The Specials' Terry Hall speaks ahead of Birmingham show
He's the star of The Specials, yet little is known about Terry Hall. We escape the Rat Race for a chat with the man behind the mystery...
Never meet your heroes. That's what the man says. And in the case of Terry Hall, there's very little chance of that.
It's not that he's reclusive. Far from it. Among friends, he's one of the sweetest, funniest and most empathetic men there is. The word 'beautiful' could accurately be used to describe him. There is a legion of stories of him being great company, of his dry wit, of his unexpected laugh.
And yet the former bricklayer, quantity surveyor and hairdresser who wrote the soundtrack for a generation in The Specials is also one of the quietest, shyest and most withdrawn performers in music.
A man who suffered quite badly from depression for many years, particularly during the 1990s, he's happiest when he's being creative. He has no need of faux therapy with journalists. He's already spoken about a suicide attempt and diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Why does he need some old hack to misrepresent him on the page? To articulate his story clumsily. To miss out the details that underpin his life and work? It's a rhetorical question: he doesn't.
Besides, he reveals his life in his lyrics – not to some dumb writer. And revelations there have been. School Trip to France was a devastating admission of sexual abuse at the hands of a teacher. His earliest work in The Specials was an excoriating critique of political mores in the 1970s, of dead-end towns and cul-de-sac lives, or a political class that treated the workers as canon fodder. He charted the lives of working class with greater precision than Paul Weller, with more anger than John Lydon or Joe Strummer. He was ever an original. Ever a man apart.
Terry's a man who has always done things on his own terms. He's dealt with his private demons in the lyrics and music of The Specials and Fun Boy Three, in Colourfield and Terry, Blair and Anouchka, in Vegas and as part of Terry Hall and Mushtaq and, more recently, in the reformed, Jerry Dammers-free incarnation of The Specials.
It's no surprise, therefore, that today's interview has taken some 30 months to arrange. Since The Specials tour of 2014, we've been patiently waiting, slowly trying to build trust. And today he's as engaging, authentic, funny and real an interviewee as we could ever hope to converse with. If the man said never to meet your heroes for fear of being let down, the man was wrong. For Terry Hall is more generous and warm than we might have imagined. He's funnier too. If this is his 2017 exclusive, he doesn't waste it. And nor do we.
We're talking on the pretext of promoting The Specials forthcoming May 26 gig at Birmingham's Genting Arena. They're lining up with Toots & The Maytals and Bedouin Soundclash for a late spring series of outdoor gigs, though the conversation soon moves away that. Terry's no salesman: if the fans want to see them, they'll come.
"I'm looking forward to it because it's near where I grew up and Birmingham and Coventry are areas I know really well. I spent a lot of my youth in Birmingham and it's always been difficult finding the right venue, in Coventry. So when this NEC thing was added we were pleased. It's an outdoor thing, so it should be good fun. I'm not sure where at the NEC we play. It's outdoors. I don't know where. The car park?" And he starts to laugh.
There's the obvious connection between The Specials and Toots. Toots recorded Monkey Man in 1969 and it was later made famous by The Specials. "He'll do his version and we'll do ours."
The Specials have a simple approach to touring. They play a few gigs each year, not too many, then head back to their own, normal, non-pop-star lives. "We pick off spots each year." Terry's flying out to Australia and Japan and New Zealand in a few days, then they'll be off to America in the summer. "We don't do more than three weeks on the road. That way it's easy and people don't fall ill or whatever. We have a really good time touring."
The band has changed, of course. The death of drummer John Bradbury in 2015 robbed the band of an ever-present member. He'd played a crucial role in their success, his 'attack drumming' helping to give the band a signature sound. His replacement, The Libertines drummer Gary Powell, has given the band a different energy. Guitarist Steve Cradock has been another key addition. The Ocean Colour Scene and Paul Weller mainstay has given the band a new dynamic.
"Things turned out great last year. It was really weird for us at first after 30 years of turning round and seeing Brad on the drum stool and then he wasn't there. But Gary's done a really lovely job. He's a lovely bloke and easy to get on with.
"The new members keep it fresh. They bring something to it. Steve Cradock has brought a totally different thing to it. He's got free reign to do what he wants. There's a total mutual respect. We're not here to tell him, what to do. It's nice to have people involved who we can trust and not say 'here's the chord sheet'."
When The Specials are off the road, they see little of one another. They all have their own lives and immerse themselves in parenthood and solo projects, in visiting the shops or painting.
"We're a lot older now. So after a tour, we go our separate ways. We say hello to one family and goodbye to another. Lynval lies in Seattle, so we don't see each other too much. Touring is a great way of catching up."
Terry left after Ghost Town. The band had gone as far as it could and the only way seemed to be down. The pressure and dysfunction had become unmanageable. He needed to leave the circus.
"We didn't have a plan when it ended. We'd all started to drift apart and it just stopped itself, really. It fizzled out after Ghost Town. That was such a huge thing for us and where could we go from there? The internal wrangling was too great."
Freed from the shackles of a warring band, Terry got back to doing what he does best: being creative and making music. The shackles were off. The claustrophobic expectations were over. He was free to articulate in his own way without Big Brother record companies breathing down his neck.
"I discovered that what I do is make music. That's my life. It's what I do. I've carried on ever since. If it's a job, it's a lovely job. But I don't really think about it. Since I was 18 it's all I've done."
He formed Fun Boy Three with Lynval Golding and Neville Staple and enjoyed hits with The Lunatics, It Ain't What You Do (It's The Way That You Do It), The Tunnel Of Love and Our Lips Are Sealed.
He started working with an ever-wider group of musicians, from David Byrne to Bananarma. It was a collaborative process that's continued to the present and over time Terry has worked with David A. Stewart, Lightning Seeds, Sinéad O'Connor, Stephen Duffy, Dub Pistols, Gorillaz, Damon Albarn, Tricky, Junkie XL, Leila Arab, Lily Allen, Shakespears Sister and Nouvelle Vague.
"That's something I enjoy. On the second Fun Boy Three album we worked with David Byrne and I was a massive Talking Heads fan. You learn stuff all the time."
Lyrically, Terry continued to improve. Though The Specials made some of the most biting records of the age, he grew into his role as a cartographer of human emotion.
"The lyrics reflect life. If you are honest about it, at 16 and 17 we are really, really angry but you mellow out a bit when you get past 30. You start writing about yourself and it becomes more personal than political. I'd find it very weird writing new material now about being unemployed because I'm not. I've no idea what it's like and I can't imagine. I wouldn't presume to write about things that I know nothing about."
After Fun Boy Three, Terry adopted a pretty straightforward modus operandi. He started working with people he liked and who inspired him. There was no agenda, music was to be made with mates and the process was to be enjoyed.
"From The Colourfield on it was about me working with my mates who were in different bands. It was just about getting together and trying to work with stuff. There were people like Andy Partridge and Stephen Duffy, people whose work I respected." And then came the brilliant solo career. "If you say you're doing a solo record you can do what you want. I'd started out in a band that was so intense. Obviously, you didn't need to ask permission from people to do things, but you'd get glances that spoke volumes if someone was unhappy."
The Specials had been offered money to reform for many years. But Terry and co had always resisted. Other than earning a few bob, there'd been no point. And the best bands are above money. For sure, it pays the rent, but it's no good reason to stand together on a stage.
"We hadn't seen each other in a serious way for years and we'd bump into each other every now and then. It was Roger Daltrey and his Teenager Cancer Trust gig at the Albert Hall that got us back together.
"He approached my manager to ask if we'd reform for that. We said no the first time he asked. But he kept asking and we did it three years later. We raised £200,000 for the charity, which made it worth doing. It made it valid, really. But the other thing was that we wanted to see each other again."
Oh, and they enjoyed it, too. The chemistry was the same, the music hadn't aged and they enjoyed one another's company.
"It was exactly where we'd left off. That was the one good thing, I thought that at the time. We knew each other well enough just to get on with it. We spent a few months doing that with Jerry (Dammers), then he didn't want to do it. I don't know what he wanted to do and I don't think he knew what he wanted to do either."
The band came together from time to time, avoiding the intensity or needlessly long stretches of gigs that had been their undoing the first time around.
"We all have families and I don't want to be apart from my kids for too long. There's no need."
They remain a class apart. While millennial pop stars hide in ivory towers, The Specials remain as accessible as ever they were. On their last tour, they hung out with friends, family and mates after shows, finding them in bars, posing for selfies with fans, just being 'out there'. There are still no airs and graces, they're still taking it seriously but not too seriously.
"We never distance ourselves from it really. The idea of celebrity now and the way things are for a lot of bands is really unappealing. There's no reason why you can't do what you love and still retain some normality in your life. You can do it unless you chose not to." Ain't that the truth.
They've spoken about making new music. But they know that the fans want Ghost Town and Rudy, Do Nothing and Rat Race, Nite Club and Stereotype.
"We never know whether we'll do new music. People love our set. If you go and see a band you do want to hear the songs you know. I've seen bands who've reformed and played stuff that nobody wants to listen to. So you have to be realistic. The defining moment for me was seeing The Pixies performing Doolittle, that's what I wanted and I never got to see it the first time. Another time, I saw Patti Smith performing Horses. It's a generational thing, whether we're in the UK or America and Japan.
"It's not just this generation. The kids get into it, or not, it's up to them.
"When I started this again, two of my kids were teenagers and their mates came along to gigs and they were really into it. In other places it's different. In California it was a real skateboard thing."
The music will stop again after the run of late spring gigs and Terry will return to his other family, the one that doesn't make a living by singing and playing. He'll occupy himself with creative endeavours, free from the weight of expectation, far from the madding crowd.
"I'm painting and I've been collecting that work. I've also been writing for four or five years and there's a body of work. I might make another album or turn it into a book, I don't know. It's enjoyable because there's no pressure to.
"There'll be a time for a solo record or something. But I've been really happy being part of The Specials again."
The audience, inevitably, is one of the key components of that. Specials gigs are characterised by the presence of sharply-dressed beatniks who mosh like rockers, drink like fish and are sweeter than honey to fellow concert-goers.
"The audience are a massive part. That's really the reason to do it, for us. There's still that connection. The gigs are a celebration of what things are or were or should be, really, there's a real sort of feeling there and it's just brilliant."
The Specials play the Genting Arena on May 26.
By Andy Richardson
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