LIVE REVIEW: The Specials, O2 Academy, Newcastle

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THIRTY-FIVE years to the day after The Specials played in Newcastle for the first time, they returned to take a sold-out O2 Academy by storm.

On November 9, 1979, they played at the much-missed Mayfair Ballroom, not even a five-minute walk away from the Academy.

Then, they were headlining the final night of the 40-date 2 Tone Tour, which also featured Madness and The Selecter.

That gig was marred - like many at the time - by fighting in the crowd, as, sadly, the burgeoning ska revival scene attracted as many right-wing boneheads as it did traditional skinheads who loved the music’s multi-racial mix.

These are different times, thankfully, and although there were a handful of police at the doors of the venue, it wasn’t because they were expecting trouble.

The yellow-jacketed officers were there to warn gig-goers the band are being followed around the country by a gang of professional pickpockets, who managed to liberate 22 mobile phones from their owners in 45 minutes at one show alone.

I’d love to have seen them caught with their hands in someone’s bag or pocket back in 1979; they wouldn’t have tried it again for a while.

Anyway, to the music. This date, like most on the tour, sold out long ago, even at £40 a throw. That’s the pulling power the band still have, all these years later.

First band on were The Tones, a young band from London with a Mod-ish sound and some very decent songs. Their debut EP Simplicity is on iTunes now, and is well worth a listen.

Next up were Sleaford Mods, a duo who deliver hip-hop with a social message with an attitude which I guess is meant to be punk.

One of them presses ‘play’ on a laptop and swigs a can of beer while the other rants and swears like a closing-time drunk who’s just been asked to leave the bar.

They might have been championed by some of the music press, but I thought they were plain awful, and lots of others agreed, with their set getting as many jeers as it did cheers.

Thank goodness the show was headlined by a proper band, complete with instruments and everything, singing some of the best slices of social commentary of their generation, and most of them since.

Much was made of the fact that founder member Jerry Dammers wasn’t involved in The Specials’ 2008 reunion, and vocalist Neville Staple and guitarist Roddy Radiation have since departed.

Happliy, that hasn’t affected the dynamic of the band too much. Terry Hall is still a wonderfully laconic frontman, Lynval Golding an ideal foil, and drummer John Bradbury and bass player Horace Panter a rock-solid rhythm section.

Radiation’s place was taken by Steve Cradock of Ocean Colour Scene and Paul Weller fame, and, with the addition of brass and strings for some songs, the number assembled onstage grew to as many as 11 at times.

They kicked off with a superb rendition of their 1981 No 1 Ghost Town, still the most damning indictment of Thatcher’s Britain, and hits and crowd favourites flowed one after the other for the next 90 minutes.

The set leans heavily on their self-titled debut album, with the crowd singing and skanking along to every word of classics like Do The Dog, Gangsters, Concrete Jungle, Doesn’t Make It Alright, Nite Klub and Monkey Man.

But it was a brace of songs from the follow-up, 1980’s More Specials, which struck a more poignant chord with this reviewer.

The anti-nuclear song Man At C&A was simply stunning, and Rat Race, which was dedicated to all those who gave up their lives in wars, prompted one of the biggest roars of the night.

The set had started with a chart-topping single, and it finished on one too, Too Much Too Young, though the band of course returned for the obligatory encores.

By the time they had run through Guns Of Navarone, Enjoy Yourself and traditional closer You’re Wondering Now, you knew this had been another one of those nights. Yes, it was special.