Wasting no time, as they take to the stage to great acclaim, The Specials launch into a mesmerising version of ‘Ghost Town’. A song written 35 years ago, about the social divisions and disharmony largely caused by a newly elected Conservative government. The obvious observation would be that this stark political message is once again prescient today, yet in all honesty, the beautifully scenic surroundings of this Tynemouth clifftop, and the good natured crowd somewhat dilute the ‘Broken Britain’ imagery of the song. It remains a compelling opener though.
The Specials, of course, are something of a British institution, with as many break-up’s, spats, and re-union tours as you would expect for a band formed almost 40 years ago. The scars still run too deep for original keyboard player and primary songwriter Jerry Dammers, who remains absent from the present line up. None of this matters to the packed crowd though, and as the temperature drops (‘it’s fucking freezing’ bemoans Terry Hall), I look around at a sea of pork pie hats and Fred Perry shirts glancing upwards, fearful of the arrival of another British institution – summer rain. Fortunately everybody soon warms up with some infectious and frantic ‘old school’ ska dancing, triggered by the band rattling through some old favourites like ‘Stereotype’, ‘Man at C&A’, and ‘ Rat Race’, each one bang on the money.
Deadpan singer Terry Hall is not out to win friends and influence people ‘So this is Tynemouth Abbey he says, looking unimpressed as he surveys its scant remains. ..’fuck me’. The hint of a devilish grin keeping the local crowd firmly on side. The band continue through what is effectively a ‘best of’ set, and the stage is almost as full as the crowd, full brass and string sections giving the band a very full, rich sound which adds to the effortless charm of ‘Do Nothing’ and ‘Why’. Guitarist Lynval Golding takes over lead vocals for these, and his cheery disposition is an amusing contrast, insisting that he can see the sun through the clouds as Hall stands shivering.
The band are as tight as you would expect, there isn’t a dropped note all night, and it’s easy to see why they remain so popular. The jaunty ska heavy rhythms and catchy melodies an effective contrast to the biting and pithy lyrics. Never more so than in two of the groups best songs ‘Friday Night and Saturday morning’ and ‘Nite Klub’. The razor sharp observations of a night out in town hitting the mark long before Arctic Monkeys would get there. ‘Wish you had lipstick on your shirt, instead of piss stains on your shoes’ is surely up there with my favourite ever lyrics.
The band leave the stage after two further classics, a frenetic performance of ‘Monkey Man’ which stirs the crowd into the evening’s most energetic dancing, and the equally uptempo social commentary of ‘Too Much Too Young’ still performed with as much vigour as it was back in 1980. There is such a tangible feeling of goodwill toward this festival, and indeed towards this band in particular that makes it very easy to get swept up in the fervour of it all.
The last word should belong to Terry Hall though, as the band return for the encore. ‘Ever since I was a kid, people have asked why I don’t smile. And you know what I say? …… Fuck off’. And with that the band launch into Prince Busters ‘Enjoy Yourself’ and you suspect that even Terry Hall is doing just that, as much as the delighted crowd. A special night indeed.
Reviewer: Colin McCann