Reggae and ska again lose one of their greatest artists with the passing this week of Terry Hall, reportedly of cancer. He was the cornerstone of Coventry 2 Tone band the Specials, fusing black and white personnel and music at a troubled time, and emerging with their first chart single ‘Gangsters’ in 1979. This record, a version of Prince Buster’s classic ‘Al Capone’ with the addition of vocals and attitude, summed up what Terry Hall was about: the unique combination of being impassive and being angry, a stance which was an inspiration to so many in the brutal early years of Thatcherite Britain. Unlike their initial contemporaries Madness, who gradually moved into inane pantomime territory, the Specials retained their musical integrity and principles despite many changes in personnel over the years.
After ‘Gangsters’ the Specials had several single hits including a version of Dandy Livingstone’s ‘A Message to You Rudy’ and their swansong (or so it seemed at the time) the formidable track ‘Ghost Town’ in 1981. Terry Hall, after leaving the Specials in the 80s, enjoyed some considerable success with the Fun Boy Three and to a lesser extent with the Colourfield, while the ‘Special aka’ went their own way with explicitly political tracks including ‘Racist Friend’ and ‘Free Nelson Mandela’.
Inevitably and delightfully the Specials would return in something like their original form and in 2019 Terry Hall, Lynval Golding and Horace Panter brought us ‘Encore’, a combination of studio and live tracks, the latter including many of their most famous songs and concluding – movingly, in the light of this week’s news – with ‘All the Time in the World’. In 2021, the same core line-up released ‘Protest Songs’ (see reggaemusic.org.uk October 6th 2021), an excellent if slightly idiosyncratic collection of cover versions, the most powerful of which is their treatment of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Everybody Knows’. RIP Terry and thank you.