He's seen the perils of having too much, too young. Horace Panter talks to Richard McComb about life inside The Specials
Horace Panter apologises for running late but when I check he is only a minute past our scheduled appointment. Then again, Horace always was one of the more reliable members of that explosive musical phenomenon known as The Specials. As Rude Boys went, he was jolly polite.
Horace was the band's bass player, he kept in the background, worrying about the sound checks - and he saw everything. Now he is telling it like it was, the first member of Coventry's "biggest band ever" to produce a written account of what it was like touring with The Clash, Madness, The Damned and The Police, living off adrenaline and Alka Seltzer, and having a tuna sandwich prepared by Debbie Harry.
The Specials, formed by keyboard player and former cleric's son Jerry Dammers, signified an attitude and a look that was as sneering as it was exuberant, nihilistic yet celebratory, alienated but inclusive. Everyone could find a place in this eclectic movement.
A cacophonous mash-up of punk, reggae, pop, dance and funk, the moniker "ska" was duly adopted although its interpretation was as imprecise as it was creatively liberating. The Specials' brand of ska was what the fans wanted it to be - hence the steamy collision at Top Rank gigs of skinheads, mods, punks and kids who hadn't made up their minds what they wanted to be.
The band stood for racial harmony, symbolised by the notion of Two Tone, the name of the group's own music label - Coventry's version of Motown - as well as their strident look, which was informed by a mesmerising black and white check pattern. Walt Jabsco, the iconic cartoon-style Two Tone man, was created by band members as their hip, skanking flag-bearer, Jabsco's image being inspired by a caricature of Peter Tosh of The Wailers fame.
The clothes, for the time, were impossibly cool: pork pie hats, second-hand tonic suits, Sta-press trousers, Harrington jackets, Fred Perry tops, Ben Sherman shirts, braces, loafers, Doc Martens and obligatory white socks.
However, the look and the message would have counted for nothing without the music. The Specials released a relatively modest out-put during their heyday in the late 70s/early 80s, just seven singles and two albums. Yet they remain one of the most influential British bands of the past quarter of a century.
Gangsters, the band's July '79 debut single, and the two Number 1s, Too Much Too Young and Ghost Town, still sound incredible. Consciously or otherwise, The Specials provided the template for acts such as The Kaiser Chiefs. Not convinced? Play Ghost Town then fast-forward to 2006 and flip on I Predict A Riot. It is an uncanny experience. In terms of innate energy, a better comparison might be with the Arctic Monkeys although the Sheffield pop-thrashers wouldn't match Coventry's mixed race brotherhood in the sartorial elegance stakes.
Ghost Town, which topped the charts in June '81, was the group's funeral swansong, set against a backdrop of social disintegration with race riots burning through Handsworth, Brixton and Toxteth. Unemployment was soaring, Thatcher was hectoring. The timing of the song was perfect, apocalyptic. Soon afterwards, Specials' frontman Terry Hall left with guitarist/vocalist Lynval Goulding and all-round stage dervish Neville Staples to form the Fun Boy Three. Ghost Town forecast the group's demise: "Bands won't play no more/Too much fighting on the dance floor."
Today, Horace Panter, a former Coventry art school student, is an art teacher working with special needs children . . . in Coventry. The one-time frozen food van driver and dance hall hell-raiser helps youngsters with autism, Asperger's syndrome and ADHD tackle the challenges of form, composition and colour. He has been teaching for the last nine years at The Corley Centre and loves the work and the regular pay.
"Once a month, this amount of money drops into my bank account and having been self-employed for 20-plus years it is still wonderful," says Horace. "I do like the thinking outside the box that you have to employ working with these children. I always say that being a musician for 20 years has prepared me for working with children."
The work still involves an element of performance artistry although the audience these days don't tend to hurl abuse.
Horace is what he always was, a bright, articulate, middle-class bloke. It's just that he's got older. The man who stoked the furnace of the rhythm section in a band that typified youthful rebellion is now 53. He sips tea as we talk, which I suggest isn't terribly rock 'n' roll. "At my age, I'm lucky I'm still above the ground," says Horace.
Stephen Graham Panter, otherwise known as Horace Gentleman - Horace being a school nickname and "Gentleman" evolving because he was deemed posh - is best-known as Horace Panter.
A book of his life in The Specials, of which he was a founding member in 1978, has just been published. Ska'd For Life is described as "personal journey with The Specials" and at times it is a rough one.
"No one from the band had ever written what it was like to be in The Specials. There had been a couple of attempts by fans. I thought it would be good to do a book from my perspective. I thought I'd start at the beginning and see how it goes. Seven years later, it was finished," says Horace.
"I was always the one where if someone said, 'What was the concert we did in so-and-so?' they'd say, 'Ask Horace'. I was the one with the memory."
Defying the wild man of rock stereotypes, Horace kept a diary during his time in The Specials. It also helped that he had doting parents who bought the music press every week for the three years their son was in the band.
"They compiled 11 scrapbooks of Two Tone related material. That alongside the diaries was enough to jog my memory," says Horace. "This is very much my take on The Specials. If you were to ask Roddy [Byers/Radiation, the Specials' guitarist] or Lynval about a certain concert they would probably say something totally different. This is not the official history of The Specials. This is how the bass player saw it."
Horace, who lives in Coventry with wife Clare - son Laurence, aged 20, is studying music at Cambridge - found the process of writing about the band's on and off-stage antics surprisingly enjoyable, but admits it became painful as he approached the implosive final stages of The Specials' career.
During the More Specials tour, to promote their second album in September 1980, Horace writes: "Abyss, this way please . . . We had Two Tone cocaine mirrors. Honestly! Two Tone cocaine mirrors! They had the Walt Jabsco logo on them and a 3ins groove cut out of them on one side - from where you snorted your Two Tone cocaine, presumably. I made sure they were binned at the earliest opportunity."
Looking back, Horace explains: "The end of the band's career wasn't very easy. I gave Roddy, the punk guitar player, a copy of the book and he said it was very painful reading the bit at the end because the bit at the end was painful. It wasn't a great end to the band." His voice is tinged with sadness, the only time he appears deflated during our conversation.
In hindsight, the fierce dynamic of The Specials meant there was only going to be one ending for the band but at the time Horace insists he didn't see the split coming as quickly and as acrimoniously as it did. "We were this fantastic group that played this fantastic music and had this fantastic message. But it gradually all started to go pear-shaped," says Horace.
Living and working in such close quarters, the conflicts between the band members, creative and otherwise, and the pressures of being in "the biggest band in Britain," all took their toll. A group that prided itself on harmony and enjoyment, whose lyrics included, "Enjoy yourself," splintered.
Horace cites another crucial factor in the demise of The Specials. "We changed. We became different people to those that we were before we were famous. Power corrupts - and fame makes you very powerful," says Horace.
"All of a sudden we had money. Some of us weren't used to having money. There was a class thing. There were middle-class people in the band and there were working-class
people in the band and I think the working-class people had a different attitude towards money.
"Three of the band had art degrees [Horace and Dammers studied art at Lanchester Polytechnic in Coventry]. We weren't exactly embarrassed to have so much money but we didn't like to go on about it. We were quite idealistic.
"There again, the working-class people in the band, Roddy, Neville and Lynval . . . When working-class people get out of the poverty trap, it's like you flaunt it and everybody in your community and your peer groups will go, 'Well done'. It was odd when Lynval and Neville arrived in BMWs, albeit second-hand."
It wasn't long before the cash started to roll in. The band signed for a "reasonably small advance" from Chrysalis and as Horace puts it: "We recouped pretty quickly. Then the Too Much Too Young EP was at Number 1, so we sold an awful lot of records and money started to come in."
Horace believes that being in a successful band accentuates personality traits: "If you were a drunk beforehand, you are even more of a drunk because you are famous."
So what characteristic of Horace Gentleman was accentuated? "I was probably more pretentious," he says, laughing.
"I like to think I kept my feet on the ground - but I don't think I did. I did all the rock 'n' stuff that you do. But I just loved playing that music and I can't do it when I've had too much to drink. I would be sober for shows. Afterwards, I would have an awful lot of fun, thank you very much."
Unlike some of his rock star chums, Horace tended to avoid the fleshpots and celebrity hang-outs during overseas tours and went sight-seeing. "You can see the world when you are in a pop group. If you are in Berlin in 1980, I'd rather go and see the Berlin Wall than a pub. I can see those in Coventry.
"That was true when we went to Japan and America. You got the opportunity to see these fantastic sights and see what people are like in those particular countries. I'd much rather do that than drink another bottle of Sapporo."
And if he had been out getting legless, he might have missed out on supper chez Blondie. During the US tour, he went to Debbie Harry's flat in New York and chilled out listening to rap records, then something of a novelty to a white boy from Kettering. Writing in Ska'd For Life, Horace says: "To make a good day perfect, Debbie Harry makes me a tuna fish sandwich. This is great."
The Specials' have been credited with devising a style of music that made reserved British men dance again.
Horace says: "We covered all bases. The rhythm section was ska and reggae, which is the sexist music ever. You could dance to it. You didn't just jump up and down to it, like The Clash. You could really dance to it. But it was played with the aggressive energy of punk. It looked fantastic to watch as a show.
"And we had something to say. We had our anti-racist stance and I think we were at the right place at the right time. At that time, punk was dying on its feet and there was this fake Mod revival, but we had something to say and we walked like we talked. The songs were fantastic."
The breadth of The Special's appeal remains astounding, transcending race and class divides and imbuing skinheads and Mods with a spirit of toleration, if not love. I ask Horace what the trick was and there is a long pause. Have I insulted him? Then he says it. The answer is painfully obvious: "Because we were good."
Horace believes the band's greatest shows were the two nights they played at Tiffany's in Coventry in Christmas 1979 at the end of the Specials' big Two Tone tour. "They were like a homecoming celebration for all the people who had supported us and come to see us when we played tiny clubs in and around Coventry and Birmingham. The atmosphere, which was always special at a Specials' gig, was even more amazing. For me, that was the apogee of Two Tone," says Horace. The concerts were so emotional he nearly cried. Steady on, old man.
"We did some very exciting gigs on the continent and then America and Japan. But I think we made sense in England and we made more sense in the Midlands. That's where we came from and that is where a lot of those songs were born and were about. That Midlands scenery was very important in what we wrote about."
Horace does not miss getting pelted with missiles on stage. He can still recall dodging the "beer glass with my name on it" at the Top Rank in Birmingham. Unlike dyed-in-the-mohican punk bands, The Specials did not have to endure the ritual of getting gobbed on by fans. The spectre had loomed large on The Clash tour in 1978 but The Specials escaped relatively unscathed. "I think they were saving their phlegm for The Clash. I don't think they thought we were worthy of gobbing at."
Like the other band members, Horace still receives a twice yearly royalty payment for The Specials' back catalogue. His sole writing credit was on the flip side of Rat Race but many of the songs were credited to the whole band, including Gangsters, underlining the group's egalitarian spirit. "I don't drive around in a Maserati of anything," adds Horace quickly. He drives a "beat up old Vauxhall Vectra." Horace plays in a blues band in Coventry pubs at the weekends and can get his kit in the back of the Vauxhall, so that's all he needs.
It may not have been one of the best songs ever, but Ghost Town remains one of the best ever Number 1s. It is interesting to speculate if its political message would appeal to today talent-spotters. Would The Specials "break" in 2007? Horace is doubtful: "I think we would be far too controversial and in your face. I think the music business would throw up its hands and go for a nice little long-haired 21-year-old girl who sings about love. I think that the Pop Idol thing has taken pop back to the Stone Age."
He remains optimistic that there are good bands still out there and refers to Coventry's The Enemy, adding: "But I think I am just being wildly partisan."
The Enemy, says Horace, talk of urban isolation and "the sort of stuff The Specials wrote songs about. I think there is some great music out there but the music business has polarised. There is entertainment and there is music."
A Specials reunion, in the mould of Take That, isn't on the cards. Horace is ambivalent but you sense it will never happen. He reveals how entrepreneur and Crystal Palace Football Club owner Simon Jordan suggested the band get back together.
"He offered us two nights to play Crystal Palace, the money for which I must admit would have knocked a sizeable hole in my mortgage. But we didn't because it would have opened up a pretty large can of worms which until then had been closed," says Horace.
"I think about it quite a bit but I think we are more potent as a myth than we are getting back together again. We are all approaching our mid-50s. Terry is still in his 40s, curse him, but he'll be there soon. I think we would look a rather odd bunch compared with what we looked like a quarter of a century ago. And I'd just like to underline that: a quarter of a century ago."
It was another time, another life but although you can take Horace out of The Specials, you can't take The Specials out of Horace.
"That's the whole point about calling the book Ska'd For Life. I am always going to be that bloke," says Horace.
Ska'd For Life, by Horace Panter, is published by Sidgwick & Jackson, priced £17.99