terry hall had it all
In the great wash-up that was post-punk ska is generally seen as nothing more than a harmless ripple – a bit of froth that was a laugh for a couple of albums until the novelty wore off and the serious work got done. This is partially true but ignores the fact that along with its more respectable cousin reggae, ska was for many the bridge that lead the way out of punk’s dead-end ghetto and into the as-yet-unplundered world of what was once loosely termed “black music”. It’s hard to remember just how shocking the whole ska/mod thing seemed after the style dictatorship of punk became de rigueur for even the most bland of bands, but at the time Madness, The Specials, The Beat et al looked positively diamond hard with their button-up shirts, shined shoes and general all-round nattiness. They still radiated punk’s belligerence but strangely, somehow in a far less contrived, tightly controlled way. And the music itself was something else altogether. For many whitebread kids reared on a steady diet of stodge rock in all its forms ska seemed refreshingly off-kilter and also slightly threatening at the same time – just like new things should. Of course, the look and sound was actually nothing new in itself, having done the rounds at least once in 60s Britain, while mods and skinheads would also certainly jostle for space in any argument about sharp sounds and sharper style, but to most of the young post-punk generation it was all a genuine breath of fresh air.
At the head of the best stood Specials singer Terry Hall, looking and sounding permanently narked while cooly managing to inject a hint of that edge into his look at the same time. A bit of prep, a lot of mod, mixed in with punk’s general disenchantment and you had the 79-80 second wave of ska, all wrapped up in a here-for-a-good-time-not-a-long-time speed rush. And while Madness Mr Nice Guy Suggs generally seemed up for some roly-poly fun, Terry seemed just as likely to head butt you as long as he didn’t get your blood on his pristine Fred Perry.
Of course, ska ran its race pretty fast as these things tend to, and while Terry went on to other related things (the also excellent Fun Boy Three for one), The Specials’ two albums remain classic testaments to the time. Having had the pleasure of meeting him by chance and chatted extensively about following Man Utd home and away despite the unfortunate handicap of living near Arsenal’s stadium (you can sometimes see him on TV in the crowd behind the goals), I can safely say Terry Hall is still an all round top bloke and bona fide style legend, albeit a little blurrier around the edges than in his rakish two tonic heyday. But then, he always was what was so special about The Specials in more ways than one.