The Specials

James Meredith skanks back the years at St George's Market

A baying crowd face an empty stage. The chorus of 'Enjoy Yourself' builds slowly, ethereally, as a shadow play of silhouettes drift across a white backdrop. Suddenly, stage lights beam, the backdrop rises, The Specials kick into 'Do the Dog', and the dancing begins, on stage and off.

This is the band's first appearance in Belfast since 1981. By year's end they were no more. Their music had been the soundtrack to the beginning of the Thatcher years. Songs that reflected the breakdown of society, rising unemployment, racial intolerance, riots in Brixton, Toxteth and elsewhere. Songs that were also relevant to Northern Ireland, especially during the spring and summer of 1981, when the country was in the midst of the hunger strikes and sectarian murder gangs were going about their grisly business on a daily basis.

And in youth clubs up and down the land, kids like me danced along to Madness, The Beat, and The Specials. Especially The Specials.

There has been some carping in the press, and amongst fans, about this reunion, focusing on the fact that founding member, and band leader, Jerry Dammers is not in the line-up. This Specials is not The Specials, without him. This reunion is nothing but meaningless nostalgia.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the argument over the authenticity of the band, no-one here tonight seems to care. Besuited, and belying their advancing years, the band rip through the opening numbers. The music is tight, the band perform with passion and enthusiasm. Singer Neville Staple jogs on the spot as guitarists Roddy Radiation and Lynval Golding belt out the tunes. Lead vocalist Terry Hall, little changed since the band's heyday, still does his 'Will I go? No, I'll stay' dance shuffle, and holds his microphone to his chest as if it were a shield.

'Do the Dog' is followed by '(Dawning of a) New Era', then the song which introduced Two-Tone records to the world back in 1979: 'Gangsters'.

The crowd, most showing signs of middle-age spread and hair loss, bellow along to every word. There are a lot of Harrington jackets on display, every colour of Fred Perry polo shirt under the sun. The songs keep on coming. And what songs they are: 'Rat Race', 'Monkey Man', 'Concrete Jungle', 'Friday Night and Saturday Morning', 'A Message to You (Rudy)'. The audience know them all, love them all. You get the feeling they've lived them all too.

The big hitters are kept 'til last. 'Too Much Too Young' raises the energy in the room to new levels. 'Enjoy Yourself' is almost giddily appropriate to both the band and most in the audience. No-one here is getting any younger. But that's OK, when you're happy, and dancing, and singing along to a song so joyous.

'Ghost Town', the strangest protest song to hit Number One in the charts, brings the night to a close. Somehow, despite its downbeat rhythm and lyrical gloom, everyone sings and dances along merrily, smiles wide as their faces.

Perhaps, like me, they were dancing along with the ghosts of the past. Enjoying themselves in the biggest youth club disco Belfast has ever seen. 


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