The 2 Tone vibe returned to Cork last night as The Specials came back to town for the first time since a gig in The Arc in the early eighties (’81, Noise is reliably informed) and the rude boys and girls came out out of the woodwork to skank and stomp under the big top of the Marquee.
Walking into the tent, I was immediately aware that this was not just a gig – this was a once vibrant scene revisiting itself and keeping the torch burning. An array of Doc Martens, Fred Perry ties – dusted down for one more outing – and pork pie hats (and one fez!) greeted me.
Once bald by choice, some of the crowd have since become bald by nature, but the intervening years haven’t dimmed their passion for one of the finest ska bands from a particularly relevant time. The Specials walked onstage to the strains of ‘Enjoy Yourself’ and a raucous roar of encouragement from their army of hardcore fans. First came ‘Do the Dog’ followed by ‘Dawning of a New Era’.
Then Neville Staples roared into the mic, “Al Capone’s guns don’t argue”, and they launched into ‘Gangsters’, one of their classics (sardonically dedicated to Jedward!). Some mean guitar adorned the rallying cry of ‘It’s Up to You’, before the mosh ensued for their cover of Toots and the Maytals’ ‘Monkey Man’.
A shout along to ‘Rat Race’ came next and I heard ageing skinheads sing “working for the rat race, you’re only wasting your time”, with expressions that suggested they may now have a greater understanding of the song’s sentiments than when they first heard it.
Terry Hall then endeared himself to us when he tied a tri-colour round his mic stand because we were “fuckin’ lovely and I hope you meet England in the final and fuckin’ batter ‘em!” If only . . . My stomping feet struggled to keep up when, in the middle of ‘Go Hot’, they speeded up the tempo from slow rocksteady skank to ultra fast ska and, seasoned musicians that they are, pulled it off perfectly.
The brass section of sax, trumpet and trombone arrived on stage soon after and the sound and the atmosphere increased to another level. At one point, Lynvall Golding spotted a very young lad with his mother and dedicated the next song to “the youngest Rudeboy here tonight”; with Hall adding, “you’ve got the coolest mum in the world, so you better do what she tells you, we’ll be back to check!”
It was a nice moment from this band of 50-60 year olds, kind of generation bridging. I saw a few kids on the floor up way past their bed time, surely a night they’ll never forget? The four front men were clearly enjoying themselves though the deadpan Hall would never betray this. Neville Staples – the band’s MC and co-vocalist – on the other hand was having lots of fun interacting with the front rows and gyrating across the stage.
Alongside him, the Joe Strummer stance of Roddy Radiation gave off a punk attitude and he added some fiery, rockabilly guitar breaks into the mix. On stage left, his fellow guitarist, Golding was a picture of sharp-suited, rudeboy cool as he smoothly picked out reggae licks.
The Specials’ trademark spooky, ethereal keyboard sound floated above the sonic boom of drum and bass while the brass just begged for you to shuffle and wriggle. The energy on stage and on the floor fed off each other until the whole tent was a mass of bouncing heads, feet working manically and bodies lurching and shifting in the way that only ska can make us move.
They swiftly moved into a higher gear and reeled off classic hit after hit, that sounded as fresh now as they did 30 years ago: ‘Stereotype’, ‘Do Nothing’ (a personal fave), their oh-so infectious cover of Danny Livingstone’s ‘Rudy, A Message To You’, ‘Night Club’ and ‘Too Much Too Young’ (which even the dead would want to wake up and dance to).
A feel good ‘Enjoy Yourself’ to smile and sing-a-long to and the stage was bare. We roared the house down till the boys from Coventry came back and treated us to ‘Little Bitch’ and a fitting close to the evening with ‘You’re Wondering Now’.
As I write this, that last hook is still caught in my head and I hum “you’re wondering now what to do, now you know this is the end”. Let’s hope the end of The Specials is a long way off.
Photos by the sublime Bríd O’Donovan