Since their career resurgence in 2009 to mark their 30th anniversary, The Specials have continued to ride a newfound wave of relevancy as we, thankfully, approach the end of 2016. The ska band’s formation in the late 1970s cultivated a societal backlash through music, popularising ska as an agent of racial equality whilst tackling tough subjects such as urban decay, nationalism and teenage pregnancy. Standing next to me was a man from the band’s hometown of Coventry, who said that they “told it how it was”.
It’s clear that The Specials continue to tell it how it is just by playing their greatest hits. “Ghost Town” bellowed into life with its eery chromaticism, and immediately signified how theatrical the band’s live set had become. Uniformed black outfits, an expanded line-up of brass and strings are a far cry from the DIY aesthetic enacted through their 2 Tone Records label – famously run in a chaotic fashion from a house in Coventry – but nevertheless enhanced the gritty realism of their music, as if we were watching the overture to Coventry: The Musical.
Hit after hit was coated with theatrical vigour. “Stereotype”, formerly an understated track with a Spaghetti-Western flavour, sounded heavier and fuller in this live environment, whilst “Do the Dog” and “Niteklub” encouraged so much po-going and skanking amongst the born-again Mods that the band had a job to keep up with the crowd’s enthusiasm. Tracks were frequently given the old extended-instrumental-break treatment, yet this never detracted from the experience, unlike Green Day’s OTT approach to the method. This gave the band chance to delve more readily into dub elements previously hinted at on second album “More Specials”, whilst bassist Horace Panter was presented with a platform for his proto-funk walking bass lines.
Lead vocalist Terry Hall has an understated presence on stage, using choice moments to engage with the crowd with his trademark dry humour. When watching him sing “Too Much Too Young” and “Rat Race”, it was clear that this was the same guy who was arrested for inciting a riot in Cambridge back in 1981, which he reminisced to us with a cheeky nod to the security team on duty. His approach was perfectly countered by Lynval Golding, the permanently-smiling rhythm guitarist who would frequently launch into deep, riveting narratives between songs (is there a better way to cover up sound checks?)
After 90 minutes of non-stop energy, it came as a surprise when lead guitarist Steve Craddock reached for an acoustic guitar. Covering Louis Armstrong’s “We Have All The Time In The World” in memory of drummer John Bradbury, Lynval then made the point that peace and love has to be our top priority. The next President of the United States had been elected two days earlier, so the reduced band’s cover of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” really hit home when it needed to. It was interesting to see a group of strangers, united through music, experience shared feelings of discontent and confusion, not sure as to what will happen next. Were we, in fact, experiencing The Specials in 2016, or 1979?
Words from James Proctor