The Specials: Ska’d For Life

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Text Hidzir Junaini
Image + Interview Timbre Group Pte Ltd

The Specials first made their mark in 1977 and 35 years later, the British two tone ska legends are still as relevant as ever. The band became folklore figures – a group that was influential for their unique take on music, myth and mod style. These rude boys braved prejudices and political injustices through their opinionated lyrical content and they made people dance while they were at it. Their words provoked thought but it was their rocksteady wrappings that made it digestible. The Specials’ counter cultural significance is still felt several decades later, as evidenced by their continued reverence through the generations and JUICE was deeply honoured to talk to their groove man, Horace Panter, about their legacy and recent revival.

The Specials were known for making music with an informed social stance. What was the inspiration behind that?  
I think that’s because we were influenced by punk rock which was about breaking down a lot of barriers and starting again. So our lyrics were about the disaffected and disenfranchised British youth culture. We wanted to write songs with meaning and we felt like we needed to say certain things. But it wasn’t all intellectual; we wanted our fans to dance as well!

Your band led the English two tone ska movement back in the day. What goals did you guys have and do you think you’ve achieved them?
Oh that’s for journalists to decide, I’m far too modest. I guess I could say we helped changed the British attitude to race and all that. But that’s not just us, that’s the product of generations of education and assimilation. Reggae music has been assimilated into British culture as well, and we probably had a part in that. I would like to think that we achieved our goals, but I think I’d be pretentious of me to definitively proclaim that.

Speaking of, what are your views on the evolution of ska and reggae through the generations?
I think the music has its own life and it goes on its own directions. Just because I like The Skatalites doesn’t mean to say that The Mighty Mighty Bosstones were wrong, you know what I mean? Everyone interprets music in their own way and I think that’s healthy.

Do you have any other artistic ventures outside of music?
Well yes, I wrote a book during my time as a school teacher!

That was your autobiography Ska’d for Life? It seemed like you wore your heart on your (book) sleeves while writing it…
That’s it! At the time, I honestly thought that I would retire as a school teacher. I never imagined that the band would get back together. So I wanted to write a book about being in The Specials. My intention was just to share my experiences of being in this great band. I enjoyed writing it very much…except for the last part, because the last part of The Specials was rough.

So what sparked the reformation of the band in 2009?
Lynval Golding was the person who got the whole thing going. But there was always a groundswell of fans and I think the music didn’t fade away. A lot of people loved the way the band presented itself and stuck with us. I think Lynval was aware of that and through enormous force of will, got us together at the same place at the same time.

Why do you think The Specials’ music still resonates today?
The reasons are wonderful. It’s the sexiest music in the world and the songs are very memorable. They have great hook lines and they talk of relevant things. Those songs are timeless. It’s amazing, we played a lot of the festivals in Europe after we reformed and most of the people in the audience weren’t born when they were recorded. Yet they were singing all the songs and knew all the words! I found that to be astonishing. The fact that something recorded 32 years ago could be held in such esteem by such a young audience.

On a personal level though, where do you find the motivation to keep playing all these years later?
Being able to go onstage and play these fantastic pieces of music is the greatest thing in the world. To see the reaction from people is reward enough, really. I can’t think of a better way to spend middle age.

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