I cannot believe the words that I am typing, I don't want to believe them. If I hit delete, it'll surely go away. Surely. I don't want to believe that Terry Hall has died.
For those of us who were probably too young for punk, the next musical revolution, the next blast of something significant would be the one that we succumbed to. That huge change came in the form of a new record label called 2-Tone, a punk-informed reading of ska, songs with a social conscience, performed by multi-cultural and racially mixed bands mostly from the West Midlands. And it was great to dance to.
The greatness of The Specials is a given. Their reputation as the originators of the ska revival is set in stone. They didn't arrive with an agenda, a tick list of issues that they wanted to crowbar into pop songs. They just wrote, performed, and sang about their environment as they saw it. It's almost impossible to comprehend how riven with racism society was when they formed. There are tales of National Front members turning up to their gigs armed with axes and hammers, of fights and riots, and of such violence against this ethnically diverse band and what they stood for. And of how the band played on with songs of inclusivity. Their defiance in the face of such bitterness and hatred.
Although many of those songs by The Specials were written by keyboardist Jerry Dammers, it was the way that Hall interpreted them and delivered them that made them so identifiable. The voice that sounded so scathing about the awfulness of the 'Nite Klub,' the emptiness (one of Hall's own lyrics) of 'Friday Night, Saturday Morning' and the recoiling in horror at domesticity ('Too Much, Too Young'), Hall made them his own. As Elvis Costello said of producing their first album: 'Terry's voice was the perfect instrument for (those) true and necessary songs'. And then there were the menacing cries in the band's final song 'Ghost Town' - the soundtrack to a summer of 1981 when so many cities in the country were imploding.
After The Specials split, Hall's following projects would show the versatility of his songwriting. The Fun Boy Three's debut single 'The Lunatics (Have Taken Over The Asylum)' may have been an apt denunciation of the dominant politics of the era that it was written in 1982 but it still seemed dreadfully relevant when the reformed Specials re-recorded it in 2019. But it's his co-write with Jane Wiedlin of The Go-Gos on 'Our Lips Are Sealed',(1983) a sincere love song for outsiders, that would become their most popular (and by that I mean their most streamed) song. He really could be such a romantic at heart!
Hall's longstanding fondness for Easy Listening and what is often referred to as 'Loungecore' (that sounds so wrong) was to the fore in some of the best music that he wrote such as the melancholy of The Colourfield's beautiful 'Castles in the Air' (1985) and the anguish of 'Ballad of a Landlord' (from his solo album 'Laugh'). There were also some exceptional covers: the Colourfield's take on 'The Windmills of Your Mind' (1985), 'She' (yes, the Charles Asznavour number), from his 'Vegas' project with Dave Stewart (1992), and (a particular favourite), the sweet 'Dream a Little Dream of Me' (for the War Child compilation album 'Help' - 1995), a duet with Marijne Van Der Vlugt of Salad.
Whenever someone that had been such a key figure in your cultural makeup dies, the trawl through their records and videos makes their work seem strangely different in that new and grieving light. This morning I have watched the reformed version of The Specials with Amy Winehouse at Glastonbury in 2009 over and over again. I cried as I watched these two untouchable artists perform together. Watching these two now-departed artists, I think about the emptiness left by where they used to be. And just as I did not want to believe the news about Amy, all I can think of is that I don't want to believe that Terry Hall has died.
Jason Lewis is a Birmingham based music, movie and arts obsessive. Jason's encyclopedic knowledge of 80s/90s Arts films is a debt to his embedded status in the Triangle Arts Centre trenches back then.
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