I went to Leeds last night to see The Specials on their 30th Anniversary Tour. I think we think the same on reunions. Like: what’s the point? You’ll remember my letter about The Stone Roses from a while back.
Well, my sister got tickets and whomever she was going with dropped out. So I thought, well, why not? I didn’t get to see them back in 1978–81.
You will, of course, point to the obvious reason ‘why not’: keyboardist Jerry Dammers is not a part of the reunion line-up, and acrimoniously so.
An early review of this tour concluded that no one really minded who had been playing keyboards. This is clearly and entirely missing the point: here is a case where it really does matter. Jerry Dammers was the founder of the band, it was his sound, he wrote most of the songs, he created the record label, he provided the band’s iconic look – whether because of his signature dentistry or because he created all of the iconic black and white chequered artwork. Certainly, and most importantly, his political outlook provided the foundations for the music.
The Specials were a deeply important band – more political and vital than scene-mates Madness (though less accomplished and adaptable). They lashed together a punk singer, a rasta-ish MC-type, a reggae guitarist, a roackabilly guitarist, a lounge keyboardist, and more besides. Alluringly, they were here and then they were gone, a sparkling, spitting match that flared up in the oxygen of the time, lit the cultural wick and then burned out, leaving an enduring flame behind to light up the ensuing years.
So probably the thing to wonder about is this: why would they reunite? Aside from conjuring teary-eyed nostalgia from a lot of overweight skinheads, what could they actually generate afresh on the night? Well.
What they created for me was the first crowd I think I have ever been in where the mix of black and white faces was significant. No ethnic group owns The Specials. The whole crowd enjoys the same music for the same reason, and that is that The Specials weren’t just white kids performing black music, like so many R&B or rap artists. They were black and white kids performing a unified music. No one dominated or imitated anyone, it was a strength in unity: a new sound (1978).
The Two-Tone name and design is no mistake: it’s not grey, “it’s black and white (don’t try to hide it)”, to quote Madness’s own pre-lucrative-phoenix-from-the-ashes swansong.
So that was new to me: a realisation that something so positive and realistic could have existed at such a time of flux in the UK.
The Leeds gig I went to made headlines because fans started throwing coins at lead singer Terry Hall, after he crowed about Manchester United’s European Champions’ League final spot. This was the cause of another realisation to me. Here was a man, faced with thousands of people, and he was prepared to face them down. “One more coin,” he said, “and I’m leaving this stage – I’m not joking” – instantly followed by “and I’ll be right behind him” from Lynval Golding. Another show of strength and unity in front of a 21st century crowd more used to abusing the star turn. It felt good to hear this – and it worked.
Of course, these things are not quite new creations. Well, they are new to the kids who didn’t know the Specials the first time around — the Leeds teenagers who were dressed up in the kind of immaculate two-tone retro clobber that never existed at the time. To the rest of us they are reminders. Reminders of the grey, dilute message we have grown accustomed to, and reminders of the punch packed by someone on stage with a microphone, an attitude and something worth saying.
It would have been all the more powerful if the unity of The Specials had been total, and they’d been able to practise what they preach. But, hey, you don’t know what goes on behind closed doors, do you? Who knows what intraband politics have gusted through the last 30 years?
The reunion conundrum is: these people shaped a generation, and their creativity was a real force for good. Am I prepared to permit them to earn a pension off the back of that?