“It was a fantastic journey…” — Lynval Golding
Between 1979 and 1982, The Specials was one of the most exciting and influential bands in the world. Ska’d For Life – A Personal Journey with The Specials is bassist Horace Panter’s inside look at life in the band that successfully combined reggae’s rhythms with punk’s energy, and a West Indian sensibility with mod style to create one of the most enduring and easily recognizable music, fashion and social statements of the 20th century.
The Specials (Jerry Dammers, Horace Panter, Lynval Golding, John “Brad” Bradbury, Terry Hall, Roddy Byers and Neville Staple) came from Coventry during the Thatcher years when poverty, unemployment and social unrest were at an all-time high in England. Band members took musical cues from the punk scene that was just winding down, as well as from reggae and its early-to-mid-’60s predecessor, ska. They took visual cues from the resurging Mod scene and the Rude Boy (“rude boy” is a Jamaican term meaning juvenile delinquent or criminal) style, which meant sharp suits, Ben Sherman shirts, pork-pie or Trilby hats and, sometimes, a Crombie overcoat.
The Specials stood for unity, equality and racial harmony. The band itself included both black and white musicians (virtually unheard of at the time in England), and the record company The Specials formed was named “2 Tone” in recognition of the band’s anti-racist stance. 2 Tone was a pioneering concept, and with other second wave ska bands like The Selecter and Madness releasing and touring with The Specials, it became known as “The 2 Tone Movement”.
Panter tells his story, from the center of the 2 Tone Movement, in an effortlessly engaging and mostly chronological manner. It’s as if you’ve run into an old friend in the street who’s been away for some time and is now catching you up on his adventures. There’s a sense of the breathless excitement of “and then…and then,” but the tone is more familiarity than theatricality. He’s not trying too hard to impress you. Yet he does, with equal doses of humour and humility.
From Panter’s art school and bar band beginnings to his first second-hand suit, from opening for The Clash (it’s a big deal, so let’s say it again: Opening For The Clash!) to stealing the show from the likes of The Police and The Cure, from the band’s irresistibly danceable mix of punk, ska and reggae (which, although it makes sense now, must have seemed the most unlikely of combinations at the time) to the serious social and political commentary found in the lyrics, Panter relates everything in a casual, but matter-of-fact first person narrative. At several points he quotes directly from letters he wrote and journals he kept while on tour, it’s a bit like perusing someone’s diary, and it’s a treat to read!
There are detailed accounts of encounters and disasters on tour with The Clash, of recording the first album (featuring backing vocals by a girl called Chrissie Hynde and production from a Specials fan by the name of Elvis Costello), highlights like being in New Orleans on the first American tour and low points like the band splintering apart on the last American tour. Through all of this, there’s no animosity, no obvious slagging off former band mates. Horace lives up to his moniker of Sir Horace Gentleman.
Ska’d For Life doesn’t divulge any jaw-dropping secrets about The Specials. It doesn’t paint anyone as a hero or a victim. It doesn’t attempt to elevate or desecrate any beliefs about the band. There’s no dirt. What this book does do is present the straightforward story of the rise and fall of The Specials from the perspective of the man who was there.
This may be one of the best music biographies ever published for the fact that it has no lofty ambitions or hidden agendas; Horace Panter simply tells his story. And in doing so, he has succeeded in making his own personal journey into an intensely interesting, immanently readable tale.