The Specials: Terry Hall, Lynval Golding, and Horace Pante
“I don’t believe music can change anything,” says Terry Hall. “All you can do is put your point across, really.”
The Specials are about to release a new album, Protest Songs 1924-2012, featuring the 2-Tone champions’ typically heartfelt take on protest music from the past 100 years. The band put their unique stamp on activist anthems and songs of grievance by The Staples Singers, Bob Marley, Leonard Cohen, Frank Zappa, and Talking Heads, spanning a succession of unpopular wars and righteous causes. Their famously dour frontman, however, remains pessimistic about the power of song to affect real political change.
“There were protest songs before we were born that sound as relevant today as they did at the time,” says Hall, citing the 1920s gospel anthem Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Us Around and Big Bill Broonzy’s anti-racist blues Black, White & Brown. “It can echo a feeling, it gives you something to think about, but real change is hard. There’s always something to protest about.”
The Specials have always been a protest band according to guitarist and vocalist Lynval Golding. “From day one, we were a multiracial line-up and that was a statement,” he says. “We came out of punk rock, the music of disaffected youth,” notes bassist Horace Panter. “But we were playing skinhead reggae, so we knew that was going to be our audience and we did target them. We wrote songs with them in mind.”
The Specials had an explosive early career as lynchpins of the post-punk ska movement known as 2-Tone for its black and white colour scheme and inclusive ideology. Formed in Coventry, they released two Top 5 albums and scored 7 top 10 singles between 1979 and 1981. Their gigs could be literally riotous, with stage invasions and fights breaking out. “It was more to do with football and an enormous amount of alcohol than racism, to be honest,” insists Panter. “The exuberance of youth and an excess of Watney’s Red Barrel. They were joyous, amazing experiences.”
Unfortunately, the band was possibly enjoying themselves too much, and a combination of drink and drugs with an intense work schedule made relationships fractious. “For the first album, we were all drunk, and we had a lot of fun,” says Golding. “By the second album, we were falling apart. It was very painful to make.”
They broke up at the Top of the Pops studios in June 1981, immediately after performing their number one smash Ghost Town. It is still revered as perhaps the greatest protest song in British pop history, a sinister skank through inner-city decay that presciently topped the charts just as riots were breaking out in London and Liverpool. “People in every major city in England think Ghost Town was written about them,” notes Painter. “We knew it was going to be our swan song because the band was crumbling.”
Something special: The Specials, pictured in 1980 CREDIT: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
The Specials are in a rehearsal studio in south London, preparing for a forthcoming tour. Only Hall, Golding, and Panter remain from the original lineup, and the rapport between them is relaxed and humorous. The 70-year-old Golding is rambling and loquacious, Horace (67) offers up thoughtful analysis, while Hall (62) chips in, slipping almost imperceptibly between grave seriousness and deadpan humour. He rarely breaks into a smile.
In my review of The Specials chart-topping 2019 comeback album, Encore, I noted that “Hall’s spirit of glum idealism may make him the most quintessentially British protest singer ever.” It is not an act, according to Hall, who was only 18 when he joined The Specials. “I've never looked at it as a job or a career. It’s something that I do. And I don't walk around the house smiling, ever. So why should I walk on stage and suddenly turn into Marti Pellow?” His bandmates guffaw at Hall’s dig at the perpetually grinning ex-frontman for Wet Wet Wet. “People are always telling me to smile. Well, give me a reason to smile and I will. But they usually don't.”
The Specials have reunited in various line-ups and formats over the decades but with the departure of toaster Neville Staple in 2012 and lead guitarist Roddy Radiation in 2014, and the death of drummer John Bradbury in 2015, it has boiled down to just three men standing. “The people here are all facing the same way,” says Panter, tellingly. “It’s not as if we have to drag anybody out of bed to be here. And that wasn’t always the case.”
Raucous: The Specials' live shows were legendary CREDIT: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
The one absence that still rankles with some fans is that of keyboard player Jerry Dammers, who formed the band and wrote most of their original songs. He was present at rehearsals when the full lineup reunited in 2008 but soon dropped out, apparently because the group was unwilling to play his new songs. It has never been entirely clear if he jumped or was pushed. “Jerry was having trouble playing the way we played,” says Hall. “It was difficult, and he recognized that too. He came to me discreetly, and he told me how he’d like to see The Specials reform, and I really didn’t agree with it. So Jerry decided he didn’t want to do it. He definitely wasn’t pushed, and neither was Neville or Roddy.”
In 2019, Hall revealed that he suffers from a bipolar disorder that had roots in shocking childhood abuse. At the age of 12, Hall was abducted by a schoolteacher and passed around a paedophile ring in France. He went on to suffer from alcohol abuse, depression, and attempted suicide before being diagnosed and successfully treated with medication since 2014. I asked if talking publicly about his experiences had helped?
“I feel like it did because this was weighing heavy on me for a long time,” he says. “It was important for me to just get it out of my head, really, and say ‘this is what I am: a manic depressive.”
The Specials in 1980 CREDIT: Images Press
Golding speaks about how Hall’s diagnosis made sense of so many things in the past when the singer would behave outrageously on the road. “The greatest one was when I was trying to break the window at Hamley’s Toy Store at four in the morning because I saw a teddy bear and decided that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him,” says Hall. “He was a six-foot bear wearing a dickie bow. Who wouldn’t want to live with him? But that didn't go down well with police.”
Returning to the theme of whether music can change things, Hall relents a little. “Maybe in a small way it can, because I have had more feedback from this than anything else I’ve ever done. I get stopped in the street by people who say ‘thanks for just bearing it because this is how I feel too.’ There are ways around it. There are cures. It’s really important to share.”
His bandmates have learned to be more sympathetic to his moods. “It’s great,” says Hall. “Because if I have a real wobbler at a gig, I can always get a seat to myself on the bus after. Nobody gives me eye contact. They’re all like, ‘Bloody hell, I hope he doesn’t sit next to me!’”
His bandmates laugh. “There was a Facebook group called Terry Hall is the World’s Biggest C***, which I thought was pretty cool,” says Hall. “There were 2,000 people there who really hated me, and I’m not even sure what they hated me for. I actually joined and started following them. It was bizarre, all these really horrible comments about me. But if you can’t laugh about being called the world’s biggest c***, what can you laugh at? Admittedly, after three weeks, I caved in, and I thought yes, I am.”
The Specials: Protest Songs 1924-2012 is out in September. Their UK tour starts tomorrow at Dreamland, Margate (www.thespecials.com)