“A bit of civic pride”: Terry Hall remembered

In memory of Terry Hall, who has passed away aged 63, Uncut revisits our 2019 interview with The Specials' frontman

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In 2019, Uncut’s John Lewis sat down with Terry Hall to look back at a landmark year for The Specials – including a No 1 album, a massive world tour and the declaration of The Specials Day in Los Angeles.

TERRY Hall turned 60 this year. “It means I got my Freedom Pass from Transport For London,” he says with a grin. “I bloody love travelling around London on buses, and I plan to fully abuse this pass as much as I can. I also bloody love being 60. I’ve wanted to be 60 since I was in my twenties. I’ve always thought I’d make my best music in the years between 60 and 70.” Hall has been able to put this notion to the test during 2019. The Specials started the year with their first ever No 1 album, Encore, and continued with an 80-date world tour, including a homecoming in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral. Los Angeles even named May 29 ‘The Specials Day’ in the city. Not bad going, then, for a band who celebrated their 40th anniversary this year.
Today, meanwhile, at the Universal Music offices in King’s Cross – just a short bus ride away from Terry Hall’s home in Islington – Uncut’s reporter is sitting on a high office chair, taking notes on a pad, while Hall is slumped on a sofa, occasionally puffing on a vape. The seating position quickly starts to resemble a psychotherapy session, especially when Hall starts to elucidate about mental illness, medication and a track on their album called “The Life And Times Of A Man Called Depression”. It’s also led him to get involved with a mental health charity called Tonic. “They came on tour with us, and we’ve raised a ton of money for them, so they can run choirs and get people with mental health issues to piss around on instruments. It’s great. That’s where my politics are now – direct action.”
Hall, like the rest of the band, is deeply concerned with the current political situation – the impending nightmare of Brexit, the state of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn. But he remains in an upbeat mood. He cheerfully admits to being “a bit obsessed” with the comedy series Fleabag, recommends American stand-up Mitch Hedburg and the podcasts of Bill Burr, and reveals a particular fondness for Larry Sanders and Larry David. “All the Larrys,” he says.
“I also bought a Larry Grayson DVD. If you come from Coventry, he’s a bit of a local hero, ’cos he’s from Nuneaton. But the actual DVD was a bit shit. He wasn’t as camp as I remember him.”
Another cause for celebration for Hall has been the stability of the current lineup of The Specials, with three original members – Hall, Lynval Golding and bassist Horace Panter – joined by jazz and reggae drummer Kenrick Rowe, Ocean Colour Scene and Paul Weller guitarist Steve Cradock and Danish keyboard player Nikolaj Torp Larsen. “We actually get on better now than we ever have,” says Hall. “In particular, me and Lynval are big fans of the new Horace. The old Horace used to hide away, reading books about art history, and never talk to us. The new Horace is a transformed man. He’s incredibly friendly. He even winked at me on stage! Fucking hell! Bear that in mind when you interview them. Lynval will talk your ear off, he’s great fun. But Horace might bore the shit out
of you. Make sure you take a book to read when you interview him…”

How important was getting a No 1 album this year?
It’s not, but then again it is. It’s about people’s perception of your band. A lot of things open up if you get a No 1. You get to go on BBC local news if you want. If you get a No 3 record, not so much. It tied in nicely with the 40th anniversary, and the dates grew and grew – I think we did 70 or 80 dates this year. So it’s been hectic and very, very tiring – there was a lot of moaning from knackered sixtysomething men! But it was all good.


How were the four big gigs in Coventry?
Fantastic. It’s hard to find a venue in Coventry that suits us, because we’re so much a part of the city. We supported The Rolling Stones last year at Ricoh Arena, Coventry City’s ground. We didn’t see the Stones, of course – they just introduced themselves five minutes before they went on, then after their show they’re off in cars. It’s how they work, it’s a machine. But this June we played four nights at the ruins of Coventry Cathedral. The only thing they’ve hosted there was some murder mystery thing, where someone pretends to be the butler or something. But the gigs were really lovely – a real event. A bit of civic pride.

You’re playing pretty big venues in the States, aren’t you?
Yes. We have a very large Latino fanbase on the West Coast. In some parts of California it’s a 90 per cent Mexican audience. And a lot of kids. I’m not sure why that is, but it’s really nice. There’s a councillor in Los Angeles called Monica Rodriguez who announced May-the-whatever-it-is as The Specials Day. She’d recognised our songs and socially what we meant to her and her contemporaries, about diversity and so on. So we went to the City Hall – it was a big deal. Morrissey got it a few years ago. That was nice…

How has your audience changed in the 10 years since you reformed?
After the 30th anniversary, there were a lot of blokes, like a football crowd, but in the last 10 years it’s really changed. Especially in America. We’ve even noticed women in the audience. Women! That’s like, “Woah, what are you doing here?!” I don’t know if it’s connected with that, but we’ve dropped “Little Bitch” from the set, as much as I can drop it, because it doesn’t feel right to me, being a grown up, doing that song. That and “Hey Little Rich Girl” sometimes felt uncomfortable. But the line in “Nite Klub” – “all the girls are slags and the beer tastes just like piss” – I’m fine with that.


What did you do for your 60th – a big party with mates?
Nah, I ain’t got any mates. Just family and friends, really. I’ve wanted to be 60 since I was about 27, because at that point everything I liked was being performed by 60-year-olds like Andy Williams, Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra. I love how they’d carry on doing what they do. You have to shut everything out to do that. I feel blessed to have reached that stage. A lot of people think that 60 is part of the downward spiral, which it is if you allow it to be, but you can fight it and say, no it isn’t, it’s just part of this story. I’m a bit obsessed with age at the moment!

How do you write?
Whenever I write, I need to leave England. I can’t write at home. It’s impossible. I come up with ideas and then I just store them in my head. I have whole songs swimming around in my head – melodies and lyrics – and they stay there until they’re ready to go. If you remember it the next day, then it must be a good idea. You only forget shit things. I never write with an instrument. I played two chords on the guitar once, but I didn’t look great. You’ve got to look good, haven’t you? If you don’t look like Hendrix, why are you bothering, really?

Earlier this year, the story about your abduction and rape as a 13-year-old became a news story again.
How did you react to the press revisiting this? Because I’ve been singing about mental illness, it’s understandable that people would want to look at the causes. I’ve spent the last 10 years recovering from horrific episodes of manic depression, and it’s been so important for me to stress that there is a recovery, there is a route out of it. I’m now quite heavily medicated, and the only reason I didn’t want to take any medication when I was diagnosed aged 25 was because I’d spent three months as a 13-year-old off my head on Valium. Which means that I dropped out of school and all sorts of terrible stuff. But the medical treatment for depression is much better now. It means I can actually function.

I remember listening to that Fun Boy Three song, “Well Fancy That” – in which the protagonist is abducted and raped – but I had no idea that it was based on a true story…
Yeah, not many people did. But there were people who connected with it. I was in Los Angeles and someone drove 200 miles on his scooter when he found out that I was on a radio show, ’cos he just wanted to say that he’d been through the same thing, and he wanted to talk about it. It’s very important. Being in a band is all about communicating ideas. Unless you want to be Wet Wet Wet.

How bad did your mental illness get?
It was about 12 years ago. I actually believed the 10 Polish builders on the scaffolding opposite were part of this great conspiracy to bring me down. I was convinced they were CIA agents. It’s kinda funny now, looking back, but it was horrendous at the time. It flared up as I reached my late forties, going through divorce and stuff. It all stems from childhood trauma, of course, but it takes a few things and it’s off again. Like with my songwriting, I hold things in my head, like OCD. I’ll organise it all up there, and usually I know exactly what I need to do and where everything should be. But when it doesn’t work, you go into this spiral, and you lose control.

What kind of father were you to your older children?
Quite lenient. They both fell out of the school system at young ages and tried to discover things. I was just there for them, as a rock. I can’t exactly condemn them for wanting to be a DJ or wanting to play in a band or something, I? These two kids who dropped out of school and went off the rails, one is now the youngest lute builder in Britain – he used to play electric guitar in bands, supported My Bloody Valentine, used to do up guitars and sell them on, but then started to build acoustic guitars and moved on to lutes. Lutes! So now he hangs around with 70- year-olds in the British Lute Society and makes his own pine resin varnish and his own glue. It’s amazing. And my other son, Felix, is a dancehall DJ who started studying science at night classes in Tottenham in his twenties, and studied engineering at Manchester Uni. Now he’as just completed his Masters at Cambridge. How the fuck did that happen? But I’m very proud of them both, ’cos they’ve discovered these passions on their own.

We lost Daniel Johnston this year. I understand you were big fan?
God, yeah. I saw him a few times. I used to buy Christmas cards from his online shop, which were brilliant. It’s weird, with the mental health thing, there’s an instant connection. With Daniel Johnston it was pretty obvious, even from looking at a photo of him. I went to see him a few times. Islington Assembly Halls, Indigo at O2. It was fucking unbearable, seeing him shake. But incredible too. He just wanders on, with his sweatpants on and his shirt covered in fucking shit, but he was amazing. And now he’s gone. Very sad.

How comfortable are you about performing now?
I love it. I don’t have an onstage persona. Whatever I’m doing in the day carries on at the gig. So I don’t get nervous, but it’s still a bizarre thing. You’ve got a mic stand and you’re sharing a room with people and it’s nuts. It’s like I have a constant existential crisis onstage. I used to have think, ‘Oh, I’ve got a platform, I’ll just slag everybody off.’ But I’ve stopped doing that, which means you don’t get bottled so much.

The Specials have had around 40 members over the years – is this a rare spell of stability?
Totally. It’s a wonderful lineup. Steve [Cradock] is terrific. We played a festival with Ocean Colour Scene, where Steve was playing two sets, one with us and one with them. I freaked Steve out by asking him what changing room he was going to use, ours or theirs? And Kenrick [Rowe] is an amazing drummer. He drums all the time, he’ll be at breakfast, tapping on the table and playing the cutlery. The best thing I can say about him is that I don’t notice him, you don’t have to worry about him. And Nikolaj [Torp Larsen] is a brilliant keyboard player and musical director. Actually, “MD” sounds a bit Jack Jones, but he’s great at string and horn arrangements. ’Cos string and horn players have their own little sense of humour, don’t they? Nikolaj can deal with all that. He also writes film music for all these Danish films. He’s a busy guy.

You used to say if Jerry Dammers wanted to come back into the fold, he could. Do you still mean that?
Yeah, but it’s not even the case of being welcome. It’s a part of him, and he’s a part of us. We started rehearsing with him 10 years ago, and it was obvious from rehearsals that it wasn’t going to work, but we were all cool with it. It was his decision. We’ve never kicked anyone out – Neville, Roddy, no-one. They’ve left because the way they work now suits them more. Roddy is more suited to playing in pubs and stuff. It’s what he enjoys.

What happened at those initial rehearsals with Jerry – did he want to play new material?
No! He was happy playing stuff from the first two albums, celebrating our 30th anniversary. He just wasn’t happy with the way we were playing it. You’ve got to give it more than one rehearsal! He knew we were out of his control, as we’re all grown-ups. Which is a really sad way of looking at things. Jerry is great, and I love him to bits, but he needs people. Look at his output since In The Studio. He’s done very little.

Do you ever want to revisit material you’ve done since the Specials – Colourfield, Terry, Blair & Anouchka, Vegas, music with Ian Broudie and Damon Albarn, that Mushtaq project…
They were all good experiments in between bigger projects. I got together with Tricky again in the summer, and talked to him about doing some music. But then his daughter died, which was terrible, and that threw him right off understandably. So that’s on hold for now. Album projects tend to be a bit big, but EPs are OK. I’ve always thought I’d record my best stuff between 60 and 70. Being 60 I can now sing “It Was A Very Good Year” and “We’ve Got All The Time In The World” with a certain conviction. Remember how Ian McCulloch did “September Song”? I love him and the Bunnymen, but he just wasn’t old enough. You’ve got to be at a certain age to believe it yourself, let alone anyone else.

Are you going to write an autobiography?
That’ll come after I’m 70. By then, everything has happened. I’ve had a lot of offers. I almost started two years ago. The working title was ‘I’ve Worked With Some Right Cunts’. It didn’t go down very well.


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