Engine Rooms, Southampton

Extraordinary, exceptional, extra-Special. There you go; that’s the summary – it was a great, great gig.

Whilst the Vaccines were ripping it up at the Old Fire Station, The Specials were at the start of their outstore shows promoting their new album “Protest Songs 1924-2012”. The album dropped on my doorstep on the Monday and I’d played it through several times during the day. There was something different about this album; they hadn’t taken rare and known protest songs and given them a ska, two-tone type makeover; they’d gone to the root of the song where it had come from and given it the proper treatment.

As a lad at school, I just caught the tail-end of Too Much Too Young and wondered why wearing a cap would help you when you were much too young. Those were different times then; school education perhaps harder, a 35mm film to let you know about those difficult tricky subjects. Up to Monday, I’d never seen the Specials, in fact, I’d seen Bananarama more times (to be clear once at Camp Bestival; they made me go, honest). Me and my gig buddy had tickets for the BIC; but End of the Road got in the way of that, so the offer of an intimate outstore show in the Engine Rooms hosted by the excellent Vinilo team; plus a limited-edition vinyl of the album, well what’s not to love?

The Specials

The Engine Rooms lies in the shadow of IKEA in Southampton; in an industrial unit, opposite a hire car firm and probably next to a carpet warehouse and a body repair shop (maybe, it was dark). Perhaps an odd place for one of the trailblazers of Two Tone to be playing an intimate gig, but inside it works.

I think we were all waiting to see how this would play out? The Rude Boys, the students, the curious and the die-hard fans. How would the Specials deliver these songs, what would they be like live, how many banker songs would they play? The stage was arranged with 6 high-stools, little tables with water and towels on, lit in a red light, very Speakeasy-like. Yes, that’s what it was like; a speakeasy, an event that you’d found where it shouldn’t have been and with people who shouldn’t (with all ‘music logic’) have been together.

Terry, Lynval, and Horace walk on stage to a rousing cheer and take their places at the front and sit in their allotted high-stools. Hannah, Nikolaj, Kenrick, and Steve take their places in the backline. At the very start, it all feels a little “nervy” as Horace tells us about the album and what it’s about and introduces us to the players. All of us are a little unsure as to what is going to happen, how everyone is going to react, “this is going to be a little different, unique, special” we think. First song is the first release from the album, track 2, “Everybody Knows”. It sounds a little different from the record; a little crisper, a little brighter, a little more edge, a little more alive. This is a Leonard Cohen song and you imagine he’d have approved; everyone sat down chilled, Terry sipping his red wine and puffing on a vape. This is good. Terry introduces Freedom Highway and we’re off, confidence grows that the songs that are being well received, the momentum is building up. “I Don’t Mind Failing” seems to light the self-deprecating humour that Terry carries between songs; this song is all about not stepping on people to get up the ladder, about not exploiting people.

The Specials

He declares happily in this context that he is a failure. Now we’re starting to get inside these songs, what they mean to the players and what they mean to us. Lynval takes to the mic and tries to introduce the next song as him and Terry banter. We get to the point that they’ve got to where they are by doing nothing; the next song is “Do Nothing”. It starts well and then they get distracted by a little on-stage feedback and hilariously pull the plug on the song and promise to do it later in the set. This is the type of thing that sets great gigs apart from good gigs, when it becomes unique. Sometimes because something has gone wrong and we have a laugh about it; we’re all human after all and hey, it isn’t easy playing live – a lot can go wrong. Sometimes it is because there is a meaning to the gig, a purpose beyond listening to music. Sometimes it is because it becomes a really personal thing, something that touches you. This gig was shaping up to be all of those three things.

In 1964 Lynval arrived in the UK from the Caribbean. He tells us he landed in yup, Southampton. He tells us quietly, calmly, yet positively about the shock of the change, the state of the weather, but under it he’s alluding to the hardships and tough times he’s had coming to the UK in the 60s. He flashes us his Black Lives Matter t-shirt and then accompanied just with a guitar sings the very powerful “Black, Brown and White”.

The Specials

Lynval tells us “Love is so much more powerful than hate.” Man, I’d love to have a pint and a chat with the fella. Written in 1947 by Big Bill Broonzy this song sadly, still has relevance today over 60 years later. The song is finished with a fist held aloft, something has just happened, these aren’t songs written in a bygone day and nice to listen to today. The Specials have brought these songs gently back and placed them squarely in front of us to listen to, reflect on the message and act! “F#ck All the Perfect People” is followed by perhaps the more closer to genre Bob Marley, Peter Tosh classic “Get Up, Stand Up”. We’re all in full flow; singing along acappella to Get Up, Stand Up, all involved in the protest now. There’s gags a plenty “I can’t use the C-word because my son may be watching this on YouTube” is heckled by someone shouting “cake”. So, Terry uses “Cake” instead of the C-word. Terry jokes that it has taken them eight songs before they’ve got one right. There’s more little bants between the band and it’s almost turning into a Dave Allen show; but it isn’t, it’s a show about protest.

“Stereotypes” sees The Specials cover a Specials song as it were, home ground; totally comfortable in this space and they knock it gently, out of the park. Hannah Hu takes centre stage to sing the Talking Heads song “Listening Wind” – perhaps a nod to the iconic Southampton venue of the same name, but probably a happy coincidence. During “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Us Around” Terry spits the words “racist” and “fascist” – “ain’t gonna let no racist, turn me around, turn me around, turn me around”.

About now they’ve re-composed themselves and do a great rendition of “Do Nothing”; no errors this time, all smiles. They declare that normally a band would walk off, we’d cheer a lot and they’d come back on and do an encore. But basically that they’re all sat down, nice and comfy and frankly can’t be arsed; so they gave us the encore of “Message to You” followed by their own song “You’re Wondering Now”. This song somehow shifts from the band singing it, to us singing it. We’re being heckled by Terry to sing louder, and louder, and louder, in the end the place is vibrating with several hundred of us protesting in unison as the band watch on.

“Thank you, thank you very much! No, I mean it.” And we know that Terry does mean it. This has been extra-special; a close, intimate gig with one of England’s iconic bands. One that has been protesting since 1979 and still has a voice, and is still being listened to.

It was a fantastic gig.

Set List
Everybody Knows (Leonard Cohen cover)
Freedom Highway (The Staple Singers cover)
I Don’t Mind Failing (Malvina Reynolds cover)
Do Nothing
Black, Brown and White (Big Bill Broonzy cover)
F~ck All the Perfect People (Chip Taylor cover)
Get Up, Stand Up (The Wailers cover)
Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Us Around (traditional cover)
Listening Wind (Talking Heads cover)
Do Nothing
A Message to You, Rudy (Dandy Livingstone cover)
You’re Wondering Now (Andy and Joey cover)


Words & Pictures by Adam “Ski Daddle” Hart
Videos by Digital Colin (Youtube)