Album: In The Studio
. . .
Because musicians lead complicated lives, when I write these things, there is sometimes confusion as to what to call the song I’m writing about as well as confusion as to which artist to credit for the song.
In today’s case, it’s both!!!! Is the song called “Free Nelson Mandela” or is it just called “Nelson Mandela”? Is the group “The Special A.K.A.” or is it just “The Specials”? Both the song and the group can easily be found under either name. So I’m going to make the arbitrary decision to go with how I first got to know this song — the single that came out in 1984 — while trying to untangle some of the threads that created all of the confusion in the first place.
So we start with the dissolution of the original Specials, way back in 1981, just as their greatest song, “Ghost Town,” was beginning to top the charts.
The internal tensions had been brewing for awhile, and then exploded as all three of the Specials lead singers — Terry Hall, Neville Staple and Linval Golding — left the band to form Fun Boy Three, who contributed two great things to the universe. The first thing was their version of “Our Lips Are Sealed,” which was a Terry Hall co-write with Jane Wiedlin, and actually charted higher in the U.K. (#7) than the Go-Gos version did in the U.S., though I prefer the Go-Gos more ebullient version to the darker Fun Boy Three version. And the second great thing was introducing Bananarama to the world, via the still amazing cover of “Really Sayin’ Something” Bop-bop-shoobie-doo-wah!
Meanwhile, keyboardist Jerry Dammers collected drummer John Bradbury, some more players and most notably vocalists Rhoda Dakar and Stan Campbell and formed The Special A.K.A. The only album under that moniker was 1984’s In The Studio, with most notable track, of course, being directed at the government of South Africa.
Free Nelson Mandela
Free, free, free, free, free Nelson Mandela
As the opening verse of “Free Nelson Mandela” detailed, Mandela had been imprisoned by the apartheid South African government — doing everything they can to hang on to racist, minority rule, which has absolutely zero analogies to the United States in the 21st century — for over 20 years, and the song was an impassioned plea for them to let him go.
It was also one of the most joyful sounding protest songs ever recorded, demanding you to get up and dance while you were decrying the South African government.
Free Nelson Mandela
Twenty-one years in captivity
Shoes too small to fit his feet
His body abused but his mind is still free
Are you so blind that you cannot see?
I said free Nelson Mandela
I’m begging you, free Nelson Mandela
That’s an old rock ‘n’ roll trick, of course: the juxtaposition of dark words over happy music. And Dammers also employed another old rock ‘n’ roll trick: stealing from the best, in this case Booker T & The M.G.s, whose awesome “Soul Limbo” was definitely the musical blueprint for “Free Nelson Mandela.” At least to my ears: I haven’t really read anybody else make that claim. Which is fine.
In any event, the power of “Free Nelson Mandela” was so strong — and no other political winds or realities — that he was eventually freed in 1990, helped to dismantle apartheid and even became President of South Africa in 1994. Now that’s a great song!!
In any event, I do wonder how “Free Nelson Mandela” plays to people who were too young to experience any of this first hand: my guess that they can still get caught up in the vocals, passion and rhythms, and some of them might even do some research on just who this Nelson Mandela guy was!
As far as the Specials went, they kept configurating, deconfigurating, and reconfigurating in various combinations, and the most recent configuration featuring Terry Hall, Linval Golding and bassist Horace Panter have recently put out two albums: 2019’s really good Encore and 2021’s pretty excellent Protest Songs 1924-2012.
“Free Nelson Mandela” official music video
“Free Nelson Mandela (Club Mix)”
“Free Nelson Mandela” live on the Tube (w/ Dave Wakeling, Ranking Roger & Elvis Costello)
Booker T. & MGs – “Soul Limbo”
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