This song is about a tour in France where The Specials were held responsible for damage in a hotel that another English band caused. The hotel manager even took one of their guitars as a deposit. The Specials had to pay the damage, and the situation escalated when the French police came around.
The song is a reworking of Prince Buster's 1964 Ska classic "Al Capone." It samples the car sound effects that opened the original song.
Madness also paid tribute to Prince Buster by using the title of his single "Madness" for their name and on their first single "The Prince," which was released a month after "Gangsters" on the same label. Prince Buster was Jamaica's first international star and one of the most important figures in the history of Ska. He was the one who originally made "Oh Carolina" a hit, a song later covered by Shaggy. He was renowned for often using mouth-clicks for rhythm tracks.
The band changed the original opening in their version from "Al Capone's guns don't argue" to "Bernie Rhodes knows don't argue" as a stab at their former manager, and at seedy manager types in general.
This was the band's first single and its success ignited the two-tone craze that spawned bands such as Madness, UB40 and Selecter.
This was the first release on 2-Tone Records, a record label established by The Specials keyboard player Jerry Dammers. The band had to raise some cash from family and friends to pay for the recording. The label was named after the two tone tonic suits worn by the original Ska stars of the 1960's.
On The Specials website, guitarist Lynval Golding explained: "The songs intro 'Bernie Rhodes knows don't argue' is for Bernie, and the 'Can't interrupt while I'm talking, Or they'll confiscate all your guitars' comes from the hotel incident. My line in the song was 'They use the law to commit crime.' Everything in Gangsters was about that trip, and it was a brilliant trip in the end because it gave us our first hit record - can't complain about that."
This song is credited to Special A.K.A., a name they returned to for some of The Specials later releases.
Suggestion credit: Edward Pearce - Ashford, Kent, England, for above 7