Few and far between are the days when I don’t find myself pining listlessly for those fabled years when our student unions were a certain fixture on band’s tours across the country. Stuck as I am now in the comparatively less proliferant live music scene of 2016, seeing The Specials perform live at the university’s Great Hall therefore seemed too symbolic an opportunity to miss.
I wonder, nonetheless, had I not received a press pass for the gig would I have been willing to overlook the hefty 40 quid or so the band were charging for tickets? Only three original members would be performing, the band being without their principal songwriter, Jerry Dammers, who left way back in 1984, and drummer John Bradbury, replaced today by The Libertines’ Gary Powell after he passed away not long after the band had announced their plans for a reunion tour.
[I’ve] never seen such aN ABUNDANCE OF PILLBOX HATS AND DR MARTEN’S BOOTS
Clearly though, you can’t put too high a price on summoning the retinue of Devon’s rudeboys, who, though they doubtless paid some tiny fraction of today’s prices to see The Specials perform in their heyday, turn up en masse this evening to the Great Hall. The band has always been a circumvolving collective of various players, and I suppose that as long as Terry Hall is present to sing Dammers’ tunes, then that is as little a resemblance to the past that their most dedicated fans need.
I am not entirely sure where they all came from, having never seen such an abundance of pillbox hats and Dr Marten’s boots around town on any regular day. But they appear this evening nonetheless, and when the support band never turn up and I have to stand for some time caught in the midst of the crowd, I begin to feel peculiarly uncomfortable, some awkward flâneur caught amidst an unfamiliar throng.
The band eventually emerge as faint silhouettes through obfuscating, curling whispers of smoke, a somewhat surprising dramatic touch, though it adds some excitement to anticipating that first organ chord resonate through the start of “Ghost Town”. Terry Hall arrives on stage long after the rest of the group and proceeds to cast his usual dour, statuesque contrast to Lynval Golding’s skanking jollities, though he appears particularly miserable today, mumbling halfway through the performance something like ‘it’s nice to be in Exeter… I think’.
“iT’S NICE TO BE IN EXETER…I THINK”
‘A Message To You’, ‘Rudy’; ‘Blank Expression’; ‘Doesn’t Make It Alright’; the set list is filled predominantly with the most recognisable songs from their seminal debut album, plus well-known covers of Toots and the Maytals and The Skatalites, and a notable highlight is when Golding picks up the microphone to sing Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’. Perhaps here would be the place to indulge that familiar aphorism: that the politically astute songs of The Specials seemed even more relevant today than they did in the early 1980s. Indeed, at one point Golding rouses the crowd when he triumphantly quotes “Black Lives Matter!” – but I don’t think these songs have ever been irrelevant; and such is the key to The Specials enduring appeal, as well as the underlying problem within our society.
Overall, though feeling somewhat isolated amidst the nostalgic excitement of the rest of the crowd, I still thoroughly enjoyed the experience of seeing The Specials live. I was never part of the movement, but The Special’s songs have become second nature to me through various secluded bedsits at home with my records, so in my own way it was a particularly special occasion to see them performed live.