It’s a bank holiday weekend in Margate. The sun hasn’t shone properly for what feels like an age, but a huge crowd are still clinging on to a summer spirit and are clearly hoping The Specials will bring some extra good vibes to the seaside town on the first night of their ‘Protest Songs 1924-2012’ tour.
Just a few moments after the band takes the stage in the outdoor area at the legendary Dreamland theme park, it’s pretty clear that a good proportion of the crowd will not necessarily get what they’d hoped for. Opening the set is ‘Freedom Road’, an old Staple Singers gospel number that has only been circulating as a Specials recording for a few days, and will not be heard by most until the album is released in October. Beyond the first few rows, the mid tempo track is greeted with a casual indifference. Terry Hall is in good voice, but – as it will soon become apparent – fairly poor spirits; Horace Panter’s bass work is great, but the rest of the assembled band – which by now only includes three members of the original/classic line up and very obviously missing Neville Staple – already appear to be going through the motions.
‘Rat Race’ is played in a more than rudimentary way, never really tapping into the melodic bounce at the song’s core, and a rendition of ‘Do Nothing’ helps to gain some traction with the crowd, but is somewhat spoilt by an ugly live sound. The rhythm and brass sections are solid and Hall is just about doing his best, though already looking like a man who’d rather go home and watch football than be fronting a band. What could’ve be a stand out tune for the set is steadily being marred by keys man Nicolaj, whose recreations of Jerry’s harsh organ sounds are even harsher, and his attempts at adding the “Ice Rink String Sounds” to the arrangement are never less than ugly. It’s The Specials’ first night on stage after a long gigging drought and should be a jubilant return, but already there are elements here that suggest an under-rehearsed band not really ready to sell their wares at a large outdoor event.
Something of an early set highlight, ‘Man At C&A’, manages to be so for all the wrong reasons. The dour music seems even more unsettling tonight; maybe it’s the band’s looser approach that’s giving a sense of unease, or just maybe it’s that hearing Lynval Golding warning us of an impending nuclear attack whilst surrounded by fairground lights and the smell of cheap onions feels truly bizarre. Whatever it is, it creates the kind of memory that won’t be fading in a hurry. The more recent ‘Embarrassed By You’, meanwhile, actually suggests there’s potential greatness to be had from this show, since it’s a perfect example of the band’s ability to serve up some impressive reggae chops to give a pointed message an accessible send off (driven by more top-notch bass work), but ‘Breaking Point’ (also from the excellent ‘Encore’ LP) is far more of a marginal choice; it’s disjointed Tom Waits-ian ugliness really doesn’t suit the set or environment, despite Hall delivering the lyric with a real sneer. Thankfully, the classic ‘The Lunatics’ finds the whole band pulling in the same direction, allowing the unsettling waltz to float into the crowd, its dark tones feel especially atmospheric on this night, helping to draw a line under some very testing social times.
Flying the flag for the upcoming LP, Linval’s stripped down take on ‘Get Up Stand Up’ is performed with a genuine passion but, much like the other new cut earlier, isn’t well suited to the night’s surroundings or mood, but it’s better than ‘International Jet Set’, a half-tuneless car crash with Hall showing minimum interest and Nicolaj hammering out various disgusting keyboard sounds. The weird kitsch really doesn’t translate in front of a live audience and the gusts of wind that blow the audio back and forth certainly don’t help matters. A flash of greatness in a sea of oddity, ‘Stereotypes’ is brilliant on this occasion, with the track’s second half dominated by a new set of toasting lyrics with Golding in fine form. Panter throws out absolutely fantastic dub bass sounds and drummer Kenrick Rowe locks down a deep and heavy groove, and even though the great John Bradbury is still sadly missed, this is a glimpse of a superb rhythm section at work. Much more of this taut approach during the set’s first half would have certainly been very welcome indeed.
When addressing the crowd, Terry’s dour demeanour isn’t one of sarcastic fun, as often painted by some long term fans. He genuinely seems to be finding the mere idea of being back on stage challenging, or perhaps even a massive inconvenience. What’s more, he’s carrying a lot of contempt for the Margate crowd, occasionally even making remarks about Primark outfits and low income people. It seems that his opinions of the town and its inhabitants are a decade out of date; if he thinks Margate is rough and somehow beneath him as he uses his platform for derision, he’ll have an absolute field day in Blackpool in a couple of weeks – assuming his sniping doesn’t cause a fight… The difference between this show and when the newly reunited Specials played in Brighton back in 2009 couldn’t be more apparent. Back then, with the whole of the original band present – excepting Jerry Dammers – there was a feeling of excitement and unity. A decade on, Hall’s enthusiasm for performance has clearly waned and his disdain for the audience is disappointing. Luckily, Golding is there to pick up the slack, and his gratitude couldn’t be any more genuine. He and Panter are truly carrying this incarnation of The Specials on their broad shoulders…and it shows. It’s rather unfortunate, then, that when Golding tries to express love and gratitude and a thankfulness that most of us have made it through a tough time during lockdown, his earnestness and love are challenged by Hall’s comments about how he “fuckin’ loved lockdown” because he didn’t have to see anyone.
It isn’t actually until the final fifteen minutes of the main set that most things seem to click into place when, having kept the audience bemused, baited and even frustrated for the better part of an hour, The Specials unleash a selection of tunes from the classic debut album. Renditions of ‘A Message To You, Rudy’ and ‘Do The Dog’ whip the majority of the crowd into something resembling unity for the first time; the ever brilliant and poignant ‘Doesn’t Make It Alright’ gets older fans singing together, ‘Gangsters’ comes across like an evergreen classic and the massive misogynistic hit ‘Too Much Too Young’ gets more people skanking whilst the band hammer through the old favourite with a relative gusto. ‘Nite Klub’ provides the one and only opportunity for true crowd participation, as well as showcasing a band who can be tight when everything aligns. Between Tim’s trombone, Horace’s punchy bass and a gang vocal put to good use, there’s a feeling the night won’t get better than this. However, an incredible ‘Monkey Man’ finally evokes the kind of spirit that most of the crowd had hoped to experience, and somewhere near the back of the park, an older man links arms with his friends and runs up and down furiously, indulging in something that mixes an old time skank with a half-cocked barn dance. It’s great to see people letting off steam after eighteen months of uncertainty and anxiety; if only The Specials had seen fit to include a couple more high energy performances in the set, this could’ve been a great night rather than the strange and unsettling experience most of it has been.
Moving into a very short encore, there’s a false start for ‘Ghost Town’ when a the samples are mis-triggered and everything falters, followed by a version that’s marred by some terrible female vocals on the wordless sections. As before, Panter is in great form, but his brilliant bottom end never rescues the performance, and a downbeat ‘You’re Wondering Now’ seems like a complete anti-climax, despite being the band’s regular show closer. This has definitely been one of those occasions where the set needed either ‘Monkey Man’ or ‘Gangsters’ moved into the encore to help leave a final good impression.
Maybe first night, post-lockdown jitters have played a large part in tonight’s hit and miss show, but this insight into Terry Hall’s state of mind on a bad day hasn’t been entirely pleasant. Thankfully, even with the band in an uneven state, it hasn’t been a complete ordeal, and a run of timeless material from the debut has definitely provided interest. It doesn’t excuse the fact that The Specials are very clearly a sad shadow of their former, brilliant selves, and Hall especially, is dragging them down. Hopefully, by the time the tour reaches Brighton in a few days and a two night sell out at London’s Roundhouse at the end of September, the gremlins will have vacated and Terry will be back in the zone, but for the Margate crowd, the return of The Specials hasn’t really supplied the great experience they deserved.