In 2021, Coventry will be the UK’s city of culture; the second city, after Hull in 2017. I am sure there is an air of excitement in the city, and the times I have gone back recently, there is certainly talk but as yet little knowledge of what it will entail. Us poets are hopeful of getting a chair at the table, but what will be the shoe-ins? Theatre, with the figurehead being the Belgrade Theatre, will be a hub of the arts, as no doubt will the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum; both in recent times mixing the contemporary with the nostalgic. And I think it is nostalgia, that music will take as its starting point.
The late ‘70s were a vibrant time for new music in the UK and punk changed the face of working class rage and creativity. There was quite a big music scene in Coventry during that time – all the punk bands passed through the city (aged 15 in ’77 I managed to see the Pistols, Clash, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Steel Pulse, the Stranglers) – but there were also many local bands. I made a list of all the bands I saw in Coventry and beyond in 1980, and it came to 200; there were even enough bands to produce the very good album ‘Sent from Coventry’. And central to all of that was our very own Ska explosion, with the Specials being the beacon band of that moment and movement.
I was lucky. In 1980, my friend rented a room downstairs in a house where Jerry Dammers lived on the floor above, and we’d hang out up there (often when he was on tour, he would tell us to use the space). We saw the Specials many times in Coventry, but also in the regions, which often meant trouble with the locals. Looking back, it showed how much more violent society was – almost banal in its ritual nature; a coach load of Specials’ fans from Coventry goes to Cheltenham, and the locals – also Specials fans – would try to beat us up. It was football ground mentality. But fuck that, it was the music we/I should be concentrating on because it was magical (even when dancing on broken glass). It was a real melting pot of musical genres, with punk, reggae, and rock (Roddy Radiation was a great – still is – lead guitarist) all in there.
Stanley Notte’s poem and artwork in ‘The Spirit of ‘79’, are a beautiful and clever homage to that time, when Coventry had its fifteen minutes of fame (before that it was the Blitz) and ended up with the worldwide hit ‘Free Nelson Mandela’. Stanley does much more than offer a paean to the Specials, as he takes song titles from a number of other ska bands (The Beat, Madness, The Selector), ‘When every day, the young, the black and the gifted, hear the mirror in the bathroom/ whisper ‘I can’t stand it/ they’re selling out your future’// And prospects are mere calling cards/ for the government whose overture of ‘It’s up to you to get a job’/ What’s that!/ is an embarrassment when our house has no money and tomorrow’s dream/ is forever one step beyond.’
The nostalgia of that time is now housed in the wonderful Coventry Music Museum, curated and managed by the city’s music historian Pete Chamberlain. I am hoping that the holders of the cultural purse will see what the CMM has done over the recent past, and add it to the 2021 showcase. For we couldn’t have a year of culture and not celebrate the Specials.
Stanley Notte is an entrepreneur, MC, DJ, speaker, writer and poet whose work has appeared in Writer’s Magazine, The Galway Review, Stanza’s Monthly Chapbook’s, O’Bheal anthologies, Cork’s Evening Echo and been featured on RedFM (Cork), Soho Radio London and Lagan Online’s Poetry Day Ireland Mix Tape. As a spoken word artist Stanley has appeared at a variety of festivals and Slam Poetry events throughout Ireland. These include Body and Soul, Indiependence, It Takes A Village and Bare In The Woods. In 2017 Stanley was chosen to perform in the UK as part of the Twin Cities cultural exchange between O’Bheal (Cork) and Fire and Dust (Coventry). Stanley is the co-founder and curator of Solstice Sounds, a bi-annual online audio magazine that offers spoken word artists an opportunity to have the work and performances published. Solstice Sounds is Ireland’s only regular spoken word publication.