It’s incredibly ballsy when an artist starts their set with, arguably, their best-known, million-selling, manifesto-defining, song.
Not only does it turn the traditional running order of a gig on it’s head, but it also cockily declares that their catalouge is strong enough to ensure the remaining performance, and it’s encore, will not flatline.
The Specials enter the stage sound tracked by the famous whistling wind opening of the not-so-fun-fun-fare cry of Ghost Town.
As with every Specials track, it’s meaning is not open to interpretation; one minute into song one and we’re already reminded of what the Specials stood for, and who they spoke for. “Government leaving the youth on the shelf“.
The One-Two opening of Ghost Town and ‘Do nothing’, with sentiments (though cynical and humouress) of police brutality and having no meaning in life, is an emotional attack. Hall, though 50-plus and living a different life to his 17 year old no- future self, still provides an emotion edge that must be hard to channel decades after recording the material.
Strong starts aside, it’s hard to know how and what to review with the Specials; a band who haven’t released anything for over 35 years, but a band who’s geo-political and social themes have been lauded many times over.
A recent Uncut article made the interesting point that ‘Nostalgia is it’s own currency now’ and asked the question ‘Are the Specials in 2016 simply about reinforcing their legacy rather than developing it?’.
Developing a legacy for reforming bands is an interesting topic.
Generally, when a band reforms, we ask ‘will their be new music? And if so, then when?’
And generally, we get repetitive, non descript, responses about how it’s not the responsibility of reforming bands to produce new and interesting music. Sir Horace provided the typecast on this occasion, ‘Where are the New Specials? Where is the band that will do what we were doing?’.
In my experience a reforming band is seldom allowed just to reform and play old hits, we tend to want more from them (perhaps to satisfy our nostaligic needs, or to allow us to feel that the reformation is credible).
The sad truth though is when new material is produced we want very little to do with it; many tweeted when the Roses released their comeback tune, but few bought the track. Likewise Dexy’s and Gil Scott Heron’s provided amazing comeback albums, but only decent sales.
History proves that we don’t really listen to new material. And we get annoyed when it is added to live setlists.
We ask for new stuff but we want the old.
How very British…
So why should we put pressure on the Specials to write new material? Firstly they haven’t written together for 35 years, secondly their main songwriter is no longer in the band, and thirdly what is it that we want? More of the same?
And the reinforcing legacy theme?
If we want to reinforce legacies about the classic Specials manifesto by focusing on the bands original line up and (Dammer-led) stalin-esque-manifesto then we can’t; we’re now five members down (Dammers, John, Roddy, Rico and Neville) and the band travel first class.
But what we can do is use the songs to reinforce the legacy of the Specials.
It was always the songs, and their meaning, that carried the true weight of the band.
As a result its the musicianship of the Specials (the ability to replicate the songs live), that becomes pivotal to the success of the reformation.
So the music then; replacing the departed members is difficult; both emotionally and technically. Drafted into the team are Gary Powell (The Libertines) and Steve Craddock (Ocean Colour Scene). Both provide top-of-the-class skills; Craddock dazzles as the best British guitarist (alongside Richard Hawley) in the past twenty years and Powell, as you would assume, does an excellent job of providing a beat on top of mayhem.
The gap in personnel also promotes a greater role and responsibility to Lynval who provides many of the vocals and mc’ing. Alongside Horace, who is also received as a hero, the two direct the music and the rythmn. Both are excellent and both are soaked in sweat by the end.
John’s death earlier this year is still apparent. In tribute we get a very emotional cover of ‘We have all the time in the word’. Hall may be accused of being the most sarcastic man in music (a tale he seems to enjoy given his ‘Hello Suffolk’ introduction), but give him the right conditions and he can also be one of it’s best singers.
Though the funeral was almost a year ago, Hall struggles with keeping his emotions in check. It’s wonderful. Not in a voyeuristic way, but in a way which reminds you how special a human relationship can be.
At another part of the show, Lynval covers Redemption song- as he did at John’s funeral- it provides an opportunity for silent, meditative, contemplation.
As he ages, Hall looks like a short haired Robert Smith; with the attitude to go with it. He’s good with it of course- playing his character to the audience.
But there are certain, wonderful, moments when he appears unable to look into the crowd. He has a comical, almost stand-up, persona, but it’s his humanity and shyness that have always produced his best moments.
Recently, his openness about battling depression is a testament to anyone trying to change the stigma surrounding mental health. Thirty five years on and he’s still challenging society’s boundaries and standing up for the forgotten.
The sum of all of these intricate parts results in the songs being presented and performed brilliantly. It’s a presentation that allows the messaging within the songs to be communicated fully.
And it’s the songs that matter.
The songs reinforce the band’s legacy.
The legacy reinforces the values of social cohesion and providing empathy for everyone; not just the elite.
These songs, and their messages, have been heard countless times, but good messages need to be repeated.
Good sentiments need campaigning.
There’s talk that, prior to John’s death, the Specials had begun to look at various pieces of music to cover for some new material.
We live in hope for new material.
But more importantly, we live in hope because of the old material.
The Specials have come out of retirement for a revitalised second act.
To some it’s been a chance to be reminded of youthful hopes and dreams; for others, like me, it’s a chance to properly hear Rudy’s message for the first time, and (maybe) stop my messing around.
Support: The General Roots