Album: The Specials (1979)
Charted: 6
Play Video


  • 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. >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Jeffrey - Hilversum, Netherlands
  • Written by Specials keyboard player Jerry Dammers, "Gangsters" is a reworking of Prince Buster's 1964 ska classic "Al Capone." It samples the car sound effects that open 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 He was the one who originally made "Oh Carolina" a hit, a song later covered by Shaggy.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.
  • "Gangsters" was The Specials' first single. Its success ignited the two-tone craze that spawned bands such as Madness, UB40 and Selecter.
  • 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.
  • "Gangsters" rose to #6 in The Specials' native UK in September 1979, and their next single, "A Message To You Rudy," came in at #10 in November. In January 1980, they took a crack at America, but their tour there didn't move the needle. They returned to the States in April, and on April 19 became the first ska band to musical guest on Saturday Night Live, where they performed "Gangsters" and "Too Much Too Young." Their spirited performance (with Neville Staple toting a tommy gun for "Gangsters") went over well, but still didn't goose sales in that country, where The Specials never cracked the Hot 100.
  • 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 1960s.
  • 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.
  • In America, The Specials had a hard time getting placement in record stores because clerks didn't know where to classify them - there was no ska section in US stores, and they didn't quite fit under punk or reggae. This was very frustrating for the band and their label, especially since they were so popular in the UK.

Comments: 2

  • AnonymousOne of the best!
  • Myla from San Diego, CaA Specials classic!
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Famous Singers' First Films

Famous Singers' First FilmsSong Writing

A look at the good (Diana Ross, Eminem), the bad (Madonna, Bob Dylan) and the peculiar (David Bowie, Michael Jackson) film debuts of superstar singers.

Song Titles That Inspired Movies

Song Titles That Inspired MoviesSong Writing

Famous songs that lent their titles - and in some cases storylines - to movies.

Don Felder

Don FelderSongwriter Interviews

Don breaks down "Hotel California" and other songs he wrote as a member of the Eagles. Now we know where the "warm smell of colitas" came from.

Dean Pitchford

Dean PitchfordSongwriter Interviews

Dean wrote the screenplay and lyrics to all the songs in Footloose. His other hits include "Fame" and "All The Man That I Need."

The Untold Story Of Fiona Apple's Extraordinary Machine

The Untold Story Of Fiona Apple's Extraordinary MachineSong Writing

Fiona's highly-anticipated third album almost didn't make it. Here's how it finally came together after two years and a leak.

Incongruent Opening Acts

Incongruent Opening ActsSong Writing

Here's what happens when an opening act is really out of place with the headliner, like when Beastie Boys opened for Madonna.