Horace Panter: “Our message was serious but our music was uplifting.”
The Specials emerged from an era of British music like few others; one that combined the influences of both homegrown political dissidence and Jamaican dance-house music. In the late 1970s, The Specials produced the first and finest combination of multi-racial (and also collaborative) music that the UK had ever seen, inventing the term ‘Two Tone’ in the process. Many since then have tried to hold the cue, but few have managed to do so or execute with such originality. I do doff my hat to those who have tried. In terms of being related to the quality of ‘ska’ music The Specials dealt (and continue to deal) in, I can only raise the name of the Fat White Family, a band who seldom sound in the same genre, but do very much carry the energy, wave of originality, popular tunes, humour, and indeed political messages of The Specials. The common political message can be left up to the reader to decide.
Horace Panter was in the Specials and played Bass in their original and current line up. These days, he’s very eager to get The Specials back touring (COVID forgiving) and also spends his time working with his own Pop-Art, adapting to being a ‘technophobe’, whilst also on the verge of being a grandfather. Felten Ink caught up with Mr Panter to discuss such matters.
Horace, what is the difference between being a ‘musician’ and an ‘artist’?
Being a musician gives instant feedback. If you’re doing good, an audience applauds or your bandmates acknowledge you. If you’re doing bad, you know about it pretty quickly too. There is a lot of adrenaline involved! With painting, the satisfaction and contentment is something internal. I guess, to use a pop psychology word, it’s ‘mindful’. The validation from an audience comes more slowly but it is there. I get a kick every time someone buys one of my paintings.
To me your own artwork looks like it would come under the term ‘pop art’?
Yes, I’d say I follow the Pop tradition. I take everyday objects and paint them, elevating the mundane. Andy Warhol had his soup cans, I have my cassettes, Japanese Vending Machines, American diners. I don’t mind people putting structure around my work – it doesn’t affect how or what I paint.
Do you look at everyday things and feel the need to make something?
I look at all genres of art (which is why I miss being able to go to galleries/exhibitions). Everything inspires me: it could be a colour or a shape or an object that suddenly takes on a specific meaning that I think could be transferred to a painting. A fellow artist once said to me ‘lots of people can draw/paint to a level that is extraordinarily but, as an artist, you have to have an idea’. I’d say it’s far harder to have an idea than it is to be technically brilliant. I don’t want to follow trends in art though I’m aware of them. I guess my strongest influences come from Pop Art, given that I was a child of the 60s when everything ‘cool’ came from across the pond: pop music, art, fashion. I love Peter Blake’s work but he was also influenced by American Pop culture.
What has being a musician taught you (if anything) about your own exploration into making your own art – to me your artwork doesn’t seem too personal?
As a musician, I’m a team player. I need a drummer and other musicians to create my music; it’s collaborative. I always refer to my art as ‘my solo album’. The work stands or falls on its own merit and by my own efforts. I have done a few pieces of ‘personal’ art but I keep them for myself!
I would love you to share some… I’ll keep it a secret, I promise. When is the best time for you to work, create, and why?
I prefer to paint in the daylight (natural light) which has been difficult with the short winter days. After walking the dog I spend most of the day in the studio but I do go out to see my printer or framer a couple of times a week. I try to take a break at weekends but if I’m on a roll, that often goes out of the window. The painting itself dictates how I work I guess.
It seems to me there are perhaps few other modern bands continuing the work of The Specials. Do they exist?
Where are the new Specials? I think various aspects of The Specials are observable in a lot of British music – the reggae/ska influence, the dance style, but nothing has come that close. Jerry (Dammers) once said he thought that Galliano were like The Specials. There are, of course, bands that, lyrically, resemble the band, but I think our USP was the message and the dance. Our message was serious but our music was uplifting.
I once read you saying nice things about Sleaford Mods (not my bag, to be honest). Personally, I think Fat White Family are one of the greatest bands currently on earth who at least share the attitude of a band like The Specials. What else is are you into musically?
I’m not familiar with Fat White Family – I’ll look them up – but Terry thinks highly of them. I thought the Sleaford Mods were mesmeric performers and it was great to have them on tour with us. I don’t listen to too many new acts (where do you find them these days if you don’t have Spotify… I don’t because I’m a bit of a technophobe!). I think my vast knowledge of rock’n’roll is something of a millstone around my neck. Everything I hear seems to sound like something else – spot the influence if you will. I have tickets to see The Drive By Truckers in June in London, re-scheduled from last year… I hope they play. Bands send me stuff on social media and, now and again, I prick up my ears and listen to a song all the way through. These days I’m quite impatient, if it sounds generic in the first few bars, I’m gone. I’m not cynical, maybe just have too many tunes in my head already!
I first got into the Specials in the days of indie dance floors back in my late teens/ early 20s (a long time ago now). Why do you think The Specials continue to be so important for newer generations?
Well, firstly: The tunes are great. The lyrics are easy to sing and are still relevant. The rhythms are irresistible. The live shows are full on – 100% full tilt celebration. Got your ticket for the 2021 gig yet?
Not yet, but… How has this ongoing lockdown treated you and have you been able to develop or at least maintain yourself as an artist, i.e. your own artwork and with the band?
All the Specials’ work for 2020 was rescheduled for 2021. Then, even our 2021 tour was put back from March/April to September/October. Between the lockdowns I did three small gigs, two with a Cajun/Zydeco outfit and one with a Blues band. They were all great and made me realise how dependent I am on performing as a release. During this current lockdown I’m one miserable mother-fucker. There’s only so much you can practice playing the bass! Art-wise, I’ve never been busier. There are new projects and new opportunities, making it an exciting time. Counter-intuitively, people have still been buying art, which is great for me. I’ve managed to paint a whole new series of cassettes which will be exhibited in the next couple of months. Obviously, the exhibition will be virtual which takes some of the fun out of it as it’s nice to build up to a physical exhibition and to meet people at the opening. Nothing is as usual though is it? I stay home, walk my dog in the countryside twice a day and do everything I can to stay sane!
What has this current situation given you that normal life would have restricted?
We (my wife and I) moved house a week before the first lockdown, from Coventry to a small village in Warwickshire. Love it. We have spent our time since then exploring the area, finding remote places to walk the dog (border terrier called Mijj!), had builders in, who have been great company… builders always are aren’t they! As well as concentrating on painting, I’ve had lots of time to read and think. Our son and daughter-in-law moved from South London to Warwick just before Christmas. It is a huge frustration that we can only see them in a socially-distanced situation, so no long boozy dinners together! I miss playing Blues/Cajun/Zydeco in pubs. Socialising in general. Visiting museums and art galleries. I was planning a road to trip to visit friends in the USA so god knows when that will be possible!
I don’t want to spend too much time on COVID but as it’s affecting everyone – what are your own thoughts on how the UK is dealing with it? Will we get back to normal (I tend to think aside from pubs and gigs, normality was overrated)?
I don’t think there was a single country in the world that was prepared for the virus (except perhaps Taiwan). We had to make it up as we went along didn’t we. There were always going to be conflicting interpretations of scientific data and weighing up the economic consequences. I don’t think we’ve felt those consequences fully yet. The performing arts industry has been decimated. The current debacle about musicians/performers needing permits to perform in Europe is a farce that needs to be fixed. Maybe bands like The Specials can take that on the chin, given they have a management structure capable of sorting all that out. It is young bands and musicians (including choirs, small opera companies, etc) that will feel it as they often go out on a shoestring budget and they won’t be able to absorb the extra costs. I’m just hoping to play in pubs again!
I’m now in my mid-30s and feel it – does one chill out more as they get older – You’re 67 now so what does age do to you?
Haha! It makes me jealous of anyone who is 30 years younger! Stuart Copeland once said to me “musicians stay younger longer” – I hold to that thought constantly!! Less angry, sure. More chilled, sure. Without the mist of anger I have been able to think more deeply about things like politics… I’m less reactive and more contemplative. I look for context in everything, despite the fact that context is often obscured. I see that MSM and social media are designed to make me angry so I back off. I’m going to be a grandfather this year and that gives me a deep sense of joy. The personal stuff, family, friends, etc., is the important stuff.
In terms of your artwork, I love your cassette art in particular – how do you choose who to stick on there. I was thinking you should do a mixtape version and link to a playlist on Spotify… with the help of the one they call ‘Alexa’?
With the cassettes there are self-imposed boundaries. Circa 1970 – Circa 1995 are the boundaries. Having said that, more bands are recording and releasing cassettes as they have achieved a kind of iconic status. All the cassettes are the same dimensions. The interesting bits are small, overlooked factors like the screws (do they have screws?), or the window. Are there numbers folded into the front place under the window? (what use were these anyway?). These small factors inform how the cassette looks. Yes, I only do bands I like. No way would I do an Abba cassette – or Queen! Don’t even mention Queen! Having said that, my new series doesn’t feature bands/songs; it celebrates the object alone and I’ve concentrated on design/colour. The idea of Alexa scares me shitless!
I agree with you on ABBA, God forbid Alexa decided to play me that. Are you ever bored with making music?
Never! Music is such a wonderful thing to be able to perform. I can’t possibly imagine my life without it. Now and again I get fed up with a painting I’m doing so I’ll put it aside or scrap it. I never get fed up playing music!
Are you cynical about older bands getting back together to tour or make new music? I don’t wish to be crude, but making money is important – thoughts?
Well, at my age, I ain’t in it for the travel and I do have a family to support. I would by lying to you if I said that the money didn’t matter. You might be surprised that I still have a mortgage and I don’t have a pension plan, or even a new (or old) BMW! I have never been close to being a millionaire, more’s the pity haha! My accountant says that in a good year I make about the same as the average builder. The Specials is a big band with a large crew, the cost of doing a tour is eye-watering. Regardless, I love it! Being with Terry (Hall) and Lynval (Golding) and the gang is like being with family… we have decades of history!
Interview with Horace Panter – January 2021. To be continued…