15 May 2013
Few bands arrive thirty years since their prime with such ready made resonance to the modern day; that these songs remain every bit as cutting a commentary on Britain now as they did over three decades ago is little short of tragic. Turn right from the Apollo tonight and it’s the Rat Race of sacred college scarves and daddy’s Jaguar at the University, turn left and find yourself in the Concrete Jungle of Ardwick and Longsight.
Indeed, it’s Concrete Jungle that begins proceedings, a jubilant audience with a larger contingent of under 40s than one might expect erupt at the first whiff of those raging tribal drums and menacing chant of “You’re gonna get your fucking head kicked in”. The first half of the set comprises almost exclusively of tracks from their seminal eponymous debut LP, one of the eternal greats of British music and a constant reference point for decades to come.
Mods, rockers, hippies and skinheads (well, I’m sure there’s a hippy in here somewhere) are all are present in the mass pogo that is Do The Dog, whilst every note to every part of standalone 1979 single Gangsters is sung back at the band.
Not many would attest Terry Hall to be the most beamingly enthusiastic frontman in pop, but generations since have stood, scribbling notes at his shiftless deadpanning. Early on in the set, Hall confiscates a pink inflatable flamingo from the audience, tongue placed in cheek as he berates the ‘hen night’ qualities the offending flamingo brings to the proceedings.
The rockabilly flavours of Roddy Byers’ twanging guitar is one of the most often overlooked yet essential ingredients that brought the Specials head and shoulders above their cotemporaries, and it’s this fusion of styles that Byers brings that symbolises much of what makes the Specials so unique. The band suffer notably without the bounding energy and interaction of Neville Staples, absent due to health concerns, and though guitarist Lynval Golding does his best to emulate an absent Staples, in his absence and indeed without the momentum of their first reunion tour, it could be said that something feels slightly amiss tonight.
The middle of the set brings with it something of a slump as much of the hit and miss second album More Specials is aired. All the same, Hey, Little Rich Girl, dedicated tonight to the late Amy Winehouse, is a triumph, as is the apocalyptic Man at C&A – Terry Hall’s understated whine piercing through the sonic chaos of one of the Specials’ best realised forays into the avant-garde.
The gallows humour of Enjoy Yourself follows a well received and timely airing of their topical re-invention of Bob Dylan’s Maggie’s Farm; a nudge and a wink offered towards a certain former Prime Minister to much pantomime booing.
If the sentiment here could be seen as nostalgic, tonight’s unsurprising high point of Ghost Town is anything but – the haunting dystopia of their 1981 chart topper is very much incarnate in any number of Manchester’s satellite towns; the twitching Saturday nights of deserted dancefloors and broken glass. Avoiding the easy traps of finger-wagging or content-light revolutionary chic, within the Specials canon sits what are still some of the most sophisticated and illuminating political messages ever committed to twelve inch vinyl – messages and ideas still furiously potent now.
It may no longer be the National Front who “want the whole world painted grey”, but the electoral rise of UKIP marks perhaps the most significant gain for the far-right in modern British history. The hymn of opposition to divide and rule prejudices that is It Doesn’t Make It Alright is received with all the reverence and celebration it commands by the entire theatre, save for a few Romper Stomper beermonster caricatures complete with England pin badges.
The Specials are a band that hold a unique position in the hearts of so many in this country, a band that – like the Jam – came from not the trendy city but the suburbs, and articulated the trappings, pitfalls, isolations and ironies of small-town life over a Saturday night and Sunday morning. This is the Specials finally seizing the chance to see what those songs mean to people thirty years on up and down Britain, and the response is most certainly worth the wait.
All words by Fergal Kinney. Read more from Fergal on LTW here.