INTERVIEW: The Specials (UK), April 2012

To this day, I count this feature as one of the best I’ve ever written. It was easily the best feature I’d done up to this point, and one of my favourite interviews I’ve had the pleasure of doing over the six or so years I’ve been doing them. I had no idea what Horace would be like to interview – I figured Terry would be very blunt, and that Neville would be incredibly bubbly and talkative. But what of the man holding it down up the back? Well, as it turned out, he was an incredibly insightful, polite and very charming interviewee. Incredibly grateful for having been able to chat with this legend. See for yourself.

– DJY, October 2014

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They were a pioneering force of ska music that not only brought the genre to attention in the U.K, but inspired countless other bands to do the same. They’ve fought political and social injustices as hard as they’ve fought with one another. There’s been fall-ins, fall-outs, alleged backstabbing and lyrical controversy in career that spans decades and a history as fruitful (and tumultuous) as any. And here you were thinking they were just that band with that Ghost Town song.

The Specials have cemented a legacy as one of the most important U.K. bands of the 70s, depicting the troubles of their beloved country in a way that had never quite been attempted before. Issues such as racial division and teen pregnancy were brought to life in a mix of proto-reggae and rhythm-and-blues, with upbeat drums, big horns and even bigger chorus sing-alongs. Commonly referred to as the 2-Tone sound – after the label started by former keyboardist Jerry Dammers – The Specials achieved a remarkable amount in their considerably short initial run, lasting less than a decade before splitting in 1984.

To mark thirty years since their inception, the band reunited in 2008, featuring every member from the line-up that recorded 1979’s iconic Specials record (excluding Dammers). Fast forward to 2012, and the current line-up of the band – which also features keyboardist Nik Torp and a new horn section – are still actively touring across the world, returning this month to Australian shores for only the second time in the band’s career. It must be asked, given the brief time originally spent together as a band, did the Specials ever expect their 21st century form to last as long as it has?

“No, no I didn’t,” says bassist Horace Panter with a laugh. “I didn’t anticipate the reaction. I knew we’d be well-received, but I didn’t think there’d be as many people out there to receive us well, if you know what I mean. The numbers in the audiences have exceeded my expectations.” He goes on to describe the culture shock of seeing a new generation of Specials fans coming out to the shows. “We spent 2010 doing festivals in Europe, and we would play in front of up to ten thousand children that obviously hadn’t been born when these songs were recorded. But they were singing all the words! We were playing places like Belgium where this was happening – it was just crazy.”

Of course, there are several ways that younger fans may have found their way to The Specials, particularly through cultural references and their influence on many other bands and genres. One name that comes up, however, is the late Amy Winehouse: the troubled singer was a huge fan of the band, covering their Hey Little Rich Girl as a B-side on her Back to Black single and performing a version of Monkey Man that drew far much more from The Specials’ version than the original by Toots and the Mayals. As talk turns to Amy, Panter shares a very peculiar story about performing with the late star.

“We were playing on the V Festivals, it must have been 2009,” he recalls. “Terry [Hall] went off stage for one song that Roddy [Radiation] sang. She was standing side of stage and she started asking Terry if she could come on and do a song. Terry ends up saying ‘Alright, then.’ We decided to do You’re Wondering Now, and then Terry announced to everyone that ‘We’re going to be joined by our friend Amy here.’ We all looked around the stage at one another and just went ‘What?’

“This stick-thin creature with huge hair comes out of nowhere,” he continues, “and just starts singing. It was extraordinary. She did quite a good job, too. She was either going to be really, really dreadful; or she was going to be great – and she was pretty amazing, actually.”

Of course, Winehouse’s career was one that was cut tragically short due to issues with drugs and alcohol. Although Panter more often than not found himself surrounded by drug culture in most guises, he emphasises that it was never something that he truly immersed himself within. “I was always the boring one. If you read Pauline Black’s autobiography, I’m actually castigated by her because I didn’t take drugs. I was once offered a joint by Keith Richards, and I turned it down. He looked at me and said ‘Man, you have got a problem!’” He laughs, followed by an adding, in a lower tone: “Pretty rich coming from him, if you ask me.”

“The problem in the band originally was that there was different cultures – alcohol culture, marijuana culture, powder culture,” says Panter, analysing some of the smaller things that assisted in the band’s untimely demise during their initial run. If we were all drunks, or all cokeheads or all dope fiends…it probably would have been better, because at least it would have meant that we were all on the same level. The dope smokers were really mellow, whereas the ones out of their mind on coke were always asking if we could play the song faster. The drunk ones were just having trouble tying their shoelaces.”

Surviving drug culture is one thing, but surviving issues within Specials songs such as racism, social justice, gang violence, unemployment and the ever-looming corporate rat race is a different matter entirely. It seems both positive and disappointing that songs written so many years ago still have sentiment and meaning that rings true within today’s society – the former because it presents these songs as timeless, but also the latter because it suggests that very little has changed in that time. It’s something that weighs upon Panter’s mind, too:

“Injustice is timeless, isn’t it?” he questions, wearily. “Exploitation is always going to be prevalent, I think. It’s human nature. Although racism still manages to rear its ugly head every now and then, I feel it’s a problem that is far better handled by subsequent generations than it was 30 years ago. I think that’s because children have grown up with kids from other races – they’ve gone to school with them, played football with them.”

“But am I disappointed that these issues still exist?” He poses the question back at himself, starting a couple of sentences before leaving them hanging in the air. “I was never expecting a Utopia, to be honest,” he concedes finally. “I don’t think that exists. If we’ve helped people make their minds up, then at least that’s good. It’s a difficult thing – I don’t want to come across as pretentious, and I don’t know how you’re supposed to do market research on that, y’know? Tick the box: ‘Yes, I have listened to The Specials lyrics, they’ve changed my life!’ All I can really hope is that we’ve been a part of some sort of process that’s had a positive outcome.”

Whatever you make of what legacy the Specials will leave behind when it ends (again), there’s no denying its impact. Panter himself has been there for the majority of it, having been a part of The Automatics alongside school friend Dammers in ’77, leaving the fold in 1981 with the majority of the original line-up, playing in the group Special Beat in the first half of the 90s and returning to the Specials name in the second half, sans Hall, Dammers and drummer John Bradbury. Having been a part of nearly every version of the band for over 30 years, what has brought Panter back to the fold so many times over in spite of a turbulent history? The answer is quite simple: Panter feels as though he was born to do it.

“I suppose it’s what defines me,” he says. “It’s what I do. It’ll be on my gravestone: ‘He was the bassist in The Specials.’ It won’t be ‘He was a pretty good art teacher’ or ‘He drove a pretty good van.’ It’s my destiny.”

2012 – A Year in the Front Row. Part Two: April/May/June

Jan // Feb // Mar
Jul // Aug // Sep

APRIL

It’s somewhat fitting that I saw Hands Like Houses play a show on April Fool’s Day. Despite international acclaim and touring, they proved to be one of the most lifeless and uninspired bands I’ve seen live this year. What a joke. Still, at least I got to see Sound of Seasons tear it up at that show. Great live act, those kids. Onto the gorgeous surrounds of the Enmore, where I was fortunate enough to see ska legends The Specials tear the joint a new one. This was honestly one of the most energetic shows I went to in all of 2012 – I had no idea things would get this wild! For nearly two hours a solid crowd of roughly 1500, the band tore through their classics with all the energy and vitality that came with their release some thirty years ago. What a treat, what an honour. Definitely a major year highlight.

Milhouse launched their debut seven-inch in style, with a show at the venue they’re practically the house band of now: Black Wire Records. A very fun night indeed. The very next day, I had the chance of doubling up on a tour yet again – this time, twice in one day. Brisbane brats Bleeding Knees Club were playing in the afternoon in Sydney before playing that night in Wollongong. While it was fun to watch some kids going completely mental at what was quite possibly their first gig, the Gong show was something else entirely. Shit got decidedly loose, especially when local legend Jack Reilly got on stage with the boys to tear through a blink-182 cover. Oh, what a night!

With the Dig It Up! Festival in town, I had the chance to see the legendary Redd Kross play their cracking debut album, Born Innocent, in its entirety. While the Oxford Art Factory isn’t usually a great rock venue, this was the perfect room for these guys to thrash through the album and bring to life their wild younger years. Getting to press the flesh with the legendary Steve McDonald was also a total honour. A few days later, I was back at the same venue to see Brissie ex-pats An Horse play a rare Sydney show. A great audience and some top-shelf songs – wish these guys came back more often. Finally, I wrapped up the month with a show at Yours & Owls, which you’ll be hearing plenty more of later in the year. Here, I got to check out the frighteningly good Adelaide crew Night Hag grind to their heart’s content, with ample support from The Reverend Jesse Custer and Endeavours. Good times.

TOP 5:

  1. The Specials
  2. Redd Kross
  3. An Horse
  4. Bleeding Knees Club
  5. Night Hag

DISHONOURABLE MENTION: Hands Like Houses. For all the hype, potentially the blandest band in all the land.

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MAY

Holy fuck. What a heavyweight month this was! Aside from maybe November, I can’t think of another period where I saw such incredible music being performed at such a consistent rate. An exhausting, exhilarating and life-affirming time in 2012. I kicked things off by farewelling The Butterfly Effect‘s vocalist, Clint Boge, with their final Sydney show with him at the UNSW Roundhouse. I’ll be the first to admit how daggy this lot can be, but I decided early on that I’d get there early, get the barrier and party like it was 2006. What a fun show this was, a complete nostalgia trip and a great send-off to a band that genuinely meant the world to me back in my mid-teens. Excellent fun, probably more than I should be admitting.

The next night saw me regain some of my “cred” by attending a packed-out show from the wonderful Frank Turner. In support was folk-punk’s first lady Jen Buxton, your new favourite punks The Smith Street Band and the jolly travelling bluesman William Elliott Whitmore. All four acts put on sets that superlatives simply cannot do justice to. It was a night to celebrate the arrival, if you will, of Frank. After selling out Wembley, he came to Australia with high spirits and an arsenal of anthems spanning all four of his albums. This man is honestly one of the reasons why I make music, so it truly was an honour to watch him bring his fervent folk-punk energy to the Manning Bar. You had to be there to get it.

Groovin’ the Moo – bit of a rubbish festival, but they bring the goods every now and then. Case in point: City and Colour & Wavves, who both put on great shows in Sydney. Having never seen C&C as a live band, it was quite fulfilling to hear so many tracks that I’ve loved over the years come to life so classily. Dallas is a great performer, understated and charming. I really appreciated the fact he asked everyone to put away their camera phones – one of my biggest vices at shows, so it was nice to get a break from it, however momentary. Although a totally different style of performer, Nathan Williams (aka Wavves) put on a cracking hour set at the Oxford Art Factory. All the best tracks from his own arsenal, plus a Sonic Youth cover (100%) and some gut-bustingly funny inside jokes made this a super-fun show.

Nearing the end of the month meant shit got increasingly more real. And it doesn’t get more freakin’ real than Prince. Holy shit, this was a spectacle and a half. To walk in and see the Allphones turned into a house of purple – complete with a stage shaped like Prince’s symbol – was breathtaking enough. Then, he decides to make things even more insane by OPENING with a fifteen-minute version of Purple Rain. Read again: OPENING with that. Where do you go from there, exactly? Pretty simple: Hit after hit after hit. This was a joyous, funky thing to be a part of; and I’m so glad I got that chance. Truly memorable stuff right there.

Following on from that, I got to see two long-time live favourites across two consecutive nights at the Patch – Dead Letter Circus and Tonight Alive. The former brought a meaty, volatile crowd with them; which was to be expected, really. Thankfully, I had myself a nice spot on the corner of the front row, tucked away and just enjoying their groovy tunes. Great live act, only getting better. As for Tonight Alive, this was the start of a pretty special run of shows with those guys – one show in Wollongong and two shows in Sydney, as a part of their final Australian tour for the year.

I always love these shows, if anything just for the company that comes with them and the incredible circle of people I’ve met through the band and its fans. It gets better, however: My boys in Totally Unicorn were the opening act, which meant that they got to terrorise a bunch of unsuspecting pop-punk kids and blow their freakin’ minds. All three shows had their good points, but the highlight of the bunch was easily the all-ages show at the Factory Theatre. There’s just something about AA Tonight Alive shows that have such an unshakable energy to them. The crowd is always mental, the kids up the front know the score and we can all go mental in unison. I usually have a pretty low tolerance level of AA crowds, but this was totally fine. In fact, it enhanced the experience.

May ended with not so much a bang as an absolute freak explosion. Two words: Janelle. Monae. Friends from across the country came out for this one, as the petite dynamo turned the Opera House concert hall into a next-level party. I can’t begin to tell you how much I needed this fucking show. After admiring Janelle for over two years, it was a complete thrill to finally get the chance to see her and her electric band do their thing, playing songs that still meant the absolute world to me like they did when they first came out. All roads truly felt like they lead to this very show. I can’t really give you much more detail than that. It was out of this world. Amazing. Life-changing. Pretty damn sure this was the one. As awesome as the rest of the year was, nothing quite compared to this night, these songs and this moment in time.

TOP 5:

  1. Janelle Monae
  2. Prince
  3. Frank Turner
  4. The Butterfly Effect
  5. Tonight Alive

DISHONOURABLE MENTION: Young Guns, the main support for Tonight Alive. Sorry, lads; you seemed lovely but you were trying to do an arena show to an audience of about 50 people and it really didn’t work in your favour.

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JUNE

By contast, June was actually one of my quietest gig months. Not that it was a barren wasteland or anything, but I felt like a senior citizen compared to my frequent travels of the month prior. Even so, I probably needed the break more than I was willing to admit. I eased back into gigging post-Janelle (or PJ, as I so measure my life these days) with a small gig at Goodgod, one of my favourite new Sydney venues. My chums in Mrs. Bishop were launching a new single, and it was great to catch up with them and bask in their cooing harmonies. The week after, I bid farewell to an old mate in Trial Kennedy, who decided to notch up the nostalgia factor a little extra by adding After the Fall to the line-up. Getting in one last sing-along to Damage on Parade was a year highlight, as was the chance to FINALLY hear Mississippi Burn live; which is my all-time favourite TK song.

After having a ball (pardon the pun) at her last show in 2010, there was no way I was going to miss Lady Gaga on her Born This Way Ball tour. Although I wasn’t as big a fan of BTW as I was of her previous efforts, this was still an absolutely awesome show, full of wonder and big pop sing-alongs – which, if you know me well enough, are pretty much my bread and butter. The thing I love about big-arse pop shows like this one are that, even if it’s only for just a couple of hours, you can escape from whatever’s going on in your life and dive headfirst into a whole new world, Aladdin style. Gaga is a great entertainer and someone who can keep up energy levels like few others can. It’s truly a sight to see. Put aside your doubts and try it out sometime.

The end of the month came quickly, with two more shows before it was done. First was a trip all the way out to Epping, where I ended up at a cafe called Pablo’s in order to see my dear buddies in Collarbones and Fishing; as well as Dappled Cities side-project Swimwear. This was put on by The Gate, aka Joe Hardy, who puts in great efforts to bring great original live music to unconventional places. The show was an absolute treat for the senses, squishing in with a stack of other music lovers to soak up some glitchy goodness. You KNOW a show’s gone well when it ends with an en-masse sing-along to Jenny From the Block. Finally, there was my dear old buddy Jonathan Boulet, hitting the big time with his largest hometown show ever at the Metro Theatre. Having followed his work for years across all of his projects, to see this show go so well was a big thing for me. Jono continues to amaze and inspire with his work, and his live shows (starring his remarkably handsome band) are no exception. Good times!

TOP 5:

  1. Lady Gaga
  2. Trial Kennedy
  3. Jonathan Boulet
  4. Fishing
  5. Mrs Bishop

DISHONOURABLE MENTION: None! Everyone ruled! How good is that?