The Specials: Thriving in a ghost town

Horace Panter (r) pictured at the Specials plaque unveiling in January at the Canal Basin, Coventry

AS COVENTRY University gears up for the guest appearance of Special’s bassist, Horace Panter,  he took time out to talk to second year Journalism student, Joanne Ostrowski, about ska from his point of view.

In January a ‘special’ plaque was unveiled in the Canal Basin to commemorate the anniversary of Coventry’s own 2-Tone records, and to join the celebrations I went down to have a chat with Horace Panter of the Specials.

It’s been 30 years since bands such as The Beat, The Selecter and the Specials were bringing the sound of ska to the forefront of popular music. Ska is a form of sped-up reggae which originated from Jamaica in the late 1950s, and started to filter into Britain in the 60s.

First it was popular with the mods (which apparently Horace used to be), and later it was accepted by the skinheads. Horace first heard ska on the radio when he was about 12-years-old, but didn’t really think anything of it until punk came along, saying: “Punk was like white rebel music and reggae was black rebel music, so they just worked together”.

From a musician’s aspect it was a break from the conventional and a different structure of composition to play. Horace, who has been a long-term bass player in the Specials likes the idea that “the bass takes the melody and everyone else plays the rhythm – which is totally different to how I learned to play pop or rock music before. So musically, it was interesting to play as well,” he added.

What was interesting was that Coventry was becoming a recognised word in the world of music, but the punk-rock atom had been exploded on the rest of Britain with such a strong force that’s it’s hard to imagine anything else creating waves of interest.

Horace reminds me how his band “used to be a punk band, and a ska band at the same time; ska was the meeting ground of reggae and punk as far as the Specials were concerned.  With a sound category forming the unifying factor, ska had really taken off in 1970’s Britain, and the root of that was the city once famed for being a ‘Ghost Town’.

People were now “taking peculiar tablets and staying up all night dancing” instead of despising the State, commentating on society or starting revolutions

If you listen to the words of this bona fide record it outlines ‘all the clubs are being closed down’ and then refers to the rest of England at the time with: ‘No job to be found in this country’. The words are becoming increasingly relevant to the current recession, and it is only ironic that as we celebrate the 2-Tone era, Britain is reverting back to a similar economic struggle.

However, in terms of music, Horace believes that Coventry is a relatively healthy environment at the moment for the purpose: “It seems extremely good, there are two rehearsal complexes in town, whereas 25 years ago there wasn’t, just back rooms of pubs to rehearse in.”

But he looks back at the time as being “it’s own whittling down process”, with less opportunities for bands.  You had to be good in order to make your mark or become heard outside of the “back rooms of pubs to rehearse in”.

We then went on to talk about post-Specials, the footings of rave, and perhaps the collapse of an authentically musical era – leading the way to club culture. “What like Duran Duran?” Horace was more excited from another Birmingham band: The Beat. After The Beat disbanded, two members from the group went on to join Horace’s next project; General Public.

A potential super-group, other band members included Dexy’s keyboardist Mickey Billingham and drummer Stoker, and then Clash guitarist Mick Jones! Perhaps the group wasn’t as successful as their potential promised due to the shift in the music industry. People were now “taking peculiar tablets and staying up all night dancing” instead of despising the State, commentating on society or starting revolutions.

Those days have long come and gone and as The Specials prepare to play the Ricoh Arena on the 15th, perhaps there is a disgruntled band waiting in the wings with a heart of punk, and feet for ska…

  • On Tuesday, 19th May, at 1pm in the Ellen Terry building, Horace Panter will the guest speaker at the media lecture series, Coventry Conversations.



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