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Special release

Nelson Mandela speaks at a concert celebrating his freedom at Wembley stadium in London, 17th April 1990

Bizarre though it seems, when Jerry Dammers – founder, keyboardist and principal songwriter of The Specials – began writing what became ‘Nelson Mandela’ he hadn’t actually heard of Nelson Mandela. He was already toying with the exuberant brass riff and African-influenced melody when he decided to attend the African Sounds festival at Alexandra Palace Pavilion, north London, on 17th July 1983.

The 12-hour event was to mark the imprisoned ANC leader’s 65th birthday the following day, and a giant bust of his head surveyed the dancefloor. “Free Mandela,” chanted the crowd during South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela’s headline set. “Free Mandela.”

Dammers was no stranger to the anti-apartheid cause. When the Springbok rugby team came to play in England in 1969, he had joined a demonstration and plastered protest stickers around his school in Coventry. But this focus on one man was new to him. Even though Mandela had by then been in prison for twenty years, he was not yet a global icon. The average British music fan would have been more familiar with Steve Biko, the black activist who had died in police custody in 1977. Dammers picked up some leaflets from anti-apartheid stalls at Alexandra Palace and digested Mandela’s story. A few days later he came up with a simple three-word chorus for his African-influenced instrumental: ‘Free Nelson Mandela’.

If any protest song can be said to have had a tangible effect on its subject matter, it is ‘Nelson Mandela’. It didn’t exactly spring Mandela from jail single-handed but it raised awareness of his plight like nothing else and helped to make apartheid one of the defining causes of the 1980s, something the man himself acknowledged after his release in 1990.

“We’re giving people what they don’t want to hear”

By the time he wrote ‘Nelson Mandela’, Jerry Dammers was in a parlous frame of mind. Shaken by the premature demise of the Specials, he had hastily assembled a new line-up under the name the Special AKA, and started work on a new record. It was a bad idea. “The problem was that I went straight into the studio rather than taking time out to write the songs,” he says, frowning. “It’s completely the wrong way to do it.”

Upon the belated release of In the Studio in 1984, Dammers told NME: “Working on this album was like painting the Forth Bridge. We kept going round from one track to the other.” Ex-Specials bassist Horace Panter, who lasted about a fortnight in the new group, writes in his memoir: “It was like attending a funeral every day of the week… Jerry’s determination to continue had turned into tunnel vision.” “Horace left with his sanity intact,” vocalist Rhoda Dakar told Mojo. “I left in the back of a cab after collapsing on the studio floor in tears. I had to be carried to the car.” Having driven his bandmates to distraction with his perfectionism during the day, Dammers would spend long nights alone, endlessly finessing the mixes, as the studio bills continued to mount.

“Although the South African arm of Chrysalis Records asked not to be sent copies for fear of prosecution, the song did manage to reach black South Africans”

The material that Dammers was producing was often uncompromisingly grim. “Pop is giving people what they want to hear,” he told NME’s Neil Spencer. “We’re giving people what they don’t want to hear.” The Special AKA’s Dakar-narrated first single, ‘The Boiler’ (1982), was a first-person account of a rape which culminated in a series of harrowing screams that made ‘Ghost Town’ sound like ‘Club Tropicana’. ‘War Crimes’ was sinister-sounding Middle Eastern dub which rather tactlessly compared the Israeli occupation of Lebanon to genocide at Belsen. ‘Racist Friend’ solemnly urged zero tolerance towards bigoted acquaintances. Dammers admits that he hates writing lyrics, and the expansive, internationalist music on In the Studio was often more persuasive than the words. “I was very down because of the break-up of the Specials and the break-up of a long-term relationship and the album was about that,” Dammers explains. “What I try to do in all my songs is put my personal life in a bigger political context.”

Nelson Mandela speaks at a concert celebrating his freedom at Wembley stadium in London, 17th April 1990

“I’ve got a good song but everything is chaos”

‘Nelson Mandela’ was the last song recorded and was meant to be the album’s ‘happy ending’. There was just the small matter of holding the band together long enough to put it on tape. Most problematic of all was the singer Stan Campbell, who, Dammers belatedly discovered, had serious mental health problems and was fast realising that the Special AKA would not, after all, be his fast track to pop stardom. During the band’s terminal stages he was leaving and rejoining every few days. In desperation, Dammers called Elvis Costello, who had produced the first Specials album, and said, “Elvis, I’ve got a good song but everything is chaos. Can you come and sort it out?”

“I was desperate to get that one song recorded before it all broke up because it felt like something important,” he says. “It was a bit like ‘Ghost Town’.” There was another point of comparison between the two swansongs. “Terry [Hall] and Stan aren’t virtuoso singers,” says Dammers, “so that forces you into writing fairly easy-to-sing stuff, which is good. ‘Nelson Mandela’ couldn’t be a more simple tune. That’s probably part of its strength because anyone can sing it.” Where the two records drastically part company is mood. While ‘Ghost Town’ evoked the night before a riot, ‘Nelson Mandela’ sounds like a street party. By alchemising anger into joy, it is a victory celebration before the fact.

Costello restored a degree of sanity to the process and recorded the song in a relatively lightning-fast four days. Dammers invited a number of former 2 Tone stars, including Lynval Golding from the Specials and Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger from the Beat, to join in on the chorus. “The idea came from ‘Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto’, which was one of the very few records where different stars all appeared on the same record for a political cause. I like to think the seeds of that idea went on to Band Aid.” At the end of the song, Dammers indulged himself in an extended piano solo, eyes closed, lost in the music. When he finally opened his eyes, he saw that Costello had stopped the tape. “Hey, I was getting something going there,” he protested. “Why did you turn the tape off?” Costello just glared. “Elvis, that’s jazz!” said Dammers. “It’s bollocks,” retorted Costello.

“He didn’t want anything exaggerated”

“If ‘Nelson Mandela’ hadn’t got in the charts I would have felt it had failed,” said Dammers afterwards. In March 1984 it cracked the UK Top 10, but that was the least of its achievements. As its fame spread internationally, Dammers received letters of praise from the United Nations and the ANC. And although the South African arm of Chrysalis Records asked not to be sent copies for fear of prosecution, the song did manage to reach black South Africans, as Dammers discovered while watching the news one day. “One of the ways the ANC would organise people at football matches and sporting events [was to] take over the tannoy system. Suddenly over the speakers would come someone hidden in the crowd making political speeches and then this music!” He later learned that Mandela objected to just one element of the song: the line about his being forced to wear ill-fitting shoes. Although that petty cruelty was a staple of anti-apartheid publicity, it had been enforced for only a few weeks. “That’s the mark of him,” says Dammers. “He didn’t want anything exaggerated. But that’s irrelevant, really. It’s all part of a campaign.”

Mandela finally walked free on 11th February 1990 and made it a priority to attend Tony Hollingsworth’s celebration concert at Wembley on 16th April, where two former Manhattan Brothers, heroes of 1950s South Africa, joined Dammers for ‘Nelson Mandela’. Dammers met the subject of the song for the first time at the concert. “I think he spent every minute shaking hands so he was just shell-shocked,” he says. He remembers Mandela saying just four words to him, four words which might just have been a social nicety but suited the moment nonetheless: “Ah yes, very good.”


Dorian Lynskey is the author of ‘33 Revolutions Per Minute’, published by Faber & Faber.

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