The re-release of The Fun Boy Three’s eponymous debut album makes for fascinating, exhausting listening. A mix of musical styles—ska, rocksteady, jazz, dancehall—primitive percussion, sharp horns, and smart harmonies, it all seems so light and pleasant. Until you listen to the lyrics. Politically aware and a capsule of the fear and paranoia of Thatcher’s Britain in the early 1980s, these are not songs for a blithe singalong. Which is good.
Hatching fully formed from the forehead of The Specials after feeling creatively stifled, Terry Hall, Lynval Golding, and Neville Staples created something bold. These songs didn’t need to be arranged for horns and female vocalists (though on several tracks they are joined by Bananarama, to great effect) and the result is stripped down and innovative. The Fun Boy Three sounds immediate still.
It is, however, bleak. “Way On Down” features Terry Hall’s verge-of-tears singing over an African drum line and desolate lyrics. “Faith, Hope and Charity” helpfully chants, “babies come from ladies” (a lyric that made me laugh like mad); it is grimness with a clarion vocal from Hall over the top.
Terry Hall doesn’t do all the vocal heavy lifting here, however. Neville Staples provides the vocal to “Best Of Luck Mate,” with prescient lyrics about drowning in debt and gambling, hoping to escape poverty, mated with a sinuous piano. He also takes the lead on “I Don’t Believe It,” about the surveillance state and paranoia from the neighbors, set to a reggae beat with disjointed piano.
Despite its own jaunty dancehall piano, “The Telephone Always Rings” is quietly devastating. A story of shutting yourself off from the world and people’s perception of Hall’s life being far more exciting than it was, it’s the happiest song about being sad I’ve heard. “Alone” is a companion piece to it; the isolation of the road takes its toll with Hall’s world-weary, heart-rending vocals. The backup voices are especially lovely.
Bananarama provide sweet harmonies and “T’aint What You Do (It’s The Way You Do It).” Loose limbed and spontaneous, it’s the only song that could be called “fun” on the album. Terry Hall’s voice is an icy counterpoint to the warm harmonies of Bananarama and The Fun Boy Three. Bananarama also join the FB3 for “Funrama 2,” a kitchen sink of a song with rumbling bass, whistles, and snippets of lyrics.
The Fun Boy Three includes bonus tracks. The extended version of “Funrama Theme” piles on the strangeness, and the extended version of “The Telephone Always Rings” adds little more than echoey vocals and length. The songs that put the “bonus” in “bonus tracks” are the pair of “Summertime” and “Summer of 82.” “Summertime” is an elegant version of the Gershwin classic, featuring lush harmonies and an effortless, soaring Terry Hall vocal. It’s B-side was “Summer of 82,” a louche indictment of greed and selfishness with funky horns.
The Fun Boy Three is very much a product of its time. The dread of nuclear war, Thatcherism, the growing gap between the haves and have-nots, and starving people in Africa are lurking in the lyrics and the feeling. That said, it’s often glorious and gorgeous. The inventive percussion and the mash-up of genres, coupled with harmonies that ring and thoughtful, if depressing, lyrics, make for arresting listening.
The Fun Boy Three was reissued in April through Cherry Red Records and is available to order from the label’s website.