Bernie Rhodes knows don’t argue

And with that, the first record issued by The Specials was unleashed on the listening public.

1979 was a fantastic year for music, certainly here in the UK. It was the year that many of the post-punk/new wave bands really came to prominence and it was the year that sparked the two-tone craze.

I was sixteen years of age and totally unaware of ska. Glasgow had always been a rock sort of town, although things were in the air that would see a gradual softening of the hard elements of the genre and a whole new sound associated with the city would become incredibly influential. But it was a city that was predominantly white in nature, albeit we had an increasing Asian population that had been migrating here in increasing numbers with next to no fuss in terms of assimilation. There was next to no Caribbean population and black people were really few and far between and as such there was little demand for local radio stations to ever feature a style of music that had originated in those communities. It was also a sound never played on BBC Radio 1 (as I’ll come to a bit later on).

Hearing bands like The Specials, Madness, The Selecter and The Beat was something entirely new and felt exciting because it was so different. And there’s no doubt too that the rude-boy look of the black and white clothing and pork-pie hat was something that was visually appealing to any mid-aged teen. And the stylish and unusual dancing that accompanied the songs whenever any of the acts appeared on Top of the Pops hit a chord with those who were slightly younger and made the whole thing seem fun.

1979 marked my first forays into DJing, if playing records on a single deck at a youth night in the school could be regarded as DJing. The senior pupils were encouraged to help the teachers at these nights, which were basically an effort to provide bored 12-15 year olds with something to do instead of hanging around street corners and picking up bad habits. There were three of us who brought along our own 45s to play while everyone ran around making lots of noise burning up all that excess energy. Very gradually over a matter of weeks, our little corner of the hall began to get a dedicated audience and it was all driven by the fact they loved to do the Madness dance(s). In two hours of music, you could bet that more than half came through records on the 2-Tone label or its offshoots. And these kids were of an age when playing the same song two or three times in a night didn’t matter.

Gangsters wasn’t aired as much as others, possibly because it wasn’t the easiest to sing-a-long to; nor did it have a nutty dance of its own. But all these years later, I think there’s many who agree it was the best of the early 2-Tone releases, possibly surpassed only later on by Ghost Town by which time the serious side of the various bands were making astute and pertinent political and social observations.

I had no idea that Gangsters was a re-working of Al Capone by Prince Buster, a song originally released in 1964. Indeed, if it wasn’t for Madness, I wouldn’t have had any idea who Prince Buster was. Ska music never featured on any BBC Radio shows that looked back in time at chart rundowns of years gone by. Tamla Motown and soul music was often aired but I genuinely cannot recall any ska – evidence that big-name DJs and their producers (with the exception of course of John Peel) were incredibly conservative with the music they chose to air.

The first 5,000 copies of this single, which came backed with a song by The Selector, came with a plain white sleeve stamped with the title. These sleeves weren’t the most robust and most of them have deteriorated very badly over the years. If you somehow managed to pick up a copy, all of which were distributed by Rough Trade to the smaller independent record shops, and you’ve managed to take good care of it, then you could probably flog it to a hipster for a few hundred quid.

The vast majority of the 45s were released in what would become the generic 2-Tone sleeve with the immediately identifiable logo, all of which were distributed via Chrysalis records to all stores across the UK and further afield.

Worth noting too that the single was credited to Special A.K.A. with the band then reverting to the much easier on the tongue The Specials for the string of hit singles and albums that would follow, although they did go back to the original name in 1982 after a number of members left to form Fun Boy Three.

mp3 : Special A.K.A. – Gangsters

Here’s the other side of the single; it’s an instrumental that was recorded prior to vocalist Pauline Black joining the band:-

mp3 : The Selecter – The Selecter



  1. Totally agree with your comment about 1979. A regular pub argument of mine, when we get into the “what was the best year for music?” debate. The quality of UK single releases that year was outstanding, even allowing for a couple of nauseating songs making No. 1.
    And this – definitely one of the best releases of the year.

  2. Love this. Great post for a great song and yes, 79 was a great year.

    After the ska boom you mention, Prince Buster’s Fabulous Greatest Hits would always be in the Woolworth’s sale for 99p. The patronage of Madness and others is what got me to buy that (that and the mod/scooter imagery on the cover) and what a fine selection it is.

  3. An absolute corker. Sadly I sold my original 7″ many years ago, when times were hard, to a ruthless dealer – who then probably flogged it on to a hipster for a few hundred quid.
    I saw the band in 1978 supporting The Clash, where I’m sure they were billed as The Coventry Specials, as opposed to their original moniker The Coventry Automatics or the later Special AKA.

  4. Lovely memories of your youth – really resonant; I was the same age as you in ’79. A fantastic year for music, and perhaps especially good because 16 was a fantastic age for really appreciating and being excited by it all.

  5. Good piece of reminiscing, JC.

    I’m sure I have Al Capone on a compilation album somewhere, didn’t realise Gangsters was based on it.

    On a serious note, with my generation getting right into Two Tone, Rock Against Racism etc my generation probably thought we would rid this country of the scourge of racism. I find it depressing all these years later to hear young people coming out with casually racist comments, or worse.

    Sorry for getting on my soap box.

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