Celebrating four decades of skanking, Alan Parry catches The Specials for a night filled with dancing and overt political messages.

Four decades ago, The Specials arrived as a fully formed mouthpiece for an ill-treated and rebellious youth on the back of punk, although the music in this writer’s opinion at least, was an improvement on much of the punk scene while the spirit remained.

1979 was a big year in the UK as this is when Thatcher came to power and The Specials’ message, for want of a better word, was a response to this.

Evidenced in the lyrics to their single GangstersThey use the law to commit crime/ I dread to think what the future will bring/ When we’re living in gangster time”. The track itself was based on the Prince Buster hit Al Capone, but the emphasis had changed. This was Ska, but not as we knew it, the revival now informed by the punk movement was still to peak.

For a time, The Specials were one of the biggest bands in the country. They had several successful singles over an all too short a period in the late 70s and early 80s, but now the time feels right for a return; for their voices and biting social commentary to be heard once again.

The line up has seen some changes over the years, that’s to be expected. However, Hall, Golding and Panter are still going strong, serving as the driving force. Sometimes age creeps up on a band, they lose some of the dexterity that keeps them sounding sharp.

This is not something that The Specials can be accused of. I can now attest, having seen them for the first time, that they are fully deserving of their reputation as one of the finest live acts about.

At this point, I should say that as good as the band were, the crowd equalled them. The Olympia may have seen better days and the weather may have been awful, but this did not appear to dampen spirits at all.

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In the queue outside, one woman told me how she had approached a gent in town seeing how he was dressed and offered to share with him her taxi when he confirmed her suspicion that was on his way to the Olympia. I have never known there to be a dress code for a gig and there was nothing official on Saturday, but it was clear that this band, this movement attracted a certain style and personality.

Another gent, who was part of a larger group of well-dressed men in button down shirts, blazers and cravats found the time to rant between songs about the need and existence of food banks. The atmosphere was certainly politically charged.

The band’s set list was littered with crowd favourites, virtually every track received a raucous cheer from the first beat. Even the more recent material like Breaking Point and The Lunatics, which is often, as fellow gig-goers will understand, not the case.

From the first to the last, the venue was bouncing. The Specials message is one of peace, of bringing people together and fighting injustices as a collective, but dancing to brass and a jumping beat the whole time. I had waited thirty years or so for this gig and they completely delivered.

Openers The Tuts are an impressive all-girl guitar-band who are both unpolished and unsigned but are brimming with attitude and the punk spirit. Their own set included among others the superb Dump Your Boyfriend. Disappointingly an incident at the door prevented me from seeing their full set which sounded great from the foyer.

Interestingly, my old man (who introduced me to The Specials when I was as a six-year-old boy and likes to get a mention in these pieces) was sitting with the kids for me on Saturday and when discussing the gig upon my return home I mentioned the support. He made the point that The Specials had always promoted unsigned bands, even giving up the B-side of some of their singles to several back in their hey-day.

After their own set The Tuts were to be found in the crowd posing for photos by the merchandise stands and striking a real connection with those in attendance, and embracing the very special Specials.  

Pictures by Brian Sayle