Famously deadpan, dour and slightly menacing, Terry Hall, who has died aged 63 after a short illness, shot to fame at the end of the 1970s with Coventry’s groundbreaking multi-racial band the Specials. They emerged in the aftermath of punk, with a fizzing, politically charged mix of ska and new wave, and enjoyed instant success with their debut album, The Specials, which reached No 4 on the UK chart. For a time, the Specials’ 2 Tone Records operation became the UK’s most successful record label, with releases from Madness, the Beat and the Selecter alongside the Specials’ own.
Their second album, More Specials, featured a broader and jazzier musical palette and scorched to No 5. The band scored Top 10 singles with Gangsters, A Message to You Rudy, Rat Race, Stereotype and Do Nothing, peaking with their chart-topping classic Ghost Town in 1981.
Hall commented that “I don’t believe music can change anything” because “all you can do is put your point across”, but the Specials caught the fraught and dangerous atmosphere of the turn of the 1980s with an eerie intensity. Ghost Town in particular chillingly evoked the sense of social collapse and economic decline gripping a riot-torn Britain.
The Specials found themselves in the eye of the storm, with neo-Nazis frequently targeting their gigs. Hall and the band’s keyboards player, Jerry Dammers, were both arrested when they waded in to try to break up fighting between fans and security guards at a gig in Cambridge. They were found guilty of “incitement to riot” and fined £400 each.
However, when recording Ghost Town for an appearance on Top of the Pops, Hall and his bandmates Neville Staple and Lynval Golding announced they were leaving the band, as the result of internal personality clashes. They went off to form Fun Boy Three.
Building on the ska legacy of their former band, Fun Boy Three hit the UK Top 10 with their eponymous debut album (1982), and scored a Top 5 hit single with the infectiously catchy It Ain’t What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do it), its chart-friendliness much enhanced by the addition of the female trio Bananarama. Hall had brought them on board after seeing them featured in the Face magazine.
The same combined team enjoyed a further Top 5 hit with Really Saying Something, which also reached the Top 20 of the American club chart. After a second album, Waiting, and Top 10 hits with The Tunnel of Love and Our Lips Are Sealed, Fun Boy Three split up following an American tour.
Hall was born in Coventry, where his father worked at the Rolls Royce aeronautics factory and his mother at a Chrysler car plant; he had two elder sisters. Though he showed academic potential, passing his 11-plus exam with ease, and was skilled enough at football to be invited for a trial at West Bromwich Albion, he was given little encouragement in either direction by his parents.
His childhood was scarred by his experience of horrific sexual abuse. When he was 12, he was abducted by one of his schoolteachers and delivered into the clutches of a paedophile ring in France. He wrote about the episode in the song Well Fancy That, a track he recorded with Fun Boy Three in 1983. It included the lyrics: “On school trips to France / Well fancy that / You had a good time / Turned sex into crime”. Hall commented that “the only way I could deal with the experience was to write about it, in a song. It was very difficult for me to write, but I wanted to communicate my feelings.”
The traumatic events resulted in Hall being put on valium at the age of 13, and the effects of these experiences would continue to haunt him. During the 1990s he used drinking as a crutch and slipped into alcoholism. In 2004 he tried to kill himself and he was subsequently diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which had to be controlled with anti-psychotic medication.
He left school at 14 and undertook a string of temporary jobs, including as a bricklayer and a trainee hairdresser, before joining the punk band Squad as lead singer. Hall described the band dismissively: “It was just like 1-2-3-4 then make a noise for two minutes, and then stop and say 1-2-3-4 again.” When Squad supported an early incarnation of the Specials, then known as the Automatics, Dammers was impressed and invited Hall to join them. Hall liked the Automatics’ songs enough to accept, though it would take some honing and refining before the distinctive Specials sound emerged.
Hall’s post-Fun Boy Three career found him hopping between a bewildering variety of projects. In 1984 he formed the Colourfield with Toby Lyons and Karl Shale, which produced the Top 20 album Virgins and Philistines (1985) and a string of singles, of which only Thinking of You made much impression on the charts. Hall also undertook songwriting collaborations with Ian Broudie of the Lightning Seeds, before forming Terry, Blair and Anouchka in 1989, alongside Anouchka Grove and the American actress Blair Booth.
The trio were united by their fondness for cheesy 60s pop, and they covered the Captain & Tennille’s hit Love Will Keep Us Together, but their solitary album Ultra Modern Nursery Rhymes failed to chart, and a couple of singles did little better. “A lot of the stuff I’ve done is pretty much a wind-up,” Hall admitted. “Terry, Blair and Anouchka was completely taking the piss out of us and everyone else.”
Another project was Vegas, a collaboration between Hall and the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart. Their solitary album fared poorly, though their version of Charles Aznavour’s She reached the Top 50. He undertook further collaborations with Tricky, Lily Allen, Shakespears Sister, Nouvelle Vague and Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz, and with Mushtaq (from Fun-Da-Mental).
He was also part of the Specials’ various reunions post 2008, one of only three original remaining members. The band’s comeback album Encore (2019) topped the UK chart. In 2021 they released Protest Songs 1924-2012, a collection of cover versions of famous sociopolitical songs down the decades, which reached No 2.
Hall is survived by his second wife, Lindy Heymann, and their son, Orson, and by two sons, Theo and Felix, from his previous marriage, to Jeannette, which ended in divorce.
• Terence Edward Hall, singer and songwriter, born 19 March 1959; died 18 December 2022
• This article was amended on 21 December 2022. An earlier version misnamed Hall’s son Theo as Leo.