Amid austerity and poverty, The Specials are back when we need them the most

Almost 40 years after their iconic single Ghost Town, The Big Issue joins The Specials visiting a changed London ahead of their latest album Encore

“The tide is a bit further in,” says Terry Hall of The Specials. 

Hall, Lynval Golding and Horace Panter, aka The Specials, are throwing rocks into the Thames at St Katharine Docks. It is almost 38 years since they were last on this tidal mudbank together, at 5am, rounding off a riotous night shoot for the video to accompany perhaps their finest achievement as a band.

Ghost Town was so much more than a hit record. It was a visceral, uncompromising portrait of how it felt to be young in Thatcher’s Britain. “No jobs to be found in this country.” “Government leaving the youth on the shelf.” “All the clubs have been closed down.” “The people getting angry.” The song depicted a country on the edge of violent unrest.

The recording, release and success of Ghost Town took place against a backdrop of UK rioting, including Toxteth in Liverpool, Handsworth in Birmingham, Brixton in London and Moss Side in Manchester. The video showed the band careering through Britain’s deserted financial heartlands in the City of London, and if the 1962 Vauxhall Cresta driven by Panter seemed out of control, so was the country.

“Everybody thinks that Ghost Town was written about their city,” says the bass player. “If you are from Coventry, you assume it was about Coventry. Actually, it applied to the majority of the country. We were on tour in 1980 and could see this urban decay was happening.

“To me the scariest thing ever was to sit in my little first-floor flat in Coventry and watch riots on the television and have this song, which was Number One in the charts, playing in the background. It was very, very spooky. That is my memory of Ghost Town.”

Before we head on to the beach to recreate an iconic scene, Golding switches footwear – from smart, shiny new brogues to an almost-as-smart slip-on loafer, to protect the former pair from the mud. He’s taking no chances. The tide is high, and he and Panter are holding on to each other to avoid taking a tumble on the stones.

I get upset by the scale of homelessness

Terry Hall

In the background, as the light fades, Tower Bridge remains unaltered. But the derelict chocolate biscuit factory on the South Bank from 1981 is now the expensive flats of Butlers Wharf. And The Shard, which dominates the skyline behind the bridge these days, is a symbol of excess with the £50m apartments at its summit unsold years after construction was completed. 

The Specials, in 2019
The Specials photographed in 2019 for The Big Issue by Matthew Parri Thomas

“I get upset by the scale of homelessness. That is why I am sitting here today,” says Hall. “And I just can’t put two and two together when I see so much money going into buildings that are so unused. And they are painfully unused.”

The singer hurls a couple of large rocks into the water with all the enthusiasm of a surly teenager before standing back to watch his bandmates. “I’m sure I was only watching in the Ghost Town video,” he says, smirking, as though he’s swerved a PE lesson.

These times feel made for The Specials. The band whose songs of defiance, of hope, of anger, of youth, from the perspective of a working-class, multi-racial band from de-industrialising Coventry became bigger than they, or anyone else expected.

It felt very weird, for me. I kept it to myself.

Terry Hall

Their debut single, Gangsters, was the first full release on the 2-Tone label set up by original keyboard player and main songwriter Jerry Dammers. It reached Number Six in 1979. A run of singles – A Message To You Rudy, Too Much Too Young, Rat Race – followed, capturing the mood of large parts of the country like no other group. No band had looked or sounded like this before – turning rage into poetry, blending genres, influences and styles, projecting a progressive, anti-racist message through their music and their sheer existence, and making it all seem so urgent, so vital.

Yet after Ghost Town topped the chart in 1981, Hall and Golding, along with Neville Staple, left to form Fun Boy Three – with Hall, aged just 22, finding the balance between the band’s political message and pop star status hard to strike. Too much too young? 

“It felt very weird, for me. I kept it to myself, but when we picked up a gold disc for Ghost Town, I felt really bad about it,” he says now. “We were being rewarded with a gold disc and it felt uncomfortable. 

The Specials in 2019
The Specials back at the scene of their video for Ghost Town. Image: Mathew Parri Thomas

“It was at that point, personally, when I felt this had got to change. It wasn’t making any sense to me. You are being told to celebrate this Number-One record that is about what is happening, the mess that we are in, and I felt very uncomfortable. I felt you needed to be one or the other, you needed to be The Dooleys or you needed to be Gang of Four. We were right in the middle then. I didn’t feel comfortable.”

The Specials have recorded and toured in various guises since, with Golding playing on The Special AKA’s Free Nelson Mandela (written by Dammers) in 1984. But the current line-up, which returned to performing live in 2008, is the first to include Hall since 1981 – and new album Encore is their first release under their original name since Ghost Town. It is, therefore, a massive deal. 

In the intervening years, Panter taught art in Coventry and has become an in-demand artist, while continuing to make music. Golding played in groups including Gigantor and Pama International after Fun Boy Three disbanded with two albums to their name in 1983. Drummer John Bradbury died in 2015, just as the ideas for new songs were starting to flow. Hall, meanwhile, has continued to write and record, releasing two solo LPs and collaborating with everyone from Gorillaz to Lily Allen, Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart and Mushtaq of Fun-Da-Mental.

“We have always got a lot to say,” says Hall, when I suggest 2019 is the perfect time for The Specials to unveil their biggest new release in decades. 

“You could tie our music in with any event of any year we release it… maybe apart from the Winter Olympics. We wouldn’t be so relevant there. But yeah, it just so happens that the country is in turmoil again. Huge turmoil. Bigger than you would want to imagine.

Terry Hall of The Specials in 2019
Terry Hall of The Specials in 2019. Image: Matthew Parri Thomas

“I find myself in awe of the mess, nightly listening to politicians giving their opinion and thinking, I don’t necessarily trust any of you, really. It is pretty sad. I grew up aligned to a party, the Labour Party, quite strongly. Until Tony Blair made Noel Gallagher prime minister I knew exactly where I stood.”

Panter, the only member of the band still based in Coventry, agrees. “Injustice is timeless, unfortunately,” he says. “You can write songs with the same subject matter, I’m afraid, now in 2019 as you could in 1979. 

“Mrs Thatcher was voted in as prime minister on 4 May 1979. I remember we played at Dingwalls the night before. 

“Playing songs like It Doesn’t Make It Alright is as important to me now as it was back then. I still play with the same intensity, for the same reasons I did it in the first place.”

Golding takes up the idea: “It is really strange thinking back. We are going through something very similar with another female Conservative prime minister. Although it is nothing to do with her being female.

“Maggie inspired us to write songs. And with this new song, Vote For Me, we are telling them that we wouldn’t vote for them. None of them. Because the people who have been elected to represent us now are doing a very, very, very bad job. They are not representing us, the people.”

They do this a lot, The Specials. Listen to each other quietly, respectfully, then join in, reinforcing the message, backing up their bandmates.

The new LP takes in a range of styles – from the disco of opening track Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys – to classic ska on Vote For Me, via Hall’s depiction of his bipolar on The Life And Times (Of A Man Called Depression) and Golding’s poetic, autobiographical spoken-word on BLM (aka Black Lives Matter). 

Lynval Golding. Image: Mathew Parri Thomas
Lynval Golding. Image: Mathew Parri Thomas

“This record is about conversation. Let’s have a talk. Good dancing music, but saying to people, let’s have a little discussion instead of shouting,” says the guitarist. “I am all for protesting, but this comes on like Martin Luther King – non-violent protest. That is how we deliver those songs.

“BLM is from my father. He was invited to England to come and rebuild it after the last world war. We came to Gloucester. That is where we learnt about the ugly face of racism. 

“The mental hospitals where my stepmother worked as a nurse – I see the people who were in those hospitals on the street now. The song is about all that I have gone through. As a young boy, leaving Jamaica was pretty tough. The elders didn’t understand what I was going through when I had to leave my mother in Jamaica.”

Another spoken-word piece on the album, 10 Commandments, came about following one of the most striking pictures of protest in Britain in modern times. When Encore guest Saffiyah Khan, then 19, was photographed on an anti-EDL rally in Birmingham in April 2017, staring down the furious faces and frothing mouths of racists emboldened to take to the streets, she was wearing a Specials T-shirt. Of course she was. No other British band, before or since, represent anti-racism better.

“I honestly don’t think The Specials could have come from anywhere else. Because Coventry was small enough not to have ghettoes,” says Panter. “I don’t know if you would agree, Lyn, but in Birmingham, a lot of the black people would live in Handsworth. In Bristol?”

“St Pauls,” nods Golding.

Horace Panter. Image: Mathew Parri Thomas
Horace Panter. Image: Mathew Parri Thomas

“So I like to think multiculturalism took place in Coventry before multiculturalism was invented,” continues Panter. “Greeks, Poles, people from the Caribbean, Asians, all went to school together and got on, long before that happened in the rest of the country. And I think musically that happened as well. Colour didn’t seem that relevant, musically, in Coventry in the Seventies.” 

“I remember The Guardian pointing out that we were a multi-racial band. And yes, we are,” adds Hall. “But we didn’t really think like that. We were a band. Where I grew up and the school I went to it was 50-60 per cent Asian, a lot of Jamaicans, it is what we grew up with. It didn’t feel any different, so it didn’t feel like we were making a statement on that level.”

But the image of Khan standing up to bigotry, armed only with a denim jacket, a Specials T-shirt, a smile and a huge amount of courage made a big statement. And it moved Hall. 

“I thought it was beautiful, really,” he says. “What better reaction can you give someone than a smile? It just deflates everything. Sometimes saying nothing is better than shouting. What Saffiyah did to the EDL made them look so stupid and it really worked. There was real power in her silence.

“We tracked her down because it is a pretty iconic photo. Then we invited her to a gig in Birmingham, met her, and she is really great. So when we started recording the album, one of the ideas was to think about who else could be involved and her name came up.”

Did she feel the fear about taking the microphone for the first time, reading words she had written as a response to Prince Buster’s super-sexist Ten Commandments of Man? Not for long. 

“She was very nervous because she had never done it before. But afterwards, it was like watching Bonnie Langford or Shirley Temple,” grins Hall. “She wants to do more. It was so nice. Hopefully she will be performing with us on tour.”

According to Hall, The Specials are still able to chart modern Britain because as people they have not changed. Sure, Golding now lives in Seattle and Hall takes his morning coffee in Islington. 

“But we still live our lives the way we always have done,” he says, “Some people in bands turn into…” 

“Twerps?” suggests Panter, before Hall talks about his fanatical following of Manchester United, over decades, with the same friends and now with two generations of his children. There’s a joy at Old Trafford now, he says, in contrast to the “so grim” Mourinho era. And at Specials gigs now, the band find joy in the generations of fans mixing. 

“Saffiyah was a 19-year-old girl wearing our T-shirt. You think, wow, we have said something,” says Golding. “I have to thank her father for introducing her to our records. We now get adults saying their parents turned them on to our music. We never planned that 40 years later this would happen. I am so humbled. It is another generation now. And that is really nice. 

“Ghost Town sums up that period in 1981. What Terry wrote on Vote For Me is exactly spot on about now. Both songs sum it up, with 37 years in between.”

The Specials in 2019
The Specials in 2019, photographed for The Big Issue by Matthew Pari Thomas

Austerity, cuts to youth services, pressure on school budgets, pubs and clubs closing, homelessness rising – and here are The Specials, just when we need them most.    

“We realised how great it would be to make a record on our 40th anniversary,” says Hall “Like Horace was saying, it still feels like a real privilege to wake up and think you can look after your family and still do what you do. It is not to be sniffed at, that, really. 

“And we have still got a voice. People still come to see us. It is whether you class yourself as relevant. And I still think we are relevant.”

The Specials are so much more than relevant. In times like these, they might just be essential.

Encore is out on UMC / Island Records on February 1. The Specials are on tour from April.

Photographs: Mathew Parri Thomas

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