Protest and injustice are at the heart of the music of Midlands’ Two Tone legends, The Specials. We caught up with bass player Horace Panter ahead of the band’s much-anticipated gig in Brum
Protest. You can never have too much of it says Horace Panter, bass player with The Specials. “Protest is central to the whole ethos of The Specials,” he says. “As I’ve gotten older, I would have thought that I would have mellowed, but that’s not what’s happened at all!”
The Specials have been raising their voice against injustice for decades through a distinctive mix of ska, reggae and punk rock known as Two-Tone that has elevated the band to legend status. Formed in Coventry in 1977, the line-up has chopped and changed over the years but currently comprises Horace, guitarist Lynval Golding and vocalist Terry Hall. Long-time fans will be joined by those discovering The Specials music for the first time when the guys headline the main stage at Birmingham’s three-day Mostly Jazz Funk and Soul Festival on Friday 8 July.
We caught up with Horace at his home just outside Warwick as the band prepared for the gig at Moseley Park as part of a 12-date series of summer shows. “While we’ve obviously played Birmingham before, we’ve never played Moseley Park and it’s something we’re really looking forward to,” he said. “After all the years, we still get a huge buzz out of performing live. There’s nothing like it.”
RACISM, WAR & DECAY
In the early days, The Specials multicultural make-up challenged far right prejudice and injustice. Critics described their 1979 debut album at the time as ‘tackling racism, war, unemployment and national decay, making them one of the most socially progressive bands of their age’. A succession of top 10 hits followed.
Their 2019 reunion album Encore was just as challenging, focusing on Black Lives Matter, Windrush, racial integration and gang violence. Encore went to number one in the UK Album Chart – the band’s first chart-topping album since 1980.
In September 2021, the band released an album of cover songs from the likes of Bob Marley and Talking Heads titled Protest Songs 1924-2012 to rave reviews. “It was a big risk doing Protests,” said Horace. “It was not what our hard-core fans would expect, but we were really pleased with it.” Horace calls the album an ‘interim product’. The band had been forced to axe a planned tour due to Covid lockdown, so made the album instead. “Because of Covid, the last few years seem to have just disappeared,” said Horace. “Now life is getting back to being a bit more normal, but there are still sections of concert-goers who don’t feel that comfortable with going out and being in a crowd listening to music. Hopefully that’ll change in time.”
WARHOL ON THE WALL
During lockdown the guys had an opportunity to do a bit more of their ‘own thing’. Horace said: “I know that Terry was writing a lot of music, though he’s always loath to admit to it! For me, it’s my art.” Painting is a serious passion for Horace, who graduated from Lanchester Polytechnic (now Coventry University) with a BA in Fine Art in the 70s and has his own website where his pictures can be bought. His work has been exhibited throughout the UK and in New York, Los Angeles and Singapore.
He says he is influenced by the artists he first encountered as a child of the 60s – Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, Hopper, Blake, Rousseau. With Warhol’s famous picture of Marilyn Monroe selling recently for a record $195million recently, Horace said: “I’ve got a Warhol – an ‘official’ fake which I bought for £250 in New York!”
Horace and Terry were in the US as recently as February doing a charity event and visiting friends in Austin, Texas. The subject of protest was never far away. “It was clear talking to various people just how divided America is,” he said. “US politics is fascinating, especially all that second amendment stuff about the right to bear arms.”
Back home, the Two Tone genre led by The Specials, is the subject of a new BBC drama by Peaky Blinders creator, Birmingham’s own Steven Knight. Filming is underway on the six-part series set in the West Midlands at a time of “real cultural and historical progression” which tells the story of an extended family and four young people drawn into the music scene which grew out of Coventry and Birmingham in the late 70s and early 80s.
If you want to see the real thing though, there’s no better way than dropping by on the legends themselves as The Specials let it rip at Moseley Park next month!