Terry Hall: lead singer of the Specials dies aged 63

Having survived a tough childhood in Coventry, Hall became one of pop’s defining voices at the turn of the 80s, chronicling British decline and disfranchised youth with the 2 Tone band

Alexis Petridis: ‘Terry Hall was the self-assured eye of the Specials storm’
Terry Hall: a life in a pictures

Terry Hall, the lead singer of the Specials and a former member of Fun Boy Three and the Colourfield, has died aged 63, his bandmates in the Specials have confirmed.

“It is with great sadness that we announce the passing, following a brief illness, of Terry, our beautiful friend, brother and one of the most brilliant singers, songwriters and lyricists this country has ever produced,” the band tweeted.

“Terry was a wonderful husband and father and one of the kindest, funniest, and most genuine of souls. His music and his performances encapsulated the very essence of life… the joy, the pain, the humour, the fight for justice, but mostly the love.”

The band asked for respect for Hall’s family’s privacy.

Neville Staple, Hall’s bandmate in the Specials and Fun Boy Three, said he was “deeply saddened” by the news.

“We knew Terry had been unwell but didn’t realise how serious until recently,” he wrote. “We had only just confirmed some 2023 joint music agreements together. This has hit me hard and must be extremely difficult for Terry’s wife and family.”

In a statement, Jerry Dammers, a founding member of the Specials, described the news of Hall’s death as “very shocking, horrible and tragic.” “Terry was so young and I feel very sad. Contrary to some of what has been reported since, Terry and I got on well in the original Specials,” he said.

“Beyond our punky start on stage, it was in the studio with Elvis Costello producing, where Terry was able to sing quietly, that I think his hidden strength came out, a delivery which brought out the melancholy in some of The Specials’ songs, and which I think a lot of people could relate to. All my condolences and sympathies go out to his wife and family.”

Hall joined the first incarnation of the Specials – then called the Automatics – shortly after the Coventry band formed in 1977, replacing vocalist Tim Strickland. After a stint as the Coventry Automatics, they became Special AKA, known as the Specials. The pioneering 2 Tone band rose thanks to the support of Joe Strummer, who invited them to support the Clash live, and of BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel.

They released their debut single, Gangsters (a reworking of Prince Buster’s Al Capone) in 1979, which reached No 6 in the UK singles chart. They would dominate the Top 10 over the next two years, peaking with their second No 1 single, and calling card, Ghost Town, in 1981. The lyrics, written by the band’s main songwriter, Dammers, dealt with Britain’s urban decay, unemployment and disfranchised youth.

Its popularity peaked in early summer 1981 as riots between young Black people and police were erupting across the UK in response to racist discrimination and the use of stop-and-search tactics. It remained at No 1 for three weeks, spending 10 weeks in the Top 40, and is widely considered one of the greatest pop records of all time. “It sits in the past, brooding and glowering at us, its remarkable, dark power undimmed,” Guardian critic Alexis Petridis wrote in 2020.

The Specials: Ghost Town – video

Among those to pay tribute on Tuesday was musician Billy Bragg. “The Specials were a celebration of how British culture was envigorated by Caribbean immigration but the onstage demenour of their lead singer was a reminder that they were in the serious business of challenging our perception of who we were in the late 1970s,” he tweeted.

The Specials were a celebration of how British culture was envigorated by Caribbean immigration but the onstage demenour of their lead singer was a reminder that they were in the serious business of challenging our perception of who we were in the late 1970s. RIP Terry Hall pic.twitter.com/PVwbXyXubq

— Billy Bragg (@billybragg) December 19, 2022

Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s and Hall’s former partner wrote that she was “gutted”. “He was a lovely, sensitive, talented and unique person. Our extremely brief romance resulted in the song Our Lips Are Sealed, which will forever tie us together in music history. Terrible news to hear this,” she tweeted.

Squeeze’s Chris Difford called Hall “a man of few words verbally but so many great words in song. I always admired and envied his sweep of the pen”, while Rowetta remembered him as “one of the greatest frontmen from one of the greatest bands. And a gorgeous, kind, down to earth man.” Badly Drawn Boy called him “a musical hero”, while Sleaford Mods said Hall was “King of the Suedeheads. A big man. Hope you find peace now mate.” Boy George tweeted that he was “very sad”, adding: “Absolutely loved him as an artist. Sad day!”

Hall was born in Coventry on 19 March 1959 to a family who predominantly worked in the car industry. He was an academically gifted child and also a noted footballer who was invited to try out for West Bromwich Albion – an opportunity his parents declined based on the inconvenience of travelling across the Midlands. After he sailed through the 11-plus exam, his parents also declined his place at a nearby grammar school.

“All of a sudden they were expected to buy books and a school uniform,” he told Fantastic Man. “I’d just been walking to school dressed in my football kit. So there’s always been a bit of that kicking around in the back of my mind. Not being educated. Wondering what would have happened if I’d gone.”

In 2019, Hall told the comedian Richard Herring that aged 12 he was abducted by a paedophile ring in France, an incident he had previously touched on in the 1983 Fun Boy Three single Well Fancy That!, which blamed a teacher for the ordeal: “You took me to France on the promise of teaching me French,” he sang.

Hall “kept it hidden” and didn’t tell his parents. “They both worked in factories. They got paid in cash. Me dad was a heavy drinker. They had their own lives, you know?”

It resulted in Hall being medicated throughout his teenage years and living with depression and manic depression. “I was on Valium when I was 13 and it took me out of life for six months,” he told the Big Issue.

He dropped out of education at the age of 14 and felt pushed towards non-conformism. “I can laugh about it now but it sort of switched something in my head, and it’s like I don’t have to do that, and that’s when I started not listening to anyone.”

The Specials.
Pioneering … The Specials. Photograph: John Rodgers/Redferns

His political awakening came in his teenage years “when I discovered that working men’s clubs had a colour bar on their doors. You could only get in if you were white. That really shook me. I couldn’t work it out.”

After working as a bricklayer, among other jobs, he joined his first band, the punk outfit Squad, inspired by the Clash and the Sex Pistols. His older sister, and guiding influence, Teresa introduced him to Trojan Records, while it was David Bowie’s 1975 album Young Americans that pushed Hall towards becoming a singer, he told the Guardian in 2009. “I come from a gypsy-spirited family, and everyone used to sing in pubs whether you liked it or not. I didn’t want to be that sort of singer. Then when I was 16 this album gave me a look, a sound, and a way of holding yourself. Apparently all his clothes were from WalMart at this time. He put a blond streak in his hair and we would do the same.”

Then came the Specials. The band released their self-titled debut album in October 1979 and received mass acclaim for blending a punk sensibility – and sharp lyrics about the degradation of modern Britain – with the traditional Jamaican ska sound, even explicitly updating hits by the likes of Toots and the Maytals, Prince Buster and Dandy Livingstone.

Today the album is widely considered a landmark recording: it ranked at No 42 in Pitchfork’s list of the best albums of the 1970s, and No 260 on the NME’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, published in 2013. The band released a second, even darker album, More Specials, in 1980.

The multiracial group were active in the Rock Against Racism movement, played benefit concerts for anti-racist and anti-nuclear organisations, and also supported the 1978 Right to Work march protesting unemployment. “Our government leaders aren’t interested in knowing the way people feel,” Hall told the New York Times. “If they were, they’d just resign, because they aren’t helping anybody. The kids can’t go to the prime minister and say, look, ‘We are unemployed, what are you going to do to help us?’ There’s no way they can approach people like that. So they express themselves by smashing things up.’’

After the success of Ghost Town in 1981, the band split bitterly that July. “It felt like the perfect moment to stop the Specials part one,” Hall said. “We’d gone from seven kids in the back of a van to being presented with gold discs and I never felt massively comfortable with that.

Fun Boy Three pictured in 1983.
Chart success … Fun Boy Three in 1983. Photograph: Steve Rapport/Getty Images

Hall formed Fun Boy Three with his Specials bandmates Staple and Lynval Golding. They also enjoyed chart success for several years, collaborating twice with girl band Bananarama, on It Ain’t What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It) and Really Saying Something. Hall would also land a Top 10 single with Our Lips Are Sealed, a song he co-wrote with US indie star – and then romantic partner – Jane Wiedlin for her band the Go-Go’s.

Hall would form another band, the Colourfield, in 1984, which had a hit with Thinking of You. He became a frequent collaborator over subsequent decades, working with the likes of the Lightning Seeds’ Ian Broudie, US actress Blair Booth, Toots and the Maytals, Lily Allen, Blur’s Damon Albarn – and later with his band Gorillaz – and Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart with whom he formed a duo known as Vegas in 1992.

Hall wasn’t part of a Specials reunion, the Specials Mk 2, which lasted from 1993 to 1998. He released his debut solo album in 1994, Home, produced by Broudie; a follow-up, Laugh, came in 1997.

In 2008, inspired by the Pixies’ reunion in 2004, Hall announced that he would be reforming the Specials for a tour and new music, albeit without founding member Jerry Dammers, who claimed he had been forced out. “The Specials was this big hole which took up four years of my life,” Hall told the Telegraph. “More than anything, I really wanted to see these people again.”

They embarked on a 30th anniversary tour in 2009 and performed at the 2012 London Olympics closing concert, but faced the death of drummer John Bradbury, and the departure of vocalist Staple and guitarist Roddy Radiation over the next few years.

The band would find themselves in the news again in 2017, when 18-year-old Birmingham woman Saffiyah Khan was photographed facing off with protesters at an EDL march while wearing a Specials T-shirt. “It felt like a vindication of everything the band had set out to do,” Hall said.

In 2019, they released a new album, Encore, which featured Khan performing on a new song, 10 Commandments. It charted at No 1 in the UK albums chart – their highest-ever album placing. “Achieving a first No 1 album in our 60s restored our faith in humanity,” Hall told the Quietus.

Hall was still struggling with his mental health, he admitted around this time. In 2003, he had begun self-medicating with alcohol. In the last decade of his life, he sought medication, having been wary of it since being put on Valium as a teenager, as well as taking up art therapy.

“It got to a point where I didn’t have a choice – and it’s done me so much good,” he said. “Talking about mental health problems is a conscious decision. It’s something I want to share with people.”

Hall is survived by his wife, director Lindy Heymann. They had one son; Hall has two older sons with his ex-wife, Jeanette Hall.

In 2019, Hall told Uncut magazine that he had been enjoying his 60s, an age he had aspired to since being a 27-year-old fan of musical lifers Andy Williams, Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra. “I feel blessed to have reached that stage,” he said. “A lot of people think that 60 is part of the downward spiral, which it is if you allow it to be, but you can fight it and say, no it isn’t – it’s just part of this story.”


Laura Snapes

The GuardianTramp

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