The Special AKA: “Night on the Tiles”
The Special AKA was the original name of Jerry Dammers’s band, The Specials, but it was shortened to the more well-known band name before the release of their debut album in 1979. But following their rise to fame as the leading lights of the British ska movement of the late ’70s and early ’80s, Dammers reverted the band to that original name after the second Specials album, following the departure of Terry Hall, Lynval Golding, and Neville Staples to form Fun Boy Three. So in 1984, it was the Special AKA who released the album In the Studio, which featured the great single, “Free Nelson Mandela.”
“Free Nelson Mandela” was easily the best known song on the album; it was a big hit particularly in the U.K., where it reached the Top Ten — it also found its way to South Africa, where it became a rallying chant and anthem for the protests to release Mandela. (Mandela was ultimately freed in 1990, for the record.) It is a great song indeed, but the rest of the comparatively dark songs on In the Studio are excellent as well. My favorite song of the bunch is “Night on the Tiles,” a song with a deceivingly upbeat rhythm: the lyrics by my reading are about feeling trapped in a loveless marriage and needing to be set free, if only temporarily, to experience a good time again. Either that, or it’s literally about being in prison for life and just wanting a night’s furlough to experience the joys of life one more time. Regardless of the exact interpretation, the rush of the guitar as the song begins is an uplifting moment every time I hear it, as though the music itself is enough to set one free. Stan Campbell’s soulful singing yearns for that freedom, yet leaves no doubt as to the anguish of the singer. And anguish sure does result in some great songs, doesn’t it?