The Specials: ‘We had nothing to lose, really’

The Specials have released an album of new music and are on tour. Duncan Seaman spoke to bass player Horace Panter.

The Specials
The Specials

For a band whose music first illuminated the dark days of the late 1970s and early 1980s, it seems apt that The Specials have chosen another strife-torn era in which to return with new music.

Almost 40 years on from the bleak forebodings of Ghost Town, the 2-Tone group hit Number One again last month with their new album, Encore.

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Bass player Horace Panter, who along with singer Terry Hall and guitarist Lynval Golding is one of three original members still in the band 10 years on from their reformation, says the impetus for the record came from a couple of sources.

The Specials

“There was some business interest but also, to be just really mercenary about it, we couldn’t get gigs as festivals because the festival promoters were going ‘What have they got that’s new?’ We were coming to the realisation that we were becoming this heritage act – not that there was anything wrong with that, people loved coming to listen to It Doesn’t Make It Alright and Monkey Man and Gangsters and Too Much Too Young, which were fantastic to play and we were making a good living out of doing that – but it’s like perhaps we’ve got something else to say.

“We talked for years about making a record and then Brad [John Bradbury, the band’s longstanding drummer] died and that was put on the backburner for a while, but once we got ourselves back on our feet it’s like why don’t we give it a go? We had nothing to lose, really.

“There was a business angle but there was also a personal angle as well. We don’t have a lot of time left. Both Lynval and I are in our seventh decade and Terry turns 60 very soon.”

The fact that only three of band’s original seven-member line-up are involved in the album has raised questions over whether this truly constitutes a Specials record, but such thoughts are of no concern to Panter. “It’s how it’s panned out,” he says simply. “There were six of us when we reformed in 2009 and in the last 10 years it’s filtered down to those of us who are left standing. I suppose you could go up to Fleetwood Mac or Pink Floyd or the Rolling Stones and have the same conversation.”

The Specials

Neville Staple, who quit The Specials in 2012, recently said he was ‘glad’ they had finally made another record. Panter seems unsure if there had been any rapprochement with their former singer after comments he made about the band’s seeming unwillingness – until now – to make new music or allow former keyboard player Jerry Dammers back into the fold.

“Neville left the band because he was too ill to perform and then said some rather nasty things about us in the national press, I never understood why, because it wasn’t as though we kicked him out, then he kind of took against us and it’s been left at that, really,” Panter says. “I haven’t got anything against him. If I see him in town it’s ‘Hello, how are you doing? Nice to see you’ or whatever, but I honestly don’t know where our situation stands with Neville.

“But the band’s moved on from that. It’s almost like there isn’t room for that extra voice in all this new material that we’re doing because it wasn’t written with that in mind.”

Having put considerable effort into promoting Encore in its week of release, the band reaped their rewards when it outsold The Greatest Showman and Busted’s new album. Panter denies that it was an emotional moment – “I think we’re too old and long in the tooth and cynical” – but the tone of his voice does give away a sense of satisfaction.

“All I know is the past 10 years doing everything on our own terms,” he says. “We toured when we felt like it rather than when a record company said ‘You’ve got to get out and promote something’, we would rarely do press because there was no need because the tours often as not were sold out, we didn’t need to have a press profile to sell tickets, so this has been quite an eye-opener. Yesterday I was down in London attempting to sign 2,000 CD inlays and talking to the NME – who still exist, apparently – then doing a podcast, whatever that is, so yes, it’s been quite a shock to the system to get back into that ‘Hey, let’s talk about me’.”

Guitarist Steve Cradock, who along with keyboardist Nikolaj Torp Larsen, drummer Kenrick Rowe and brass section Tim Smart and Pablo Mendelssohn now makes up the present-day Specials, has talked enthusiastically about the new record. Panter says Encore “wouldn’t have sounded anywhere near as good” without their involvement. “Especially Nikolaj, who is co-writer and co-producer of the thing,” he adds. “We’ve gradually come to the opinion of surrounding yourself with great musicians and just let them play. We’d never done that before. Our horn section are amazing – Tim Smart and Pablo Mendelssohn – but they were kind of governed by licks that Rico [Rodriguez, the band’s original trombonist] had to play.

“We’re now in a position where we can say to those guys ‘OK, you play what you want to play’ or ‘You play how you would play it, not copy what Jerry or Rico did 40 years ago’ and the results have been absolutely fantastic. Tim Smart’s trombone solo on Vote For Me is stunning, I’ve listened to it 70 times and it still brings the hairs up on the back of my neck, and the piano that Nikolaj plays throughout the version of The Lunatics is like Mike Garson on Aladdin Sane, it’s brilliant. So I’m just thrilled we’ve finally been able to use these amazing musicians to the limits of their virtuosity.

“I have this theory - Terry said ‘Don’t say this in interviews’ – but with those guys it’s like we hire Lewis Hamilton and then give him a forklift truck to drive, but now OK, there’s a Formula 1 racing car.”

Encore arrives at a time where The Specials’ clarion call for unity and racial harmony is again much needed. “It’s weird, isn’t it?” Panter reflects. “Back then it was Reagan and Thatcher and now it’s May and that bloke from America. I’m 65 and cynical, it’s almost as though it’s business as usual, to be honest.

“Something I heard on Radio 4 which was really interesting was that in times of disquiet and unrest and uncertainty people like to look back for comfort and strength, and I wonder if that’s what we did in 1979 because we had this kind of retro 60s image and I’m wondering if that’s why people have taken the album to their hearts because it’s like ‘The good old Specials, they deliver, The Specials will save us’. It might be absolute rubbish but I think it’s an interesting theory.”

Golding recently suggested The Lunatics – which he, Hall and Staple first recorded in the Fun Boy 3 – should have been the follow-up to Ghost Town, back in 1981. Panter says: “I think the Fun Boy 3 were an anti-Jerry [Dammers] band. Jerry was getting into all these weird jazz chords and stuff that came out on The Special AKA In The Studio album and the Fun Boy 3 just went the total opposite. They just bashed percussion instruments with this primal stuff over it. If anything I thought the Fun Boy 3 was a reaction against The Specials. That’s something that Terry said, ‘the Fun Boy 3 was deliberately as far away from The Specials as we could possibly get it’.”

Nonetheless, he reckons: “It was a good song. Jerry was turning his nose up and saying ‘It’s only two chords’ – I don’t know what he thought of John Lee Hooker. But this time round it was played with some music rather than just percussion so it’s got this sort of Cuban vibe. Tim has arranged this lovely Cuban horn stuff around it and Nikolaj plays out of his skin, and it’s got a sort of Sly and Robbie working with Grace Jones rhythm to it, so it’s very nice.

“We started off with the cover versions when we started writing, because we were the original covers band anyway with Liquidator and Message To You Rudy and Monkey Man, so the covers were the first song that we tried [for Encore]. It was interesting taking The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum and saying ‘What can we do with this?’ Blank canvases almost.”

Golding’s track BLM (Black Lives Matter) discusses his own experiences of racism in Britain and the USA; his feelings seemingly reinforced by the Windrush scandal last year. “I think anyone who’d cover over in those times, the same generation as Lynval or before, has been affected by it, definitely,” Panter acknowledges.

The activist Saffiyah Khan features on the song 10 Commandments, a feminist riposte to the notoriously sexist Prince Buster 60s ska track of the same name. The Specials contacted her after seeing a famous photograph of her smiling in one of the band’s T-shirts as she confronts a supporter of the English defence League. “It was what put her on our radar,” Panter says. “We wanted to do a revamp of Prince Buster’s 10 Commandments of man but then it wasn’t going the way we wanted it to so we thought ‘how about we turn the whole thing on its head and do the 10 Commandments of Woman – I know, there’s that girl from Birmingham’, because we had met her and she was making a name for herself as an activist and it just seemed a logical thing to do.

“It was great fun, really, because there was no Plan B,” he adds. “It was one of the songs we were going to have on our album and Terry was talking with her and he was complaining it was very difficult to get her to answer the phone or get anything together but then she came up with all these lyrics. I think Terry and her just edited a few things but that’s mainly her writing, and she just came in and was a bit nervous to start off with but after she’d been there half an hour it was like ‘OK, this is going to work’, and it worked really well, but there was no Plan B, there was no ‘What song have we got if this doesn’t work?’, which is extraordinary, really, but we had this enormous amount of faith in this young lady that she was going to deliver – and she did.”

This year is the 40th anniversary of The Specials’ first record label, 2-Tone. The band will be marking it with two shows in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral. “We wanted to play in Coventry but it was trying to find the right venue,” says Panter. “The last two times we’d played in Coventry has been in the Jaguar Hall, part of the Ricoh Arena complex, and it’s just this big, cavernous concrete shed. OK, you can get 10,000 people in it but the punter experience was not great. But the Cathedral ruins just seemed like ‘Wow, that’s really cool’.

“Coventry’s most famous export isn’t The Specials, it’s the Cathedral, so it seems very fitting to be able to play there. It will be great because there will be all those people who can’t get tickets and they’ll be outside and because there’s no roof there will be this big party all round that area for all these people that can hear it but can’t see it. It’s a 1,500-capacity venue which is quite nice, really, it’s not going to be cramped and sweaty and horrible, it should be a better punter experience I think than the previous shows which we’ve done in Coventry.”

Alongside the band, Panter has enjoyed growing success as an artist. His current project, he says, is a series of paintings of Japanese vending machines. “I love them, they’re ubiquitous in Japan but they’re total Pop Art and people take them for granted, they walk by them, they just think you put your money in and you get a drink or all sorts of things out of it, but they’re riots of colour, they’re wonderful.

“But I’m not going to have much to do anything else, you’re not going to see me for dust, we start rehearsing in the middle of March and then at the end of March we’re off [touring] and that’s us until the end of June and then there’s festivals, then there’s talk about going to Europe again in November and then we may very well be in South America in December and this is before we’ve gone to Japan and Australia.”

He admits it all seems incredible at his age. “I’m absolutely amazed,” he says, “we really have to pace ourselves.”

The Specials play at O2 Academy Leeds on April 30 and York Barbican on May 9.