THE SPECIALS, Brixton Academy – Evening Standard, 17 May 2019

Forty years for your first number one album is some wait. Having reunited a decade ago for nostalgia gigs, Coventry ska favourites The Specials finally came up with new music this year, and found that there was still enough of a public appetite for it to edge them ahead of Hugh Jackman in the chart for a week – “Which proves that in March we were the best group ever,” said singer Terry Hall this evening.

  The greatest showman Hall is not, singing to the floor most of the time, vaping peristently and using his first break between songs to tell the crowd how ugly it was. His still fresh voice remained an appealing focal point for a band that couldn’t help but feel diminished since its impeccable run of singles between 1979 and 1981. Death, departures and estrangement meant that there was the same number of original Specials in this line-up as were in the spin-off group Fun Boy Three. Bassist Horace Panter and guitarist Lynval Golding have also stuck it out, while newer members included Ocean Colour Scene guitarist Steve Cradock and rudimentary guest vocalist Saffiyah Khan, best known for a viral photo in which she smirked at an English Defence League protester while wearing a Specials T-shirt.

  Though they no longer feel like a gang, clear lines could be drawn between some material on the new album, Encore, and the political reggae of their glory days. The hazy skank of Vote For Me deliberately echoed Ghost Town, still one of Britain’s least likely number one singles. There’s no longer Thatcher for them to fight but now they have a strange oompah song called Breaking Point, a Farage catchphrase.

  Certainly in 2019, with the country divided, their bleak themes are relevant again – bad news for society, good news for ska fans.