This is the 48th post in a weekly, yearlong series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song will be posted each Monday throughout 2016. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
Reggae musician Dandy Livingstone was born in Jamaica, but moved to England as a teenager in the late 1950s. In the early ’60s, one of Livingstone’s friends got him interested in playing music. Many nights after school, the two would perform in a West London apartment.
Unbeknownst to Livingstone, another tenant in that building recorded some of those practice sessions and released them on record. The owner of that building was an executive at Trojan Records, who then referred Livingstone to up-and-coming label, Carnival Records. He recorded a record that ended up selling 25,000 cookie after a radio station played one of his songs.
In 1967, Livingstone signed with Ska Beat Records, releasing the LP “Rocksteady With Dandy.” That same year, under the stage name Dandy, he released what would be his most enduring song: “Rudy, A Message To You.”
In the 1960s, Jamaica’s “rude boy” subculture had begun to take hold in England. The rude boys were known for their style – nice suits, pork-pie hats, and shiny shoes – but some of the rude boys were also developing a reputation for violence. From a Jamaican newspaper:
It was right on the heels of Jamaica’s independence in 1962 that the rude-boy syndrome and crime showed signs of escalating. For one, a large number of young men migrated to the city in search of jobs and other opportunities. When these were not forthcoming, it led to discontent. This mounting discontentment and resentment found expression in outbursts of violence, with the rude boy often employing ratchet knives and guns.
Thus, “Rudy, A Message To You,” was a call for the rude boys — or Rudies — to reflect on their behavior and its potential implications:
Stop your running about,
It’s time you straighten right out
Stop your running around,
Making problems in town
A messsage to you, Rudy
A messsage to you
You’re growing older each day,
You want to think of your future,
Or you will wind up in jail,
And you will suffer
“Rudy, A Message To You” sold 30,000 copies. That number might seem low now, particularly given we are in an era when Beyonce could sell more than that just in pre-sales. But back then, in the era before Internet or even MTV, 30,000 copies was nothing to sneeze at for Ska Beat Records.
The same year Livingstone released his “Rudy, A Message To You,” British band The Locomotive released its own version. It was pleasant enough, but it was too faithful to the original. The band – which played a range of R&B, ska, and prog rock over its five-year run – was particularly enamored with the rude boy subculture, scoring a minor hit with a song called “Rudi’s In Love.”
In the late ’70s, Jamaican ska saw a revival in England. With that resurgence came a renewed interest in rude boy culture. The Specials was the face of this new wave of ska, in part because the ska and reggae label 2 Tone Records was founded by The Specials’ songwriter and keyboardist, Jerry Dammers.
It was on that label that The Specials released its 1979 self-titled debut album. One of the first tracks was a cover of “Rudy, A Message To You.” The band kept a lot of the same feel as Livingstone’s original, even using the same trombonist, Rico Rodriquez. But the band managed to put its own spin on the song, giving it a bratty swagger and changing the name to “A Message To You, Rudy.”
It was The Specials’ version that became the standard-bearer for the song, in part because it reached Number 10 on the UK Singles Chart.
The following year, a version was recorded by reggae musician Judge Dread. Dread had 11 reggae songs on the UK charts, more than any other artist, including Bob Marley. Incidentally, that is the same number of songs he had banned by the BBC. (Dread had a penchant for innuendo and double-entendres.) His version of “Rudy, A Message To You” was faithful to the original, but what really stood out was his smooth vocal style. He sounded as if he should be singing “Earth Angel” in some barber shop quartet, but this was good, too.
Before being signed to Reprise Records, Canadian band Barenaked Ladies released five demo tapes. The first of these demos was “Buck Naked,” released in four editions in 1988 and 1989. Featuring only Ed Robertson and Steven Page, “Buck Naked” included a version of “Rudy, A Message To You,” though it was listed as “A Message To Rudy.” Recorded with just Robertson, Page, and an acoustic guitar, this bare version recast the horn-driven song as a quiet folk song. It sounded like two guys just messing around in the living room, and based on the outtake at the end, that assumption seems accurate.
German ska group Yebo recorded “Rudy A Message To You” on its 1993 album, “Eastern Standard Time,” which also featured covers of The Beatles’ “Independance Ska” and The Kinks’ “Dead End Street.” It felt more polished than The Specials’ version, which in turn had felt more polished than the Dandy version: the instrumental tracks were fuller, and the vocals smoother. It was a fine version, but not that different from the source material.
Italian musician Daniele Sepe – a saxophonist, flautist, and composer – has cultivated a sound that combines improvisational jazz with styles from throughout the world. His instrumental version of “A Message To You, Rudy,” from his album “Totòsketches,” was a freewheeling song that sounded as much like polka as it did ska. Above all else, though, it sounded like the Benny Hill theme.
“Spare Shells: Modern Interpretations of the Songs of The Specials” was a 2001 compilation that featured several ska bands from all over the world, including Voodoo Glow Skulls and Citizen Fish. Australian band The Allniters recorded a version of “A Message to You, Rudy” that featured updated keyboards and fuller-sounding horns.
Joe Strummer & the Mescaleros, the band that former Clash frontman Strummer formed in 1999, released a live version of “A Message to You, Rudy” as a B-side to “Coma Girl.” The single came from the band’s third and final studio album, “Streetcore,” released in 2003 after Strummer’s death the previous year. As far as covers go, it was nothing earth-shattering, keeping the same instrumentation and pacing as the versions by Livingstone and The Specials. Perhaps most notable was that Strummer ad-libbed a few lyrics, including a line where he mentioned Brixton, seemingly a nod to the song “Guns of Brixton” from The Clash’s album, “London Calling.”
Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, an Argentine ska band from Buenos Aires, featured “Rudy (Un Mensaje Para Vos)” on its 2006 double CD, “Obras Cumbres, Parte 2.” Besides being in Spanish, this version stood out because it was more buoyant than the others. These guys wanted to send Rudy a message, but they were peppy so as to not give him too hard a time.
During at least two live shows in 2008, singer Amy Winehouse performed “A Message To You, Rudy.” Once in Rio…
And once in Glastonbury.
Winehouse was a singer who could imbue soul and passion into her songs, and these performances showed she could do that with a subdued delivery. And she did it in that Winehouse way where she slurred every word together, and still made it sound interesting.
“A Message To You, Rudy” was covered by singer Andrew Crayford in 2012 for another Specials tribute album, “Specialized: A Modern Take On Specials Classics.” Featuring The Mdv Collective, Crayford’s version felt jazzier than the others, particularly because of the noticeable saxophones.
In 2014, ska/funk band Mento Buru released a version of “Rudy, A Message to You” called “Rudy, Un Mensaje Para Vos,” alternating between English and Spanish lyrics over a Latin-flavored reworking of the familiar riff. The horns were just as prominent in this version as they had been in the versions by Livingstone or The Specials, but the guitar was a lot more noticeable.
Former Specials member Neville Staple has performed “A Message To You, Rudy” while touring with The Neville Staple Band. (We last discussed him when reviewing “Our Lips Are Sealed,” and we debated whether his version was a cover or just an alternate version.) Staple’s live version of “A Message To You, Rudy” sounded similar to the version by The Specials, but it’s fun to watch him while he watches the audience sing along. He knows how to do crowd work.
In addition to these covers, “A Message To You, Rudy” has been worked into other songs. Canadian punk band Propagandhi’s song “Ska Sucks,” from the band’s 1993 album “How to Clean Everything,” had a interlude in the middle where vocalist Chris Hannah repeated “Rudy… A message to you, Rudy” a few times before screaming, “Fuck you, Rudy!”
And that interlude made it into some “Ska Sucks” covers. In 1998, ska/punk band Against All Authority covered the Propagandhi song, adding horns to the “A Message To You, Rudy” section.
Ska/punk band Big D and the Kids Table covered “Ska Sucks” for a 2015 compilation, “A Fat Comp: A Fan-Made Tribute to Fat Wreck Chords.” The band stretched out the “A Message To You, Rudy” interlude, not only singing the title but some of the lyrics from the original song. And at the end of that, the band stuck to the original “Ska Sucks,” screaming, “Fuck you, Rudy!
When we discussed Madonna’s “Ray of Light” and Curtiss Maldoon’s “Sepheryn,” I declared that Madonna’s incorporation of “Sepheryn” into her song was more than a sample, even if it wasn’t a straight cover. In the case of “Ska Sucks,” I think it’s safer to call that song a sample than a cover.
But that “A Message To You, Rudy” was incorporated to a song called “Ska Sucks” speaks to the song’s status as an iconic ska song. And that probably wouldn’t have happened without The Specials.
When considering the versions of “A Message To You, Rudy” discussed above, it’s worth remembering that two of them came from Specials tribute albums. And in his version with The Mescaleros, Strummer introduced his cover as a tribute to 2 Tone, the aforementioned label started by The Specials’ Jerry Dammers. Some might see all of this erasing the song’s connection to Dandy Livingstone, and there’s a valid argument to be made there. I’ve touched upon similar themes in previous posts, as we’ve reviewed many songs where the cover has eclipsed the original version in some metric of success, be it concrete sales or the less tangible measurement of recognition. But it makes sense to have “A Message To You, Rudy” on a Specials tribute album. It was a Top 10 single for the band in the UK, becoming a centerpiece not only for the band’s debut, but for its entire catalog. It’s hard to think of The Specials without thinking of “A Message To You, Rudy.”
And just as “A Message To You, Rudy” has played a role in the identity of ska, it’s also worked its way into British culture as well. Particularly in the way its been adopted by soccer fans (something we also saw when reviewing “Seven Nation Army.”) It’s been tweaked a few times to direct messages at Wayne Rooney, who serves as the captain of both Manchester United and the England national team.
In anticipation of the World Cup, this parody was recorded to show support for England…
…as was this version by hip-hop group, The Bogus MCs.
In 2011, musician and Crawley Town Football Club fan Mike Dobie recorded a variation of “A Message To You, Rudy” with a bar full of Crawley fans. They alternated between “Rooney, a message to you” and “Fergie, a message to you.” “Fergie” referred to former soccer player Alex Ferguson, who managed Manchester United at the time.
That video caused some controversy, because someone thought that one of the people in the video was “making aircraft gestures” to mock a 1958 plane crash that killed killed 23 people, including eight United players. This was not taken lately, and the man was arrested, according to a spokeswoman for Sussex Police:
A 19-year-old man was last night arrested by police in Crawley following complaints about the content of a music video produced to support Crawley Town Football Club in its FA Cup run… The man from Crawley was arrested under the Public Order Act on suspicion of causing harassment, alarm or distress and has been bailed until 25 February pending further inquiries… As part of his bail conditions the man is not allowed to travel to Manchester for the Crawley Town Football Club match against Manchester United on Saturday.
Dobie insisted that there was no intention from anyone who made the video to be malicious. “The video was done with the intention of a feel-good factor,” he said. The song had been made in anticipation of Crawley Town’s match against Manchester United. (Manchester United won that game 1-0, by the way.)
With the exception of these soccer versions, the Spanish language versions or The Specials’ version that put the song on the world’s radar, most of these covers haven’t deviated much from the Livingstone version. Which is not to say that they are (all) bad, per se. Just that they aren’t earth-shattering. Even the versions by better-known artists — Barenaked Ladies, Joe Strummer, Amy Winehouse — aren’t that earth-shattering. Those versions were fine, but much of what made them interesting was the name attached to the cover, rather than the content of said cover. And the ones that changed the lyrics to be about soccer teams still kept Livingstone’s arrangement and the ska/reggae style.
We saw a similar trend when looking at covers of Kim Wilde’s “Kids In America.” In the same way that most of the covers of “A Message To You, Rudy” fit within the ska/reggae genre, most of the “Kids In America” covers stayed within the pop punk field, with very few stepping outside of that style. After a while, they all sounded the same. But the volume of covers of “Kids In America” and “A Message To You, Rudy” speak to the songs’ influence and beloved status.
After all, the fact that most of the covers of “Rudy, A Message To You” sound like Livingstone’s version doesn’t mean those covering it were boring or not creative. They might have just thought his arrangement was fine as is.