Nostalgic déjà vu with The Specials

If I’d closed my eyes I could have been back in the old country, 34 years ago.

Okay, I’ve no doubt that some would call me a musical dinosaur, however, when I noticed that The Specials, were heading to Vancouver there was no way that I was going to miss the gig. The wonderful, infectious ska beat flows deep within me and I cannot understand anyone that refuses to move to the music. Movement is obligatory. The period that spawned The Specials, The Beat, Madness, The Selecter and others remains close to my heart. A period of my younger days was spent taking in as many gigs as I could afford or get to. Despite my desire for live music, many bands slipped through the net and The Specials were one of those bands that had eluded me. Time to right that particular wrong.

Once the tickets were secured my mental clock hit rewind and I started to think about what could have been considered as the band’s purple period. It was a time in the UK when a deeply unpopular government was in power. A time of recession. A time of class and racial tension. The fusion of infectious dance music with wry observation and acerbic lyrics proved to be a winning formula for the band. Life in grey urban landscapes, the far right in fighting mood and little hope of work could suddenly be danced to. I do wonder how many teens and early twenties of the period even listened to the lyrics. Why bother when it was so easy to be wrapped up in the rhythm. Fast forward thirty-plus years and maybe it’s a case of what goes around comes around as I read similar stories of an unpopular Government, division and fraying social fabric in my home land. So, what would a night with The Specials bring, nostalgia or a sense of déjà vu?

A sold-out Commodore awaited and after a promising support band, Little Hurricane, who I’m sure have already had enough ‘White Stripes’ comments to last them the rest of their career, the DJ ramped up the ska and reggae sounds to get the audience primed. Before The Specials appeared I have to admit thinking to myself that the Commodore must have been full of mid-life Europeans as I’ve not been to a gig there where at six foot tall I’ve only been the average height. Even though the age range was skewed high, there was still a decent spread of generations. The Specials endure.

Blinds down, curtain up and for me, a generation late, The Specials were on stage. The dance floor erupted, a sea of bobbing heads were in front of me and ‘Do The Dog’ became the first of over twenty songs that threw me back in time with a smile on my face. If I’d closed my eyes I could have been back in the old country, 34 years ago.

Even though the majority of the original band is back together, the absence of Jerry Dammers did leave a sense of not quite being able to check off this particular bucket list band. Having said that, the performance was simply wonderful, the energy is still there and it’s that zest that overrides musical maturity for me. I’ve not seen the floor of the Commodore move so much and I have to wonder how many chiropractor visits were booked the following week. After all, time does take its toll on the body and there were some mid-lifers there who were absolutely intent on dancing themselves out, and who can blame them?

As the skank down memory lane continued I did have to question how the band felt about songs such as ‘Too Much, Too Young‘. I suppose rather than sing from a peer perspective it could now be sung, at least in part, from a parent’s point of view. I also found ‘Rat Race‘ somewhat confusing. How many of those on the floor, including myself, had been through the education sausage machine and had been working for the rat race for years? Suddenly a past dig becomes an opportunity to stop and consider where life should be heading rather than accepting the mid-life status quo.

As with all great times, the evening was over far too quickly. ‘Ghost Town‘ was an obvious encore and I’m once again thinking about how the UK is fairing through the prolonged recession, particularly the high street. Clone town UK appears to have suffered from many retail closures and once familiar names have disappeared. Ghost town UK? That feeling of déjà vu again.

In the tranquillity of post-gig deafness I was left to reflect on seeing a band that in theory had no part in today’s musical landscape. However, the reality of a struggling global economy and the growing disparity between those that have and the rest of us make The Specials very much in tune with the times.


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