GARTH CARTWRIGHT talks to Horace Panter of the ska pioneers about the band’s astonishing new album, politics and painting.
Be thankful for small mercies: Encore, the first album since 1980 from The Specials, is not simply OK. Or ‘almost as good as their old records’. Instead, it is exceptional.
When famous bands reunite and enter the recording studio the results are almost always somewhere between workmanlike and embarrassing.
That The Specials – who spearheaded the late-1970s ska revival with their pioneering 2 Tone label and anti-racist message, then splintered in summer 1981 after topping the charts with Ghost Town, a song that eerily echoed the riots then occurring across several UK inner cities – should be capable of such a record feels, well, righteous.
Perhaps Encore sounds fresh because The Specials 2019 are a very different band from that of 1981. Having reformed in 2009 without keyboardist/main songwriter Jerry Dammers, they have since seen both drummer John Bradbury and trombonist Rico Rodriguez die while guitarist Roddy Radiation and MC Neville Staple chose to leave.
Today The Specials are three original members – vocalist Terry Hall, guitarist/vocalist Lynval Golding and bassist Horace Panter – alongside guitarist Steve Cradock, keyboardist Nikolaj Torp Larsen and drummer Kenrick Rowe. Having toured internationally for almost a decade the band are a dynamic unit, but Encore is not in any sense a reproduction of their live set. Instead they have worked together as a team to write and record a soundtrack of sorts to the UK’s discontent.
Uneasy listening? Yes, but brilliantly so.
‘Recording a ‘new’ Specials album in 2018 was going to be problematic in terms of what the music should sound like,’ says bassist Horace Panter. ‘We thought a lot about what we would have released after More Specials (1980’s second album) had we stayed together.
‘In 1979 The Specials were very much Jerry’s vision. As the band progressed, members began to flex their own creative muscles, which ultimately hastened the band’s demise. So we approached 2018’s recording very differently than when we recorded in 1979-81.’
Panter is understandably proud of Encore yet admits he’s surprised at the enthusiasm it is attracting. ‘I knew there was a lot of goodwill out there for The Specials and our fans respected the fact we didn’t simply rush out any old product. They guessed we still had something to offer.’
Perhaps, I suggest, bad politics pushes The Specials to make good music? They arrived as Thatcher took power and now return as a Tory Brexit looms.
‘It’s not my fault!’ says Panter with a chuckle before adding, ‘politics is ridiculous, toxic, today. It doesn’t seem you can have debate. We’re not a polemical band – I like to think we mirror what’s going on. We came out of punk and sang about what we saw around us. We reflected our times and, I guess, somehow do again. Distrust and anger and unity – those values haven’t faded.’
On Encore the band reprise The Lunatics (Have Taken Over The Asylum), a 1981 hit for Funboy Three, the band Hall, Golding and Staple formed after they split from The Specials.
‘Lunatics seemed prescient,’ says Panter. ‘Back then they were singing about Thatcher and Reagan, now its May and Trump. We rearranged it so adding a Cuban vibe and a Sly & Robbie-style rhythm. Same song, same problems, different sound.’
Encore’s most confrontational number is 10 Commandments, a spoken word polemic by Saffiyah Khan, a Birmingham activist the band invited to record with them.
‘Saffiyah came to our attention when we saw a photo of her confronting an English Defence League member while wearing a Specials T-shirt. She’s 19 and fearless. We used Prince Buster’s 10 Commandments rhythm but got Saffiyah to rewrite it, as the original is incredibly chauvinistic. She turned up to the studio and just let rip with her commandments.’
At 65, Panter is a man of myriad talents. Beyond being an exceptional bassist, he’s also an author and visual artist. His 2007 memoir Ska’d For Life brilliantly details the rise and fall of The Specials. To say it is among the best books ever written by a successful musician isn’t damning with faint praise – Ska’d captures the mundanity, the excitement and the tensions involved as a band from Coventry’s punk scene rises slowly then very rapidly to become, across an intense 24-month sojourn, the toast of the western world.
‘I am a voracious reader and in 2003 I read Stone Alone by Bill Wyman. It was dreadful. I thought that I could write something better than that. There had, by then, been a couple of books about the band and they left an awful lot to be desired. I had kept diaries of our trips to America and Japan and my parents had amassed a stunning 12 scrap books full of Specials/2 Tone press cuttings. With all that to hand, I thought I had enough to write my account of the band.’
Ska’d For Life is refreshingly free of the shagging/snorting stories so many music memoirs trade in. ‘I’ve always been known as the boring one,’ says Panter. ‘I got married to Clare in 1982 and we’re still together. While some of the band lived the wild life I didn’t. It was always about music for me. I enjoyed our success but I never felt like I had to behave like a rock star.’
Panter’s career as a painter and print maker now occupies his time when he’s not touring with The Specials. Fitting, seeing as he first met Jerry Dammers while studying at Coventry Art School.
‘Back then art school was the reserve of the workshy and eccentrics – I’d like to think I was the latter but more likely the former. I made minimalist sculpture, terrible stuff, and, to be honest, I was far more interested in Little Feat than any visual art. It was only after my son was born in 1987 that I finally realised I had to get serious about earning a living – I was still playing in bands but not earning enough to raise a family on. So I retrained and ended up teaching art at a special needs school. I was in the classroom communicating with kids and this energised me to actually begin painting. Once The Specials became active again I found I had all this down time when not touring and, as I’m one of those people whose idea of relaxing is by staying busy, I kept painting away.’
Initially, Panter’s work reflected his love of American music but once he stumbled upon a shoebox full of old demo cassettes he began painting variations on these. The response was remarkable.
‘My stuff is pop art – just as Warhol had the soup can, I have the audio cassette. And viewers really began engaging with the images I did of these humble bits of technology. It’s got to the point where I’m now exhibiting across the UK, Ireland, the US, even Singapore, as well as selling work via my website.’
Panter’s light, wry images have won him commissions from the likes of Sheaffer Pens, Doc Martens and The Beano.
‘The Beano approached me to make images using their characters to celebrate the comic’s 80th anniversary so I had Dennis the Menace and Minnie the Minx and Lord Snooty ram-raiding my favourite pop art paintings. I had Dennis and Gnasher taking off David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash – and Hockney’s people liked it on Twitter!’
The bassist in one of the best British bands ever laughs at this. ‘People were saying ‘don’t you think you might get in trouble mixing the Beano with famous pop art?’ and I would reply, ‘I hope so!’ To me punk was The Beano set to music – rowdy, chaotic fun. I’m happy I get to mix all my passions up. Music, art, writing. I’m a happy man.’