The Specials Encore: Well-Turned Out

By Jacqueline Howell

The Specials, by now an institution to those who know, reached their first number one album on the music charts in the U.K. in February 2019. Fans who do social media the right way are still sharing pictures, excited as kids at Christmas, of the new album being played on their turntables. We’re among them. The band’s extensive spring U.K. / Europe and U.S. tour will sell out as it always has and as it has, emphatically, since the band reformed around 2010. The tour will include several days in Coventry, where the band formed. They will kindly visit the U.S. and Canada, as they always do these days. And make no mistake: in a time of bleak, dystopic, machine-made pop music crafted from smoke and mirrors designed to obscure that today’s pop music acts are product mascots miming and dancing looking like lost pageant children, The Specials’ spectacular reception, rumbling as it has for some months through the authentic underground, quietly building momentum, finally broke through at just the right time, in a matter of otherwise bleak, midwinter days. It’s historic.

It’s no accident that The Specials first record in 37 years, Encore, is so successful and has been embraced so fervently by a generation (or two) who live unconditionally: who love things sincerely, waving them like flags, or not at all. The unequivocal success of The Specials’ new record is real, gritty, and pure. It’s not the result of ads and expensive handshakes, a contrivance of some branding genius somewhere, ensconced in a cool but lifeless concrete supervillain lair, who needs only his thumbs to influence the world for good or ill. It’s the opposite of things we’ve grown used to in music, trends that we suspect, that make us mistrustful of all media messages, while our critical thinking abilities and voices are regularly shouted down by thoughtless social media commentary that dominates so much public opinion. The success of The Specials in 2019 is (remarkably) the same as their success of their first records and tours: the result of hard graft, talent and something even rarer, an incorruptibility. Once again, we are seeing the rareness of originality rising to the top, and being embraced when it’s found. Only later does it seem inevitable or easy. Only from a distance. The ingredients of the new Specials record are the markers of genius that we’ve gotten rusty at recognizing because we are rarely offered it, point blank, no strings attached, in this new century that promised us so much more.

Lead single “Vote For Me” came out of the dark one day, sounding very reassuringly like The Specials of old. Terry Hall has always told us the truth, sounding fearless and confident, and detached in a way we all strive to be. “If we vote for you, do you promise / to be upright, decent and honest / To have our best interest at heart? You understand why we don’t believe you / You’re way too easy to see through / Not the best place to start.” YES. YES. YES.

Isn’t this what we’ve all needed? A crisp voice of reason, from a time, place, memory of when we had true musical outsiders we could trust? Where a dance beat and even a trombone could merge with punk rock’s ethos and whatever was coming next at the end of the century, telling us kids that things were dark, but we would still dance, resist, fight if we had to, and question what we were told by whichever grinning wolf sat in power? Thatcherite early 1980s Britain was full of turmoil, pain and glorious rebellion that was carried on music as much as anywhere, and maybe more. The Specials ducked in and out of taverns and working-class towns and down dark winding motorways in those days of emerging, to find out some people didn’t dance, but only ever threw bottles to express themselves. The Specials tenacity is well-documented, but as a reminder, they encountered seething, vile racism, out in the open, the violent kind, which made being a band like them dangerous, and yet, they sang, played, fought, resisted, and looked a million. There was no one else like them then. There’s still no one like them. Today’s political leaders have led their nations into darkness again, and the questions raised by The Specials in the late 1970s and early 1980s still ring out. Only now they, and we, have follow up questions. New sounds. More ammunition.

Encore is full of moods, ideas and painterly colours with pretensions. It’s a mature work, one that sounds like the organic evolution of this band. With a fairly short, tight and perfect back catalogue, the new record has been made with the attention and patience maturity brings. No need to repeat what was done before. No obvious label pressure to pander to pop or dance hooks (hell, they invented and adapted new kinds of hooks in popular music worldwide.) With a nod to the founding members’ divergent pasts, they’ve remade the Fun Boy Three song “The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum”, which deserves to be bopped to by new audiences. The inclusion of a Fun Boy Three song also points to the reality of the divergent paths the bandmembers have taken over the years, heading off any silly criticism about then and now and members’ departures. It’s a dark world, in which we have all lost too many, too young all the time. The fact that Terry Hall, Horace Panter and Lynval Golding are still here, and still here (making & performing their music on a global stage), is, as recent years’ concert-goers can attest, worthy of skanking your knees down to nubs.

Encore draws on the different musical styles that make up The Specials’ unique and genre defying bouillabaisse, with call backs to Prince Buster and Desmond Dekker’s music, as usual, spun with just an acid, British, twist. This band is still keenly in tune with not only the particular cultural concerns of Britain, but of the planet, too. Travel and life beyond the journey of a band grounds Encore firmly in the present moment, with authority to speak on the deepest concerns of today (as ever, with style): gun control. Black Lives Matter. Feminism, particularly in re-centering of the “I” of who has the mic and the power, a bold and sincere statement from a historically all-male band.

Which brings us to “10 Commandments”. The song features Saffiyah Khan, the activist who famously stared down an alt-right man while wearing a Specials T-shirt. This tune is a spin on Prince Buster’s “Ten Commandments”, in which the subject, women, are instructed how to behave.  Buster’s ten commandments have been remixed and remade in a kind of call-and-response.

“The Life and Times of A Man Called Depression” takes an insightful look at its subject. Terry Hall has been open about his depression as well as throwing support behind awareness campaigns in the U.K. Here, The Specials take another clear-eyed look at a subject that has too long been the subject of shame in families, in the workplace, and in the arts, where we demand of ourselves and our entertainers to be “on” at stage time, to perform and to give those waiting the time of their lives no matter what illnesses people are dealing with behind the scenes and outside of the 90-minute window of a gig. Depression among musicians seems, to us as journalists and music fans (first) to be a pressing issue deserving of consideration in the demanding world of entertainment. We need our artists well, and to get to retire, and to have private lives that are balanced with all they give us.

“He stands accused of being socially inept
Some say rude, aloof, devoid of any real truth
He lives in a world of self-doubt, self-pity, self-loathing, self-harm…”

Depression is an urgent subject for artists to become more vocal and honest about, as we’ve lost too many beloved artists in recent years to depression and its tragic outcomes. A song like this will no doubt hit home to so many, as well as affording a moment of empathy for our artists themselves.

The remarkable Lynval Golding steps into a bigger vocal role on Encore. He masterfully re-interprets The Valentines’ “Blam Blam Fever”, his authentic timbre ringing with the all the divergent experience of a Jamaican-born boy / now mature man living in America, a country of pain and strife today, much of it based around abuses of power and senseless gun violence. These themes continue into the very personal “B.L.M.”, in which Golding shares his life story through three countries and the casual, cruel brutality of racism he’s encountered along the way. His story is poignant, painful and clear: Black Lives Matter. Golding uses his warm voice and his platform to point to an ugliness that follows people of colour across time and space, that must be seen and called out with no quarter given, (including by everyone who hasn’t experienced it, as allies).

And so, we listeners and lifelong fans get to feel part of a brand new chapter, a continuum that started back in 1977 with a call for “black, white: unite”; the look, feel, style, and deeper messages of a sound and a loose philosophy called “two-tone”; the band who made it fashionable to be radical, peer over our hedgerows and borders, shake shit up. The Specials did this all while subtly giving glimpses underneath the well-turned cuff of a sharp suit, those unseen, countless, painstaking stitches, the labour that makes something as straightforward as fabric into art. The Specials will take this new music, blended with their classics, and their solid arguments on the road, as ever, facing down difficult subjects with the grace, power and euphoria of music.

Twitter: @JacksDisarm

Do you Bronze or Taxidermy a Sacred Banana? The Specials Take Toronto for 2 Nights.

The Specials: Toronto June 6-7, 2017, Danforth Music Hall

The Specials, since they returned to this part of the world in 2010, have a way of sweeping through Toronto like one of our home team’s winning streaks from long ago that rallied grumpy strangers into impromptu communities where they stood. Their arrival spreads joy like light through our streets. A certain casual, perfect uniform congregates and settles comfortably around the venue, in the myriad area restos, pubs, dives and sidewalks, confident, alive, and in it to win it. All are festive, immune to dismal service, watch the clock more concernedly than the workday (that many have slacked off early from) in favour of timing the pints, becoming scheduling geniuses. The air radiates, it’s that playoff fever hockey fans distantly remember, but unlike sport, it’s a guaranteed win.

When The Specials first reunited for the world almost a decade ago, it was a world where Amy Winehouse was very alive, injecting music with a rare, much needed blast of energy that reminded people of sounds and colours and two-tone and horn sections and hype men. Of style and of substance. Of throwback and delightful weirdness that signals originality and was missing in music for too long. Of quality and big full stages of talent that is too important to economize. A new generation of young, strong, female singers who were not even “an idea yet” back in 1977 were now calling for The Specials on the world’s most visible & important big stage, Glastonbury. As if just for me and others like me. Wherever they are. And like something out of a dream, it folded together like the line of a beautiful suit, they came back. Here in Toronto, a legion of fans from back in the day, many of them a touch too young to have seen the first incarnation of the band live but who knew every groove by heart, rejoiced. Toronto mattered to this band?! US? (Sir Horace Gentleman writes in his must-read tour diary from 2010 that it was their “first real gig since the Albert Hall in February”!!! Who knew?)

2010, night two, was a party for the ages fans have been hunting for ever since. That night, Sound Academy, of the terrible sight lines and often worse sound, became The Royal Albert Hall or the high school dance of teen movie lore where the smiles and soundtrack are each impossibly lush. Everyone was happy & glowing. Everyone was well-lubricated. The hours before The Specials took the stage (at 10:45 pm) were full of loud classic SKA, Reggae and Rocksteady played on a massive sound system. Multi-generational fan groups included cool dads and their teenage kids in porkpie hats. Money became illusory, irrelevant. The outside patio area turned that venue into the city’s best hot spot for a night. The crowd was impossibly unified and happy to share a square of floor. (Then, a Toronto miracle). Ill-advised but useful platform shoes took a writer down, strangers gently helped her up and dusted her off. A moment at near front row (moving in natural crowd waves) saw a teenage boy offer the barrier spot to her for a turn, just to have the chance to see everything. And then:

Front and center, eye to eye with Terry Hall. The future writer & forever fan, euphoric, uncooly soaked in other people’s beer, makeup melted, wide eyed, probably looked like a religious nut. Hall looked right back, seemingly alarmed- but the fan knew not (yet) how wonderfully deadpan and inscrutable he really is live, making him eternally watchable and fascinating as a front man, singer and thinker. This was the start of the writer-as-fan. This was the impetus. This was the flash of real curiosity in what makes people and artists tick and soar and carry on. How to write about them? Such respect they deserve, and are far too-often denied (shockingly, even days before this eventful gig). Terry Hall is still and always an important social critic, a self-critic. As is Horace Panter (as an exciting painter and in his autobiography Ska’d For Life) As are The Specials. That night, the band still as complete a lineup as it had been in over two decades, their perfect cool was fell in flickers of true surprise and digging Toronto’s passion & swell. It seemed to create that perfect electrical charge that happens at rare gigs, that feeds both artists and fans equally, creating something rare and priceless for all.

Terry Hall watches and takes in everything. He sees much more than other singers do. He has an eye, an innate sense honed forever ago in sketchy back rooms in labour-disrupted broken towns on stages with no distance from friend or foe, for the mood, the movement and the danger that is always possible in crowds or mobs. For the bottle (goddamn you who do that shit). For the social deviant clown who ruins it for others. The crowd can turn- it is a temporary, tension-filled, community that is largely drunk. Hall seems to have near-psychic instincts for trouble near and far, a self-observer who’s done the hard work to be here, now, and a deadpan funny sharp wit the likes of which only Britain has ever produced. A tightly-wound intelligence and refusal to be inauthentic that is almost impossible in music today.

Back at the first show in 2010, Hall saw a small child with their mother in the crowd. Concerning. He had them brought to side stage. Clever girl. Now the work could proceed. Then, Neville Staple, Terry Hall and Lynval Golding had their traditional fun boy trifecta in place and weren’t we in Toronto so lucky. Was this real life? It was so like the record for which we knew the grooves the beats the pauses and the grunts. BUT imagine one of the most important records of your youth exploding into real life. All of us wannabe hype men. As powerful as Neville. As forever cool. All of us wannabe Terrys. Detached observers. Power-as-calm. All of us wannabe Lynvals. Warm, heart swelling and beaming from the stage. The perfect balancing agent between his friends, his brothers. All of us, some of us or just me? It was the most exciting show of mine and my partner’s entire lives and we’d seen our fair share. It bonded us into a drive to chase that high and celebrate that miracle. Nostalgia-free.

As, impossibly, something we were grateful to have that late August night in 2010, the one chance, was instead the start of a fine new tradition. The Specials have changed something. They inspired something here, something big and yet perfectly underground. They have continued to tour  (2012, 2016, 2017) and return to Toronto unfailingly. You had to be there, wherever there was in the late 70s or early 80s, or there in 2010 or there now. People are still joining these new Toronto crowds who are seeing The Specials for the first time. Others are there for each visit, fortunate, smart and sacrificing other discretionary purchases. Others, old hats like us, wait tables pre-gig and pre-game with them, imparting diners with the wisdom that they will love it, guaranteed. Community has become more possible. If you ever get to see a band you love for two straight nights, you will find a new level of joy. A new high. Maybe even new friends. You’ll long to become their roadie. Toronto was sold out for 2017 long before The Specials arrived this week to observe and report on the world, on the sound of the current line-up, on us. It involved a banana being thrown into the crowd. Two new & yet true friends who didn’t catch it debate whether we would bronze or taxidermy it. I mean, seriously. THIS IS HAPPY.

Neville Staple’s unique role had to be bridged, some way, when he stepped aside in 2013. A few of his signature tunes seem to have been “retired” for now and that seems right (“Stupid Marriage” and “It’s Up To You”) a fact only observed with a day’s hindsight. The careful change has gone seamlessly, as ever, the current line up has no flat notes. These whirlwind two Specials albums, like only the most inspired fleeting creations, never sat still long enough to bother with filler songs and the material is rich and diverse. Their messages ring out, utter permanence, words that are, at once, specific and geographically mapped to mid 1970s working class, tough, embattled London/England (the horrible realization of waking up in “Area Seven!”, for example) and yet contain beautifully timeless big ideas about life, meaning (/lessness) little bitches, the Rat Race, Concrete Jungles, whoever we / they want to think of in a given moment as “Rudy” love, rejection, Blank Expressions, Nite Klubs, and all that swirls around those ideas and experiences at any age. It was music from a time when music was not ever explained to us or picked apart, you learned it by osmosis, learned lyrics by ear. The world of The Specials was remote enough in origin to us here that the mystique was part of the thrill, so mysteries remain. England was part of many Canadian’s DNA and more glamorous than Hollywood in its intricacies of slang and style, its cultures and regional divides and social issues. Still is. We look to them.

Artists with the rare longevity / rebirth like The Specials are made of the toughest stuff. They’ve already ducked and dodged many arrows of the lesser and the never was-es and the bitter press many of whom missed it all because they lacked music in their souls. And their own interpretations of great SKA classics were done with openness and love, respect & innovation. Making something new, reigniting something at the time obscure, ensuring legacy of often-ignored pioneers like Toots, like Desmond, like Buster. Carrying on. Redefining. Shoulder to stylish shoulder. Imparting the same family-party like magic in the sound that the early greats conjured, that is absent in so many families, so many parties, that it’s fuel to our very souls.

And it erupts.

Standing still, singing and throwing out meaningful asides. Utterly focused and all-seeing.

Traversing the limits of the stage in a blur from back left to front right and back again, rocking a bass like no other.

Holding down the front corner balancing the energy and always remembering all those not with us, in an elegant suit and an even more elegant smile, in conversation with the team, and with us, and with love and with life. These are giants, what the hell can a kid from *Scarborough say about them? Say to them?

Just that the lifelong Specials fan, now writer, rejecting 90% of memories of age 15 BUT for sitting in the bedroom midweek drunk on vodka spinning this record, sees that memory now as a key. All that remains of that time is The Specials’ dark and yet exuberant worldview, wry humour, strange sounds and the idea of a party happening somewhere, people colliding and understanding each other “Ye can’t come in!” and us dreaming of other shores and codes of language and something more interesting that would have to come from our own marrow and nowhere else if we were to escape and survive. Just kids pretending we had power or voice, writing Specials quotes on walls and ignoring wider culture, music, TV and film for everything SKA opens us up to. The alternative 70s & 80s that linked back to an even more alternative 50s and 60s far from the braying crowd. Music, our only teachers in my 80s suburbia. Catholic High school just a way stop full of hypocritical buffoons that we understood suddenly, could now fight, resist, once we had these records.  Records carry us through rough waters and give us a vision of a better world, at once. Or form the backbone of a party.

It really can’t be overstated that a record telling you it’s OK and righteous to be angry and frustrated and burned out as a young person, to be disillusioned about love as a young person, already and truly heartbroken, that it’s even OK not to smile, to be down, to be immobile because of all of this shit is revolutionary and meteoric. That it is not just OK, but imperative to be an independent thinker (and a force of will is required, and we’ll always be looked at weirdly for it) and, taking this line of thinking further, that there are issues outside of our struggling selves that also matter greatly that we should take a stand on (no matter how shitty we feel), to RESIST, then as now, authority and systems and politicians and hateful people and vile racists far and wide. In your family, in your boardroom or in the pop charts even. This message is as important in 2017 as it was 40 years ago. This sort of musical brew could only happen when and how it did, right there, on wax. The Specials long ago achieved and retained legendary status in the truth and the majesty of their unified uncompromising vision and massive sound.

Terry Hall speaks to Toronto’s audience here, last night and the night before, quite a bit more than we remember from the past three visits. We’ll take that as the thrill it is for those of us waiting attentively for half a lifetime to know more. That said, we never take notes and like to hoard some of those memories. You had to be there. He tells us just what he thinks of Oh Henry bars, a chocolate I think I loved til that very moment but now, “it’s shit.” He’s as riveting as ever as the band complete with brass section swirls around him in a flurry. The laughs among them and side looks are real. This is cool, kids. Terry’s mystique is forever, The Specials legend is cemented ever more. Out of time. Hall had time enough in Toronto this week to observe that we have too few benches and too many revolving doors that are “spinning for days”. This is the capper of a beauty of a two night stand. Terry Hall is right as per usual.

Thank you to The Specials.

Jacqueline Howell

  • Scarborough, the suburb of Toronto

The Specials Triumph in Toronto at Sold Out Show

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.

Jacqueline Howell

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