Music interview: Horace Panter on The Specials and his ‘solo career’ as an artist

The Specials last performed in Millennium Square in 2009. Picture: Mark Bickerdike
The Specials last performed in Millennium Square in 2009. Picture: Mark Bickerdike
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Since reforming nine years ago The Specials have played two memorable shows in Leeds – first at Millennium Square in 2009 and then the O2 Academy in 2014.

In between MC Neville Staple and guitarist Roddy ‘Radiation’ Byers went their separate ways but by late 2015 2 Tone’s finest seemed to have settled on a core touring unit of four original members – Terry Hall, Lynval Golding, Horace Panter and John Bradbury – supplemented with guest musicians such Steve Cradock, on loan from Ocean Colour Scene.

Bradbury’s sudden death on December 28, 2015 at the age of 62, hit the three remaining Specials hard, says Panter, but ultimately they decided to continue.

“I think initially it was just such shock,” says the 63-year-old bass player, whose rhythmic partnership with Bradbury had been the bedrock of The Specials’ sound since 1979.

“He was the fit one. He was the guy who went to the gym, worked out, watched what he ate, sort of nagged us about what we ate or didn’t eat and he died of a heart attack. It was the ultimate irony.

“It has re-focused us [as a band]. Every day is a gift now, the fact that we’re very privileged to be able to go out and play these songs to people.

Horace Panter has designed a record storage case for HMV.

Horace Panter has designed a record storage case for HMV.

“We didn’t know what to do after he died. Should we carry on or not? And we had this tour tentatively booked and we looked at one another and I said, ‘Look, if it was me I would imagine you guys would have carried on’, so we did – and it’s been wonderful.”

In the wake of Bradbury’s passing, Golding and Hall publicly raised the prospect that The Specials could record new material that they had been working on with Bradbury.

Today Panter says they’ve had a change of heart. “We’ve shelved that. It’s kind of like we have moments of ‘We could release something’ then the reality kicks in. I think it’s too far down the line.

“We are cast in that period from 1979 to 1981 and it’s a big gap between 1981 and 2017, to be honest. People come to see us because they want to hear Monkey Man and Message To You, Rudy and Gangsters.

“I remember going to see Reel Big Fish, one of these American ska bands, really funny, really good, and their head honcho said from the stage, ‘These are the four words that the audience hates to hear – here’s a new song’ and he had a point.”

Guitarist Steve Cradock will be with The Specials when they return to Leeds later this month. On the drum stool will be Gary Powell of The Libertines. Panter appreciates their contribution to the touring band. “We could pick up jobbing musicians who could put their fingers in the right place but I have an idea that it wouldn’t be anywhere near as good,” he says. “I think you’re known by the company you keep. Nikolaj [Torp Larsen], our keyboard player played on Adele’s Skyfall record, he’s the go-to session musician. He’s just done the Jack Savoretti album and I think he’s playing with him over the summer. So we are surrounding ourselves with top-notch musicians and that keeps the music to the standard that it is.”

Demand for the band – who scored era-defining UK Number Ones in the 80s with Too Much Too Young and Ghost Town – remains strong around the world. This spring The Specials toured Australia, New Zealand and Japan – a country that has interesting memories for Panter, as he first recalled in his memoir Ska’d For Life.

“I enjoyed playing there,” he reflects now. “It was interesting back in the day because we were, I think, only the third punk/new wave group that went there and they didn’t know how to take our attitude or the audience’s attitude, more to the point, but it’s a lot more organised these days. I like playing there.

“It’s funny, the fans seem to know what train you’re getting. We never get mobbed by people asking for autographs [at concerts]. Sometimes outside a show there will be a couple of guys with their kids. But there were people at the railway stations asking for autographs and photographs and they seemed to know what hotels you were staying in, so you would come down bleary eyed for breakfast in the morning and get assailed by half a dozen extremely enthusiastic Japanese people with hoards of album covers and photographs which is of nice, it’s kind of ‘Ah bless, I remember when I was young and famous’. You shouldn’t take that for granted, definitely not.”

It’s 38 years since Gangsters was released as The Specials’ first single on their own Coventry-based label, 2 Tone. Panter has clear memories of making it in January 1979. “The previous year we’d done this tour with The Clash and we thought we were definitely on the way to stardom because we’d got a bit of press but then our drummer Silverton [Hutchinson] quit because he didn’t like the idea of spending the rest of his life sleeping in a van and on people’s floors. In the meantime we’d had no success with record labels so we thought ‘We’ll have our own record label’ so we designed this thing called ‘2 Tone’ and it was going to be like Britain’s Tamla Motown. We were going to sign lots of groups that played ska or that played punk and reggae and mix things up and it would be great.

“We borrowed 1,500 quid from a dodgy businessman and we went to Horizon Studios by the station in Coventry, on the top floor, and played three songs. We did Gangsters, a version of Too Much Too Young and a version of Nite Klub. The Gangsters song was like ‘Oh gosh, that works, that sounds really good’. We got Brad in a couple of weeks before because we needed someone to play this record. He was pretty much a shoo-in to be in the band but we were hedging our bets to see how the recording session worked out.

“We recorded these three songs in a day’s recording and I think Jerry [Dammers, the band’s founder] went back and put piano on it then we mixed it and cut it and then released it in April. We took it out to Rough Trade who said they’d take it but by that time we’d met Rick Rogers, who was managing The Damned at the time, and he’d worked for the pressroom at Stiff [Records] so he knew a few contacts and he put it to John Peel, who fell in love with it, bless him, and got it to the music press through his contacts.”

The Specials’ self-titled first album, released that October, was produced by Elvis Costello. Panter recalls: “It was great, he was a fan. He really loved the band, he thought what we were doing was fantastic. It wasn’t so much that he produced the album, it was just that he made sure we were in the right place at the right time and said, ‘OK, what are we going to do today?’ It was just us playing our live set in a studio. He bangs a tin tray over his knee in time with the snare drum on Nite Klub and I think it was him who suggested that Chrissie Hynde should come down and do backing vocals – but I think that’s because he fancied Chrissie Hynde, to be honest, but everybody did back then.”

The making of the band’s second album, More Specials, was altogether more complicated. Panter said in his book that it took him 20 years to listen to it again. Today, he reflects: “It’s not as strong as the first one as far as I’m concerned but it really stands up. Some of the songs are my favourites – Man at C&A, I love International Jet Set and Enjoy Yourself has become anthemic these days. It’s funny, though, because it just reminds me of that time when the band was just falling to bits because it was exhausted. The ideas and the vision that we’d had the year previously had dissipated. Jerry didn’t have the songs, Roddy was coming up with all these punk/power pop songs that just weren’t going to work and he was pulling his face about ‘what’s wrong with my songs?’ and everybody was tired and just becoming fractious.

“It was nothing compared to the making of Ghost Town, which was an absolute triumph of the will, trying to get everybody in the right place at the right time. In fact we weren’t, we did it all separately and I think Jerry, Lynval, Brad and I put the backing track down then stuff was put on top of it – but the results were tremendous.

“I think the first album and Ghost Town were great but [More Specials] doesn’t sound too brilliant either. That’s what happens when you take too much cocaine and listen to music, the top end hearing goes.”

As far as his own current highlights of The Specials’ set goes, Panter pinpoints: “Man at C&A, Ghost Town because we have this string section that we use now and it sounds Wagnerian. We really struggled with Ghost Town when we first reformed in 2009. It’s a song that we played briefly live but we never really felt that we could do it justice because it was just a big production, but having the string section in it gave weight to a lot of the orchestration and it could back up the vocals as well, it just sounds really good. Monkey Man goes down an absolute storm and Message To You, Rudy.

“But I like playing all of them. I’m 64 next birthday and I’m a rock star and how ridiculous is that? Every day is not taken for granted.”

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the band (originally known as the Automatics). In these post-Brexit times, Panter feels the band remains relevant. “I haven’t heard anybody else who does it and people still want to come and see us,” he says. “We still seem to have that credibility that we had back then. It’s not like we’re being asked to do Butlins or the 2 Tone package tour kind of thing.

“I think it would be quite pretentious to say ‘Our music changed the youth of the nation’ or whatever but I would like to think we still had the credibility that we had when we first started.”

The Specials play at Millennium Square on Saturday May 27. www.thespecials.com

Flourishing career in art

As well as his activities with The Specials Horace Panter has developed a flourishing ‘solo career’ as an artist.

Before becoming a full-time musician Panter had studied fine art at Lanchester Polytechnic and when his musical career waned in the 1990s he taught art at a Coventry school for children with special needs.

In recent years his paintings, inspired by the Pop Art of Andy Warhol, Roy Liechtenstein and Peter Blake, have become much in demand.

One of his most recent projects was a record case he designed for HMV. “There’s a gallery that we work with in Harrogate called Red House Originals,” he says. “We get on very well with Richard [McTague] who runs it. He knows these people over in Leeds, the GPO guys, they produce these record boxes and they wanted to commission artists to do these record boxes.

“Richard put my name forward and I did one of my Americana pictures and they were like ‘That’s good’. I’m really pleased with it. It’s that sort of just diversifying a bit.”

He has also just finished his largest painting yet. “It’s 8ft tall by 4ft wide and that’s going in the new Doc Martens shop in Camden. I would never have thought three years ago of doing something like that but I thought, ‘OK, this is interesting, this is stretching me a bit so let’s do that as well’.”

He had to work to a brief that included “Doc Martens footwear, aspects of youth culture, the locality”, but he says he found it interesting. “You’re almost like a graphic designer but you could put your own stamp on it as well, so it’s got elements of Peter Blake’s collage, and sort of Rauschenberg-y collage, Warhol for the multiples and that Pop Art sense of bright colours. It’s kind of me but working to a brief as well which has been really interesting.”

To see more of Panter’s artwork visit www.horacepanterart.com

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