Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Verdict on The Specials' Reunion Tour

What's going on? The Specials (without Jerry Dammers) hit the Beeb for the first time since "Ghost Town," Madness is releasing a new album in May and headlining festivals in the UK and Australia, and the US version of the English Beat is prowling the US and Canada just over 30 years from band's first gig on the day Three Mile Island nearly melted down (and, in an intriguing development, Dave Wakeling is getting much more specific about recording and releasing a 7 track EP of new material), it makes me wonder if I've been clocked in the head and come to, bad skin and all, in the early 80s (hell, even No Doubt is covering Adam & the Ants' "Stand and Deliver" as their signature comeback song--banking on the past success they had with Talk Talk's "It's My Life").

In particular, The Specials' recent appearance on the Jools Holland show (yet another 80s connection--he was a member of Squeeze) has received a lot of play in the press and blogosphere. Even though I was very ambivalent, if not somewhat hostile, about the fact that Jerry Dammers is not participating in the reunion tour, I decided to put my skepticism aside and check out the videos for myself.

The band's performances are tight and energetic (though Terry Hall really looks like hell and doesn't have the upper register anymore to hit the higher notes in "Gangsters") and it's great to see that the band still has the chops to pull it all off after all these years. But then it strikes me: apart from this being the 30th anniversary of the release of "Gangsters," there isn't much to get all excited about, is there? After all, it's not a true reunion tour and various permutations of the band have been playing out--and working the very same material--since 1993 or so. While I have great respect for every member of The Specials, what do they really have to offer this go-round except for another nostalgia trip?

In all honesty, had Jerry Dammers signed on, I'd happily put down the cash to see them (provided they made it to the States), but I'm now thinking more and more that he was right to challenge the band to offer the fans something new and to refuse to participate unless they do so. Jerry is uncompromising in his vision--which has to be a pain in the ass to deal with sometimes--but his track record is impeccable: the extraordinary 2 Tone label/movement; his brilliant Peter Tosh/Walt Jabsco logo; the fact that The Specials' debut album sounds as sharp and angry and fantastic to me from start to finish as when I first heard it a few decades ago; the seething bitterness of young dreams dashed in "Ghost Town'; the joyous "Free Nelson Mandela" that I spun in basement parties in high school that helped spark a world-wide effort to release another man uncompromising in his determination to resist and defeat the apartheid government of his own country. All of this and more continues to influence and have great impact upon our culture and successive generations of youth.

It's painfully obvious to me that The Specials desperately need Jerry Dammers if they want to take the band to the next step in its evolution, whatever that may be (the limp Today's Specials is my Exhibit A). Yes, the fans still expect to hear their beloved hits (and there is nothing wrong with giving the people what they want). But wouldn't it be absolutely brilliant if they didn't just rest on their laurels (surely dried out and brittle with age by now) and wrote new material with Dammers (as well as reworked some of their hits for the road) and became, once again, an extraordinarily vital band connected with, and relevant to, the sound and tenor of our times?


Jon said...

I agree whole heartedly with you assessment. Basically all this hoopla is about Terry Hall rejoining, otherwise this is just the same rehashed Specials that have been touring the world for 15 years. I've seen various versions, and while they're fun, they're not exactly interesting.

All these bands have been back and playing out for much longer than they were gone, The Speicals, The Beat (in two distinct versions), Madness, The Selecter. In my mind only Madness and The Selecter have been at all interesting, and in the case of the latter it has far more to do with a non-original member (Nick Welsh), so really it's a different group.

In my mind I thought it was a little telling when I read a review of a Rico show the other night, Jerry was the DJ between sets. The two musicians from the group that I have the most respect for are off doing their own thing, in a small, quiet way.

Unknown said...

All I can say is that I attended the Coventry gig travelling all the way home to the UK from NY to do so and it was an electric reminder of my youth! From the first beat of Do the Dog the moshe pit went crazy, much to the shock of some of the old dears who arrived in the middle of a load of old skinheads, and many ex paratroppers I suspect. What with the young kids too going into a state of severe shock it was carnage!! Retgurning to the music the energy of the tracks remained and whilst Terry Hall was not at his best from years gone by the audience more than made up the vibe! I havent had as much fun at a gig since the Jams last tour when I saw them at Bingley Hall in Birmingham. If they decide to come stateside and play the East Coast I for one will be up for a repeat!

Highlight of the night for me was the skinhead symphony is and will always be a classic reminder of the times!!

Bob P in New Windsor NY

Steve from Moon said...


Thanks for your comments--I really appreciate them. I'm glad to hear 1) the band was terrific, and 2) you had a blast.

I've said it before: if The Specials come over to tour the US, I'll probably pony up the money to see them do their thing...