Ska legends the Specials on why their Brexit-era comeback album ‘has connected at a very unfortunate time’

Lyndsey Parker
Editor-in-Chief, Music

On April 8, 2017, 20-year-old accidental activist Saffiyah Khan stumbled onto a protest by far-right Islamophobic group the English Defence League taking place in her home city of Birmingham, England; when she stepped in to defend a Muslim woman who was being ganged up on by EDL members, she found herself face-to-face with red-faced EDL leader Ian Crossland. A news photo of the moment snapped by the Press Association’s Joe Giddens, with Khan looking unafraid, unfazed, and even slightly amused as she stared down the furious Crossland, quickly went viral, with Khan heralded by the media and various celebrities as a folk heroine for the modern age.

Among the many people who took notice were the reunited members of seminal U.K. ska band the Specials, who were gearing up to record their comeback album Encore, featuring their first new material with original vocalist Terry Hall since 1981. In a photograph taken at the scene from another angle, Khan, who is half-Pakistani and half-Bosnian, was wearing a Specials T-shirt; the Specials reached out to her within hours of the photos being taken, and a friendship was formed. Now, Khan appears on Encore, putting a feminist spoken-word twist on a sexist 1965 ska track by one of the Specials’ own heroes, Prince Buster’s “Ten Commandments of Man.”

Saffiyah Khan (left) confronts English Defence League (EDL) protester Ian Crossland during a demonstration in the city of Birmingham, in the wake of the Westminster terror attack. (Photo by Joe Giddens/PA Images via Getty Images)

“We all listen to all Prince Buster records. We’re obviously huge Prince Buster fans,” says Hall, noting that in 1980 the band recorded one of Buster’s cover songs, “Enjoy Yourself,” and that the Specials’ first single “Gangsters” interpolated Buster’s “Al Capone.” However, when they heard “Ten Commandments of Man,” with behavioral instructions for women like “Thou shall not provoke me to anger or my wrath will descend upon you heavily,” “Thou shall not shout my name in the streets if I'm walking with another woman,” and “Honor and obey me, in my every whim and fancy,” they were appalled.

“We couldn't believe lyrically what it was! We couldn't believe how sexist this was and how awful and disappointing. And at the same time we met up with Saffiyah Khan, who we’d met a few months earlier, and asked if she'd like to do something on the record. She didn't know what, because she'd never been in a studio before, but then the idea came to take ‘Ten Commandments’ and flip it, and just see what a 20-year-old girl from the [Greater] Middle East’s take on it would be. And we left it to her and she just got on with it,” ” Hall tells Yahoo Entertainment. “(Khan confessed to the BBC that she didn’t finalize her lyrics until the night before the recording session.)

“We thought it'd be nice idea to readdress it, not to be a man-hating song, but to talk about what she goes through day-to-day: how she gets harassed on the street and told she can't wear makeup, how she shouldn't do this and she shouldn't do that.”

Khan’s new version starts off with the defiant declaration “Thou shall not listen to Prince Buster or any other man offering kindly advice in matters of my own conduct/You may call me a feminazi or a femoid and then see if I give a stinking s***.” That certainly sets the tone, and it goes on from there. Other gems and barbs include “Thou may catcall me on the street/But thou should take note that I'll catcall you right back/To tell you that you look pretty sexy too in your joggers” and “Thou shall not tell a girl she deserved it because her skirt was too short/She walked home, streets lights illuminating her as a target/But she started it, because she looked at him/And he finished it 'cause he wanted to.” Khan ends the song by proclaiming, “I shall not be the icing on your cake, and I shall not be the candy on your arm/But I shall be seen, and I will be heard.” (Read the full lyrics here.)

Khan is currently on tour with the Specials in the U.S., performing “Ten Commandments” every night, sometimes to confused crowds who probably just want to hear the Specials’ late-‘70s/early-‘80s hits like “Ghost Town.” But really, when the Specials first formed in bleak, Thatcher-era Britain, songs like “Ghost Town” directly addressed what was going on socio-politically. And it seems like for many, the Specials’ message is still all too relevant in the Brexit era: Encore, with biting tracks like “Vote for Me” and “B.L.M.,” actually went to No. 1 on the U.K. chart (it was the group’s first No. 1 album). As Hall puts it, Encore “has connected at a very unfortunate time.”

Halls admits he gets déjà vu “every single day” when he sees what’s going on in the world right now. “When we made the first Specials record, there was a woman prime minister — a Tory — and today, there is a woman prime minister Tory. Back then, our closest allies across the ocean had an ex-film star [Ronald Reagan] who rode horses as their president. Today. your president.. well, I have no idea. I can't even begin with that one. But it just feels exactly the same. ...It’s actually got a lot worse.”

Hall muses, “It derives from Brexiteers, this time using Eastern Europeans as the scapegoats. When we grew up in the ‘70s, immigration came a lot from India and Pakistan and Jamaica, and in the last 10 years or so it’s come from Poland and Romania, and so they’re the easy target now. We were amazed when the [Brexit] vote was held and [Britain] decided to leave Europe. It is quite disheartening, especially when the key words are ‘equality’ and ‘love,’ and there was actually very little of that around.”

Looking back on the Specials’ formation in the 1970s, Hall recalls, “We were all unemployed. In the area we lived in, Coventry, the manufacturing industries had all closed and there were absolutely no jobs. Growing up in the ‘60s, every kid went into the same profession as their father or mother and there were all open invitations to work, and then in the mid-‘70s, that stopped. It was a very, very gray place. And I think with the advent of punk, it said to kids, ‘There is something you can do. Not sure where it will lead, but why don’t you form a band, and why don’t you talk about how you feel?’ And we all did that, pretty much, after seeing the Pistols and the Clash.”

LEEDS, ENGLAND - APRIL 30: Terry Hall of The Specials performs on stage at O2 Academy Leeds on April 30, 2019 in Leeds, England. (Photo by Andrew Benge/Redferns)

While Khan is an inspiring example of the young generation speaking up and speaking out, Hall admits he’s “amazed” that that old punk spirit seems to have mostly died out, and that “not many kids are getting off their iPads and making statements, musically or with books or whatever. ..I don't know why, because they really should be disgruntled and they should be angry, because they are being offered very little future. … But I can't see another little Clash out there. Hopefully there is one.”

Meanwhile, the Specials are still trying to spread their message on both sides of the pond with Encore. They were recently honored with their own “Specials Day” ceremony in Los Angeles, where councilwoman Monica Rodriguez stated, “The late ‘70s was a time filled with racial tensions, but the Specials were made up of both black and white performers, and their lyrics encouraged racial harmony while celebrating our many differences.” (As for the racial diversity within the Specials’ lineup, Hall shrugs, “We didn't find it a big deal, because when I grew up I went to a school that was probably 70 percent West Indian and Asian. We all grew up in the same area and went to the same places. For me, one of the funniest first reviews we got was when the Guardian pointed out that we were a multiracial band, and it was like, ‘Yeah, of course we are. Um, here's our photo.’”)

And as for anyone, young or old, who thinks artists like the Specials (and Khan) should stay out of politics and just shut up and sing, Hall says, “Well, life is politics. Really, my question to them would be, ‘What do you want me to sing about, if you've got a really good alternative?’ But look back to people like Woody Guthrie; it’s not a new thing. It’s what people do in bands. This is their voice, and these are their opinions.

“Also, you don't have to listen to it. Go listen to Taylor Swift or something. That's the easier option.”

Read more from Yahoo Entertainment:

· Saffiyah Khan inspired Billy Bragg song “Saffiyah Smiles”

Saffiyah Khan urges people to show Donald Trump he is not welcome

Steven Van Zandt on why millennials are a 'more evolved species' and why he's putting politics aside

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· Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider's one rule for presidential candidates using his song: 'If you're pro-choice, go for it'

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