Coventry is a dump of a place. Okay, I’m being flippant, but having spent four years of my life tucked in the nape of a city lovingly called the car park of Great Britain; I feel I’m entitled. The furthest point from the sea anywhere in the UK probably only grabbed that particular monochromatic ‘claim to fame’ name because someone spent an unpleasant few hours with the bleach the day before. The writer in question might have thought that given the charms of the gothic cathedral; toilet might be a little bit too far.
Somehow, those bleak surroundings make The Specials all the more remarkable. The hodge podge of musicians that have contributed to the history of a band that now stretches to nearing forty years have made a serious mark. Roles have ranged from spokespeople for the anti-Apartheid movement in Thatcher-ruled Britain to playing at the closing ceremony of the London Olympics nearly two decades later. Perhaps it’s the fact that the city they grew up in was so drab that inspired the oddly accepting glow to tracks like tonight’s opener ‘Concrete Jungle’, which evokes the dire landscape of 80s British cities. Lines include ‘I get chased by the National Front’; ‘I only walk where there’s light, in the alleyways and the doorways they throw bottles right in your face’ and ‘Concrete jungle, it ain’t safe on our streets’.
What’s all the more special about the ska legends is that they’ve always delivered their cutting lyrics with such upbeat panache. Singing about the possibility of being bottled in a dark alley is something they do tonight through the two-tone medium of stark, black and white, doused in guitar flicks and that wonderful running on the spot ‘skank’ so beloved of spoken word maestro Lynval Golding. In the old-school environs of the Olympia Theatre, there’s a sense of reversing through generations that has smart phones feeling like a real guilty pleasure. It’s simple; not particularly big or clever but honest in an admiral way, delivering with quirky beats and boundless rhythms.
Of course, The Specials have always ducked into the archives to produce adapted old-school energy in their sets, and tonight’s no different, not least with a vibrant rendition of arguably their most timeless cover-hit A Message To You, Rudy. When a string section expands the band from an eight-piece to eleven; the tour de force takes on another dimension of high-paced, energized bounce that by all rights shouldn’t be emanating from a band of their age.
Monkey Man, introduced by the captivating Lynval with an extended flourish is another bouncing highlight, with Ghost Town’s meandering, wind-draped background proving the set’s slight derivation. Too Much, Too Young is a huge crowd pleaser, set – oddly – against the group’s vocal enthusiasm for a particularly young ‘follower’ in the front row of the circle, yet to emerge from the womb.
It’s a carnival, a procession of assorted ska and two-tone hits performed by a band that over the years have all but made the host of infused covers that litter the set their own. They’re quick fire, with a good thirty songs crammed into a performance that still comes in close to ninety minutes, and while huge variety isn’t something The Specials can really lay claim to, they’re the best take on the genre we could possibly hope to see. Ska might be a touch happy for happy’s sake, even when it is wallowing in its own pity, but who are we to find fault with that?
The Specials Photo Gallery
Photos: Aaron Corr