The Specials - Cardiff International Arena

The 1980’s always got bad press as a decade but looking back now it glistens like a golden era, a time when all genres were arguably at their peak. At the dawning of that new era your correspondent was just nine years old and voraciously seeking out the seamier side of the top 40, picking up ex-jukebox singles for just 10p a pop. The absolute pinnacle of these purchases being the double header of Soft Cell’s Tainted Love and The Specials’ Ghost Town. At nine years old I was unaware of the rumours of Almond’s ‘Drink a pinta day’ habit or the NF battles taking place on the streets, at nine years old I was too much too young to see the Specials live. Finally, nearly 30 years on, Walt Jabsco rides again and I’ve finally got my chance.

When the Specials formed 2Tone the country was in a hell of a state. The Labour party had spent its way into a massive recession, strikes were commonplace and, as the NF/BNP gained public prominence, the country was on the verge of electing a right-wing Tory government... Plus ça change. Of course, there’s still bands out there who have something worthwhile to say about it all, just look at The King Blues, but no-one with the public profile of the Specials. Of course this reunion is rooted in nostalgia but there’s no denying the relevance of what they are doing and, hell, maybe their recently mooted new material will be on the money. Nothing is perfect of course and, although they do their best to pretend otherwise, there’s a huge gap in the line-up; without the mania and talent of Jerry Dammers this tour can never be regarded as the real deal.

With or without Dammers there was always a danger that attempting to recreate past glories could end in disaster. Thankfully these fears are swept away as the band appear on stage, jet black silhouettes picked out behind a brilliant white curtain. The hairs on the back of the neck leap to attention and, as the curtain falls, we are immediately invited to ‘Do the Dog’. References to the IRA and UDA are a rare jolt, exceptions to the rule that nothing has changed since they went away but fuck politics, let’s dance. And dance we do, the St John’s Ambulance must have been running out of stretchers as hordes of 40 somethings rupture themselves as they skank like street urchins. Why not, this could be the last time, maybe the last time, I don’t know.

Terry Hall conducts proceedings with the dour, cynical poker faced lethargy which he elevated to an artform, This is Club Tropicana he announces at the start of ‘Friday Night...’. It shouldn’t work but, like an ageing midfield general he can get away with it as he’s got two speedy wingers, Lynval and Neville, who do all his running for him. Special mention also for the rockabilly riffing of Roddy Radiation and his Les Paul Gold Top, the star of the Stonesy spite of ‘Little Bitch’. ‘This one has been renamed Hall announces as they lead into ‘Doesn’t Make it Alright', it’s dedicated to Nick Griffin and it’s called ‘cunt’. Marvellous, but how do you pick out highlights from a set in which every song is burned indelibly into the brain? The Specials left us with just a couple of brief albums and a handful of b sides to pore over for 30 years. Everything they do and don’t play is, by default, a greatest hit. ‘Rat Race’, ‘Too Much Too Young’ and the double header of ‘Longshot....’ and ‘Guns of Navarone’ are, however, powder kegs which threaten to blow the roof off of the arena before the era defining ‘Ghost Town’ sends us all home in ecstasy. Call it lazy nostalgia if you want but there’s 5,000 sweat soaked souls in Cardiff who’ll tell you that this was all about the moment. Come back Jerry, you are missing all the fun.

(Words and Photography: Steve Burnett)

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