The Specials, Pama International

Christopher Upton 09/11/2009

'We're sorry it's taken us so long to get round to doing this', says Lynval Golding shortly before their second encore, 'We should have done this twenty years ago.' And The Specials have been missed, but it would be a very different comeback 20 years ago, devoid of the unsettling relevance of the material to the world today; and as they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder.

The best thing about The Specials is, unlike some of their bile spitting musical contemporaries in the 70s, the lyrics have remained as sharp, cynical and insightful as ever; try and apply the same critical eye to The Sex Pistols with the hindsight we're blessed with. And, while ska may have waned in popularity, these seven angry men are making a strong case for its viability.

I had to try and find someone in this crowd at the start of the show in a Ben Sherman shirt with a very short haircut; unfortunately, I didn't plan for a needle in a haystack scenario. The audience has matured but the style remains exactly the same, this is a crowd who would have been teens and youngsters when these locals first came round so this is a chance to reminisce or catch an opportunity missed. But with the absence of primary songwriter Jerry Dammers, and the promise of new material on the horizon, would this set be a greatest hits or a performance with an eye for reinvention?
They answer this question pretty quickly; Do the Dog hits and it becomes patently clear that this isn't going to be a night for new platters. The room explodes and the energy from the crowd is only overpowered by the seemingly boundless energy of Neville Staples.
The set mainly consists of the first two albums, and it's classic after classic. Roddy Radiation and Lynval Golding, appropriating the audiences' dancing feet with sharp syncopated hits from the guitar, while bassist Sir Horace Gentleman plies on with the intricate reggae background that grounds the songs. The songs sound record perfect and the force behind them is admirable. As mentioned earlier, though, the greatest thing about the Specials is their lyricism.

Prescient and, unfortunately relevant, songs like Doesn't Make it Alright and Ghost Town seem like they could have been written yesterday. Their sharp insights into inter-racial tensions and unemployment strike a worrying chord, 'Just because there's a reason, doesn't mean it's's the worst excuse in the world and it doesn't make it alright.' The song is dedicated to Nick Griffin, and as we're reminded, the issues that tore the 70s and 80s haven't disappeared.

This paints a slightly downbeat feel to the evening's proceedings, and that's definitely inaccurate as even though the lyrics tell of urban decay and societal breakdown, there's a lot of tongue in cheek sarcasm and ska joy to buoy it along. With the exception of Terry Hall everyone in the room tonight has a smile on their face, and the closing refrain of You're Wondering Now, doesn't seem as bad when you know that this talented group will be about long into the future.