The Specials were one of the very first groups I truly loved. Later life would open my eyes and ears to their stance, but as a 10 year old I had no idea they were in any way political, or that by even lining up in that defiantly multicultural manner they were flicking a two-fingered salute to the dangerous undercurrent of right-wing extremism that was simmering just below the surface of Thatcher’s Britain. Friendly antagonists, they fought back through well chosen words and haircuts and clothes. Me? I just liked jumping around Mark Richmond’s room to Do The Dog and Rat Race, Nite Klub and his single of Too Much Too Young. “Ain’t you heard of con-tra-cep-shun!” we’d shout, oblivious to what that actually was, our tasselled loafers ripping our heels to bits as we clacked the segs off his mum’s kitchen floor. Far too young for the 2 Tone tour of ’79 when it made its final stop in the rundown seaside town of Ayr, just down the coast from my house, it wouldn’t be until The Specials reformed in the early 2010s that I’d finally catch them in full flight. I’m glad I did. They were dynamite from start to finish.
Terry Hall was the unlikeliest of frontmen. Despite being the King of the suedeheads, he never seemed like he was very much into it. He always looked fed up, disinterested at times, perhaps depressed at others. Hangdog and emotionless, he’d hang from his mic stand like Eeyore, down in the mouth, staring at the floor, as his bandmates whipped up a not-so-quiet riot around him. Of course he was into it though. The music would occasionally spark a jolt of electricity through him and he’d pull himself tight, knuckles whitened around the mic, shoulders up and into his ears and he’d fly off in a whirl of suit-jacketed skanking, turning to face Neville or Lynval to lose himself in the punkish ramalama before the brief musical interlude ended and he was pulled magnetically back to his real job as downbeat frontman in one of our greatest and most accurately-named groups.
The news of Terry Hall’s sudden death has hit me far harder than I could have anticipated. I’m working from home just now, putting together stuff that should be turned in before Friday, but I can’t properly concentrate. I’m listening, not to The Specials – they’re night-time music – but to Virgins and Philistines, the album he made with/as The Colourfield in the mid ’80s. It’s rich and inventive and packed full of unravelling melodies, as well as bona fide classics; it opens with Thinking Of You, and its rich mix of Spanish guitars, plucked strings and groovy acoustic bass runs has almost set me off, its upbeat melancholy taking on a whole new meaning. Powerful thing, music. I’m not sure I can handle Forever J just now. I’ll save that particular beauty for tomorrow, maybe.
The Colourfield – Thinking Of You
A funny thing happens when popstars die. You don’t know them…and yet, you do. They pop round far more often than yr old Auntie Margaret, for starters. You know them, and they know you far better than anyone else. They get you. They instantly uplift. Immediately heal and soothe. Always in tune with your feelings, they never disappoint (well…Morrissey, but…) Pull them out of that alphabetised collection of yours and they’re right with you in the room, familiar old friends reigniting old memories of the past, shooting to the surface like lava from a volcano and spilling out in unstoppable order.
As my own years roll on, and friends and heroes die, I find myself getting increasingly nostalgic for a past that surely couldn’t have been as idyllic as I remember. One whiff of Gangsters and I’m right back in Mark’s mum’s kitchen, an orange rolling from the top of the fruit bowl and onto the floor as our uncoordinated earth-quaking and enthusiastic skank tips first the fruit and then his mum over the edge. Mark is also no longer with us, so the music of Terry Hall, and especially The Specials, has all sort of meaning suddenly attached to it.
I’m back in the living room of our old house as my mum pulls out the catalogue and asks if I want peg legs or flares for school trousers. Thank you, whoever you might be up there, who prompted me to ask for peg legs just as 2 Tone was filtering its way to Bank Street Primary School. I’m back in the playground, half a dozen of us shooting bright yellow sparks from our segs.
And I’m in the wee shop in Irvine High Street agonising over which of the badges my 15p will go on this time. A Specials badge, the group scowling in miniature? A Madness logo? My original one was lost somewhere in or near the Magnum and I’m still annoyed about that. That spray-painted Jam logo, maybe? Nah. I’ll go for The Police this time. Just, as always, on the wrong side of cool. When you’re that age, music is just music. Leaving aside the Y cardigans and the burgundy Sta-Prest and those painfully cutting loafers, tribal identity wasn’t so important at primary school. So there the badges were; The Beat, The Selecter, Adam and the Ants, The Police. And Status Quo. Fight me.