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
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.”