Back in 2005, I was given my first proper writing commission. I was to interview an up-and-coming band called Special Needs for a new magazine called State of Play.
I thought the article would not only propel one of my favourite groups into the charts, but also launch my career as a music journalist.
As it happened, State of Play’s publisher ran off with everyone’s money on the eve of its launch, leaving a trail of unpaid debts and no magazine.
I didn’t become music journalism’s Next Big Thing (or any sort of thing), and Special Needs split up soon after without having put out the album they’d just recorded.
But there was an epilogue. Funfairs & Heartbreak got a posthumous release a year after the split, and even after the dust had settled it was a really, really good album.
Don’t take my word for it. You can buy it on Amazon for less than a fiver, or listen to it on Spotify for nothing.
And here’s that article for the forever-unpublished State of Play, re-edited for 2019. A bit less breathlessness, a lot more paragraph breaks.
There are changes taking place at Needs HQ. By the time you read this, Special Needs will be known more snappily (and less offensively) as The Needs. More importantly, the band will be back on the road and on the verge of releasing their first album.
Special Needs have been bubbling under the surface for some time now. They’ve picked up positive reviews for their first few singles and ever-increasing attention from fans and media alike. But for a while, things seemed to falter.
“In a sense, our honesty has been our biggest downfall,” says lead singer Zachery Stephenson. He’s wrong of course.
The emotional honesty bound into Special Needs’ music and attitude is in fact their greatest virtue, despite the career-threatening stubbornness and volatility that often comes with it.
Zac, guitarists Andrew Pearson and Daniel Shack, bass player Phil James and drummer Neil Allan are hunched around a table in a pub on Kilburn High Road in north west London. “The same pub we used to go to two years ago when we were playing in London every week,” says Andrew.
He’s concerned that the band haven’t spread their music as far and wide as they would like. All that is about to change.
Later this year, industry wrangling permitting, The Needs will release their recently-recorded debut album. Given the many preconceptions about the band, it promises to surprise a lot of people.
Whether or not you’ve heard Special Needs, it’s likely that you’ve seen their name bandied about, either in the music press or the broadsheets.
Special Needs have often been lumped into a collective of other garage rockers in London, all making similar post-Strokes music aimed at the lowest common denominator. It’s fair to say the band resent that.”
It’s as if they think we’re idiots, like we sit around sniffing Pritt Stick, but we pay council tax,” Andrew says. “We’re not buffoons.”
Daniel adds that the image of the band has always been “London, ramshackle, sloppy rock ‘n’ roll, and it’s never what we were”. The album, however it sells, will banish those comments for good.
Special Needs made the record with producer Ian Grimble on the back of some high profile engineering credits.
“There were a couple of people, trendy east London rocky-type garage producers that we spoke to about doing it, but we wanted that big, full sound,” Zac says.
“With the stuff that Ian has done in the past, McAlmont & Butler, the Manics’ Everything Must Go, he was able to get that.”
The album has a very lush sound. It’s full-on, but delicate too. Andrew calls the songs “aggressive lullabies”.
“Me and Daniel always used to talk about [Phil] Spector and Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, who were really powerful but soft at the same time,” he adds. “You can ram your fist into something, and it’s kinda like the energy of that, but it happens in slow motion. I think when you do that it becomes something special.”
The hope is clearly to make an album that endures. One that isn’t just a burst of noise and aggression.
“You can have a great song and you can do it with energy, but energy only lasts five minutes,” says Andrew. “The album’s got a real tenderness to it, a real softness, and that lasts for years.”
Special Needs have put out three singles to date. Their first, ‘Sylvia’ (backed with ‘Tarts’), is a record they all-but disown. “If anyone tries to claim it was a single release we’ll sue them,” Andrew says, trying his best to look stern but not really succeeding. “It was a demo that got put out.”
It’s a bit rough around the edges, sure, but it certainly isn’t a bad record. Follow-ups ‘Francesca’ and this summer’s ‘Blue Skies’ give a much better indication of where Special Needs are as a band right now.
It’s a (budget) Wall of Sound with melodies that drag you in with their sweetness, disguising the sadness behind it all. “We’re just struggling to survive, trying to make the best of it. That’s the way everybody is, and if we sound like The Monkees when we do it, then that’s the intention,” says Andrew.
There are smart flourishes all over the album, from the music hall piano on ‘Martin’s In A Fix’ (played by James Blunt’s touring pianist Paul Beard), to the layered a cappella breakdown on ‘The Girl From The Laundrette’.
And then there’s ‘A Town Called Angelica’, a song that marries its bleak lyrics with a downbeat melody that doesn’t shy away from the darkness.
“It’s about a place in the north called Annesley,” Andrew explains. “My dad used to work there in the same factory for 20 years. The whole mining community disappeared and was replaced by a Kodak factory, making film for very cheap cameras.
“That was the place which held the fabric of the community together, and it’s been closed down. I talked to my dad about six months ago when the song was written, and he was a manager there, only him and three people left, just clearing out the lockers. That’s what that song is about – the passing bell for the death of a community.”
The pit in Annesley was one of the oldest in the country, making the subsequent collapse of its once-modern replacement feel all the more crushing.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. If these songs were nothing more than misery wrapped in melody there really wouldn’t be a point.
The recurring theme here is one of escape. Of realising that the world isn’t perfect and wondrous all the time. That sometimes it feels like everything will disintegrate, but you can always try to get away.
What the band aren’t saying is that escape is as easy as a trip to the funfair, even though the British seaside pops up repeatedly in their lyrics.
“It’s very apparent that people seem to think that we think the seaside is some sort of Mecca, some sort of opportunity,” Andrew says.
“‘Tarts’ was never intended to be some sort of song where, ‘We’re 17, life is terrible in the city, let’s go and live in Skegness’.
“The whole point of that song is that life is pretty hard, but living there isn’t going to make it any better. The whole point of it is the death of the English seaside – a flippant kiss down the arcade, and it just meant nothing, it was raining and there was nothing around.”
Daniel adds, “The seaside used to be something, but now it’s just a glorified fucking arcade machine on the seafront. Maybe it wasn’t better, but it was a place where people went to congregate, and now it’s the cheapest, tackiest place in the world.”
Andrew agrees, “You get there, and it lasts three minutes before you get bored. Someone has a ‘Kiss Me Quick’ hat, and you flip it off and there’s nothing behind it – if you’re lucky there’s a bald patch.”
So escape, if it’s possible, is not to be found beside the seaside. So where does that leave us to run? Well, there’s music. Andrew singles out Suede as the group who inspired him to pick up a guitar and form a band.
“Just to walk around the village I grew up in with a ridiculous dyed black quiff. You get into that mentality where you think all you have to do is walk down the road and you’re something,” he says, and he wants Special Needs to inspire people in a similar way.
“If things go to plan there’ll be a generation of young people who’ll be able to walk out of houses and comb their hair properly, and think something is possible.
“Maybe if it’s just 20 or 30 people in Kilburn who say that there was a great band that used to practice down here and we used to walk past there every day, then maybe there’s a hope.”
Special Needs’ lyrics are shot through with that dream of escape. Of being the Billy Liar who actually caught the train. “Hold on, hold on”, “I can do anything”, “We’re not broken yet, we’re not letting go”, “Run away, run away, we’ll run away”.
“‘Blue Skies’ wasn’t blue in a Sid James, luminous skies way,” Andrew says. “It was blue like Billie Holiday. That’s what the song meant, ‘I’m really, really fuckin’ blue’. The whole song was just an escape from misery.
“And funfairs and heartbreak [the band’s old clubnight and lyric from ‘Get Around’] wasn’t an optimistic thing – it was like a snapshot between being sick in the toilets and kicking your heels running outside the pub.”
The band have walked that same tightrope between happiness and despair, and there have been turbulent times when everything nearly fell apart.
Last December, Special Needs had just signed their first album deal and seemed on the cusp of something important when they chaotically imploded on stage. It all happened at a gig to celebrate some of their fans’ birthdays.
“The band’s the one thing that keeps us together, and sometimes that doesn’t even look like it can,” says Phil.
There were fists flying, recriminations yelled and, later, apologies hollered across the venue while the crowd watched disbelieving and open-mouthed.
So what happened? In Andrew’s words, Zachery, more than a little worse for wear, “turned up as Batman and tried to maim me onstage”.
It’s ridiculous, and Zac admits, “We can look back at it now and laugh… but at the time it was terrible, it was breaking all of our hearts.”
Zac concedes that he’s undergone some drastic self-improvement since that night, and the lyrics of their song ‘Convince Me’ were written in the aftermath.
There came a point where it became clear to the band that, as Zac says, “We realised that it’s the only thing in our lives.”
Last year, Razorlight’s Johnny Borrell took some time out from fluffing his own ego to claim that Andrew Pearson was the one person who should be in the NME’s 2004 Cool List.
When this is brought up, Andrew quips, “It’s often said – by himself – that he’s a genius, and that was confirmation of his talent, his insights, and his visions of the future”.
It’s Daniel who notes that it was the rest of Borrell’s comments that were maybe more perceptive. The singer called Special Needs “one of those bands where it feels like they’re breaking up every time you see them”.
Zac and Daniel argue that a certain vulnerability and unpredictability is maybe a necessary requirement for a band to stay honest and exciting, but all are happy that Special Needs have taken a step back from that edge they seemed so close to falling from last December.
Andrew says, “The thing I’m most proud of is that we’re still together, and we still play together, we still enjoy it. We’re still trying to get somewhere else, still trying to write better and better songs.”
Since their near break-up the band have enjoyed mixed fortunes. ‘Blue Skies’ sold well but just missed the Top 40, and while the album sessions and accompanying tour have been a success, behind-the-scenes label difficulties have delayed its release.
Despite these setbacks there’s a quiet confidence about this band – not arrogance and brainless swagger, but an assured self-belief.
As Zac says, “the songs are great songs,” and on their release, snobbery and cynicism about The Needs will evaporate.
Andrew adds with such sincerity that you can’t help but believe him, “I doubt there’s anyone in London that could come and sit in this pub and write a better song than we could.”