Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Duff Review: The Specials "Live at the Moonlight Club"

This is not a bootleg.
2 Tone/Chrysalis
Heavyweight 180 gm LP

(Review by Steve Shafer)

In the mid 70s, when I first started buying my own records at around age 9 or 10, information about bands and their releases was oftentimes ridiculously hard to come by in the pre-internet age. We were completely dependent on what was played on the radio (sadly, I was first introduced to Bob Marley via racist/xenophobe Eric Clapton's cover of "I Shot the Sheriff," which was played frequently on WNEW in NYC, instead of any of Marley's own recordings); whatever bits we could glean from the mainstream press when they covered pop music; TV appearances we made sure to catch (like the B-52s on SNL in 1980); word-of-mouth from one's peers (it's how I first found out about the B-52s' debut album); being in the right place and time (I first heard The Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated" at a middle school dance at a posh girls private school!); and whatever you happened to be lucky enough to come across in a record store.

Things improved considerably in high school (in the first half of the 1980s), when I discovered the brilliant WLIR on the radio dial--which introduced me to the best bands that the New Wave and post-punk era had to offer, including all of the 2 Tone acts--and I could track down copies of Trouser Press (the "bible of alternative rock"), see cool UK New Wave acts on MTV at my friend's apartment (he had cable in Inwood, we didn't), and was able to purchase imported LPs, 12" singles, and band promo posters (like my Echo and the Bunnymen Heaven Up Here poster) at Mad Hatters record store in Yonkers (though a lot of chain stores carried some New Wave, too--I bought The Smiths' Hatful of Hollow--an import, no less!--at Sam Goody's in the Cross County Mall). Despite my increased access to information and media, there was still so much music and so many releases from this time that I never knew about--and only discovered much later through the internet. (Over the past five or so years, my record collection has exploded, as I've been compulsively picking up used copies of LPs and singles from the late 70s and early 80s that either I didn't know existed (!) or didn't have the cash to buy new when they were originally released. As I'm dragged kicking and screaming into my late 40s, I suppose this might be how my middle age crisis is manifesting itself--but I also happen to believe that the New Wave/post-punk era produced some of the greatest music ever recorded!)

A good example of a record that I had no knowledge of until years after its release is The Specials' Live at the Moonlight Club. In 1992, I came across a CD of Live at the Moonlight Club at Tower Records on West 4th Street in Manhattan. It was a pricey import and I assumed that since I had never heard anything about it (and was pretty sure that I already had all of their official albums and didn't remember reading about it in any of the UK skazines) that it must be a bootleg released by someone wanting to cash in on the ska resurgence taking place in the UK, Europe, and in a few years, the USA (little did I know that it really was a legitimate 2 Tone release after being a boot for 20 odd years and one that deserves a proper place in The Specials' discography!).

Even now, in the midst of our glorious digital information age, the complete and true story of the recording remains somewhat unclear. What we do know is that on May 3, 1979--on the eve of the elections that would put the dreaded Margaret Thatcher in power (she was elected, in part, by co-opting the National Front's anti-immigrant language and stance)--The Specials played a phenomenal set at the Moonlight Club in West Hampstead, London. Their debut single "Gangsters" (b/w The Selecter's "The Selecter") had just been self-released in March as the debut record on 2 Tone (the first pressing of 5,000 copies was distributed by Rough Trade and, according to George Marshall's "The Two Tone Story," was sold out by May), which Elvis Costello soon declared on Radio 1's Round Table as "one of the best records he'd heard in the last ten years" (according to Specials' bassist Horace Panter in his book "Ska'd For Life") and they'd soon sign directly with Chrysalis in early June for a five-album deal, with an option for eight (and establish 2 Tone essentially as a subsidiary of Chrysalis--but under The Specials' and, to some degree, The Selecter's control, with its own budget and with the option to release up to 10 one-off singles by bands of their choice--the first single, of course, was a re-release of "Gangsters" on 2 Tone/Chrysalis in July). The Specials then recorded their extraordinary debut album that summer with Elvis Costello producing (The Specials LP was released on November 3, 1979). Roy Eldridge, A and R man for Chrysalis, was in the audience for the Live at the Moonlight show and, no doubt, The Specials' performance that night convinced him and, in turn, the execs at Chrysalis that they were very much worth signing and consenting to the unusual (for the time), semi-autonomous deal for 2 Tone Records. (Also in the crowd that night, according to Specials biographer Paul "Willo" Williams in "You're Wondering Now: The Specials from Conception to Reunion," were representatives from Warner Brothers, Island, A and M, and Virgin--as well as Elvis Costello, Chrissie Hynde, and Mick Jagger, who was considering the band for Rolling Stones Records; however, in the end, none of the other labels were willing to consider The Specials' terms for their 2 Tone label.)

Again, according to Panter's book, the bootleg Live at the Moonlight Club came into existence through a planned compilation album of live acts performing at that club (Paul Williams states that it was to be a charity album). The Specials didn't want any of their original material recorded for this comp (they were saving it all for their debut LP), but they had recently incorporated a raucous take on The Pioneers' "Long Shot (Kick De Bucket)" into their set and agreed for it to be recorded by the club (this cover, of course, would eventually be released on the live "Too Much Too Young" EP, on the "Skinhead Symphony" side, which had been recorded live at Tiffany's in Coventry). Decca Studios was right next door to the Moonlight Club, so cables were run from the studio's control room to the stage (which is why this boot sounds unusually good). Instead of one track, The Specials' entire May 3, 1979 set was recorded (and later mixed). The live Moonlight Club compilation never came out, but a bootleg release of The Specials' set did find its way into the shops later that year. Apparently, Live at the Moonlight Club sold as well as The Specials' debut album--and, according to Paul Williams, was sometimes receiving better reviews!

Panter has no insight as to who actually released the bootleg (other than they made an extraordinary amount of money off it) or as to how Chrysalis eventually assumed control over the recording ("I've often wondered how they [Chrysalis] came to get hold of the tapes, and whether anybody was prosecuted for releasing an illegal bootleg. Probably just regular music business business."). However it all occurred, one thing is certain, Chrysalis now owns the recording and isn't shy about protecting it (on the back of the album, it states, "The copyright in this sound recording is owned by Chrysalis Records Ltd.").

Whatever the album's provenance, it documents a phenomenal live performance by The Specials at a point in their career just before they and 2 Tone became white hot in England (and far beyond). And you can hear why the bootleg was so enthusiastically snapped up by fans--it captures The Specials' doing what they do best, bar none: playing live before an amped-up audience (I wouldn't have this great privilege until seeing most of them at their mind-blowingly good NYC show on a pier in the Hudson River in July 2013, but did see some of them during the Special Beat tour of the USA in 1993 at the Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan). While The Specials' brilliant debut studio album is an undeniable classic (and all time favorite album of mine!)--and perhaps it's a wildly unfair comparison--it doesn't quite capture the band's tremendous and thrilling live energy (though this has proven to be a formidable challenge for many a ska band--very few have been able to translate what happens on stage into the studio).

From a historical perspective, it's also amazing to note how absolutely ready the band is to lay down the tracks for their debut. The arrangements of their soon-to-be hit songs are so fully, powerfully, and confidently realized and essentially the same as those that they'll record in a few months in the studio (in two instances, I actually prefer the Moonlight Club versions of the songs to what's on The Specials--listen to "Too Much Too Young," which displays its roots in Lloyd Charmers' "Birth Control" a little more directly and "Nite Klub" has flourishes and textures in the guitar, keyboard, and bass lines that didn't make it onto the studio album). For those of us not fortunate to have been present for the rise of The Specials and 2 Tone, this album provides us with a taste of how magnificent it must have been witness and experience it all. And it's proof positive that The Specials deserved every bit of fame, glory, and praise that was to come their way for the next few (and all too brief) years.

+ + + +

If you've never heard Live at the Moonlight Club and just can't get enough of The Specials, then this is an essential purchase. And completists will definitely want this awesomely heavyweight vinyl edition with a new cover photo (from what might be a live shot of the band from the Moonlight Club show), though it sports the same (and very good) Adrian Thrills liner notes from the 1992 CD (which, oddly, never refer to the sketchy origins of this release). For me, Live at the Moonlight Club rectifies a long-standing deficit in my musical knowledge (and my record collection) and allows me to re-live a time when listening to a new record by one of your favorite bands was one of the sweetest and most sacred things that you could spend your precious time doing.


Charles Benoit said...

I came late to the Moonlight party as well - and I haven't left yet! Thanks for the informative review.

johnnyreggae said...

awesome I never knew any of this, thanks again duff

Steve from Moon said...

Charles and Johnny Reggae: Thanks for your comments! I'm glad to know I wasn't the only one in the dark about this release! (Back in the late 70s/early 80s, did any American Specials' fans know about this boot?)