Coventry Building Society Arena, Saturday 11th September
The Specials attract an interesting crowd. Amongst an audience mainly made up of balding, middle-aged men, the prevalence of Fred Perry shirts, pork pie hats, Doc Martens, and argy-bargy tones was almost startling. I was amongst the youngest there. But once the music started, I was clearly outmatched by the enthusiasm and enjoyment of this older and more raucous crowd. They clearly loved it and experiencing it alongside them only made me enjoy it more.
Nowadays though, The Specials aren’t exactly the band they used to be. Other than lead vocalist Terry Hall, vocalist, and rhythm guitarist Lynval Golding and bass player, Horace Planter, none of the substantial original line-up remains. The band who played at Coventry’s Building Society Arena is a hybrid of what they once were but their ability to entertain and please an audience hasn’t waned since their formation in 1977.
Mostly, it was an excellent gig. With the classic hits ‘A Message To You Rudy’, ‘Ghost Town’, and ‘The Lunatics’ (formerly the hit of Fun Boy 3) energetically belted out to the ecstatic joy of the audience, the ties between fans new and old were revealed and subsequently strengthened. They are songs everyone knows and there is such relish in hearing these classics live. With the ska and reggae beats as formidable as ever in the set list, I have no doubt that many audience members would be aching in the morning although it would be completely worth it.
With their small discography, you can easily forget how many good songs The Specials have to their name. Many of these upbeat songs are also impregnated with the dark and depressing themes of late 1970s and 80s Britain. They are just as relevant today, especially in Coventry. In days of lockdown, economic volatility and racism, The Specials songs need little reframing to feel relevant. On the funnier side, lyrics like “I wish I had lipstick on my shirt instead of piss stains on my shoes,” are timeless no matter what people may tell you.
If there is one thing that The Specials prove, it is that Coventry and those who formed the original fan-base of 2 Tone and the ska-revival are owed a nuance that many of us today do not grant them
The Specials made their way through much of their discography in the 105-minute set. Classics were interspersed with new songs from their 2019 album ‘Encore’ to create a set which never dragged or felt jarring. ‘Vote for Me’, ‘Breaking Point’, and ‘Embarrassed by You’ are undeniably decent ska bops. These new additions to their discography are also more overtly political than their earlier works – maybe nothing changes – but they are refreshing to hear alongside the many familiar classics like ‘Rate Race’, ‘Nite Klub’ and ‘Monkey Man’.
One does wonder how some members of the audience felt about ‘Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys’, but alas that would be to judge and stereotype. If there is one thing that The Specials prove, it is that Coventry and those who formed the original fan-base of 2 Tone and the ska-revival are owed a nuance that many of us today do not grant them. The movement was by no means a gentrified one. Compared to many of the ‘woke’ artists out there today, The Specials were and are the real thing, and not in any commercialised sense.
The Specials and many of their 2 Tone siblings stood as proof of the power of music to unite people. This is obvious if you watch The Specials live. Terry Hall and Lynval Golding provide both a vocal and visual contrast to each other but both are united by their music and their links to Coventry itself. The fleeting beauty and potential of that ska-revival is still evident in The Specials’ set now, although their more original chaotic manner has vanished, replaced by a more standard and unoriginal on-stage presence.
It was a homecoming show for the Specials and I doubt the audience or atmosphere in any other city would be the same
Lynval Golding was in many ways the star of the set. His witty ad libs, geriatric gait as he wandered the stage, Jamaican vocal style, and sheer energy – despite his years – were iconic, transforming what would have otherwise been a rather plain set. But that being said, my eyes were often drawn to Golding’s attempts to dance with the backing singer. He would take hold of her arm and attempt to have a little jig in what was initially an endearing sight. As the gig wore on, her obvious desire not to dance with him made it awkward to watch his repeated attempts. It could have been nothing, but it did draw the eye away from the rest of the set consistently and therefore merits mentioning.
Other than that, there was little else that was glaring during the performance. Terry Hall’s earnest, boyish and full-bodied pitch is still discernible although it now has that more ephemeral quality that age can only bring. He cannot hit the high notes anymore, but the quality of the songs was not diminished.
His older tones are perhaps the most obvious sign that The Specials nowadays are no longer what they used to be. Other than their sound, the set little resembled The Specials I have seen on decades old episodes of Top of the Pops, the group who would crowd a stage that struggled to contain them. The light show was basic to non-existent and their small brass section and backing singer felt underutilised and then jarring when they were given more time to play.
The real testament to The Specials’ gig was their audience. All around me the enthusiasm was palpable and loud chants of “ruuuuudy” rose up in between every song until that anthem was eventually played. It was a homecoming show for the Specials and I doubt the audience or atmosphere in any other city would be the same. Because of that, the gig was undoubtedly one of a kind.