Some shows really do change the direction of your life. The Specials at the Liverpool Royal Court in July 1981, mid-Toxteth Riots, was only the second gig I’d ever seen. I was a pasty, supremely feeble suburban 14-year-old who looked about ten. They were the authentic, politically incisive voice of the multiracial UK and their emblematic hit “Ghost Town” – TS Eliot’s The Waste Land for Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, complete with phantom dancehalls and spectral choirs – was either already at number one or about to get there.
No shows are as exhilarating or as hard to remember accurately as the first you go to. My memory is that far-right skinheads in the crowd began Sieg Heil-ing to the refrain of “Why?”, the guitarist Lynval Golding’s song about his own beating in a violent racist attack: “With a Nazi salute and a steel-capped boot/Tell me why.” They were not missing the point, they were making a point – a foul one. So the singer – a tall, strange, pale, intimidatingly blank young man – stopped the show and stood at the edge of the stage, one skinny guy confronting a gang of street fascists. “If that’s all you can do with your right arm,” he told them laconically, “you should cut the fucking thing off.” I had no idea that music could be this brave, this exciting. I was on board for life.
That singer was Terry Hall, who passed away this week after a short illness aged 63. A working-class Coventry kid, he had left school at 15 to wander from jobs in bricklaying, hairdressing and a shop for stamp and coin collectors into punk rock and the band Squad. Reputedly, Jerry Dammers recruited Hall into his new band – which fused the urchin racket of punk with the more mellifluous rhythms of vintage Jamaican music and was then known as the Coventry Automatics – by telling Hall, “philately will get you nowhere”. It worked. By the time Hall was 19, the newly named the Special AKA were supporting the Clash and performing at Rock Against Racism. By the time he was 20, Hall was in the charts, with the band’s still-disturbing, still-fantastic cautionary tale about the music business, “Gangsters”. Its unique vocals were created by Hall singing in a bored voice and an angry voice and merging the two.
Intense, threatening and vaguely androgynous, the young Hall was the perfect frontman for the Specials’ whirlwind of kinetic energy and the 2 Tone movement’s provocative race-mixing. The band did not begin the diversification of British music but they were a powerful accelerant. If you lived in an all-white suburb like I did, the wild excitement of 2 Tone was a life-changing introduction to black British culture and a wider universe.
Onstage they, and he, were a thrilling and sometimes unnerving spectacle. While Golding, Roddy Radiation and Horace Panter would clip one another round the ear with guitar and bass necks and Dammers would thrash the keyboard like a man strapped to an instrument of torture, Hall stood still, merging John Lydon’s beautiful insolence with his own special darkness. He never smiled. Yet the fans – especially the girls – adored him as he stared and glared in eyeliner from the cover of Smash Hits.
Behind the post-punk glower was a wry wit and growing empathy in his writing. With the Specials Hall wrote the forlorn clubland comedy “Friday Night, Saturday Morning” (“Wish there was lipstick on my shirt/Instead of piss stains on my shoes”). After the Specials split he, Golding and Neville Staple formed Fun Boy Three to make gleefully strange alternative pop, have joyous hits with Bananarama, and debut Hall’s astonishing new yucca plant hairdo. The exquisite “Our Lips Are Sealed”, which he co-wrote with the Go-Go’s singer Jane Wiedlin during their brief affair, became a hit in Britain and America.
Another Fun Boy Three song, however, provided a clue to Hall’s lifelong depression. Many years before society fully confronted child sexual abuse, the jaunty “Well Fancy That!” recalled a school trip to France in which Hall was abused by a teacher. The truth, it emerged decades later, was even worse. Hall described being “kidnapped by a paedophile ring” when aged 12 and the alcoholism, suicidal thoughts and years of medication that followed.
Yet he never let the horror define him and ultimately transcended it. It wasn’t just his increasingly diverse work – sentimental indie pop with the Colourfield, kitsch, fun radio songs with Terry, Blair & Anouchka, East-West fusion with Mushtaq, collaborations with Tricky, Gorillaz and Dave Stewart – that marked him out as perhaps the most courageous and well-travelled member of the class of 2 Tone. It was the sense that despite everything that happened to him, Terry Hall remained at heart both an extraordinary and an ordinary man. The outpouring of memories on social media when he died was testament to how much this ostensibly dour figure was loved by generations that his music had helped to shape. The years go by as quickly as you wink. Terry Hall could make them special.