The Specials - Maida Vale Studios, London 12/12/12
While Steve Lamacq looked on, Mark Lamarr sang along behind the mixer and a female string trio, kitted out in matching red Fred Perry twin tips, stood in the wings alongside vocalist Terry Hall, a group of forty-something nutty boys bounced about a few feet away from the three vocal microphones. Dancing next to them was the partner of the drummer and her friend, both following the fills, rim shots and rolls being played with cool precision. And all of us, whether men in suits, rock chicks, suedeheads, skinheads, indie kids or BBC staff, moved together to the beat of the first number, a theatrical and high energy 'Sock It To 'Em JB'.
It was a great scene to behold and not a bad way for 6 Music to end a successful year of record listening figures and ten years of broadcasting, thanks also to Maida Vale sessions from Paul Weller, SBTRKT, De La Soul, Spiritualized and a run of solid campaigns and projects throughout 2012.
For the audience members at the front tonight, only a line of white tape on the floor and a small set of monitors separated them from Roddy Radiation, Terry Hall and Lynval Golding. With no stage and the backline up on small risers, half of the band were within touching distance and the other half within spitting distance. Just as well gobbing doesn't happen so much at The Specials gigs these days.
As intimate gigs go, other than squeezing eleven musicians (including brass and strings) into your living room, this really was it. As well as the awesome dual force of Horace Gentleman owning those familiar basslines and John Bradbury tightly keeping time, we witnessed the individual rhythm and lead guitar playing, harmonies, keyboard runs and trombone solos that made The Specials' style so recognisable – all in a space that fittingly had the look and feel of a 1970s school hall-gymnasium-dining room.
To hear the sounds that influenced bands like The Toasters, Big Audio Dynamite, The Stone Roses, Operation Ivy, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Sublime, Rancid, No Doubt, Massive Attack, Bedouin Soundclash and countless others, produced live so close up and personal was an incredibly memorable experience.
The proximity, however, worked both ways. We saw the whites of the band's eyes. We caught Terry Hall shooting telling looks at Lynval Golding throughout the set, watched Roddy Radiation's snarling and frustrated showmanship (including a few well aimed kicks at the 'Live' sign before the gig started, putting it out of action), heard the missed cues, off-key vocals and the stilted intros clearly.
The essence of The Specials has always been more about the messages in their lyrics and their uptempo punk rocksteady hybrid rather than for musical ability, though that’s not to do their song-writing and delivery an injustice in any way. For a band that have been playing together and apart for thirty five years in various combinations, ripping through numbers like 'Pearl's Cafe', a hypnotic 'International Jet Set', crowd-pleasers 'A Message To You Rudy' and 'Nite Klub', 'Rat Race', 'Do The Dog', 'Doesn’t Make It Alright' as well as a rare live performance of 'Ghost Town' and closer 'Too Much Too Young', was more than nostalgia by numbers; it was a raw and revealing experience for all concerned.
The 2 Tone group haven’t had the most harmonious time since first splitting in 1981, with inter-band tensions, issues over ownership of name and back catalogue resulting in a myriad of side projects and an acrimonious and much-publicised long-running spat involving founding member and original songwriter Jerry Dammers all getting in the way of what might have been an even bigger part in UK music history.
That the band - who helped to spawn a third wave of ska and alongside The Clash, The Beat, Ian Dury and the Blockheads and Madness and encouraged further bed-hopping between punk, rock, reggae and other genres - have part survived such a rocky back story and are still alive and kicking, albeit lesser in number, is proof of the longevity of their music and ethos, which many see as still hugely relevant today given current socio-economic and political trends.
So for this fanboy, to see five lads who started something very special in Coventry back in 1977 get together for one night in the most intimate of settings with both their shortcomings and successes on show for all to see was an absolute honour and pleasure. The sound of The Specials has an edge and appeal that may never dull with time, and is part of the very fabric of this country's musical make-up. That is one thing the band have to agree on.
The Specials tour the UK in May 2013. Click here for info.
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