“Last year,” Horace Panter recalls, “we supported the Rolling Stones at the Ricoh Arena. Two weeks later I was playing to 15 people at the Spires in Chapelfields, doing Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Stevie Ray Vaughan songs - but it was just as good. My favourite venue in the world is the Broomfield Tavern in Spon End, near Coventry - not the Budokan in Tokyo or whatever.”
You sense that he means it. Having experienced both ends of the music industry, Panter is that surprisingly rare creature: a musician who genuinely loves playing, irrespective of the size and status of the gig.
Born in Croydon in 1953, Panter was studying Fine Art at Lanchester Polytechnic in Coventry when he met Jerry Dammers. He was the second musician, after guitarist Lynval Golding, to be recruited into Dammers’ ska-punk band the Automatics, later the Coventry Automatics, and later still, the Specials.
The rest is pop history. For two short but thrilling years, the Specials were at the forefront of 2 Tone - not just a record label, nor even merely a musical scene, but a generation-defining youth movement - and twice topped the singles charts. Panter, rechristened ‘Sir Horace Gentleman’ on Specials sleeves, found himself at the centre of a bona fide cultural phenomenon.
After the Specials split in 1981, Panter served time with the Special AKA and General Public, but later retrained as a teacher of children with special needs, which helped him rediscover his love of art. He remains a prolific creator of Pop Art-inspired prints, which often reference his musical career.
When an almost-full Specials reunion (minus Dammers) happened in 2008, they instantly became a hugely popular live draw, and this year the band - now down to core members Panter, Golding and singer Terry Hall - released Encore, which gave the Specials their first ever No.1 album. In a career of extremes, Horace is having one of the highs.
But we’re here to talk about the low end...
In the beginning
What was your first bass guitar?
“I bought a Rosetti Bass 8, six quid, second hand from a kid at school, and the neck was like a banana: you could actually put your fingers between the frets and the strings. I didn’t know how to play it, but I had a full-length mirror in my bedroom, so I was able to look real cool. I learned all the moves and the shapes, and then a kid at school who had a six-string guitar said ‘Do you want to be in a group?’ Neither of us could play, but it just felt great being in a group. I had an acoustic guitar, and I was in a church choir when I was younger so I knew a little bit about music, you know, five lines and four spaces and Every Green Bus Drives Fast and all that stuff.”
What drew you to bass?
“I was in the Searchers’ fanclub when I was 11. Their bassist Tony Jackson stood in the middle with this big black semi-acoustic bass guitar tucked under his chin, and I just thought ‘Wow, that guy’s cool’. But the bass guitar seemed pretty easy really, no chords, one string at a time. It was like, the clever kid at school was the lead guitarist, his mate played rhythm guitar, and the bloke who really wanted to be in a group but wasn’t any good at guitar was the bass player, you know, just standing at the back. There are groups where really good musicians deign to go below their their status to play bass, like Mike Mills in R.E.M., and McCartney, of course - but I always wanted to be a bass player.”
So, which bass are we hearing on early Specials records?
“That’s a 1972 Fender Precision that I bought in 1975 for £165. I bought it from a bloke who used to play in Kiki Dee’s band, a friend of a friend. That was a lot of money. My uncle Charlie had recently died and he left me £175 in his will. I spent the rest on strings. I’ve still got that one.”
Bass playing during punk was usually quite rudimentary: just the root note, four to a bar, but ska had more going on, rhythmically.
“Yes, but the Specials were a generation older than the punks. Terry was 19, but the rest of us were in our mid-to-late twenties, so we knew how to play. We’d been in bands that played working men’s clubs and discos. It’s not like we were the Buzzcocks, where you learn to play halfway through your second gig. Playing reggae didn’t come naturally to me. Lynval and [Selecter keyboardist] Desmond Brown used to come round my house and give me reggae lessons. That was really confusing, because in reggae every rule of popular music is turned on its head.”
Did you develop a telepathic understanding with John Bradbury, the drummer?
“Yes, always - and there have been a couple of other drummers that I have had that with. People used to go ‘Oh, you and Brad are such a great rhythm section’. Yeah, but actually everybody’s the rhythm section, right? Because it’s reggae, which I always maintained is African drumming but played on Western instruments.
"The keyboards play the congas, the guitar is the metronome that keeps everything going, and the drummer’s feet keep time but his hands improvise. The whole thing is held together by the bass, which plays the melody. So yes, you’re right: all of a sudden, I’m not just the bloke who stands at the back gazing at his fretboard.”
From the surviving footage, early Specials gigs look insane. Fights breaking out in the crowd, stage invasions, and seven of you ricocheting off each other. Was it a constant effort to stay in tune?
“I didn’t think about it. It’s what we did. I never retuned between songs, so we must have sounded dreadful. This was on the cusp of machines that, if you were in a really famous band, you could afford: one of those big stroboscopic tuners nobody knew how to use.
"I remember when we got signed we used to do all these little festivals in Europe and I was hoping, fingers crossed, that the Cure would be on the same bill because they had a little Korg tuner and we used to borrow it. Ridiculous, really. I didn’t even have a spare bass. It was a good year or so later when I realised that if I broke a string, it would take far too long to restring it in the middle of a show, so I needed another bass at the side.”
How many do you take on the road with you these days?
“Two, identical. It’s not like a guitar player who needs different guitars for different songs. The bass is pretty much the bass, in the Specials.”
Have you ever been a collector of basses?
“Sometimes when people say ‘How many basses have you got, Horace?’, and I say ‘I think I’ve got 11’ I feel really guilty about that. But then I had this conversation with Richard Hawley, who has 350 guitars, so that made me feel better. I’ve got a story for each one of them...”
Are certain models better for playing ska?
“I started this traditional ska band, the Uptown Ska Collective, about 10 years ago, and for that I got this Fender Telecaster bass which has these big humbucking pickups. They sound really nice and thumpy, like a double bass. But then I’d play some gigs where that sound is too deep, so what I do is go back to the guitars that I generally use, and set the amplifier so it sounds thumpy.”
What is your default bass?
“My weapon of choice at the moment is a white Mexican Fender Jazz with Seymour Duncan pickups in it. There’s nothing special - no pun intended - but it just feels lovely, and it works. They’re the Ford Escort of bass guitar. Reliable. I’ve had a new bridge put on it and posey tuning pegs, but it just feels nice.”
Are you keen on effects and pedalboards?
“I don’t do tap-dancing.”
What about favourite amps?
“I tend to have quite a mids-heavy sound so you can hear it, and it doesn’t have to be very loud, so [the engineer] out front does all the sonic assassinating. But when I do little local gigs in pubs, I’ve got a little Ashdown 1x15 and an amplifier that came out of a Fender combo that cost me 80 quid. I think it’s an XB 300 - it’s just got five knobs, and it’s lovely and that works perfectly. With the Specials, I got a lot of Ampeg stuff, but for this next tour the people from Blackstar have given me a setup to use, which is great, but a bit too heavy for pub gigs.”
Have you ever dabbled with five-string or fretless basses?
“I’ve had two marked fretless basses, and they sounded great when I was playing on my own, but when I play it with everybody else, ouch! Just those quarter tones make all that difference. I’ve had a couple of five-strings as well, and I’d carry one as a spare but never play it, so I keep coming back to four-strings.
"I recently bought an electric stand-up bass, which I’m quite enjoying. It’s just like a stick, just the neck. That’s a lot of fun, but it’s quite painful to play, when you’ve got to stand like that. I don’t think I could do a whole set with it.”
Did you write your own bass-lines in the Specials?
“Not all of them. Jerry wrote a lot of those lines. Stereotype and Ghost Town, for example, were Jerry’s. He’d go ‘Horace, this is the bass-line’ on the keys. Nite Klub is mine. I think Jerry had the original bass-line, but I adapted it to the bass part you know and love.”
Were any of them particularly challenging?
“I play on three songs on the Special AKA album In The Studio, and I think some of the most complicated music I’ve ever played in my life was recorded on those songs. One of them, War Crimes, is reggae in 5/4! Crikey, I reckon I should have got a Duke Of Edinburgh award for that.
"It wasn’t like you could overdub and move things around with a computer back in those days. You had to nail it, and I’m proud to say that I did.”
Which bassists inspired you, early on?
“The first player that I seriously attempted to study was Andy Fraser from Free. I loved the way he was economical in how he played, but then he did solos and used chords and stuff like that. He was an enormous player. Later I got into the rhythm sections, like Booker T & The MGs, and then of course the Motown people like James Jamerson.”
And who is your favourite bass player of all time?
“Tommy Shannon, probably. He played with Johnny Winter, then later with Stevie Ray Vaughan. He just knew the right notes to play. Probably still does. Or Keith Ferguson, who was a bass player with the Fabulous Thunderbirds. I’m really into that whole Texas blues thing. I don’t go for the virtuoso guys, right?
"I recently formed a country and western band called Honky-Tonk Rose, and you can’t show off when you’re playing country. You’re there to support the song. It’s really changed the way I play. Okay, it’s just the first and the fifth, but if the whole song falls to bits it’s your fault. The standard of musicianship in Nashville is incredible. You know, speed metal? Forget it. Fucking hell, you wanna hear bluegrass...”
The Specials’ new album Encore is out now on UMC/Island.