Dave Woodhall on a very ‘Special’ night in Wolverhampton.
If you look around YouTube you can come across a TV appearance by the Specials from 1979. I think it was from Rock Goes to College, but if it was, the audience were very unlikely students. As the gig reaches its climax one young skin girl climbs onto the stage. There’s nobody ushering her away and soon the stage is full with skins, rude boys and assorted young kids, dancing and enjoying themselves.
I was wondering what happened to those kids on Wednesday night. No doubt a fair chunk of them left school, went on the dole and lived with the Specials as the background to their early adult lives. I hope they’ve never forgotten that night when they did more than get their faces on TV – they were part of a musical explosion that may not have changed the world, but it’s still fondly remembered to this day.
Maybe some of them were at Wolverhampton Civic Hall, where the Specials played the second night of their British tour. Maybe their children were – there were a few junior rudies with mum and dad in tow. Wolverhampton and the Specials go hand in hand. The city has suffered more than most from recession, it’s always had an undercurrent that something might go wrong at any minute and a lot of the architecture is from the seventies.
We get one of the most striking openings to a gig that I’ve seen for a long time, as the melodramatic theme to sixties detective series The Persuaders booms out to a backdrop of personalities from the past thirty years. Thatcher gets booed, Thatcher’s resignation gets cheered. Blair gets booed. There’s an uneasy silence when a picture of Stephen Lawrence is shown. The audience are confused when Cameron comes up just as the band take to the stage. To boo, or to cheer?
The Specials still take monochrome to its extreme, dressing in black and white, with a basic (these days) backdrop and light show. They start with Gangsters and straightaway we’re into a Greatest Hits package – which is hardly surprising considering you could argue the band in its proper incarnation hasn’t recorded any new material since 1981.
The audience, of course, are lapping it up. If a ska band can have such a thing as a mosh pit, this one covers almost all of the entire downstairs in the Civic. Upstairs is relatively calm, but still enjoying itself. When the Specials are playing you can’t help yourself, and there are still a lot of skins in the audience, even if some of the bald heads are a bit less voluntary than in the old days.
Terry Hall is almost animated, Neville Staples bounces off him to good effect. To continue the early eighties theme they’re Peter Withe and Gary Shaw, the prefect complements. Guitarist Lynval Golding is up there playing off both and particular mention must go to keyboard wizard Nik Torp, the only member of the band who didn’t play with the original line-up yet who fits in just as well as Jerry Dammers ever did.
After the first album is performed almost in its entirety things slow down with the arrival of a string trio for a selection of tunes from their ‘latest’ studio album, 1980’s More Specials. They leave and we’re back into top gear, the crowd are back to bopping away, the (thankfully plastic) glasses and bottles fly once more and a singalong Enjoy Yourself ends an all-too-brief 80 minutes.
The first encore, inevitably, is Ghost Town. Here public opinion and I disagree. While it’s one of the all-time great songs, it’s not an encore. By this stage the audience are ready to go up a notch, not to listen to a song that could never in a million years be called enjoyable. The band leave the stage as the sound effects come into play, returning for Little Bitch and the compulsory finale of You’re Wondering Now.
Two years ago the Specials reformed after all those years away and their popularity was shown by two sell-out nights at Wolverhampton as part of a national tour. This time round demand was just as strong, and after a show like this it will stay the same for some time.