When most people think of ska music, they tend to think of bouncy, fun music, be it from first-wave acts like The Skatalites, second-wave bands like Madness, or third-wave bands like Reel Big Fish. But “The Boiler” by the Special AKA with Rhoda Dakar is the most harrowing, upsetting song you’ll hear — and the first pop song to take a stance against rape.
“The Boiler” is a spoken word piece that opens with the female narrator at a clothing shop. An attractive man buys the outfit she chose for herself, then asks her on a date. She’s surprised — the man’s a hunk, and she’s an “old boiler”, who hasn’t been out in seven years. That night they meet up, and despite having her hair done and new clothes on, she still can’t shake the feeling she’s not worthy of this man. After a night of clubbing, he invites her over. When she replies that they’ve only known each other a day and that she’d like for him to call her sometime, he gets mad. He bought her outfit, he bought her drinks and thinks he “deserves” something in return. He then stomps off. She chases the upset man to a secluded place where he beats her up and rapes her. The final lines are:
There was nothing I could do honest, I was helpless
And then he tried to rape me, and there was nothing I could do, honest
All I could do was scream, no…
And the last minute of the song is Rhoda Dakar screaming and crying.
“The Boiler” had a long route to record; it was originally written by Dakar’s previous band, The Bodysnatchers, and the band wanted it to be their first single, but the distributor balked and insisted they do the more commercial “Let’s Do Rock Steady”. The Bodysnatchers broke up, and Dakar joined The Specials. The Specials started performing “The Boiler” live, and Dakar and Jerry Dammers started working on recording a version by the Specials… but then half the band left. The rest of the Specials plus Dakar reformed into The Special A.K.A. and “The Boiler” was finally recorded and became the first release from the new group.
Though “The Boiler” was only ever performed on television once, its promo video (by famed new wave artist Barney Bubbles!) aired only twice, and the song was rarely played on the radio — DJ John Peel was the only person to play it regularly, even playing a specially-recorded version as well as the single — the single reached number 35 in the British charts.
Rhoda Dakar has said the song is about a real incident that happened to a friend of hers. In an interview with the ska site Marco On The Bass, Dakar explains the song’s creation:
[“The Boiler”] came about because I was just talking over a riff in rehearsal. I didn’t know about writing songs, but I knew how to improvise — I had originally wanted to act and had worked in the theatre on leaving school. Performing it live was acting, that’s all. A friend had been raped a couple of years earlier and I suppose I was thinking of her at the time. Recording it was a very long and drawn out process. It was released a year after it was first recorded. I remember Jerry [Dammers] on the phone to the studio from New York organizing remixes.
Social causes were always very important to the Specials, and “The Boiler” was one of many “issue songs” from the band. The last single by the Specials proper was “Ghost Town“, a takedown of what Margaret Thatcher’s reign had done to Britain. Two years after “The Boiler”, the Special A.K.A. would release “Free Nelson Mandela“, an anti-apartheid song. As for “The Boiler,” Jerry Dammers himself said “it is the only record that was ever made quite deliberately to be listened to once and once only.”
“The Boiler” is unforgettable — a song you hear once, and it’s forever etched on your memory. While making a record to be heard once is not a sure-fire route to the top of the charts, it’s an amazing piece of art that should be heard by everyone… once.
(Featured image via Guilherme Yagui)