Q&A - The Specials

Q&A - The Specials

Q: Hello, Horace. I'd just like to start by saying that I'm a big fan of The Specials. Although it might not be immediately evident, the music of The Specials was a big influence on my own band, Tramp Attack. I often hear the influence of your music in unexpected places-from the psychedelic melting pot of The Coral, to the unsettling paranoia of nineties trip-hop. Where do you hear your influence most and do you feel a sense of pride in seeing your legacy continue? 

A: I think it was interesting that the winner of ‘The Best Part-Time Band in Britain’ was Edinburgh’s ‘Bombskare’, a ska band (not that I watched any of it … just read the headlines). There are a lot of 2-Tone-related bands now playing in the UK, but I can hear The Specials influence in a lot of contemporary dance music; the reggae sensibility of ‘lots of bass’ and the ‘off’, rather than the ‘on’ beat. I’d like to think ska and reggae helped people get into what is known as ‘world music’, especially some of the Africa stuff.

Q: Even though the Specials were the instigators of the ska scene that we know today, your sound was actually a mix of ska, reggae, punk and rock n' roll. What are your personal influences and how did you apply them to the sound you helped develop?

A: I was more into soul, Tamla Motown & Booker T. & the M.G.’s – and the locking in of the rhythm section. It was a short step to ska and reggae, when the ‘feel’ of the music was paramount. I’ve spent the past 20 years listening to Blues, world music and, more recently, country music. I’m very interested in the ‘team effort’ – I’m a bass player – that empathetic communication between like-minded musicians is a precious thing, discovering the ‘heart beat’ of a music and being able to perform it is something I feel very privileged to be part of, not just in The Specials but in the other local outfits I work with.

Q: The heyday of the Two Tone movement was so short lived, taking place between 1979 and 1981, yet many of your peers kept the flame alive, performing in small, sweaty venues around the world, throughout the eighties and beyond.  You played in a couple of these bands over the years. It is only relatively recent that The Specials reformed in a line-up that has been accepted by music fans across the board. You're now part of an institution. 

A: I played with ‘Special Beat’ in 1990-91 with Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger from The Beat, and then with what became known as ‘The Mark II’s’ from 1994-98. This was mostly in America where a homegrown ska scene was developing. We played some very exciting shows, definitely.

Q: What were the wilderness years like and how does it feel to be part of The Specials in 2016?

A:  My ‘wilderness years’ were spent rearing a family and working for a living! I trained as a teacher in 1993 and spent 10 years (1998-2008) as the art teacher in a special-needs school in Coventry. I tell everyone it was the second-best job I ever had – I was still playing Blues on the weekends. Getting a sum of money in my bank account each month was still a novelty in 2008 when Lynval phoned me and suggested reforming The Specials. Oh, and I wrote a book (Ska’d for Life). It was published in 2007.

Q: You recently suffered the loss of John Bradbury, drumming powerhouse, and your rhythmical partner in crime. It goes without saying that this must have been hard for you on a personal level. How difficult has it been to move on as The Specials' bass player, without John? And is there a cut-off point where The Specials simply stop being The Specials?

A: Brad’s death was utterly tragic and totally unexpected; it took days for the news to sink in and, in a way, it still hasn’t. It will be when I’m on the stage without him that it will bite, but you know, if it were me, I’d have expected the guys to carry on. The Specials have become more than just one person – an institution if you like! We talk a lot about how long we can do this, and as long as people want to come and see us, we’ll play for them. If it turns out we can only get £1500 for a gig on the back of a lorry in a pub car park in Bedford, I think it’ll be time to quit! I really don’t know how long we can continue; physical capabilities will be the deciding factor I’d think! I have to say though that we love playing live gigs; even after all these years, it’s a great feeling!

Q: It has been said a lot recently that protest in music has died. Political commentator, Owen Jones, in a column bemoaning protest music's decline, cited Ghost town as one of the last protest songs in British pop. Do you think there is a reason for this? Or do you think the spirit of protest is alive and well?

A: This is a really difficult question to answer. I think music has changed in the way it’s been commodified (although it always was really), the way it’s sold, the way it’s marketed and its cultural significance. Music will always be a vehicle for expression, but popularising it (what used to be called ‘getting on Top of the Pops’) is something else entirely. On a positive note, I’ve noticed a groundswell of ‘local scene’ music. More people seem to be going out to see live music these days. The result of this will be realised some time in the not-too-distant future I hope.

Q: Since the Brexit vote, it would appear that racially motivated abuse is increasing in Britain. History seems to be repeating itself; the far-right are on the rise in much the same way they were when The Specials came on the scene. What is your view on the chaos created by the recent referendum and how do you think it will impact on the careers of future musicians? 

A: To be honest, I think the Brexit vote was a vote of no confidence in the British political system but I have no idea where this is going and, at the moment, it doesn’t look great does it?! This is bound to have an effect in music as much as it does in society in general. I voted to ‘remain’ by the way!

Q: As a visual artist, did you have much of an influence on the iconic chequered visuals associated with 2 Tone? Or is visual art something that you returned to later in life?

A: I had some input in the creation of the 2-Tone logo but it was essentially Jerry Dammers’ design. Touring the world as a musician was a great way to visit some of the world’s major art galleries and museums. Spending 10 years as an art teacher helped me to hone my own ideas and the down time in between tours since 2009 has enabled me to concentrate more on my own art practice.

Q: You have work on show at Red House Originals at the moment. Could you tell us a bit about it?

A: RedHouse Originals have been very supportive of my work. They’ve shown my ‘Blues’ paintings, work from my ‘Americana’ and ‘Cassette’ series and, more recently, some silk screen prints based on an x-ray image of my 1972 Fender Precision bass, which I used on the first Specials’ album and 1979 tour. It’s a great gallery and it’s a joy to work with Richard McTague!

Matt Barton is author of 'What Would Matt Barton Do?' Read it here.  

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