Special is an alternative rock song written, performed and produced by Garbage, and was the third international single to be released from the band’s platinum second album Version 2.0. Special gained much attention in the music press upon the 1998 release of Version 2.0, as it contained a vocal interpolation of a lyric taken from Talk of The Town by The Pretenders.
A moderate hit in the United Kingdom and Australia in October 1998, Special became a sleeper hit in the United States the following year. The song’s success was marked by becoming nominated in the Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group categories at the 2000 Grammy Awards, and winning a Wisconsin Area Music Industry award for Song of the Year and a Citation of Achievement from the BMI Pop Awards. The acclaimed Sci-Fi inspired music video for Special also received multiple nominations from music industry award panels; winning a D&AD Award, a MTV Video Music Award, and a VH1 Visionary Video award.
In 2007, Special was remastered and included on Garbage’s greatest hits album Absolute Garbage.
Garbage began writing their second album, which would go under the working title of Sad Alcoholic Clowns, in March 1997 in the band’s label-head Jerry Moss’s Friday Harbor, Washington, vacation house. The group demoed and made rough outlines for new songs, of which Special, was one of. When they felt they had made a good start, Garbage took the work they made in Washington back to their Madison, Wisconsin base at Smart Studios and begin fleshing out the ideas and rough sketches over the following year.
Garbage intended their second album to build upon the framework, music style and musical template laid down by their first release; to create a rapprochement between the “high-tech and low-down, the now sound and of golden memories” and wear musical references to the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Garbage recorded all of their work for the second album through a 48-track digital system digitally, direct to hard drives utilizing a 24-bit Pro Tools rig.
Garbage employed touring bassist Daniel Shulman to perform electric bass on Special, which he performed using a Fender Precision Bass run through an Ampeg SVT and then treated with “severe” equalization to achieve a Paul McCartney-esque Höfner sound to the part. The guitar solo intro (which returns at the end of both choruses) was performed on a12-string Rickenbacker guitar. At the end of the first chorus, Garbage recorded a multi-tracked harmony vocal from Manson (“I can’t think of any latter-day bands where a female is singing those sort of stacked ’60’s style vocals“).
While experimenting with various phrasing over the outro to Special, group vocalist Shirley Manson ad-libbed “We were the talk of the town” from the refrain of The Pretenders song Talk of The Town. The band were keen to keep the lyric, and to circumvent any potential legal problems, Manson contacted Chrissie Hynde by telephone to ask for permission to use the lyric. Hynde agreed to let Garbage use the lyric without even hearing Special first (and did not ask for any credit or royalties); Manson felt that she should send Hynde a copy of the song just to be sure, but before she could do so, Hynde sent a fax to Smart Studios giving her written consent. Manson was reluctant to let people think that Special was simply a paean to Hynde; her lyrics concerned a friendship Manson had moved on from after her friend had let her down. Manson: “Ultimately it’s about those feelings of betrayal you have for people when you set your sights too high and expect too much and how that can lead to disappointment in the end.”
Garbage completed recording, producing and mixing of their second album in mid-February 1998, and the album was given the title Version 2.0. Special was track listed as the album’s fifth song. Version 2.0 was released worldwide on May 11 of that year; despite a slow start, Version 2.0 went on to equal its predecessor, selling over four million copies and achieving platinum-certification in many territories, including United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Europe and Australia.
The promotional video for Special (see above) was filmed over a four-day shoot in London at the end of August 1998 by director Dawn Shadforth for Black Dog/RSA Films. Shadforth came to Garbage’s attention when they viewed her clip for Beat Goes On by electronica group All Seeing I. Her innovative storyboard treatment for Special highly impressed the band – her concept was not an obvious idea for a song like Special.
Her concept for Special featured the members of Garbage in a dogfight in the skies of an alien world. Before production of the video commenced, Shadforth fashioned four study models of the fighter planes to enable her to plan in advance the shots and edits she needed to tell the story line. The planes were designed by graphic artists who had worked on visual effects for Lost In Space and Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Each band member was given a personalized plane design, emblazoned with imagery inspired by manga and Sci-Fi art; while each filmed their parts in a cabin set built upon a gimbal to give realism to the shots.
Stylist William Baker, who worked on the video, said “Dawn wanted to present Shirley Manson as a space-age fighter pilot, with shots showing her sexily manipulating the controls of her craft“. Shadforth later used techniques she used on the Special video in her 2001 music video for Kylie Minogue’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head.
Editor’s Note: Special and Talk of the Town are tied together in my musical consciousness almost melding to be one song. I love both Chrissie Hynde and Shirley Manson so much, that this synonymous association just makes sense to me. The song also brings to mine a collection of “driving” mix CD’s I made a few years back when a friend was visiting. We listened to these mixes while we drove around Los Angeles, and the surrounding areas, going into Topanga and Laurel Canyon and up through Mulholland Drive. This song played as we drove through Silver Lake, and the image of that part of town sticks with this song, for me, as well.