Written by Don Letts
Man, it's cold outside, and it isn’t just the weather. But inside, the 100 Club is hot with the anticipation of seeing a band whose music was very much a product of the cultural climate in which it was created over three decades ago. Back then, under a Conservative government, there was violence on the streets, a rise of right-wing movements and a divided nation - sound familiar? It was these social conditions that gave birth to Two-Tone; a style driven musical movement that spread from the playground around the world via the streets, and The Specials were the leaders of the pack. They looked good, said something and made music you could dance to. Live they absolutely smashed it with legendary shows that, more often than not, would end up with mass stage invasions. From '79 to ’81 this combination earned them two hit albums, seven hit singles, a couple of number ones and inspired a shed load of acts Stateside and beyond. I was particularly taken by this multi-racial outfit as they mixed punk energy with a ska sensibility and, to my mind, that made them the natural successors to 77’s punky reggae party.
Between that time and this, there’s been disagreements, departures and even death. Fast-forward to right about now, and it feels like The Specials are once again right on time. The 100 Club feels like the perfect venue for them to unleash their first new material to a packed house, and the air is full of expectation as they launch into the bass-heavy ‘Vote For Me’ a tune that like ‘Ghost Town’ reflects the mood of the country and its confusion. It’s closely followed by ‘Do Nothing’ which takes the groove up a notch and as the refrain ‘nothing ever change’ rings in my ear I can’t help but think, y’know what Terry, you're absolutely right.
Now we’re only two songs in but it’s already more than evident that we’re in for a real treat. Next up it's ‘Stereotype’ and ‘Man at C&A’ - two more cuts from their second album, ‘More Specials’ released in 1980 and all three translate perfectly to right here right now. The boys then flip the script and return to ‘Encore’ for a funky cover of ‘Black Skinned Blue Eyed Boys’ a hit in 1968 for The Equals, the UK’s first multi-cultural group and a personal favourite of yours truly. Then the room erupts as the words ‘Bernie Rhodes Knows Don’t Argue’ fills the air and the crowd begins to bounce to the skanking groove of ‘Gangsters’ a classic that’s obviously lost none of its dance floor appeal. Now bearing in mind young isn’t what it used to be any more than old is, the cross-generational appeal of The Specials is more than evident in the room tonight – yes, my friends there’s a lotta love for this band.
The next one’s another track from ‘Encore’ that quite literally puts women centre stage when artist and activist Saffiyah Khan takes the mic for an answer version to Prince Buster’s extremely misogynistic ‘Ten Commandments of Man’ first released in 1969.
Against a dubbed-out bass-heavy groove that’s right up my street, twenty-year-old Saffiyah puts a 21st-century female spin on the Buster original. And then without much ado, it’s straight into ‘Rat Race’ - yet another reminder of how tunes they wrote over three decades ago translate perfectly to the present day. They return to ‘Encore’ for ‘Embarrassed By You’ which gets a rewind at the start due to a little musical hiccup – hey, it happens, and besides these tunes are hot off the press. This one sees Lynval alternate with Terry on vocals over a very infectious and danceable riddim. ‘Breaking Point’ also from ‘Encore’ has got a sort of German oom-pah motif floating through it, and Terry seems to be wearing his analogue attitude on his sleeve with a tune that takes on social media and the internet.
Funnily enough, the old school chemistry of all these like-minded people gathered together for a collective experience, seems to me to be the perfect antidote to the digital age. The rooms erupts once again as Lynval’s harmonica signals the start of ‘A Message to You Rudy’. On the faces of the audience, I can see that they too are more than aware of the relevance of these tunes as they sing along to every word. After that, it’s a return to ‘Encore’ for the perfectly placed ‘Blam Blam Fever’ a version of an anti-gun tune first released by The Valentines that echoes classic Specials and unfortunately the streets today. As if we needed reminding what ‘classic Specials’ is, they hit us up with another three from their '79 debut: ‘Nite Klub’, ‘Monkey Man’ and ‘Too Much Too Young’ - that’s game, set and match and they ain’t even finished yet! With the audience in the palm of their hands the haunting opening tones of ‘Ghost Town’ strike an immediate chord - I mean, this tune was written thirty years ago in a social climate that feels pretty much the same as it does today, if not more so, a fact not lost on tonight’s audience.
After the briefest of breaks, it gets personal when Terry comes back with ‘The Life and Times of a Man called Depression’. Delivered with an almost spoken word vocal whilst referring to his note pad, it’s a song that looks inside Terry’s head and his mental health issues. Musically I’m hearing a little Afro groove with a nod to the likes of Serge Gainsbourg and The Doors – nice one Terry. The Specials then leave us with a question and an answer as they round off the night with ‘You’re Wondering Now’ and ‘Enjoy Yourself’ both of which become one big sing along. And as I gaze around the room, I’m reminded once again of the part music plays in our lives and its possibilities – thanks guys.
Relive the Gig with Steve Lamacq and BBC 6 Music here: www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m00028jb
A fan's view by Cal Cashin
You could talk for days about The Specials, and only really scratch the surface of the group’s influence and importance to the UK’s musical history. The group have always made a name for themselves, fusing ska energy, punk guile and the occasional reggae standard, with very few British groups having a sound so singular. We join The Specials at an extraordinary moment, as they headline the 100 Club in support of their new album ‘Encore’ to a packed, sweaty, bustling room.
Limbering up to the sound of Don Letts’ DJ set, the crowd were exposed to a range of deep cuts of dub and beyond, especially singing along to The Clash’s ‘Guns of Brixton’. As Radio 6 DJ and tonight’s compere Steve Lamacq introduced the band to the stage with a lengthy monologue, the 100 Club was already rocking.
Opening with a stunning version of ‘Vote For Me’, the group line up in a single file formation on stage ready for a set full of lesser appreciated jewels, classics and fresh new material. ‘Vote For Me’ sounds like the spiritual successor to ‘Ghost Town’, a venomous ska-punk number that has organ parts and guitar lines that conjure up a vivid picture of a fun fair that has fallen by the wayside. They then kick off into ‘Do Nothing’, a much more chirpy number, that pops and bounces through every minute of its runtime as Terry Hall croons about “living in an ivory tower”.
Indeed, all of the tracks from the new album sound fantastic, this was not an exercise in standing around waiting for “the ones we knew”; ‘Stereotype’ sounds as timeless as ever, with its ‘Sketches of Spain’ trumpet line as transportative as it is dominant, whilst Lynval Golding’s vocals on ‘Man at C&A’ take centre stage. Golding has the unique ability, to look as though he’s having the best time of everybody in the room, even when an audience is utterly captive and loving every single second.
‘Breaking Point’ has an eternal swagger, sounding like Tom Waits’ ‘Singapore’ if it had been penned at the Ricoh Arena, whilst with ‘Black Skin Blue Eyed Boy’, the group bring a tangible Motown influence to the fore. ‘10 Commandments’ sees the unbelievable presence of Saffiyah Khan deliver a righteous spoken word monologue atop the band’s signature sound; “thou shalt not listen to Prince Buster… thou shalt not tell a girl she deserved it because of the clothes she was wearing…”
But the best reaction of the night came to the cuts from the band’s back catalogue; the first of these was the group’s eternal debut single ‘Gangsters’, which Hall delivered with all the paranoia and bile that he did first 40 years ago… in a room teeming with energy, you realise quickly that “Why must you record my phone calls, are you planning a bootleg LP?” might just be one of the greatest opening lyrics to a song. Other heady highlights came with ‘Nite Klub’, which had an extended, jazzy, loungey intro, as well as the booming chorus of ‘Rat Race’, and of course ‘Ghost Town’, which will never cease to give us all goosebumps. Indeed, it is at moments like the latter that we’re reminded that The Specials remain among the most relevant and important groups in pop music’s rich history.
The band disappear, and reappear for an encore of ‘Too Much Too Young’ and ‘Enjoy Yourself’. As the band all join in the chorus; “enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think”; a life-affirming spirit is returned to the Soho crowd that braved the sleet to be here. In a word, The Specials are iconic, and still at their very, very best.