Once again it’s social media that breaks the news of another musician’s premature death. This time it's Terry Hall from the Specials and I find myself saying ‘enough, please stop taking away my musical heroes’. And then I realise that this is happening because I’m older now and most of my favourite artists are even older and that this sort of thing will never stop happening.
Whilst replying to my mate’s Stuart’s What’s App post I write ‘The Specials were the reason I became interested in music that wasn’t predominantly made or listened to by white people’. I’m 55 now but was only 12 the first time I saw The Specials on Top of the Pops and then just 13 when the penny really dropped and I discovered a world beyond chart music. Terry Hall and The Specials were the key to this doorway. Terry looked so cool in a very odd sort of way, all Mod styling with a dash of black eyeliner carried off in an utterly ‘what the fuck are you looking at?' demeanour. Awkward but driven, he was up there with Paul Weller as the definitive pop icon for the boys in my school year.
In 1980, I bought lots of records by The Specials. Thanks to them I also bought The Beat, Selecter and Madness. All of these bands cited Jamaican reggae and Bluebeat of the sixties as a primary influence. I had never heard of or even seen pictures of artists such as Prince Buster or The Skatalites. You see, I grew up in Chichester in West Sussex and can honestly say there could have been no more than two or three black families living in my hometown. I saw black people on television where they were generally derided or made fun of. But Two-Tone changed all that and began to make me ask questions of those who continuously put down or made fun of people with different colour skin. Remember, this was an ugly and oppressive time in UK history. The NF were infiltrating new recruits through pop concerts so The Specials played a crucial part educating impressionable kids like me in the ways of right and wrong.
It's crazy to think The Specials were all over by the summer of 1981, and with Ghost Town still at the very top of the charts the band bowed out in style. Of course behind the scenes things were a lot more complicated, but it felt like only minutes before Terry was back with Lynval and Neville as Fun Boy Three. Although there was definitely more of a ‘fun’ element to this new creation, Terry was becoming even more deadpan and slapdash. I’ve always thought he and The Cure’s Robert Smith could have been blood-brothers, especially in those back-combed early eighties years. Both seemed hellbent on becoming Top of the Pops worst every lip-synch artists, and those repeat TV showings and You Tube moments are such a joy to revisit. In the careerist nineteen eighties, this not-so-subtle act of self-sabotage was almost as punk rock as it got without inducing lifetime bans from the BBC. The FB3 (as they became known) made a raft of good singles and two OK albums before splitting up.
After the Fun Boy Three came The Colourfield, which was something of a left turn after his two previous incarnations. Although The Guardian and Wikipedia will inform you of a big hit single in the shape of 1985’s ‘Thinking Of You’, I clearly remember that there was not a lot of love for The Colourfield who often found themselves demoted (and promoted) by BBC Radio Two in the years before that particular organisation gained even an element of cool. Terry Wogan and Jimmy Young were this station’s pin-ups whilst over on the oh-so-hip Radio One, The Colourfield were deemed as too square for playlisting. Terry Hall’s love of old-time crooners and easy listening music was at least ten years ahead of its time. The Colourfield struggled on until 1987.
When Terry next resurfaced it was as part of yet another trio, but this was very different to those of the past. Terry, Blair & Anouchka were resoundingly one-part male to two parts female and trailed a gossamer light pop sound that really did work best on Radio Two. Their Ultra Modern Nursery Rhymes album came and went very quickly in the summer of 1990, when most of the UK were busy elsewhere getting on one with the Madchester sound. To this day Terry, Blair & Anouchka are the forgotten act in Terry’s rock history and Spotify records just 600 followers to date.
Back there in pilled-up 1990, Terry Hall seemed totally at odds with the pop world he had once ruled. A surprise hook up with Dave Stewart from The Eurythmics as Vegas spawned the excellent Possessed single (check out the video for evidence of Terry’s deadpan humour at its darkest) and a self-titled album which returned Terry to the Top 40 but not much further.
In 1994, Terry finally put his name to his first solo album proper. Home is a fantastic work, which begins with one of his best pop moments ever in the shape of the autumnal Forever J. Brit pop was looming and Terry should have been back in the charts but somehow the moment never quite materialized. By 1997, and the release of Terry’s second solo album Laugh, you kind of got the feeling that Terry was used to his place in the pop margins and not exactly expecting any more lip-synch disaster moments on Top of the Pops. The mighty Ballad of a Landlord nearly changed all that but once again the big moment eluded him. Through the late nineties I was chasing record deals in London and knew that Terry was writing with lots of different people. My band Fruit Machine were also big fans of the same musical influenes (Bacharach, Gainsbourg et al) but there never seemed a right moment to reach out. I mean, what do you say to a legend like Terry Hall?
Collaborations with Gorillaz and Dub Pistols came and went for Terry but it was an unexpected partnership with ex Fun-da-mental vocalist Mushtaq that led to our protagonists re-emergence in the early noughties. The pair’s The Hour of Two Lights was an unexpected critical success in 2003. The records' pan Arabian and African influences were yet another example of Terry's hunger to embrace different cultures. His voice just seems to work in any setting you care to place it in, which in itself is a real talent and one he never gained a lot of credit for.
And then slowly, almost imperceptibly, The Specials reunion proper started to take shape. The band had floundered following a partial reformation in the late nineties, but with Terry finally reinstated at the helm alongside the effervescent Lynval Golding, 2019’s strident Encore took them right back to the top of the charts again. Without Neville Staple and (almost unthinkably) ex-player manager Jerry Dammers, many were uneasy about this latest Specials reboot but those two albums (see also 2021’s Protest Songs 1924-2012) found the band re-established as both a potent live entity and politically aware force. A whole new generation discovered the band's thought provoking music and, much like my own encounter all those years ago, people are once again finding out about race issues through the glorious legacy of The Specials. That we're able to do this whilst dancing at the same time is nothing short of a miracle.
And then came that awful news on Monday 19th December 2022...
Goodbye Terry Hall. Your work here may be done but you will never be forgotten...
This blog was written by Simon Parker, co-founder of Vinyl Revolution and NAKED Record Club.