The Specials (Melbourne Zoo)

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A lovely evening out in the zoo air, as the heat of Saturday slowly cooled. The threatened storms had passed us by and the skies were mostly clear. The zoo arena space was busy; picnics everywhere and the collection of pork pie hats, two tone black and white outfits and the odd pair of Doc Martins made for an interesting mix of fans.

The Specials came on stage, looking pretty good for a band that started out in 1977. The current lineup is from their a product of a 2008 reformation – minus founder and principal songwriter Jerry Dammers – and also unfortunately Neville Staple – MC and Toastmaster – due to ill health; but includes original members Lynval Golding on guitar and vocals (and fill in for Neville), Terry Hall (vocals) and Horace Panter, aka Sir Horace Gentleman on bass. Drummer John Bradbury sadly died late last year, with his spot filled by Gary Powell from The Libertines. Tonight there are also trumpet, trombone and sax, and two string players on some songs, so it’s a very full sounding lineup.

They’re straight into Ghost Town without much fanfare and The Specials’ greatest hits get belted out in rapid succession. They’ve made two previous trips to Australia since reforming, and I’ve missed both of them so I’m glad to see that really they are as good as ever tonight.

Lynval is tight on rhythm guitar; chunka chunka of the ska beat clanking away, while newish lead guitarist Steve Cradock (late of Paul Weller’s solo band) has got the crackly spikes of Roddy Radiation’s riffs down pat. Powell on drums is nothing if not tight, energetic and solid – drums are so critical in ska/reggae, laying the foundation for that guitar upbeat, filling in gaps and adding a lot to the vibe of each song. Horace’s bass is likewise critical – underlying everything then popping up for a feature riff, as he dances around the stage – probably the most energetic member of the band tonight.

They don’t sound like the world’s best Specials cover band – they sound like The Specials – and no one else quite sounds the same.

They play Rat Race, Do Nothing, Man at C&A and Stereotypes from the much maligned second album More Specials, criticised in its day for the huge strides away from the formulaic ska beat, and odd song structures, but now is more recognised as a document of Thatcher’s Britain. These slower, but lyrically acute songs, get the zoo crowd up and grooving along including lots of families and kids. There’s a lot of singing along.

It’s the songs from their breakthrough first album – simply called Specials – that really get everyone fired up – Nite Klub, Concrete Jungle, A Message to You Rudy, Blank Expression, Monkey Man, Do the Dog, It’s up to You, and Gangsters all keep the crowd dancing. This is the material that everyone came to see and the Specials deliver it in spades, as fresh as ever.

That’s the thing about these spate of reformed ’80s and ’90s band doing the rounds; if they can cut it live they can be surprisingly good. The Specials, despite Golding saying that this is only their third show this year and they are still warming into it, can certainly play as well as ever. They don’t sound like the world’s best Specials cover band – they sound like The Specials – and no one else quite sounds the same, from Terry Hall’s half spoken vocals to Golding’s guitar and Panter’s bass – it’s the real deal, with the newer players fitting into the old structures beautifully.

The band doesn’t say a lot on stage, mainly letting their songs speak for themselves and these songs really reflect a young person’s frustration growing up in a dour, dark and divided Britain in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Lynval and Terry choose to focus some energy on the younger members of the audience, throwing drinks and chocolates to various people and being thankful that they are there. Hall seems genuinely touched by the end of the night – “you’ve been lovely…and I HATE people…”.

They finish up with some big bangs – Too Much Too Young to close out the set proper, then Enjoy Yourself, Guns of Navarone and You’re Wondering Now to round out the encore. We’re all on our feet dancing, doing pale, half remembered skanking and any other steps we can. The Specials really impressed with their great attitude, brilliant playing and sense of fun, keeping their older material alive and certainly kicking.

The Specials are in the middle of a busy few days – playing Womadelaide today, March 13, and in Brisbane on Wednesday night, followed by a tour of Japan the week after.

One response to “The Specials (Melbourne Zoo)

  1. How do you know they are “as good as ever” if you have never seen them before?
    And just as a fact check: Rat Race was not included on the UK or the Australian release of More Specials. It was a single.

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