The Coventry Automatics (previously The Automatics), were formed in Coventry in the early 70s. Founder, Jerry Dammers had played with local punk band, The Sissy Stone Soul Band, but after he was thrown out for playing his instrument with his elbows, he formed The Coventry Automatics with vocalist Tim Strickland (vocal), bassist Horace Panter (a.k.a. Sir Horace Gentleman), Silverton Hutchinson (drums), and Lynval Golding (guitar /vocalist). The new band played ska and wore mod-gear with mohair suits, loafers and pork pie hats. When Roddy "Radiation" Byers (guitar), Neville Staple (roadie/vocals), joined the line up, they changed their name to the Special AKA. Shortly after the band's formation, Terry Hall replaced Tim Strickland. They played at local gigs, and after Joe Strummer (The Clash) saw them he invited the band to open on the "On Parole" UK tour. This gave the Special AKA a new level of national exposure. Bernie Rhodes, manager of the Clash signed them and the group shortened their name to The Specials.
Being a racially integrated band and playing bluebeat, they were influenced by the Rock Against Racism movement. Jerry was determined to put across an anti-racist message and bravely decided to dress the band like the people whose attitudes they were trying to change. He was taken with the fashions worn by the skinhead elements of the National Front attending the Clash concert to recruit members of the audience. The Special AKA wore mod/rude boy/skinhead-style two-tone tonic suits, along with other elements of late 1960s teen fashions. When Chrysalis Records expressed an interest in the band in 1979, Dammers arranged a label deal, to fund 15 singles a year and release them through 2-Tone label. They were also able to sign other acts to record. Dammers, with the assistance of Horace Panter and graphic designers John "Teflon" Sims and David Storey, created artwork for 2-Tone Records. The Walt Jabsco logo portrays a man in a black suit, white shirt, black tie, pork pie hat, white socks and black loafers. The fictional character was based on an old picture of Peter Tosh (The Wailers). The logo from tracing an old picture of Peter Tosh (The Wailers).
Silverton Hutchinson left the band and was replaced by John Bradbury. Now The Specials, their debut single "Gangsters", was a reworking of Prince Buster's "Al Capone" (1964). It was released as a double A-side along with The Selecter. "Gangsters" went on to reach no. 6 in the UK charts in the summer of 1979.
Elvis Costello produced the first Specials album entitled, The Specials, which featured a mixture of original material and several covers of classic Jamaican ska tracks. The guitar was brought to the forefront of the mix which revived and invigorated the original blue beat. Both Dick Cuthell and Rico Rodriguez featured playing horns, but would not be official members of the Specials until the second album. The live version of "Too Much Too Young" was released later on a five-track EP, The Special AKA Live!, went to number one on the UK charts. "'A Message to You, Rudy" was also released as a single.
In 1980, The Specials successfully toured the US. The record company even persuaded the owner of the Whiskey-A-Go-Go, Los Angeles to allow them to paint the outside of the club in the band's black & white chequered logo. On their return, they toured the UK with The Bodysnatchers and American band The Go-Go's. While on that tour, Terry Hall co-wrote "Our Lips Are Sealed" with the Go-Go's guitarist Jane Wiedlin. It became a hit for both The Go-Go's and Fun Boy Three.
A second album, More Specials, produced by Joe Dammers, was released in 1980, It went Top 5 in the UK album charts but only barely broke into the Top 100 stateside. The album featured collaborations with The Go-Go's members Belinda Carlisle, Charlotte Caffey, and Jane Wiedlin; Rhoda Dakar from The Bodysnatchers; and Lee ‘Kix’ Thompson from Madness. The lyrics, like the previous album, were intensely political.
In 1981, traditional industries were closing and there was poverty everywhere. Under the UK Tory Government, unemployed was rife and there was much social unrest with violent riots in many inner cities as kids took to the street in protest. "Ghost Town" was a non album single and was inspired when the band saw the poverty and hardship in Glasgow when on tour. "Ghost Town" became the anthem of UK summer of 1981, when and the single topped the charts.
Constant touring and bickering over musical direction saw the original Specials’ line-up split. Golding, Hall and Staple left to form Fun Boy Three. With a more mainstream sound, the band enjoyed six UK Top 20 hits, including "The Lunatics (Have Taken Over the Asylum)", "It Ain't What You Do (It's the Way That You Do It)", “Summertine”, "Tunnel of Love" and "Our Lips Are Sealed". After a tour of the US the band split in 1983.
The Specials continued meantime, as "The Special AKA," and released their third album, In The Studio in 1984. It was very expensive to produce and although it did contain the Elvis Costello produced hit, "Free Nelson Mandela" the album did not sell as well as previous releases. Soon after, Dammers dissolved the band to pursue political activism. He did occasionally perform with his band, The Spatial AKA Orchestra, and now regularly works as a nightclub DJ.
Golding, Staples and Roddy Radiation reformed The Specials for a tour of the US and released the album, "Guilty Til Proved Innocent". The reformed group continue to perform and record with varying line-ups.