The Specials, art school and the role of tight branding


It’s hard to put the rise of The Specials into a context that makes sense today.

They (and a few other ska-revival bands like them) formed at, literally, the same time the UK punk scene was coalescing.

It was 1977. The Clash and The Sex Pistols were coming together. In the ‘States bands like The Ramones had been around for 2 – 3 years.

All of these bands were reacting to a 70s Summer-of-love soundtrack gone adrift. The disco era had been birthed and co-opted into something smarmy. The music scene had become full of predictable, ballad/anthem-rock. Milktoast bands like Styx lacked energy and pushed out one derivative song after another.

Punk and ska revival were born from a music scene grossly lacking innovation.

There are a million tomes written on punk and ska so I won’t offer another here, instead I’ll point to the role of art schools and tight branding.

What I see so clearly now is how tightly controlled the band’s brands were.

The Ramones had Arturo Vega, an art designer, who not only came up with The Ramones logo but also helped shape the look and feel of the band. Arturo created a what is today called “a strong UX” (user experience). The Ramones… the entire band… were always, always the same. They illustrated stunning brand consistency. The Ramones all wore slim, shredded jeans, moto jackets and simple graphic Ts and all their songs were simple, fast and funny. In a music world made of bands like REO Speedwagon… The Ramones stood out. The Ramones brand, to this day, is one of the tightest in the history of music.

Talking Heads were all RISD, art school, alums. A quick scan of their covers shows how art-savvy this group was. Has there been a band since with a more-evolved, contemporary art infused visual sense? I don’t know of one.

The Pistols’ image was masterminded by visual artist and clothing designer Malcom McLaren. He was helped by Vivienne Westwood, an art school pal. Malcom sought out a gang of dead-end kids to be his brand puppets. He cheered (and cashed in) as the uber-promoted chaos took over. The Sex Pistols were sculpted by Malcom more than they were formed by band members. Again, the Pistols brand is super tight… ransom notes, torn edges, collage and safety pins. The modern surf brand Volcom owes near 100% of it’s visual brand identity to Malcom and Vivienne.

The list goes on and on. The emphasis of a tight visual brand was so intense during this era that it went too far. Perhaps it was the largest factor which birthed the silly, follow-on “New Wave” era. With new wave, the visuals became more important than the music. Case in point: Flock of Seagulls.

And yet for some reason I keep coming back to The Specials. Take a quick look at the imagery over their career.


One theme comes to mind, black and white.

The tightness of The Specials brand rivals Apple.

Keep in mind that Apple will spend $1,000,000,000 (a billion dollars) on ads this year to make you think of their products are cool. The Specials spent next to nothing.

Black and white brand characteristics permeated every element of The Specials. They were taking a musical form from black Jamaica (ska, blue-beat revival) and bringing it to a racially-tense black and white England. The band had ample representation of both races. Their songs dealt with issues that divided black and white people. They dressed in black and white. They shot their photos and videos in black and white. All their graphics emphasised black and white (including massive use of a checkerboard theme)… and the name of the record label was 2 Tone.

These bands not only understood the importance of the visual branding they also instinctively understood what many modern corportations have learned in the last decade or so… the importance of a consistent user experience across all platforms.

Enough jabbering about the visuals… The Specials were also a great band. Check ’em out.

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