Something Special: Horace Panter interviewed
Perhaps best known for his role as bassist for 2-Tone group The Specials, Horace Panter has subsequently carved out an impressive career as a pop-artist. Jack Yarwood caught up with Horace recently to talk about his musical career, his art and how he continues to find inspiration in the everyday.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, The Specials were a rare group that successfully combined a political message with mainstream appeal. Their style, which combined the infectious rhythms of Jamaican ska with the social commentary of punk, continues to be an influence of many musicians, including contemporary artists such as Lily Allen and Tricky.
Horace Panter (A.K.A Sir Horace Gentleman) was their bassist at the height of the group’s popularity, present as The Specials took the world by storm with acclaimed singles like ‘Ghost Town’ and ‘A Message To You Rudy’. Talking to him about the origins of the band’s more political side, he states: “When I was 10 I was in The Searchers fan club because I liked the way Tony Jackson wielded a semi-acoustic bass guitar. Politics was probably the furthest thing from my mind. But growing up in the 1960s you were aware that music gave you a voice, you know, going back to Bob Dylan and all those kind of Woodstock artists like Country Joe and The Fish – the Vietnam war and the protest stuff.
“Then when punk came along it encapsulated the whole thing. It was more nihilistic in a way than anarchistic - we’re bored and therefore we can get away with being stupid, which I didn’t think was that cool. But The Clash had the right sort of idea; they took a very positive stance. We had all these influences, so I think then I changed from wanting to be a pop star – for want of a better word – into something that had meaning, that had depth.”
Having met Jerry Dammers in Art College in 1973, the two musicians formed The Specials in 1977, alongside fellow members Lynval Golding, Silverton Hutchinson, and Tim Strickland. Terry Hall would replace Strickland as lead singer for the group, with vocalist Neville Staple and guitarist Roddy Radiation joining within the year. It was this lineup that would go on to be the most popular incarnation of the Coventry-based group.
Alongside The Clash and like-minded acts such as Buzzcocks, Steel Pulse and Tom Robinson, The Specials were heavily involved in Rock Against Racism, the organisation set up to curtail the rise of the British far right. “We were aware of the rise of the National Front and far right politics in England. We were also aware, especially around London, of this new sort of skinhead movement that was leaning very much towards the far right.
“It was like ‘Alright, I think these people are going to be our audience.’ These are the people we are going to have to try and steer away from this, which is why we ended up playing reggae tunes, ‘Liquidator’ and ‘Long Shot Kick De Bucket’ to play for these people who were...well, wrong basically.”
As The Specials' success began to wane, the band started to splinter and Horace helped to form General Public alongside former members of The Beat - Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger. Operating mostly in the US, the group found success with tracks like ‘Tenderness’, which would later appear on the soundtracks to the hit films Weird Science and Clueless.
Returning to the UK to raise his family, “For the rest of the 1980s, I was a worker; I drove a food delivery van. I’d just become a father [though], so there was something a bit more interesting going on at the time.” From here, he would become a teacher. In 1993 Horace secured a teaching qualification, becoming head of an art department at a special needs school in Coventry until 2008.
More recently, Horace has returned to playing bass with The Specials for their reunion tours alongside creating and exhibiting his own artwork in venues in the UK and beyond. “I was always interested in art in some form or other. I famously say that, when The Specials went to New York, everyone went out clubbing and I went to bed early, so that I could go to the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art the next day. It’s not necessarily true, but it’s the story that I tell.”
When asked whether politics is still a theme in his work, he argues: “To a certain degree. I’m really influenced by pop art. That’s all about elevating the mundane. I had the opportunity to visit China for two weeks in 2011. I was able to take photographs of the local inhabitants there, and I’ve been painting pictures of them, so that’s almost like elevating the mundane.
“I wanted to put everyday people into religious pictures. I suppose there is a political message there. That if you paint them, you give them a higher status than society perhaps normally gives them.”
Today Horace is busy with his two greatest passions - art and music. Persistently demonstrating both skill and dedication, he continues to use his artistic talents to give voice to marginalized groups. To learn more about his work, visit his website.