The Specials are touring their 40th anniversary album release, Encore, around Europe on a largely sell out tour, Getintothis’ Peter Goodbody dug out his Two Tone gear for this one.
Looking back, it may seem surprising the effective career of The Specials lasted only about 2 years.
The first single, Gangsters was released in 1979. The last, Ghost Town came in 1981. The band exploded on the scene on the back of punk and the solemn mood of a nation in turmoil. Violence on the streets and a Conservative government that was polarising the nation.
It seemed The Specials were hardly off our TV screens, nor very far from our consciousness during their brief tenure as a voice of disaffected youth. Although in retrospect, it may be the band are better thought of as observers of their world, rather than campaigners. Nevertheless, theirs was a message that resonated with many, many people.
If their rise was rapid, then so too was their demise. Ghost Town had been at Number One in the Charts for three weeks, but an appearance on TOTP was to be the last of The Specials as we knew them. The band split in their BBC dressing room that night.
Of course, as with so many other bands of that era, there have been reformations and reunions, most notably in 2009. Although, Jerry Dammers was missing this time around. Since then there have been more gigs, but until now, no new music.
The nucleus of the band tonight is original members Terry Hall, Lynval Golding and Horace Panter.
It seems as though things have come full circle and The Specials are no less relevant today as they were back in 1979. The parallels are chilling with the state of the world as we find it now. It’s arguably worse now than it was then. If only we knew how lucky we were.
So, 40 years after the release of Gangsters, there is a new album, Encore, and a massive European and US tour for the band, as well as a slew of festivals to squeeze in. The Liverpool date is about a third of the way into this globetrotting odyssey.
Encore is relatively short, checking in at 10 numbers, of which a few are covers, including The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum, which was to have been The Specials’ follow up to Ghost Town, but ended up being released by Fun Boy Three instead.
It may be fitting that Liverpool is wet and gloomy tonight, as it has been for most of the day. Our poor dog hasn’t had a walk because it’s just raining too much. And she doesn’t do rain. We’re not quite in Ghost Town territory here, but it’s pretty fucking miserable out there as we head up the hill to Olympia.
The Tuts are support for some of the dates on this tour. The trio describe themselves as “Three Tone”, for their roots are British, Caribbean and Indian / Pakistani. Comprising Nadia, Harriet and Bev, they consider themselves indie / punk in the vein of The Libertines, or X-Ray Spex. They’re talking about attitude here, rather than describing their sound.
They hit the stage to play a set largely comprised of numbers from their 2016 release Update Your Brain.
“Hi, we’re The Tuts, this song’s called Tut Tut Tut.” It’s an ode to always being the support band. “Hurry up ladies, you’re on first””.
Olympia is about half full to see the band deliver a pretty decent fast paced punky set. “We don’t have a manager or a label,” says Nadia. “We had a meeting with a Record Guy a while ago who told us we were shit. So, we’re completely DIY. And now we’re on tour with The Specials. So fuck you.”
It’s got an engaging feel to it, a bit rough around the edges, but it’s good pop / punk.
“Anyone like The Clash in here?” They kick off with Rudi Can’t Fail, harder and faster than The Clash ever did it. Kudos. We’re sold.
The Specials have a merch stand, natch. As indeed do The Tuts, selling Three Tone t-shirts. But of more interest is the stand of the charity Tonic. This organisation raises awareness of mental health issues and the benefits that can be derived from music, whether playing or going to gigs, in helping towards recovery. They organise workshops, gigs and courses designed either to aid a rehabilitation or perhaps a route to carve out a caterer in music or art.
It’s an admirable cause and an issue that has been discussed on this website on many occasions.
Terry Hall is a patron of the charity. If it needs to be spelled out, that is a Good Thing. Be more like Terry.
The stage for The Specials is set up to look like the aftermath of a protest march. There are placards at the back with typical Specials– like slogans: “Right Wrong”, “Help Someone“, “The Television Will Not Be Revolutionised”. You get the idea.
But, they’re taking their time. Guitar techs wander on and off. Bottles of water arrive. Someone places set lists on the stage. More guitar techs wander on and off. And again. Someone fiddles with something on one of the keyboards. More guitar techs wander on and off. It’s a bit of a tease?
But in the end the nuclear attack alarms go off and the band walk on stage and fire up Man at C&A, which has been the set opener for all the gigs on this tour.
Terry Hall’s given up smoking. We know because he arrives a few bars into the song puffing on a vape device. And basically a mass sing along ensues. Rat Race being a particularly jumping tune early on. Olympia is full. There’s hardly any space to move and most of this crowd are old enough to have seen The Specials first time around.
That’s not a sneer, it’s a recognition of how much this band hit the spot first time around. And how 40 years on, the same people still think The Specials have something to say.
I’ve been to around 100 gigs and tonight has be up there as one of the best gigs I’ve ever seen! The audience were united together no matter what race, sexuality or gender! They are still here promoting anti hate and Britain needs them more than ever #TheSpecials pic.twitter.com/4tEeyM6O7w
— L U K E 🦋 (@lukeg9944) April 27, 2019
Blank Expression and It Doesn’t Make It Alright get the crowd properly going. They know the old stuff better than the songs on Encore, probably not surprisingly and we guess that’s what they’re here to see. Terry Hall takes up a John Lydon stance in the middle of the stage, easel in front of his mic stand, and whilst not completely Lydon-like static, he lets the others in the band do the movement.
The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum gets a massive cheer. It’s a good song. That seems fair.
The Ten Commandments with Saffiyah Khan on vocals was a personal highlight of the set. It’s an answer song, a response to Prince Buster‘s Ten Commandments of Man (1965) which is essentially a list instructing a woman to be a supplicant to Prince Buster‘s ego. Now it’s an all-out fuck-you, kick-ass glorious Ten Commandments addressing rape culture, misogyny, self-worth and all the other stuff you hate.
Oh, yeah. Who’s Saffiyah Khan? She’s the one who stared out the EDL in Birmingham, whilst wearing a Specials t-shirt. You remember the pic. Now she’s part of the band. Karma will seek you out.
Too Much Too Young, shocking then – “try wearing a cap” – innocuous now, has the crowd bouncing all the way back to the mixing desk. It’s the last of the set proper and it’s a great way to bow out.
Or it would have been. But, there’s been no Ghost Town yet.
That happens, obviously as an encore. But we also get the quite surreal Breaking Point – a Kurt Weill Cabaret-esque number that shows The Specials have more tricks about them.
It’s a cracking night. This was stuff we grew up with at school (yeah, true it was that long ago), but it still touches a nerve. And they’re decent tunes too. We’ll forgive the messing about earlier.
Images by Getintothis’ Warren Millar