Words by Matthew Osborne / Pics by Katja Ogrin
Finding ourselves unexpectedly at the after show party and standing out like sore thumbs, my associate (who shall remain nameless for security reasons) and I had a chance to reflect upon the evening’s concert, as we waited for The Specials to arrive from their backstage hide-out.
The gig had done wonders for my self-esteem; recently I have been feeling older than my years, dwelling on the fact that my hair is falling out and I am approaching the halfway mark for the average adult lifespan, but the O2 Academy, busier than I had ever seen it, was packed full of people decades older than me. I would have fallen into the category of ‘youngster’ had a survey been conducted.
The men on the stage were also looking older than I remembered them from pictures, but their energy was still vibrant and their delivery faultless as they ploughed through their lengthy set.
The great thing about reunions is that you know that all your favourites are going to be wheeled out for an airing, having been previously confined to the discs you’ve inserted into your stereo for years.
As such we were treated to ‘Rat Race’, ‘Doesn’t Make It Alright’, ‘Friday Night, Saturday Morning’, ‘Ghost Town’, ‘A Message to You Rudy’, ‘Too Much Too Young’ and ‘Enjoy Yourself’. With each of these Specials classics met with cheers and bouncing bodies, which bobbed right back to the bar and were enhanced by a couple of thousand voices singing along.
One of the best things about an older audience is that if you aren’t able to get a good spot for much of the show, by the time the encore comes around there is a lot more space available. People of a certain age seem to be more concerned with beating the rush or emptying their bladders, and the floor half emptied allowing me a better vantage point for the big finale.
Perhaps the most thrilling moment, to these ears, was the incredible use of effects and delay during the extended latter half of the still-unsettling-after-all-these-years ‘Ghost Town’. Huge gusts of wind seemed to bounce off the walls of the venue, practically dragging the discarded litter and newspapers from the dilapidated Coventry of yesteryear into the here and now.
But how different is this moment in time from the 70’s of The Specials’ heyday? In some areas Birmingham still resembles a ghost town; old buildings left unoccupied and derelict, ear-marked for new inner-city apartments once the right investor with the right amount of disposable wonga comes along, yet tantalizingly out-of-bounds for the city’s hundreds of homeless.
And in light of the recent race hate eruption, following the knife attacks in Woolwich, the need for a band like The Specials – who united race and colour in one happy assembly back in the late 70’s and early 80’s, is as pressing and vital as ever.
Even songs like ‘Enjoy Yourself’, a cover of King Prince Busta’s reggae classic, had political overtones at the time of its release, urging people of all colours to find the good in their lives, and each other, before time runs out on them.
As people I believe we need music like this, music that carries hope and happiness but is never too out of touch with the real events surrounding its birth.
The Specials were important in their time, although the mantle has now been passed to a new generation. One I hope can also make statements like The Specials did in their day, which touch on the mood of their era enough to still be playing packed out venues decades after their heyday.
And so my compadre and I found ourselves waiting at the after show party, nervously hoping to run into The Specials so we could press our own band’s statement into the palms of Terry & Co. (and perhaps ask them for a support slot at their next Birmingham show?)
However, as the time ticked by with no sign of the band, and with the other people gathered backstage looking increasingly like friends and family, we decided that The Specials had done their bit for the cause and may not welcome a couple of hopers looking to ride their coat-tails.
So we decided to forge our own path, inspired by the greats, but making it for ourselves; and slunk off into the inky shadows of our own ghost town.
For more on The Specials, visit http://www.thespecials.com/
For further gig listings at the O2 Academy (B’ham), visit http://www.o2academybirmingham.co.uk/