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LIVE REPORT: Specials At 100 Club
Patrick Clarke , February 2nd, 2019 16:38

The Specials defy expectations with remarkably strong new material, and a joyous airing of the classics. Patrick Clarke takes in an emboldening return in intimate surroundings

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When The Specials announced they were going to release a new album Encore, you could have been forgiven for not having the highest of expectations. Some might recall their starkly average covers album Today's Specials in 1996, for example. This show at the 100 Club is part of Independent Venue Week, and being broadcast live on BBC 6 Music – hence a 6pm kick-off – but also serves as the live debut for their new material.

What’s remarkable is how well the Encore material stands up. It blends remarkably well into a set that relies as much on the hits as it does new music. They open with ‘Vote For Me’, a dark number that is imbued with more than a hint of that ‘Ghost Town’ pessimism as it attacks the substanceless smarm of politicians. The band could not hope to recapture the same sort of angst as they did when they wrote their first two records, so it's pleasing they don’t make some lame attempt to do that. It might be a little hackneyed to find parallels between the fuckery we face now, and the politics that gave birth to the band in the 70s, but they legitimately reflect a more modern sense of tension. They have the genuine anger and dejection of a group who have already fought racism and violence once, and must now do so again. “We never fought for freedom for nasty little brutes like you / to undo the work we do” sings Lynval Golding on ‘Embarassed By You’.

It’s emboldening to see The Specials approach their return to recording in this way. Their music doesn’t match up to their first record, but that’s only because their debut is a masterpiece and to attempt to do so would be futile. With material like ‘Embarassed By You’ and ‘Blam Blam Fever’ – “the gun fever is back” – they don’t feel like the nostalgic draw they’ve been as a live band for the last decade. They feel genuine once more. When they depart from ska with the disco-influenced ‘Black Skinned Blue Eyed Boys’, a celebration of diversity and the mixing of races, that feels genuine too.

It’s ‘Ten Commandments’ that’s most notable of The Specials’ new songs, for which Saffiyah Khan joins the band on stage, an activist who found fame after a picture of her defying EDL protestors in Birmingham went viral. The band lay down a killer dub instrumental as she instantly slaughters the sacred cow whose song they’re imitating. “Thou shalt not listen to Prince Buster, or any other man offering kindly advice in matters of my own conduct,” she says, charismatic and commanding on stage. Prince Buster’s ‘Ten Commandments from man to woman’ include “Thou shalt not commit adultery, for the world shall not hold me guilty if I commit murder,” and “Remember to kiss and caress me, honour and obey me in my every whim and fantasy”.

However much some excuse them for their age, they should be objectionable to just about any sensible listener in 2019, but that does not make Khan’s immediate attack on one of ska’s most revered figures any less powerful, especially to a crowd of the ultimate Specials faithful. It’s notable too that she’s doing so alongside a band who have covered and reinterpreted Buster’s music before, and are not innocent of misogyny (the “slags” in ‘Nite Klub’, the pathetic female characters in ‘Little Bitch’ and ‘Hey Little Rich Girl’ for example). By collaborating with Khan, the band do well to acknowledge their own shortcomings as men and their own culpability, that no man is innocent, no matter how well-loved.

That said, it’s the hits that everyone’s here to see, and The Specials still accept their role as a nostalgic band. They sound fantastic. ‘Stereotype’ is one of the spookiest grooves committed to record, and irresistible live. ‘Man At C&A’ is still terrifying, ‘Gangsters’, ‘Rat Race’, ‘Monkey Man’, ‘A Message To You’, ‘Too Much Too Young’, and ‘Ghost Town’ are still classics. They end their first encore with ‘You’re Wondering Now’, and their second with ‘Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think)’, the latter sparking defiant, frantic glee.

What’s most joyous about this set, though, is that you can enjoy these old songs safe in the knowledge that the band are once again writing with a fire in their bellies. Their new material doesn’t match the old, but that’s not really the point. The point is that The Specials are relevant again, and it’s exactly what we need.