The band wore mod-style "1960s period rude boy outfits (pork pie hats, tonic and mohair suits and loafers)". In 1980, the song "Too Much Too Young", the lead track on their The Special AKA Live! EP, reached No. 1 in the UK. In 1981, the unemployment-themed single "Ghost Town" also hit No. 1 in the UK Singles Chart.
After seven consecutive UK Top 10 singles between 1979 and 1981, three members of the group abruptly left to form Fun Boy Three. Continuing on as "The Special AKA" (a name they used frequently on earlier Specials releases), a substantially revised Specials line-up issued new material through 1984, including the top 10 UK hit single "Free Nelson Mandela". Afterwards, founder and songwriter Jerry Dammers dissolved the band and pursued political activism.
The group reformed in 1993, and have continued to perform and record with varying line-ups (but without Dammers).
The group was formed in 1977 by songwriter/keyboardist Dammers, vocalist Tim Strickland, guitarist/vocalist Lynval Golding, drummer Silverton Hutchinson and bassist Horace Panter (a.k.a. Sir Horace Gentleman). Strickland was replaced by Terry Hall shortly after the band's formation. The band was first called the Automatics, then the Coventry Automatics. Vocalist Neville Staple and guitarist Roddy Byers (a.k.a. Roddy Radiation) joined the band the following year, and the band changed its name to the Special AKA. Joe Strummer of the Clash had attended one of their concerts, and invited the Special AKA to open for his band in their "On Parole" UK tour. This performance gave the Special AKA a new level of national exposure, and they briefly shared the Clash's management.
The Specials began at the same time as Rock Against Racism, which was first organised in 1978. According to Dammers, anti-racism was intrinsic to the formation of the Specials, in that the band was formed with the goal of integrating black and white people. Many years later Dammers stated, "Music gets political when there are new ideas in music, ...punk was innovative, so was ska, and that was why bands such as the Specials and the Clash could be political".