This was always going to be a special night. Not only was it the first full-capacity gig at the Brighton Centre for 18 months, but it was also my first gig since shooting The Script at the same venue back in February 2020, my longest time without going to a live show in over ten years.
Walking up to the venue, there were queues to get in and touts offering to “buy any spares” for the sold out show. Once inside, it was like stepping back in time, not just pre-pandemic, but several decades earlier. The superannuated audience mainly consisted of balding men, with few under 40s, not surprising when they’ve come to see a band who had celebrated their 40th anniversary two years earlier.
At the stroke of eight, two hours after the doors had opened, things got underway with Pete Williams. Pete who? you may be asking as I did myself. It turns out Williams was once a member of Dexy’s Midnight Runners.Come on, you must remember them! The epitome of a passed his sell-by-date pub singer, you can only assume he was chosen to keep the bars busy. And they were heaving like I’ve never seen before. If this wasn’t a record night for booze sales, I’d be surprised.
“I like to venture into town, I like to get a few drinks down. The floor is packed, the bar is full.”
Lyrics from Friday Night, Saturday Morning
With the audience well-oiled, The Specials took to the stage. Last time I saw them, on their Encore tour of 2019, they put on a great show at the much smaller Brighton Dome, playing in front of a series of protest banners created by founder member and bassist turned artist, Horace Panter. This time, despite the imminent release of a new album of protest song covers recorded during lockdown, the placards were nowhere to be seen and the band were backed by the now perfunctory floor to ceiling video screen.
Those expecting interesting visuals would have been disappointed. Indeed, they would have witnessed the most uninspiring use of a video screen one could imagine. All it did was provide a solid colour backdrop, there were no graphics, no images, not even a logo. Together with some of the most pedestrian lighting I’ve seen in a long time, you had to wonder why so little effort was put into the presentation. It begged the question: Is it minimalism or just minimal effort? Judging by the languid nature of much of their live performance, the answer would appear to be the latter.
With that being said, this was The Specials, one of the most influential and important of all British bands, the band behind the haunting Ghost Town, one of the all-time classic songs. But it was released over 40 years ago, making them a bonafide heritage act.
Giving his opinion on bands who still play together after decades on the scene, former Led Zeppelin frontman, Robert Plant said this week that not only do they look “sadly decrepit”, but also those that are still doing it are “hanging onto a life raft”.
These days there may only be three original members onstage, but when one of them is lead singer Terry Hall, The Specials will always sound authentic. Indeed, Hall himself sounded on point, his dour vocals as distinctive as ever.
Yet as important as he is to the band, Hall is the antithesis of a front man. He looks as if he’d rather be anywhere but onstage and whenever he sings, it’s invariably with his eyes shut and his hands clenching the microphone close to his face. Predictably, one of the few times he spoke, it was in favour of lockdowns, saying how he really enjoyed the lockdown, as it meant he could sit on his arse, and not have to do anything or see anyone.
Judging by his appearance, it looked as if he’d just rolled out of bed, his stubbled puffy face, did him no favours and his crumpled grey striped shirt, could well have been a pyjama top. Despite the lack of sartorial elegance, it was the deadpan “man in grey” who made all the difference. As far as I’m concerned, Terry Hall’s voice has always been what makes The Specials live up to their name.
The band’s ten-piece line-up was also a little different from their last tour. This time they featured young backing singer Hannah Marsden who goes by the stage name of Hannah Hu.
The rocksteady beat is provided by the excellent rhythm section of drummer Kenrick Rowe and Horace Panter on bass with colour added by two horn players, one on trombone, the other on trumpet. But as good as they sounded, I felt the volume was way too low for the venue. Standing near the back, all too often, the music was competing with the audience chatter.
And despite all that beer being quaffed, the atmosphere was suprisingly muted, with only a few songs managing to elicit a sing- or clap-along. That despite the best efforts of The Specials ‘hype man’, rhythm guitarist Lynval Golding. Dressed in his trademark hat and sporting a multicoloured blazer, the just turned septuagenerian was the most animated of the band. He ranted about the government (despite the fact he now resides in Seattle) said he’d love to live in Brighton and gave the rest of the band a brief rest, when he sang a stripped down version of Bob Marley’s Get Up Stand Up, which he called the ultimate protest song.
Song wise, like all heritage acts, The Specials took few risks, giving fans the anticipated greatest hits show, with a couple of new ‘old’ songs thrown in for good measure. The best of these proved to be the opening number, Freedom Highway, their catchy version of the Staple Singers protest song written in 1965 about the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, one of the highlights of an otherwise quite subdued evening.
Considering the accompanying video is almost entirely made up of images of protesters holding protest placards, it’s even more baffling why the band ditched the ones they used as a backdrop on their last tour.
In one of his rare interactions, Hall asked for the lights to be put on the audience, before telling them they looked like they’d spent the afternoon being dragged through Primark. Judging by his own dishevelled appearance, it was a case of the pot calling the kettle black!
Lacklustre presentation aside, The Specials had enough in their cannon to elevate the live experience. Other standouts of their 22-song set (which included 8 covers) were Fun Boy Three’s classic The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum, Nite Klub and Doesn’t Make It Alright.
But the loudest cheer came when they played (A Message To You) Rudy, a song that can’t help but get your body skanking and your toes tapping. Here’s a clip of them playing it:
After two years away, The Specials will be back in Brighton in October to play what’s been billed as an intimate stripped back gig at Chalk. I’m hoping to be there to compare and take notes.
Setlist: Freedom Highway (The Staple Singers cover) | Rat Race | Do Nothing | Friday Night, Saturday Morning | Vote For Me | Stereotype | International Jet Set | Man At C&A | Breaking Point | Get Up, Stand Up (The Wailers cover) | The Lunatics (Fun Boy Three cover) | Doesn’t Make It Alright | Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Us Around (cover of civil rights protest song) | A Message To You Rudy | Nite Klub | Do The Dog (Rufus Thomas cover) | Too Much Too Young | Gangsters | Monkey Man (Toots & The Maytals cover) || Fuck All The Perfect People (Chip Taylor & The New Ukrainians cover) | Ghost Town | You’re Wondering Now (Andy and Joey cover)
“To me, shooting live music is all about capturing the personality of the performer and the emotion of their performance. And then creating an iconic image.”
Behind the image: All these images were created with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 using available light only, the 75mm 1.8 M Zuiko lens and the in-camera digital zoom. I was only able to shoot the first three songs from the pit. As always, I focused on getting interesting clean portraits, rather than capturing wide set shots.
About the author: Based in Sussex-by-the-Sea, on England’s south coast, Gary is a creative writer and image-maker. He specialises in out of the ordinary portraits of musicians and people with interesting faces, as well as photographing some of the world’s finest flowers and gardens. With no concerts or major events taking place during lockdown, Gary turned his attention to creatively capturing the landscapes of West Sussex. On the writing side, he also penned deep dives into some of his favourite songs beginning with Bryan Ferry’s ‘These Foolish Things’ ‘Ghost Town’ by The Specials and ‘All The Young Dudes’ by Mott the Hoople. Most recently, he has written a biography of Robert Palmer and the story behind Whitesnake’s ‘Still Of The Night’. All these can be found here on Medium, along with his reviews of gigs and events and chats with musicians.
You can read the story behind Ghost Town here: