Pioneering 2 Tone band The Specials play Rock City on Wednesday. Bassist Horace Panter tells JAMIE BARLOW why their music remains timeless, how the dynamic of the band has changed and about his career as an artist.
Perhaps most well-known for playing bass in The Specials – a band who were, at the tail end of the Seventies and dawn of the Eighties, one of the best in the land – Horace Panter, otherwise known as Sir Horace Gentleman by other members of the group, has also carved out a successful career as a professional artist, via stints as a teacher.
Hailing from Coventry, the city he now lives just outside, Horace met Jerry Dammers, The Specials’ original keyboardist, at Lanchester Polytechnic (now Coventry University) where he was studying for a fine art degree. The pair established The Specials in 1977 – and the rest is history.
The band created a wave of music fusing the infectious rhythms of Jamaican ska with the social commentary of punk, landing two genre-defining 2 Tone albums and seven consecutive top 10 singles between 1979 and 1981.
The Specials reformed eight years ago, after a number of previously unsuccessful attempts, and return to Rock City for the first time since 2014.
Did it come out of the blue when Lynval Golding called in 2008 asking to reform the band?
There was an attempt on the 25th anniversary to do something. So I knew there was something on the cards. But, to be honest, I thought that was the end of it – I was a school teacher, and I honestly thought I’d retire as a school teacher.
Your music has transcended time for 30-plus years and almost seems as relevant as it did at the end of the 1970s and early Eighties. Why do you think The Specials’ music has been able to stand the test of time, so resolutely?
It’s weird, isn’t it – it’s extraordinary. Well, I think the rhythms are irresistible – that whole sort of ska-reggae, that energy; you cannot sit still, you cannot sit down while that music is playing. We just managed to play it really, really well. We all knew how to play before we joined The Specials. A lot of those punk bands learned how to play while they were doing their first album and half-dozen gigs. We were all time-served and a little bit older. Terry (Hall) was 19, he was an original punk, whereas the rest of us were mid-20s. So we knew how to play – and we played this great music. I also think that the lyrics were relevant, that was the great thing about punk. We started to sing about social issues and they were great songs – they were really, really good songs.
How momentous a milestone was it supporting The Clash in 1978?
It was fantastic. It was the greatest thing that had happened to me in my life, up until that time. I had read Diary of a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star by Ian Hunter and A Journey through America with the Rolling Stones by Robert Greenfield. I was like: “Wow, oh yeah, I want to do this.” And here we were and it was nowhere near as glamorous. But it was just so exciting. I always say we started that tour as civilians, but came out of it the other end as a formed group. It was like our rock ‘n’ roll boot camp. We owe an enormous debt to The Clash and I think that’s where we set the benchmark for our performances, we wanted audiences to go as totally wild as they did with The Clash.
What’s the best moment of your career as a musician?
I think the apogee of 2 Tone, of what The Specials did, was probably in Christmas 1979. We’d finished our big 2 Tone Tour and we did two Specials concerts in Coventry at Tiffany’s, the old Locarno Ballroom, which is now the library. They were just fabulous because there was this run-down, strife old city that all of a sudden had something to celebrate. The atmosphere and all the people there, most of whom we knew, to see them there having an absolutely fantastic time – for me, that was the best moment of 2 Tone. And then I think Ghost Town going to number one – although that was kind of loaded with this eerie fact that the song was being played on the news as the soundtrack to the riots and the civil unrest that kicked-off in July 1981. But, I think in terms of the positivity of those concerts in 1979, they were glorious celebrations for a city that desperately needed something to celebrate.
In terms of the modern day tours, I’m guessing you’re doing it for the love of playing live music?
I’m always astounded that, 37 years later, people are still going crazy to these songs. I think it’s absolutely fantastic. There is something timeless about this music. We get people who perhaps saw us back in the day, or perhaps we split up before they got to see us or they were too young. They were only eight-or-something when their elder brother brought home a copy of Too Much Too Young. But it had that influence. Those people are coming to see us and their kids who have grown up. It’s a lot broader. It’s extraordinary. If you told me at 27 that in my sixth decade I would still be playing these songs, I would’ve laughed at you.
Does it make you feel younger when you’re on stage?
Yes, absolutely. I don’t know where it comes from. I get handed my guitar and all of a sudden I’m 25 again. I don’t know why and I don’t know how. The adrenaline kicks in.
Has the dynamic of the band changed? With The Specials devoid of keyboardist Jerry Dammers and drummer John Bradbury, who died last year, and replete with drummer Gary Powell of The Libertines and guitarist Steve Cradock of Ocean Colour Scene.
It has, and with Brad’s passing it was a really painful thing. It was painful to lose a friend and we were questioning if we should carry on. But these (tour) dates were booked back in October (2015) and, if it was me, I’d have expected the band to carry on. I think the tour is 80 per cent sold out as we speak, in the middle of August, and it doesn’t start until the middle of October. So there is an enormous vote of confidence still in the band, despite the fact we’ve been haemorrhaging numbers for the past few years. The last time we toured England in 2014, when Steve Cradock was with us, we had never sounded better. It was extraordinary. So, yes, it has changed, it will be different, but it will still be The Specials.
You played back-to-back gigs at Rock City in 2014 and since your reunion you’ve played at Nottingham Arena (2011) and headlined Splendour Festival (2015). What is it about Nottingham that keeps you coming back?
It’s that conurbation, there’s that northern-soul kind of thing in that area. There are a lot of people who relate to the music, other than the fact we’re this band that were popular 30 years ago. There’s something where they’ll stick to the music. I like Rock City, it’s the smallest venue that we play on the tour. But I really like it because you’re really up close with the audience. It reminds me of a club gig back in 1978-79.
Sleaford Mods supported you two years ago. Do you rate them highly?
Absolutely. I was so thrilled when we were able to get them on the tour. At the time, and perhaps they still are, they were the most exciting thing I’d heard coming out of the UK music scene for a long time. Back when we were playing with The Clash, in 1978, the official support band was Suicide, the American duo. Sleaford Mods supporting The Specials reminded me in a way of Suicide supporting The Clash. It was extraordinary to see their performances. In Glasgow, when they started people were booing them, but at the end of their set they were applauding. You can see their influences but, like The Specials, they’ve taken these influences and made it into something – they’re very unique. They’re really nice blokes as well.
You spent around a decade at the Corley Centre, just outside of Coventry, teaching art to secondary special needs pupils. That must have been very rewarding for you. Did you plan on going into teaching, or was it a fall-back option for you?
I retrained as a primary school teacher in 1992-93. I’d stopped playing in groups, I had a son who was growing up. I was in Special Beat in 1991 and then I left them because my son started school, and I was thinking: “You better get a proper job that your parents always wanted you to get.” I had this art degree, which I got in 1975, so I used that to do a Postgraduate Certificate in Education. And so I qualified in 1993 as a primary school teacher – and I worked as a supply teacher for a while. And then I ended up in this special needs school. It was really good. I always say that working with musicians for 20 years was very good grounding for working with children with special needs. It was great, it was really good. It wasn’t a regular school where there was a lot of number crunching and the ticking of boxes. I could very much use personality and, basically, sell art. Art takes on a different perspective in a special needs school. If your literacy or numeracy isn’t too bright, you can still achieve as well as students who are numerate or literate through art, by drawing or painting. I always tell people it was the second best job I ever had.
That leads on nicely to talk about your career as an artist. What and who are your influences?
The painters that originally made me want to study art were the pop art sort of people – Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, especially Peter Blake here in the UK. And that sixties, kind of psychedelia stuff with bright colours. So I’m kind of going back to that, but using the flat colours. I’m very influenced by the work of Edward Hopper, the American painter, which is where my Americana stuff comes from. But I’m also a musician, so the idea of painting things that I know about – like that idea of the humble audio cassette, something that’s ordinary, but I’ll make it into art. There’s that nostalgia value about it as well. As musicians, we used cassettes as a tool of the trade.
- The Specials play Rock City on Wednesday, October 19. Tickets are sold out.