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The Art of Being A Special Former Specials bassist Horace Panter talks expansively to Alan Rider about losing Terry Hall, life after The Specials, flat art, the Dirt Road Band, selfie culture, and extreme calligraphy.

The Art of Being A Special

Former Specials bassist Horace Panter talks expansively to Alan Rider about losing Terry Hall, life after The Specials, flat art, the Dirt Road Band, selfie culture, and extreme calligraphy.

by Alan Rider, Contributing Editor
first published: November, 2023

approximate reading time: minutes

We learned a lot from The Clash and I don't think that's acknowledged enough to be honest. Jerry always had that, 'be of the people' kind of thing, as had I. I think that's what I liked about punk, you know, just being regular blokes.

It’s been a tough year to be a Special. With Terry Hall tragically passing away last December, the reinvented Specials ended prematurely just as they were getting going. That left Special’s bassist Horace Panter losing both a close friend and his main source of income. That’s hard. Outsideleft sat down (virtually) with Horace at his Leamington home over several mugs of tea to talk about that and life after, and outside of, The Specials.

OUTSIDELEFT: Thanks for taking time out to talk to Outsideleft today. I remember from the time that you were always very supportive of all the music being created in Coventry, even when 2 Tone was dominating everything. I guess Coventry will always be known as 2 Tone Town, with new documentaries and books constantly coming out, but you were always there in the audience at small local venues supporting the punk and other non -Ska acts at the time.
Horace Panter: It was exciting back in 1980, wasn't it, because everybody formed a group. That was punk wasn't it? You didn't have to be Carlos Santana before you went on stage at the Mercer's arms. You could learn one and a half chords, and as long as you had a song with 'bored' in the title, you could do it, and that was amazing.

OL: As a bass player, you only needed to be able to hold one finger down on a string and that was good enough!
HP: I have a joke about that! A guy goes to have bass guitar lessons. The first week the teacher goes "this big string here, that's an E". The bloke goes away and learns that. The second lesson the following week is " this note on the second string is an A" and he goes away and learns that. The third week, the bloke doesn't turn up. The teacher calls him to ask him why he didn't turn up? The bloke says " I couldn't, I had a gig!

OL: Haha. Thats not far from the truth actually!
HP: I still play like that. You know, the simpler, the better.  

OL: I was wondering, with Terry sadly passing away last year, is that definitely the end of The Specials? Or is there still an outside chance that the band could start up again?
HP: It would be ludicrous to tour without Terry, so yes, that's definitely the end of The Specials. Lynval is in the process of finishing off a tribute song to Terry, but I don't think that will be released as The Specials. If he does get that released, it'll be a Lynval tribute track.

“When there was just Lynval, Terry and I, we became friends, which was something that I don't think we were that much first time around. That was what made it all the more tragic for me. We were really tight the three of us. We all realised what our strengths were and we played to them.”

OL: Although Terry was a public figure in the band, he was first and foremost a close friend of yours of course. How do you mix and process the outpourings of public grief with your very private grief, where you have lots of people commenting on social media and in the press about Terry who only knew his work, yet are speaking as if they really know him as a person?
HP: It was nice, because in a way I could sort of go along with that. It’s really lovely that people have said something really sweet about a good friend of mine, but I'm very 'keep calm and carry on', stiff upper lip, you know, and I pretty much kept it to myself. Okay, that's pretty sad, but I didn't really speak to too many people about it for a few months. Then I honestly thought, that's it, I've got over it. But I drove up to Manchester the other weekend, where I was helping out at a literary festival thing, and it suddenly got to me whilst I was driving through the city centre of Manchester that Terry won't be coming up here to see the football will he? I really wasn't expecting that. So yes, it's still there. I think I've still got stuff to process. Lynval, on the other hand, is very emotional about it. He'll go into studio and he'll write a song about it, and he'll talk about it openly and whatever. He's always worn his heart on his sleeve. I think we all have different ways of processing it, but I'm getting there and I've had a few conversations with his widow. Yes, we got tight, but back in the day (1979) Terry and I weren't close and I didn't spend a lot of time talking to him, because there were a lot of people in The Specials. I probably spent most of my time talking with Jerry. When the band re-formed in 2008, it was a totally different dynamic. Jerry wasn't with us and it became obvious very early on that Terry was good at carrying the swing. It was his manager who was helping facilitate all this stuff. We all did things by consensus, don't get me wrong, but when you get a group of people together people rise to the top. There are leaders and there are followers. I'm a follower, I've always been a follower. Someone has an idea, I can help them realise it. That's that was my relationship with Jerry and in The Specials. When there was just Lynval, Terry and I, we became friends, which was something that I don't think we were that much first time around. That was what made it all the more tragic for me. It wasn't just 'there's my income stream cut off'. It was more that. We were really tight the three of us. We all realised what our strengths were and we played to them.

Specials

OL: You were also recording new material together for the first time in a long time.
HP: The thing is, when we reformed it was great, but then we just ended up as the world's greatest Specials tribute band, because all we were playing was the old stuff. We talked for some years about doing our own material, but Roddy had his own band, Neville had his own band, so we weren't going to get the input from them. Then they left and Brad died in 2014, so it took us a good 18 months to two years to get back on our feet. Then we finally got around to recording Encore and realised that we didn't have to wear 2 Tone suits and pork pie hats, and talk about rude boys and all that business. We could really reinvent ourselves, which I like to think that we did. We were about to record a brand new album, which would have been released a few months ago, had Terry not died last Christmas. So there it was. The world was our oyster.

OL: It's always difficult when somebody passes away unexpectedly, but particularly hard with things like cancer which can be quite brutal really, seeing somebody go down so fast, but you've got lots of great memories to look back on as well.
HP: There's always the concerts. We played some great shows, though I can't get a gig at the Broomfield Tavern in Spon End anymore! I'm really upset about that. That's my favourite venue in the world! People would ask me "what's the best venue you have ever played Horace?", and I'll go "the Broomfield Tavern". My little blues band played there. We played there twice a year and it was always amazing. Of course, I've done all that big stuff too. When I was in Special Beat, we did a month opening for Sting. We played all those 'sheds', which are the big outdoor amphitheaters across America. We played The Gorge, southeast of Seattle, which is this amazing outdoor space in a huge valley with mountains in the background and is really spectacular. We played Red Rocks, Madison Square Gardens, and all that kind of stuff and they're wonderful to play. That was good fun. Then again, the best Specials concert was the Bilzen Rock Festival [Belgium] in August 1979, before we'd even recorded our first album. Crysalis wanted to take us out to Europe just to see what would happen. We hadn't even bought new equipment, it was still all the old the stuff we had begged, bought and stolen to use for the previous two years. We bunged it all in a van and went off to Belgium. We were on this festival with Bram Tchaikovsky (I think he was in The Motors), The Cure, The Pretenders, The Police, and AC/DC. We set up and went on and we absolutely killed the place! Nobody in the audience knew who we were, or knew what we sounded like, but there was this big 15 foot high chain link fence that got ripped up and everyone swarmed towards the lip of the stage to see us. We did that! It was it was amazing. We just knew that if you needed any confirmation that we were a force to be reckoned with, it was that evening. In the NME there was a picture of me walking off stage with my guitar and I swear that my feet are not touching the ground. It was it was that kind of a show. So yeah, we did some good shows!

OL: That show sounds like a real turning point, though a lot of people still talk about the Clash tour being the point where you got a lot more exposure. Obviously, it was it was a different kind of mix being on the tour with The Clash and Suicide.
HP: We had released 'Gangsters' and it was in the charts. I don't think we had done Top of The Pops by then, but we knew that we were really good. The Clash tour was like basic training for us. We started the tour as civilians, and ended it as a tight unit, although we didn't sound like The Specials then. We still sounded like the Coventry Automatics. It wasn't until Brad joined in December '78, that we actually started playing ska, and learnt ‘Monkey Man’, and ‘You're Wondering Now’, and changed our material. Ska unified it. The Clash tour was, up until that time, the most exciting thing that I'd ever done in my life. Plus, I think we learned how to present a show from watching The Clash every night, because we thought that, okay, if we're going to be good, if we're going to be in with a chance, we've got to put on a show that's at least as good as this. It was it was fantastic to be able to sit at the side of the stage and watch Joe Strummer and Mick Jones.

OL: There are parallels. Joe Strummer wore his heart on his sleeve and always tried to be on a level with the audience, and with The Specials, you tried to do that as well, inviting people on stage at the end and singing about things that related to their ordinary lives. You yourself stayed in Coventry and didn't do the pop star thing of only travelling around in a limo or moving immediately out to London or LA, so I think that there are parallels there in your trying to not let fame make you into an asshole, basically, but keeping your feet on the ground.
HP: Thank you. We try our best. We learned a lot from The Clash and I don't think that's acknowledged enough to be honest. Jerry always had that, 'be of the people' kind of thing, as had I. I think that's what I liked about punk, you know, just being regular blokes. Probably because there wasn't that much virtuoso musicianship, that meant that there wasn't much difference between the playing ability of the bloke up onstage and the bloke in the audience and I think that's what I really liked about it.

OL: You are playing now in the Dirt Road Band (DRB). How did that come about?
HP: I've known guitarist and singer Steve Walwyn for 40 odd years. Once every 18 months we would find ourselves in the backroom of a pub in in Leamington jamming and playing blues. I went off and did all my stuff and he ended up joining Dr. Feelgood, where he was the longest serving guitar player, in them for 32 years, up until a couple of years ago when they got someone else in, much to his chagrin! In the meantime, we had started the DRB up as a side project. There was a Coventry drummer called Ted Duggan who I knew of, but had never played with. He was one of these blokes who's king of the heap in Coventry, and has played with everybody. A lot of people were saying to me that he's the best drummer around, so we all got together, and it was great fun. Playing blues is pretty universal, so it wasn't that difficult to play those songs and it was just something that we would do if we had some free time when none of us were working. Then with Steve leaving Dr. Feelgood, and me not working in The Specials anymore, it became the thing that we wanted to do. It's not professional, I suppose it's semi pro, but we get some gigs. We play places where Dr. Feelgood used to play, basically. We were just playing blues standards but now we've started writing original material and we've recorded some as well and are in the process of compiling some sort of release, I suppose it will be a compact disc. We've recorded three songs, and another that isn't finished yet. We're going back to Woodbine studios in about a fortnight's time to put down another four. So we're gradually compiling songs for the album.

Dirt Road Band

OL: How did it feel going back to record at Woodbine studios, as Ghost Town was recorded there?
HP: The studio is in a different location now, and is where some of the tracks that ended up on the third Specials album, 'In The Studio' were recorded. I've been there a couple or three times subsequently and yes, it's a very easy place to work. John Rivers is extraordinary. He looks exactly the same as he did 40 years ago! I don't know how he does it. I have this theory that because he lives underground in this studio, and there's all this outboard electrical stuff, perhaps all the little electronic microwaves or something they exude is the equivalent of audio formaldehyde, and it has pickled him! Being a good producer is so much to do with people skills. It's like being in a group. You know that when groups split up because of 'musical differences', they're lying. It’s the fact that the drummer can't stand the rhythm guitarist, or the saxophone player has fallen in love with the drummer’s girlfriend. It's never about the music, it’s always about the people, as it was with The Specials. John was always really good at that side of things. You're made welcome. It feels comfortable. It's a great atmosphere to work in. He's kept up to date with all the new advances in technology too, so he gets really good sounds, really quickly. That's why I think the studio has survived as a going concern, when an awful lot of other studios have gone to the wall, although most of his work is either is mixing or mastering now.

OL: Does it annoy you that for DRB gigs you are always billed as 'ex Specials'. Do you get people coming along expecting you to be playing ska and the hits and being surprised when they get something completely different? Is it a millstone round your neck, or is it just what it is?
HP: It is what it is. I realise that it helps to sell tickets, and boy do we need to sell tickets, especially right now. I'm not that thrilled by it, but it's a necessary evil and at least I'm out there playing. People really come to see Steve, to be honest. Nobody comes to DRB gigs and shouts "play Too Much Too Young" from the back though, unless they're really drunk. As you know, I've always played little gigs with blues bands locally, so there was plenty of time for people to do that there if they really wanted to, but they didn't. It's funny because the DRB played at the Coventry Music Museum the other week for their 10th anniversary. I thought it would be kind of weird, with all these Cromby'd up, Doc Martin wearing, skinhead types, and us going "here's a Freddie King song", but they loved it. Or maybe they were just being extremely polite! I don't know, but it's all fun, and it's what I do now. That's the way it goes. I mean, when Terry had his solo career he did all kinds of stuff, like 'All Kinds of Everything', the old Dana song, with Sinead O'Connor, and 'Windmills of Your Mind' - all that sort of stuff, so you do change. When we [The Specials] re-formed in 2008, there were two forms of The Specials we could choose to be. There was The Specials that really took off, with the pork pie hats, Doc Martens, 200 Skinheads onstage and so on. Then there's The Specials a year later, which was tracks like 'Man at C&A', 'Ghost Town' and all that kind of stuff. Which one did we want to be? We opted for the first version, which is what all the tribute bands play. You don't get too many tribute bands playing 'International Jetset' or 'Friday Night, Saturday Morning'! It's all 'Monkey Man', 'Stupid Marriage', 'Too Much Too Young', that kind of stuff.

OL: That actually makes me wonder whether you have ever gone along secretly to a Specials Tribute gig and stood at the back silently critiquing the bass playing?
HP: Haha. No, I've always chickened out at the last minute because people would make such a big fuss about me being there. That's why I don't visit the Coventry Music Museum much either, because I really don't like everyone asking me "can we take a photo?", "can you sign this?". I don't mind signing stuff, because these people are lovely and they've been paying my mortgage for the past 40 years, bless them, but sometimes it can get just a bit too claustrophobic.

OL: I never really understood the point of an autograph myself.
HP: It gives whatever artefact you've got a certain amount of provenance. It’s the same in art, all artists sign their work you know? But the selfie has taken over from the autograph now, hasn't it?

I've done blues gigs where there's been some girl at the front dancing with her phone, filming herself dancing, with me in the background if you are lucky. It sucks, but that's what's changed in the culture and I think that had an impact on little pub bands. I remember playing blues in a little pub outside Rugby and there were these girls on one table screaming "play something we know!" I am thinking what? This is a blues band! You think we are going to stop playing Freddie King and do a Robbie Williams number or something? It was it's kind of weird, but I think people expect something a bit more when they go out because they're the stars, just because they did karaoke a couple of weeks ago. I'm very ambivalent towards technology though, as I am of a certain age and you know, I'm not 18 or 25 anymore.

OL: Coming to your art, that’s been a parallel thing, even during the full-on craziness of The Specials when that was all taking off. You've always had your interest in art and then after the first split, I think you went into teaching art as well, didn't you?
HP: Yes, in 1992/93 I did a teachers training course at what used to be Birmingham Poly and ended up as an art teacher at a special needs school just outside Coventry. It was great, really good, and I honestly thought that I would retire as a school teacher. Then in 2008, Lynval phoned up and said (like in The Blues Brothers), "we're gonna get the band back together". Teaching art was good fun and it had a different relevance for special needs kids, because if you can't read or write too well, you could at least achieve stuff comparable with people who could read or write. Art was a good leveller in that respect and it's more about self esteem than getting a degree, you know what I mean? Also, considering I've been a self employed musician for most of my life, once a month this money appeared as if by magic in my bank account, which was amazing! I had never been salaried before, so we were able to move house and upgrade our lives a bit. Art was always a big deal for me though. When I was travelling the world with The Specials, if I had a day off I'd find a gallery to visit, so I've travelled the world and seen some of the world's most amazing paintings. The two have always gone hand in hand for me. Then, when I was teaching art, it made me think about how I could do my own paintings. Towards the end of my tenure as a teacher, I started doing my own work. When The Specials started up again, I was thinking ‘well, I've got all this downtime between tours, so I'll start painting’. My wife said, "these aren't bad, perhaps we can sell some?". We tried that and people wanted to buy them and then it grew organically. It was like this parallel career. The art is like my solo album, Alan, you know. I'm a bass player. I have to work with other musicians to play music, but the art I can do by myself.

I'm quite fascinated by the way Americans use their signage on the shops too. We would never have anything as gaudy here, but over there you can find a huge 30 foot high model of a doughnut stuck on top of a building. That's fantastic. That's what appeals to me about America, their visual aesthetic, which they take for granted.

OL: It’s all down to you then?
HP: That's what I like about it. The art works or fails by my efforts and I take responsibility for all that stuff. Whereas with music, I'm a team player, you know, and that's a role that I'm very happy to step into. When I started the art project, I was very influenced by Henri Rousseau, that kind of naive style. I liked that he painted all these jungles with animals and things in them, yet he'd never been to a jungle in his life. He'd just been to the Botanical Gardens in Paris. I just thought that was really interesting. I've always liked that naive, stylized kind of stuff and outsider art. As I went on, I got more into the flat colour, pop arty stuff. Warhol had his Campbell's soup cans, and I paint audio cassettes! I'm always looking for the image, you know. This is a lot to do with my fascination with America. When you go to America with a group, you only usually play where the water is, the East Coast, then the West Coast. The only reason you get to go to Chicago, Minneapolis, and Denver is because you are trying to get from one bit of water to another bit of water. You play Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, and if you're lucky, you go via Texas on the way home. Yet there's this huge bit in the middle, the flyover states that nobody ever visits, and I'm fascinated by them. That's where country music comes from. I visited some friends who live just north of Austin, and I just got in a car and drove and found these archetypal one horse towns without a horse, and just took photos of those, because that's the bit of America that most people just don't see. I'm quite fascinated by the way Americans use their signage on the shops too. We would never have anything as gaudy here, but over there you can find a huge 30 foot high model of a doughnut stuck on top of a building. That's fantastic. That's what appeals to me about America. That's their visual aesthetic, which they take for granted. It takes somebody from England to come along and go "look at that, that's amazing"

OL: Talking of amazing things, you've talked a lot on your Facebook page about the extreme and illegible calligraphy used by grindcore, thrash metal, and death metal bands with names like Brutal Sphincter, or Excrementory Grindfuckers! 
HP: It’s bizarre, isn't it? Imagine thinking 'I'm going to form a band, we're going to play totally unlistenable music, and we're going to have a name, but you're not going to know what it is because you can't read the logo"! It's fantastic. I just love that alternative subculture. We played a festival in Oslo four or five years ago where you had the main stage and then a second side stage, behind it. Lynval and I heard this racket coming from the side stage and there were these five blokes with big boots and long hair and dry ice and everything in a band called 1349, which apparently is the year that the Black Death visited Scandinavia. It was quite extraordinary, because everything was going really fast, but ever so tight. These guys weren't just making a noise for the sake of it, they really knew what they were doing. It was extraordinary. I think that was what sort of started me off. We then got a stage manager who was into this kind of music, and he was really impressed that I had seen 1349 because they were one of his favourite groups. I just think it's really funny how rock music has changed and mutated. You always have to rebel against your parents, don't you? I mean, I would never listen to the music that my parents played, so obviously you're going to make music that your parents go "what the Dickens is this?" and you're going to call yourselves Excrementory Grindfucker, aren't you? I just thought it was the ultimate in rebellious music. I think it is fantastic, I love it. It's people taking music to such an extreme, right down to the fact that you can't even read the names of the bands. I don't know whether they've got more followers though since I've written about them!

OL: I know that I'm now a big Brutal Sphincter fan based on your endorsement (sic). To close, I should ask you about what the future holds for you at the moment? You've got the Dirt Road band gigging, you've got more art and more exhibitions coming up, and you've got the album coming out next year. Anything else?
HP: I'm also playing other bits of music as well. I've met some people from Derby who play Cajun and Zydeco, which is fabulous. I love that. It's rock and roll. It's blues, it's funk, it's country music all at the same time, and that's really good. So I do a few gigs with them. Then there's this insane Welsh guitarist called James Oliver - not Jamie Oliver the chef! He's six foot three, 250 pounds, and he plays a twangy Telecaster. Rockabilly/country rock and roll kind of stuff. He's insane. He does like 300 gigs a year and wears his rhythm sections out. I'm his seventh reserve bass player I think! If he plays around the Midlands, then he gets me to accompany him. That's a lot of fun and he pays me some money as well at the end of the show. So there's always music to play, which is good fun. I have got room for one more project, but I don't know what it is yet. Painting is probably my main source of income now, but hey, I turned 70 this year, so I get an old age pension! Who'd have thought it? With the money that the art brings in and the occasional dribs and drabs from blues gigs, I'm okay. We ain't gonna starve anytime soon!

OL: I’m relieved to hear it! OK, let’s end it there then and thanks again for all your time today
HP: Okay, we'll be in touch. Take care.


Essential Information
The Dirt Road Band Bandcamp site: https://dirtroadband.bandcamp.com/
Horace Panter Art: https://www.horacepanterart.com/

Alan Rider
Contributing Editor

Alan Rider is a Norfolk based writer and electronic musician from Coventry, who splits his time between excavating his own musical past and feeding his growing band of hedgehogs, usually ending up combining the two. Alan also performs in Dark Electronic act Senestra and manages the indie label Adventures in Reality.


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