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It's a 'Specials' Night for Ska : The British band, including four original members, brings its greatest hits package to Sunday's dance-a-thon at the Ventura Theatre.


Orson Welles did "Citizen Kane" and "The Magnificent Ambersons," and it was pretty much all downhill (and dinner) after that. The Specials, a two-tone ska band out of Coventry, England, have thus far had a similar career. The first two Specials albums are still selling despite the fact they came out in 1979 and 1980, or back before Jimmy Carter was popular, but President.

And now--isn't this special?--the real Specials have reformed to play some dance music especially for all the skankers. The dance-a-thon begins at 8 Sunday night with Fresno's Let's Go Bowling and a local group, the Ska Daddyz, opening at the Ventura Theatre.

What's pretty special about this tour is that four of the original seven members will be there to orchestrate the whole sweaty mess. Neville Staples (vocals), Horace Panter (bass), Roddy "Radiation" Byers (lead guitar, vocals) and Lynval Golding (vocals, guitar) are the original guys. Mark Adams (keyboards), "Aitch" Bembridge (drums) and Adam Birch (horns) are the new guys. According to Panter, it's as though they had never left.

"It's almost like the last 13 years didn't happen at all. Eighteen months ago, members of the band got together to work on an album for a reggae singer named Desmond Dekker," Panter said. "It was so much fun, we decided to take it on the road and see who wanted to hear some Specials songs. We did very well in Europe; then we went to Japan, where we were treated like deities. It was incredible; we were very bemused by it all."

The Specials may not yet be deities in the United States, where there is, nonetheless, plenty of rock 'n' roll royalty, yet their music has helped to inspire a dance craze that has been around for 15 years. The current tour is primarily college towns, but an inordinate number of gigs are on the West Coast, where ska is as healthy as the California Dream.

"In America, ska is getting an awful lot bigger," Panter said. "I think people look at it as a fashion statement because we get a lot of young kids who are very snappily dressed, also college kids, a lot of skateboard kids and people that heard our album 13 years ago. Ska's not so big anymore in England, but that's OK because we can remain anonymous and keep our day jobs."

To the untrained eye, the impending dance marathon will look like a gang fight no matter who plays. But, it's not. For one, at a ska show, you skank--at punk metal shows, you mosh. The mosh pit is almost always all male with testosterone levels off the Richter scale, elbows flying everywhere, and the girls squished like bugs against the stage or running for their lives. Also at the end of the night, the mosh pit is the one with the blood on the floor. Skankers, on the other hand, are both males and females, polite ones.

"We don't encourage moshing at our shows. People dance, certainly, but it's not so monogamous as at metal shows," Panter said. "People don't mosh themselves into the hospital. And since our music is so positive, people leave our gigs smiling."

There were always so many people in the Specials, more than a basketball team but less than a football team, that after the onset of the inevitable creative differences, there were enough members to man a bunch of bands. The self-destruct mechanism must be in a musician's genes. When the Specialization of labor led to diversification, there were plenty of popular ska bands--the English Beat, Selector and Madness--on hand to make people in skinny ties dance. But according to the bass player, there was one big difference.

"We were the first--our first gig was in 1977. We split in 1981--some members joined Fun Boy 3, and I ended up joining General Public. But all these different projects had faded out by 1987 or 1988," said Panter. "Next, some of us did the Special Beat thing for a few years. We've always had sort of a punk rock element to our music, and we have reggae roots as well, plus quite noisy guitars."

Don't expect a whole bunch of new Specials tunes this time around. This is a basic "If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It Tour."

"It's really just the first two Specials albums," said Panter. "It's a greatest hits package, really, but people seem to really want to hear it. Well, they're good songs, and you can dance to them, and they're good for parties. Also, we have relevant lyrics that deal with racial harmony, which is still relevant in the 1990s. We're not sure about a new album--this is our first time out in 13 years."


* WHAT: The Specials, Ska Daddyz, Let's Go Bowling.

* WHERE: Ventura Theatre, 26 Chestnut St.

* WHEN: 8 p.m. Sunday.

* HOW MUCH: $19.50.

* CALL: 648-1888.

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