Gig preview: The Specials at O2 Academy Leeds

The Specials. Picture: Mark Bickerdike
The Specials. Picture: Mark Bickerdike
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It’s the morning after a triumphant show in Dublin and The Specials bass player Horace Panter appears to still be buzzing from the reception his band received the night before.

“It was wonderful,” he says. “It’s fabulous, the Olympia – it’s an old theatre with a dancefloor and two balconies. There were a lot of people. Everyone was very close to the stage, although it’s a big venue.

“And if I say so myself,” he adds wryly, “we were great.”

It’s now six years since the Coventry ska group reformed – to considerable acclaim – and although they may now be missing three original members – Jerry Dammers, Neville Staple and Roddy ‘Radiation’ Byers – it seems the enthusiasm of Panter, Terry Hall, Lynval Golding and John Bradbury remains undimmed.

For their current UK tour the band have enlisted the guitar talents of Steve Cradock from fellow Midlanders Ocean Colour Scene.

“Roddy had enough – he quit,” says Panter, matter-of-factly about Byers’ departure earlier this year. “He was always happier with his own band, which is fair enough.

“We asked around and Steve Cradock jumped at the chance which is really good because it’s a difficult role to ask someone to do: on the one hand you’ve got to play the recognisable parts, on the other hand you don’t want someone to wear dead men’s shoes. We wanted him to put his own personality in there, which he is doing.

“It’s a gradual process but he’s already playing differently after three nights than he was at the beginning.

“He’s having a great time and he’s Lynval’s new best friend.”

Reaction to the band’s first batch of shows after their reformation was remarkable. Panter himself recalled seeing grown men crying in the audience. As for the band themselves, Panter says: “It’s very different now than it was 35 years ago. Our pace of life is a bit slower but we work a lot more sensibly. Our work ethic is not exactly Protestant – the last time we toured was 18 months ago and the last time we did a show was 14 months ago. We’ve played 23 concerts this year which is not exactly a hectic schedule, but it’s good like that.

“We live apart from one another. I like that personally because I forget how much impact or how much influence we have with all the fans.

“We get back together, do some shows and I remember we were fantastic – but I don’t travel with that when I’m away from the band. I wanted to keep my feet on the ground.

“We do treat it a lot more sensibly. We realise now we are four very different people who are bound together by these 30-odd songs that we played over a quarter of a century ago but it still means an awful lot to an awful lot of people.

“I feel very lucky, I’m very proud of being part of this group. I like to think I’ve got it into a clearer perspective now – and about time too as I’m 60.”

What The Specials and their label, 2-Tone, achieved in four short years between 1977 and 1981 is still the stuff of music legend. Fusing Jamaican ska rhythms with a punk sensibility, they blazed a DIY trail, helping fellow travellers such as The Selecter, The Beat and Madness into the charts with them. Panter found the attitude of punk “liberating”. He fondly remembers supporting The Clash in 1978. “They set the benchmark for The Specials’ performances. We owe a tremendous debt to The Clash for that.”

As the clamour around the band grew following their hits Gangsters and A Message to You Rudy, they set out on a 2-Tone Tour in 1979. Panter recalls: “We were always late, always too fast and always too loud, but it was incredibly exciting. We were at the front of a runaway train, it was great. We travelled in a big coach with The Selecter and Madness and it was like a school trip but with no teacher, it was such fun. It was the most exciting thing I’ve done in my life.”

By 1980 they were Number One, with The Special AKA Live! EP. Panter remembers they were in the USA, supporting The Police, at the time. “To me it was a good feeling,” he says. “Other people were less impressed, but I was thrilled for my parents who were very dubious when their son announced he was going to be a rock musician. But I’d climbed to the top of the tree and there was my spotty little face beamed out on BBC TV.”

Sadly the bubble burst in their endeavours to crack America. The strains of an eight-week tour “terminally affected” the band, leaving them exhausted.

By their second album, More Specials, the band’s whole dynamic was shifting.

“I remember Roddy saying we went from our With The Beatles straight to Sgt Pepper without doing Rubber Soul or Revolver in between,” Panter says. “You can hear that beyond cynicism in the second album. That was one of the things that accelerated the band’s demise.”

By the summer of 1981 it was all over, yet their parting shot – Ghost Town – was eerily astonishing.

“It’s an extraordinary piece of music,” Panter acknowledges. “There is social comment but there are not too many words to it. There are only two verses. There’s a Middle Eastern melody to it set to a sparse reggae beat.

“It was recorded at a time when people were recording things on 48-track in studios in the Bahamas. We recorded it in Leamington Spa in a room little bigger than this hotel room where I am now. I was very pleased with that, it was a return to the basic reggae beat. I was very proud of it. It was written as the band was disintegrating. Full credit must go to Jerry Dammers for keeping the whole backbone together – it was a triumph of will that it got recorded. It’s a wonderful piece of music.”

Thirty-three years later it remains a highlight of their set.

Since their reformation Panter says he’s enjoyed meeting fans who’d been too young to see the band the first time around who have told him they never thought they would ever see The Specials live. They now bring their children to shows.

“In Europe we did a lot of festivals when we reformed and I remember playing to an enormous tent full of Belgians most of who weren’t born when the records were made. They were singing along, they knew all the words, it was incredible, really.”

It seems, however, unlikely that there will be any new songs to add to their back catalogue.

“We talk about this from time to time,” Panter admits. “If there was [any prospect of new songs] it would have come organically. To force something like that, writing something to order, is perhaps not what we do.”

It’s not something he rules out entirely, but, he says: “If we were going to do it I think we would have done it by now.”

The Specials play at 02 Academy Leeds on November 10, 7pm, £45.

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