Words by Jacqueline Howell, Photos by Dave MacIntyre
Seeing The Specials live in the new century is an experience not to be missed, as those who’ve clamored to catch their regularly sold out North American tours in 2010, 2012 and this just-begun 2016 tour can attest. Not only do they sound impossibly fresh, they are still way out there on the edge, ahead of the curve, almost 40 years later. And they are riveting to see in action. Toronto crowds have always loved this band and have been enjoying a delightful years-long reunion since The Specials’ two night stand at Sound Academy in 2010 (a night some of us will cherish to the grave.)
One reason this iconic band is so unmissable is that the music was born out of a time and a climate in England when our musicians were more than tough, more than dedicated, and more than skilled. People were just more gritty then, and they had to be to survive (and then some, to thrive). The Specials traveled their own country incessantly in 1979 and 1980 amid the dark days of Thatcherism, labour unrest, mass joblessness, social upheavals and amid threats and reports of racist violence from the National Front, each night walking into a different beer soaked room amid a different crowd in a strange place with only their music and their attitudes between them and whatever lay beyond the edge of the stage. What developed out of those formative years took their one of a kind self-titled debut record and all of this Coventry bands’ peculiarities and hallmarks a step further, adding layers of life, of well-clad shoulder-to-shoulder work in the live music trenches (and sometimes, friction) and of an indelible cool, a confidence that no troublemaker or promoter lackey gesturing at their watch could even touch, let alone scratch. And cool like this is forever.
The music back then was naturally incendiary, but was in keeping with a dystopian time of skirmishes and fires anywhere people could clash, and the fuel of stresses and lager were there to start things up. And unlike some incendiary things going on around the country, this music had a lot to say. It had a point. Ahead of all the good and lesser Ska bands and pop bands that would play with images, style or sounds lifted from this one record, The Specials debut was and will forever be one of the most exciting bunch of sounds, personalities and performers to come out of the UK.
For the generation that grew up in the wake of the late 70s, British problems both micro (what specific street and area to avoid) and macro (institutionalized racism, joblessness, heartbreak expressed as anger, cultural and musical concerns that all these problems swirled around) resonated within England and beyond to distant shores who wanted to understand, be in the know and inject the band’s seemingly effortless cool into their veins. Whichever way we came to the music and from whatever amount of distance (and time delays in then-slow moving Toronto) the vinyl, and we had only the vinyl, contained some very unusual combination that rocked us out of whatever else we were listening to. It was so different than anything else we’d heard, and anything on radio. It was experimental, it was a riot of sounds, it was real instruments of a type we weren’t used to hearing (brass) and voices we weren’t used to hearing either as 80s kids, Jamaican voices and Patois from Neville Staples and Lynval Golding. A type of recording that sounds real and intimate, with spaces allowed to form and just enough production (via Elvis Costello). Terry Hall comes at the listener (from his own galaxy) of authority about the world he observed and his voice at times cruel, at other times beautifully wounded, pitching in ridicule and sometimes plain and perfectly blunt, speaking instead of singing. And the voices work together in weird ways that only these men would ever be able to do. The music sounds as tight as a symphony with bursts of occasional crashing sounds, in-studio effects, and playfulness that sounded like a club you’d kill to join, but of course, “you can’t come in…”
UK culture of their time was thus exported in a way that was perhaps unintended, and took on echoes far beyond England for fans further afield, framed by this band as cool, defiant, stylishly well-dressed-but-not trendy (and in defiance of class limitations or rules) urban, two-toned, dangerous and sharp. It was Jamaican-inflected, both in musical references and in its musical membership. It was authentic. The three voices of Terry Hall, Neville Staples and Lynval Golding invented a type of discordant harmony, deliberate disharmony and toasting that cannot be bested or duplicated, and would take the three friends into future musical projects outside of The Specials (notably Fun Boy Three, after The Specials first and then-firm break up in 1981).
The same is all true of this band today, even as Britain has changed and settled in endless ways and nite klubs are not the usual site of social movements the way they once were. Thatcher-era violence and problems still have their legacy, to be sure: the destruction, to so many, was a deliberate deforestation, and irreversible. Like all truly important music, The Specials sound is still deeply resonant and the warnings and dark portent still necessary. The darkness is forever at the edge of town, in our hearts, and lurking now in hidden places in the unreal online world, like the clown in IT. 2 tone, a hybrid of Ska with punk rock ethos is so simple, elegant and beautiful. Two tone in fashion is timeless style – there is no more perfect line than black and white. It is a statement. So is a 2 tone band, a strongly political one, and it is still relatively rare in rock music, troubling, that, since it’s so clearly superior to some many sounds produced in a world too bland and too often lily white, or worse, colourless.
When you’ve been geographically fortunate and taken pains to see The Specials three times in six years in this new, bland century, one can finally afford the rare discipline to stop dancing and risking wearing others’ cups of beer with the crowd and just watch this show unfold from the barrier. This is a band in a time of big changes and heavy adaptation due to necessity and tragedy that they’ve handled with grace and professionalism. Long time drummer John “Brad” Bradbury passed away in December 2015 at just 62, at a time when the band was working on new material including new songs from Bradbury. So it’s remarkable to see a group who’s played together off and on for decades pull together in spite of this sudden loss. We hear afterward that during this show, only the fourth of the tour, things began to gel and flow, to feel some ease with the new formation in the live room. But a legendary band never lets us see them sweat. The addition of new members for this tour works impressively well from this side of the barrier: a band could do far worse than Gary Powell of The Libertines on drums and Steve Cradock (Paul Weller, Ocean Colour Scene) joining the group on guitar and backing vocals after Neville Staples left the band recently due to health concerns. Seeing a band at this level, today, means fans in jewel box halls like Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall also gets to see star players joining a star band, which is a treat.
Sir Horace Gentleman (who really and truly is), AKA Horace Panter, has been freed in the age of the cordless bass to circle and pivot the stage covering every corner and peppering the air with his boundless energy. One would think he was the energetic pup on this tour and not a founding member. Terry Hall and Lynval Golding have a rare bond and play off each other as they have for decades, and it’s an entertaining private side show for those with a close up view (who are trying to resist dancing and looking a mess just for once). It’s also a musician’s language of silent cues, looks and pauses that the crowd will never get even if we’d like to imagine otherwise. Terry Hall is arguably one of the most riveting front men in music and has never failed to be, no less because he is not a showman but operates internally, in his head, with some additional unscripted moments that erupt and remind us that music and singers are supposed to be menacing, dangerous, alive and even angry. Do not expect to bottle this stage (even with a plastic water bottle) and not get a response from Hall (you fool).
A little shoving match starts near the front of the crowd on the second song, “Friday Night, Saturday Morning” which probably comes from no tension greater than the effect real music has on people after listening to canned radio pap for too long and leaving their suburban homes for one night. I’m more interested in making sure the singer is not needlessly distracted or bothered by this minor moment than by the fate of the two men recapturing their youth via shoving just a few feet away. When you love a band and their music is in your bones you can sometimes leave your body and even tune out idiots for 90 minutes, that’s the secret and the miracle of live music too many have forgotten today. That’s what’s lived on and on for this stellar band and their lifelong fans far beyond Area 6, and as the faces of the Little Bitches of the 1970s, grandmas now, have faded away; the music that’s shone on and on far beyond reach of the grimy paws of The National Front and the same petty, senseless hate that persists in small, virulent pockets under other more cowardly names still; and the drums that beat on for Brad now in his memory; the music that rings on giving hope and reminding us to have grit and stay alert because while Thatcher is now pushing daises some once thriving cities are still ghost towns and have not recovered. That politics is forever wash-rinse-repeat. That our musicians are our outsider heroes, or at least, can be every once in awhile.
Golding takes a moment to mention that Black Lives Matter and also that Native American lives matter. Toronto gets a rollicking set that does not leave time or room to nitpick or even imagine anything could have been left off the wish list. It’s not til hours later during hours and hours of post-gaming that we realize “Stupid Marriage” wasn’t played. Personal highlights included opening with the impeccable “Ghost Town“, “Nite Klub” (is it my imagination or does Terry Hall sound very, er, sincere whenever he sings this one at us punters? Turning every room into the “club like this”? This song is so special, so alive, so snarky and so true, it’s the penultimate anthem with a bitter twist if you listen to the words. It probably informed half of Britpop’s entire existence. True love, this tune.) A personal favourite since the first record spin is the rare vulnerability Hall sings with in “Blank Expression” and of course, hats off always to the essential show closers “Enjoy Yourself” and “You’re Wondering Now” which are played to completion at their own pace while a flustered youngster hopelessly & desperately tried to signal to Hall via “cut” and “pointing at watch” gestures from side stage. He might even be trying to improvise a signal for “wrap it up”. Don’t you bloody dare annoy Mr. Hall whilst he’s working, young man, or I might (plastic water) bottle you.
With very special thanks to Horace Panter & The Specials
Further reading: We interviewed Horace Panter on music and art.
The Specials official website.