Interview // Terry Hall of the Specials
Here’s my interview with Terry Hall of the Specials from last Friday’s Irish Sun.
The riots and looting that engulfed London and England’s other major cities last summer may have petered out as quickly it broke out, but for a generation of English songwriters it was all too depressing a sight.
For Terry Hall – frontman of the recently reunited ska punk act the Specials – it was confirmation that, for all the good will and idealism that lay behind classic polemics like the Clash’s ‘Guns of Brixton,’ the Smiths’ ‘Panic’ and his own group’s hypnotic ode to urban degeneration ‘Ghost Town,’ politics and economics beat music every time.
“The idea that it was the thirtieth anniversary of ‘Ghost Town’ almost to the day and there were people rioting in the streets of London is very, very sad. It sort of shows how powerful music isn’t, do you know what I mean?
“Things haven’t changed over the last 30 years, which is really sad. We never really set out to change things, just to make people aware of things, and we’re still doing that now. We’re doing it a lot quieter because we’ve aged, but that’s still the intention.”
The Specials’ stint at the top of the charts was disappointingly brief. The simmering tension that produced their two classic albums – 1979’s The Specials and 1980’s More Specials – reached extreme boiling point in the Top of the Pops dressing room after a performance of ‘Ghost Town’ and they went their separate ways.
Chief songwriter Jerry Dammers attempted to keep the band on the road following the departure of Hall, Neville Staple and Lynval Golding. The leftfield classic ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ notwithstanding, it was a doomed enterprise, and the three departed members went on to form the creditable splinter project Fun Boy Three.
The group’s iconic status and romantically short recording career ensured there were numerous attempts made to tempt the original line-up back to the recording studio, but as it turned out it took 25 years and a serious illness to convince Hall and the other band members (with the exception of Jerry Dammers) to once again sit in the same room.
“What changed was my attitude towards everyone in the band. I went through quite a serious illness and when I came out the other side I just wanted to kind of put things right in my head, and one of the things was being in a room again with the people that I grew up with.
“We only ever really wanted to reform to do one gig, and that grew out of all proportion really. Once we’d looked at each other and decided to do a gig we just carried on from there. I didn’t really want to do it for the sake of it. We were always being offered stuff over the years but I didn’t see a point until the point where we got in a room and we got on again as mates.”
He notes how time has helped heal old wounds without entirely closing them: “I think we’ve learned the art of self-control, which is quite good. There is still tension there. We don’t get on all of the time, and if we have a grievance we’ll air it, like a band should really.
“There are definite areas where we don’t agree on still, and that comes out, but I think that also comes out in our music and I think that’s a good thing, really. I don’t trust bands who get on. You need a certain tension to make a good group.”
That tension continues to filter out in the band’s live performances, and Hall feels the group’s essential message of social and racial inclusiveness is no less relevant and vital to today’s audiences as it was 30 years ago.
“We’re still relevant, but it’s totally different now. We were one of the first mixed bandsdfrcfrgd when we formed. If you look at stuff like the Equals, or even Thin Lizzy, it was quite rare. Now it is less so, but I think our songs still hold a relevance.
“I think things just change shapes. There’s been really brilliant integration in England between the West Indian and Asian communities over the years but it wasn’t so in the Seventies and that’s part of fuelled what we did. Racism still exists, but now it’s more likely to be the Eastern Europeans who are used as scapegoats, which they are. So it still exists, and that’s what our songs talk about and comment on.”
Another explanation for the group’s enduring relevance is that, with very few exceptions, there is little appetite among mainstream musicians today to address social issues in their music the way groups like the Specials, the Clash and the Smiths did at the turn of the Eighties.
“I just think the whole music business changed, really. The desire to make those sort of records just went. With the advent then of ‘talent TV,’ people want to be famous, really, and that was never a reason why we started a band.
“We just wanted to try and find a voice, but I don’t think that’s on the top of the list for any artist today. If you search, you still find stuff that you can understand and relate to, but the whole industry has changed so much. With the internet, I think people are being more political on that than they are in making music.”
As the band descend on Cork for the first time in three decades, the seemingly neverending tour that has taken them all over the world in the past four years has done what it set out to do, and Hall says the time is approaching where they need to either record new material or go their separate ways.
“We’re now at a stage where we’re thinking we’ve done really what we set out do, which is great, and we’re sort of mates again in a way. So what else is there to do? And that’s what we’re looking at now, really.”