‘Is this the in place to be? What am I doing here? Watching the girls go by…’ Saturday night in Dublin and a lot has changed since The Specials were last in town. Despite our economic woes there are still plenty of people out for a night on the tiles, no doubt helped by the occasion of a reasonably important football match. Inside the historic confines of the Olympia, however, time has not progressed so radically. The place is awash with slightly portly men with short hair and Fred Perry shirts, pork pie hats and an air of nostalgia mixed with genuine anticipation. After the slight false start of their Oxegen appearance (battling torrential rain and the torrentially annoying Katy Perry), the Specials 30th Anniversary road show has properly hit town.
It wasn’t always thus. Since they went their acrimonious ways after just two albums, the Specials name has been kept – not alive certainly – but limping through the decades with a number of side projects and unconvincing reunions. Like their (largely unsung) contemporaries The Beat, The Specials looked doomed to legacy of never ending club gigs, shoddy compilations, rotating line-ups and bad blood. Only Lynval Goulding has shown a real desire to move forward with the excellent Pama International, tonight’s support act. Put six of the seven original members back together, however, and all that is rapidly forgotten.
Onstage little has changed. A lot more grey hair on the rhythm section maybe, the addition of a Jerry Dammers doppelganger on keys, but generally all is intact from when they left us. Which means that this isn’t a technology enhanced, modern looking show. The only concession comes in the form of the giant white sheet that the band appear from behind and the two video screens and even those have the appearance of a couple of black and white TVs from the seventies. So yes, this is a pure exercise in revisiting history but, as they go, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Quite simply this is a band at the top of their game, even after what Goulding describes as ‘their extended holiday’. The triple front-line of himself, Neville Staple and Terry Hall is a wonder to behold, the former pair rolling back the years in a blur of running on the spot, rude boy chants on the broadest of grins. Hall, meanwhile, is an enigma. Clearly an influence on Robert Smith, he spends the evening like a cross between Jack Dee and some awkward child, although when the mask slips he does appear genuinely touched and amazed – especially when he catches sight of the Olympia balconies. He can even get away with announcing the football score and telling us that he ‘doesn’t give a fuck’, although only just.
Given their troubled history, their obvious joy at being back on the main stage is both clear and understandable. What is perhaps less expected is how well their songs have stood up. The timelessness appeal of ska is a given, but in their hands it proved able to talk to a new generation of British youth, fired up on the back of punk. Thirty years later and the message of -Do The Dog’, -Rat Race’, Doesn’t make It Alright’ and the rest are still relevant, some sadly so. Throw in their exuberant delivery and response from yet another impeccable Olympia crowd and you get just a sense of what it must have been like at the height of Two-Tone. Certainly there has been little more uplifting this year than hearing -Enjoy Yourself’ played by this bunch of middle aged men in suits.
The question what happens next remains to be answered. Having tasted this adoration again can The Specials happily go back to how they were before? Yet it’s the thought that this might just be a snap shot of a moment in time makes this all the more special. ‘You’ve been a treasure’, Terry tells us before they leave with a charming version of -You’re Wondering Now’. What do we do, now we know this is the end? Leave with our memories and a reputation restored. Then we return to the real world, to the stumbling drunks, the pools of vomit and the young Dubliner hurling casual racist abuse at an all-night store worker and do you know what? Perhaps we need the Specials now more than ever.
Photos by Sean Conroy