to properly honor 2 Tone's legacy! Coming in at a weighty 67 songs spread out over four CDs, Specialized Record's Check One-2: Spirit of '79 is a stunningly good tribute to 2 Tone and all of its associated acts (bravo to all involved!). Honestly, there's not a bum track here.
As with all compilations of this type, it's split between bands who turned in fairly faithful renditions (despite comp producer Paul Ayriss specifically requesting participating acts not to record exact copies of the originals) and those who reinterpreted the tracks, injecting a bit of their own DNA to put a new spin on beloved, if very familiar, material. Notably, in addition to illustrating 2 Tone's enduring and global impact, a large number of the acts on Check One-2: Spirit of '79 feature female singers (Boss Riot, Malabo Ska, The Tremolites w/Valerie Etienne, The Scotch Bonnets, Third Beat Drop, The Pressure Tenants w/Eloise Berry, Project Blackbird, The Tinkerman, The Red Stripes, Erin Bardwell Collective, Well Charged, The Decatonics, The Reggaskas, RK Ska, Indeed)--finally rectifying the imbalance between 2 Tone's stated anti-sexist stance (in spite of some overtly sexist songs) and the relatively few women actually in 2 Tone bands back in the day.
Below are comments on some of the bands who went further afield in their cover versions that are worth calling out (and in no way is meant to slight the many acts on here who recorded really excellent covers that didn't stray too far from their source, including Napoleon Solo, Boomtown United, Boss Riot, Erin Bardwell Collective, The Porkers, The Bishops, Hub City Stompers, Rude Boy George, and others).
The Inflatables "What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend": Dammers' dark no-wave jazz/reggae/pop gem is revved up to ska speed, giving it a sharper edge that underscores the lyrics' manipulation and duplicity even more than the original.
Detroit Riddim Crew "Three Minute Hero": The Selecter's frenetic, aggro frustration at punching in and out of soul-crushing, dead-end jobs is traded in for a more laid-back, but equally insistent rocksteady reading of this cut.
King Hammond "Murda! (Exodus 20:13)": The King delivers a bold Motown-ish take on The Selecter's cover of Owen and Leon Silvera's 1962 Blue Beat single; the Biblical reference, of course, relates to the sixth of the Ten Commandments--"Thou shall not kill"--and the song's original lyrics paraphrase part of Psalm 55 ("If I had a pair of wings, I would fly away...").
The Crombies "Click Click": This one's got even more menace and out-of-control-ness than The Beat's, as someone contemplates ending it all via a solo round of Russian Roulette.
The Communicators "The Selecter": Neol Davies and John Bradbury's seminal 2 Tone track that triggered the creation of that magnificent band is transformed into an awesome 2 Tone medley that weaves back and forth from this song to bits of "Three Minute Hero," "Do the Dog," "Rat Race," "On My Radio," "Nelson Mandela," and more.
J. Navarro and The Traitors "Ghost Town": Like their counterparts in Coventry, these boys from Detroit know what it's like to live in a formerly prosperous, but now decaying motor city; though their anger and dismay doesn't seethe and simmer, but boils over.
The Skapones "Do the Dog": Paul Willo and Co.'s take on The Specials' rendition of Rufus Thomas' "The Dog" is all "keep it cool, boy" swinging jazz, that is until the abrupt body blow shift to ska punk that knocks you off your feet, creating a tension and contrast appropriate for a song about all of theses factions itching to maim and kill each other.
Andy Keys Clark and Friends "Rasta Call You": Imagine this Rico cut in Maroon Town's hands or if the Potato 5 circa True Fact had covered it; the beat and sound are dance foor big, and the tempo's brisk.
Third Beat Drop "It's Up to You": The Specials' red or blue pill choice posed to its audience ("Take it or leave it we'll carry on regardless/If you don't like it you don't have to use it") about standing up to racism/fascism in one's everyday life is reframed as a seductive dare to do the right thing when white supremacists come for you.
Gruppo Sportivo "Mirror in the Bathroom": This radical, rock reworking of one of The Beat's signature tunes by this revived New Wave-era band probably shouldn't work, but succeeds brilliantly.
Vieja Skina "Nite Klub": Terry Hall's bile is drained away and substituted with a kind of louche joy; no one gives a damn if you have a job or future, which is freeing in its own perverse way.
The Pressure Tenants featuring Eloise Berry "Do Nothing": Laurel Aitken's former backing band delivers a wild soul/pop/dancehall reworking of one of Lynval Golding's finest moments; though the nonchalance at how things are is replaced by a knowing and weary sadness.
Heavensbee featuring Mista Rhee "Inner London Violence": These moonlighting Rude Boy George/Bigger Thomas members enlist The Boilers' Olivier Rhee (!) and his toasting skills for a UB40-like take on the Bad Manners classic about the veritable "Clockwork Orange" urban war zone right outside one's door.
Project Blackbird "Easy Life": This is an incredible jazz-AM pop version of The Bodysnatcher's brightest moment--about feeling some ambivalence over the choice between surrendering to sexist gender roles or mustering the will to fight for real gender equality.
The Tinkerman "Friday Night Saturday Morning": Ayriss took his own advice and he and his band mates created a gorgeous, lush, and ultimately very lonely rendition of Terry Hall's song, with lots of ice rink organ, synth washes, and dub effects--all to emphasize how leisure-time fun isn't really possible when there's no purpose to, or way forward in, your life.
Woltka Trawolta "Hands Off...She's Mine": Instead of trying to keep pace with The Beat's manic pace, this one heads in the opposite direction, giving it a lovely reggae skank, though the delivery comes across as more sincere, instead of The Beat's "spoof" on the fragile male ego, jealousy, and ridiculous notions of male "ownership" of women.
Well Charged "Street Feeling": This is less tightly wound and brighter than the original, but just as sharp, about someone striving to become hard in order to survive in the world outside one's home; and it's one of my favorite Selecter tracks.
The Feckin Ejits "Rat Race": Roddy Radiation's tune is presented as dirty punk rock, quite appropriately, as capitalism is an ugly, rigged game.
Martyn Callwood "Why?": Golding's stark original is compellingly fleshed-out musically--though the question about the senselessness of real-life racial knife attack he experienced remains the same.
Too Many Crooks "Concrete Jungle": Roddy's tale of struggling to evade endemic urban violence is recast as a cool Northern Soul/Dexys Midnight Runners track.
Orquestra Brasileira De Musica Jamaicana "Ghost Girl from Ipanema": At first, it may seem odd to incorporate sections of "The Girl from Ipanema" into The Specials' searing swan song, but if you think about it, both Thatcher's government and the girl walking to the beach in Rio wouldn't give the youth the time of day. (Dammers' Spatial AKA Orchestra should considering doing this version in addition to their "Ghost Planet"!)
Bim Skala Bim "Lorraine": Bim shaves off a bit of the domestic violence-y edge of this admittedly catchy and never meant to be serious Bad Manners tune by having a female singer respond to/question/make light of some of the more egregious statements; plus they present this track via their fantastic trademark sound, which is always winning.
Beat Bahnhof "Ska Wars": Arthur Kay's 1979 single is refashioned as a 1980s computer game-y, New Wave-influenced ska; offbeat, but it does the job well.
RK Ska "Run Me Down": I've been a fan of The Higsons' great funk cut since first hearing it in the early '80s on the New York City area radio station WLIR (which played it frequently), but didn't realize it was a 2 Tone release until years later (it's certainly an outlier on the label); and I love it as a ska song, too.
Subject A "Stereotypes": Taking up where The Specials' extended version left off (see The 2 Tone Story), this is a terrific, chat-filled dub.
All in all, Check One-2: Spirit of '79 reminds one of all of the brilliant original material (and choice '60s JA covers) recorded by the 2 Tone acts, much of which still holds extraordinary power and relevance four decades on. Of course, 2 Tone was always more than a label and roster of acts. It was a look, a scene, an attitude (tolerance, unity), and a movement that was part musical, part political (anti-racist, pro-democratic socialist-like governmental policies). Even if some of the original bands have lost the thread of all this, the fans haven't. Chrysalis, the songwriters, and the bands may own their respective copyrights, etc., but 2 Tone isn't really theirs. The spirit and message of 2 Tone belongs to--and lives on in--the fans and these bands.
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Read Duff Guide to Ska reviews of other Specialized releases:
Boss: Tribute to the Original Sounds 7" singles
"Gifted: A Ska Tribute to The Jam" LP
Specialized: "A Modern Take on Specials Classics" 7" EP
Specialized II "Beat Teenage Cancer" 7" singles
Specialized III 7" singles and another Specialized III 7" single