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Interview: Horace Panter of The Specials discusses music and art (Includes interview)

Unlike other famous musicians I could mention who only began painting after fame and fortune had hit, art was Horace Panter’s first love. In fact it was at art school (Lanchester Polytechnic, now Coventry University) where the 61 year old first met the instigator behind The Specials, and indeed the whole 2 Tone movement, Jerry Dammers.

In 1977, the pair put what became a politically charged, seven-piece, mixed race band together and released their first (self-titled) album in 1979. Two years later, the original lineup went their separate ways, although Dammers continued with drummer John Bradbury and various other musicians as The Special AKA until 1984.

Since 2009, when six out of the seven founding members reunited for a series of highly anticipated shows (Dammers was not involved), including a memorable gig at Glastonbury, The Specials have continued to perform in far-flung places and earlier this year played in Mexico for the very first time.

The gaps in between musical activity (the band have also been talking about recording a new album for “about four years,” but as yet nothing has come of it) have allowed Sir Horace Gentleman (more on that nickname later) to pursue his art and when I spoke to him at his home in Coventry – the city forever associated with the British Ska Revival of the late 1970s, early 1980s – the man born Stephen Graham Panter was happy to fill me in on his busy schedule.

“The Specials have been working; we did three festivals in England – that was fun, and I’ve been painting. I’m always painting,” he remarks. “I’ve recently finished a picture of Amy Winehouse for somebody and next month, I am due to go to Los Angeles to paint some cassettes on the back wall of a comedy writer’s house, which is all to do with a charity that I’m involved with over there.

“I’ve been making stencils for these giant-sized cassettes. That’s been very challenging, shall we say! I’ve got a little blues band that plays around locally and I’ve been doing some work with them. That’s about it really.”

Panter also occasionally plays in an outfit called Uptown Ska Collective and staged an exhibition in London a couple of months ago entitled The Art of the Mixtape, where he gave a talk on the making of The Specials’ debut album.

“Yes, that’s right,” he confirms. “While The Art of the Mixtape exhibition was going on, there was this series called Classic Album Sundays, where an album from way back is discussed by people who were there when it was made. There’s a question and answer thing and I was interviewed.”

The still-great sounding album from one of the best British bands of the last 40 years was produced by Specials’ fan Elvis Costello. Does Horace look back on the making of it as a particularly happy time?

“Yes, definitely… We were the fast-rising pop stars and everything was new and sparkly and shiny – and we were making tremendous music. It was just a question of ‘Well we need to go into a studio and quickly record it’ and we did. It was great fun.”

When asked if he ever thought he’d still be playing those songs 36 years later, the acclaimed artist, whose cassette design and signature were featured on a limited edition series of Fred Perry shirts, replies, “I didn’t think about it then because we were all wrapped up in the moment, but I think if someone had said that I’d have probably laughed very loudly in their face.”

Ever the modest gentleman, Panter puts his success as an artist down to not believing he’s successful. “Yes, but the same is true with music,” he insists. “It’s like, ‘I’m a pop star, do you know who I am?’ ‘Yes, a prat,’ and I think it’s the same with the painting…

“I suppose when you sell it, you get financially rewarded. That’s good, but it doesn’t mean I’ll lower my standards. Every painting I paint has to be the best painting I’ve ever painted in my life and if it isn’t, then I’ll discard it or paint over it, or start again. I think it’s really important to maintain a high level of integrity.”

For 10 years, from 1998 to 2008, Horace was able to add “teacher” to his ever-expanding CV (despite his many achievements, he knows and fully accepts that he’ll always be known as the bass player for The Specials – “It’s the defining moment of my life”), teaching art to special needs children at Corley Special School in North Warwickshire. Does he ever miss it?

“I don’t miss teaching; I miss the children because they were great,” he replies. “It was a special needs school and I got on with them very, very well. I don’t miss having to deliver the curriculum, but I miss the children.”

Horace in his studio.

Horace in his studio.
David Markham

We returned to the theme of his “day job” and I requested that Mr. Panter – who has designed album covers for “small town soul band” Stone Foundation – tell me some of his most cherished Specials-related memories.

“I think the best concert that we ever played was in August 1979,” he recalls. “It was the first time we’d been to Europe and we played the Bilzen Rock Festival in Belgium, alongside The Cure, The Pretenders, The Police and AC/DC.

“We went on at about three o’ clock in the afternoon. Nobody had heard of us at all and we were fantastic. Everybody got off the grass and started dancing – it was amazing. For me, it was the best concert. I’m convinced that my feet didn’t touch the ground when I came offstage and that I walked on air for at least half an hour.”

Two well-known associates of this national institution, singer/toaster Neville Staple and guitarist Roddy Radiation, have recently flown the nest, leaving four original members in the current lineup: Horace, lead vocalist Terry Hall, rhythm guitarist/vocalist Lynval Golding and drummer John Bradbury.

What are the chances of the original seven performing together again? “I’ve learnt in the music business never to say never,” states one of the most ardent protectors of the band’s legacy, “but I don’t know what the context would be…”

Earlier I mentioned Horace’s nickname, Sir Horace Gentleman, a name he acquired in the early days of The Specials. “Horace is not on my birth certificate; it was given to me by a history teacher at school,” he explains. “I think because my surname was the same as some local village character that he knew…

“But then Lynval called me Sir Horace Gentleman because I spoke posh. I listen to interviews from like 1980 and I have this remarkably plummy accent that living in the Midlands has kind of smoothed over, or roughed up. So I was Sir Horace Gentleman because I was polite and I spoke proper.”

To conclude, I was curious to know what this man of many talents considers to be his greatest achievements to date, professionally speaking. “I think playing on ‘Ghost Town’… ‘Ghost Town’ was a tremendous piece of music, but also a cultural statement as well.

“Plus, I’ve been able to pay off my mortgage by playing music – I’m very proud of that, and I’m going to just keep going… I think if you have a job you don’t like, you retire. I don’t intend to retire, so I’ll keep going until my flesh is so weak that I can’t pick up a paintbrush or a bass guitar.”

For more information on Horace Panter, visit his official website.

For more on The Specials, go to theirs.

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