Chart Peak: 9
That's right, it's not actually called 'Free Nelson Mandela', at least not in the UK. Allegedly the BBC warned Two-Tone that to make such an explicit political statement in the song title would be going to far, but leaving it in the chorus was OK. Like the song's subject, Jerry Dammers was willing to compromise and the result was the Special AKA's only major commercial success after the departure of Fun Boy Three in 1981 left the remainder of the group in disarray. By 1984 they'd become a fairly loose collective, hence the eventual album title Special AKA In The Studio and, seemingly, the impracticality of getting the whole band in the same shot for the video to this song. Still, we get to see Dick Cuthell's impressive moustache.
Beyond its placing in the history of one of the classic groups of the era, 'Nelson Mandela' must also rank among the most successful protest songs of the era. At the age of six, I was still asking my mum why she wouldn't buy the South African apples in the shops, but apparently a lot of adults hadn't heard of Mandela then either. Whilst it would of course be a massive overstatement to say that this song changed the course of history (especially since it was inevitably banned in South Africa), it publicised the issue in Britain. Of course it's highly unusual among protest songs in tone, being mostly upbeat and celebratory, although tempered by some downbeat moments, like that descending brass intro just before the main bouncy riff. Despite being written by a white man from Coventry, it's also a very African-sounding track, which seems to suggest that this isn't just a detached commentary from a distant Westerner but a gesture of direct solidarity with the South African people. That gives it a great deal of its power (even if people in SA couldn't actually hear it at the time) and makes it feel like a real rallying call.
Little can anyone involved in this record have imagined that less than ten years after Now III hit the shelves, Nelson Mandela would be the democratically elected president of his country. It's less earth-shattering but still notable that this song wasn't entirely forgotten after that happened either, and continues to feature on Specials/Special AKA compilations to this day. This is, for obvious chronological reasons, the only interface between the Specials and Now, and even if not their best ever track it's one of the most historically significant.
Available on: Stereo-Typical
Charting 1997: 27th December
5 years ago