Horace Panter was once best known as the bass player in chart-topping ska band The Specials. Today he combines his role in 2-Tone’s finest with a successful “solo career” as an artist.
Hot on the heels of an exhibition in York, he’ll be talking about his work to Creative Calderdale in Halifax next week.
Before joining what was to become The Specials in 1977, Panter studied fine art at Lanchester Polytechnic in Coventry, but his interest in Pop Art, he says, “goes further than that”.
“When I studied my art degree the prevailing winds were very much conceptualism – ‘what does art mean?’ That was not what drew me to art in the first place, though I got swept up in it, it was fashionable to do.
“I was interested in paintings by Warhol, Lichtenstein and Peter Blake, American pictures of motorways that Robert Indiana would do. I returned to those roots. I like to think I work in the Pop Art tradition, elevating the mundane, where a soup can could be thought of as high art.”
Many of the 60-year-old’s paintings are a twist on religious iconography – the youthful Specials are encircled by halos in one; a bestselling series celebrates the humble cassette.
“Because I’m a musician as well I like that thing,” he says. “You have to be of a certain age – cassettes are useless now. I’ve done huge paintings of Sony Walkmans are also redundant. But people who see them remember exactly where they were in 1983. They might have a box-load in the garage. They exist as depositories of memory now.
“It’s quite fantastic. What I like about art is not what it is but what it represents. A picture of a cassette is bland in terms of what it is but it reflects back an enormous amount of memories.”
When his musical career waned in the 1990s – after The Specials he was a member of General Public then The Specialbeat – Panter taught art at a school just outside Coventry for children with special needs. That period, he says, got him “thinking a lot more about how other people relate to art”. “I could not talk about abstract expressionism to children with special needs – I had to condense it.” His use of colour was inspired by the vivid ‘outsider art’ of Henri Rousseau.
The Specials’ reformation in 2008 allowed him the financial freedom to develop his art alongside music. His first musical love was blues – a genre he got into in his teens via Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. “There’s quite a similarity between blues and ska,” he says. “Early ska was based on American R’n’B – Fats Waller, Fats Domino, Little Richard. They put an offbeat on it but the actual bass lines are similar. I found reggae difficult – I did not understand that until once I reached into ska.
“But blues was my alma mater – I’ve done a series of paintings of blues artists.”
Panter credits the impact punk on the fledgling Specials. “Before punk came along you had to be as good as Carlos Santana to play on stage for 20 minutes, it was a little bit tedious, or play bass guitar as good as the bloke in Earth Wind and Fire. Punk swept all that away.
“If you knew two and a half chords you could be in a band. Terry [Hall, The Specials’ lead singer] was an original punk, he grew up with the Sex Pistols and The Clash; I was a child of the 60s, growing up at the tail-end of the blues boom and psychedelia. But the fact that there were no rules any more was the perfect breeding ground for music that combined the energy of punk with the sinuousness of reggae.”
The Specials’ first coming was short but eventful – in less than four years the seven-piece scored two top five albums and seven top ten singles including two Number Ones – The Special AKA EP and Ghost Town. “The band formed at the back end of 1977 and we recorded Gangsters [The Specials’ first hit] in January 1979 – up until then we had progressed at our own pace. once we entered the music business you work at their pace,” Panter reflects.
“We compressed a lifetime into two years. It did contribute to the band’s demise – it was an insanely hectic schedule, not just touring but creatively as well. We’d be touring the world, have two days off then be told the record company wanted that album in three weeks. It was a little bit difficult.”
Panter recalled that vertiginous experience in his musical memoir, Ska’d For Life, published in 2007. A four-year “labour of love”, it was an attempt to set the record straight. “There had been books about about The Specials before but they were basically written by fans with rose-tinted glasses and they were not always factually correct,” the bassist explains. “Nobody had written a book from the band’s perspective.”
He delved into old diaries he’d kept from tours of the US and Japan as well as 11 scrapbooks of music press cuttings that his parents had collated and spoke to old bandmates. Despite its success, he had no idea that he would once again become a Special. “Honestly I thought I would retire as a school teacher,” he says. “I thought The Specials were done, I had nothing to lose.”
The early reunion shows were cathartic. Panter recalls “seeing grown men cry”.
“People there never thought they would see The Specials on the stage again. There were a lot of people who never saw the band first time round because they were too young or their older brothers played the music. They were very attached to the songs. It was quite remarkable.
“The first show we did in Newcastle was utterly tremendous. Your life passed before your eyes the seconds before the curtain goes down. The hour and 10 minute set we’d arranged was over in 54 minutes – there was such an adrenaline rush. The crowd was with us from the instant we started.”
He regrets that keyboard player and songwriter Jerry Dammers was – somewhat acrimoniously – not involved. “It’s a shame but you make your choices and it was a choice that we made, that I made. I take responsibility for that,” Panter says.
“I’d rather have anybody as a friend than an enemy but sometimes that’s the way things pan out.”
Nonetheless the band’s appeal as a live force remains undiminished. Panter envisages their touring days will continue.
“Each time we set up a tour in the back of our minds we’re thinking, ‘Will this be the last one?’ If it gets to the stage where we’re offered £1,500 to play on the back of a truck in Bedford I think it will be time to throw in the towel, but as long as we can do it with dignity and integrity and people want to see us I definitely think we should play,” he says.
Horace Panter talks to Creative Calderdale in Halifax on July 24, 7pm, £10 http://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/creative-visions-04-horace-panter-skad-for-life-tickets-11476529609.
An exhibition of his art will be staged at A Month of Sundays in Sheffield in September and October. For details visit http://www.horacepanterart.com/
The Specials play at O2 Academy Leeds on November 10. For tickets visit http://www.o2academyleeds.co.uk/event/64463/the-specials-tickets