Terry Hall, the frontman of the iconic ska band The Specials of the late 70’s and early 80’s, has sadly died after a brief illness. Famed for their socially conscious hits such as: Ghost Town, Too Much Too Young, and Gangsters, they were ahead of their time, with Hall at the forefront.
His songwriting talents were extraordinary, and coupled with his deliberately dour stage image, made him incredibly popular, helping the band achieve seven consecutive top ten singles between 1979 and 1981.
The multi-racial band were a firm favourite in Britain’s West Indian communities with their pre-reggae style; but most were unaware of a shocking incident suffered by the singer when he was just 12-years-old, which would affected him for the rest of his life and resulted in him becoming addicted to Valium.
After leaving The Specials he also fronted several more bands, tasting success with Fun Boy Three; The Colourfield; Terry, Blair, and Anouchka; and Vegas. His passing sparked a flood of tributes from fellow artists in the industry, with many labelling him a genius.
‘Squad’ player to star man
He was born in Coventry in 1959 and was considered an academically-gifted child, as well as being a decent young football player; he was a big Manchester United supporter. His first dabble with music was with a punk band called Squad, who were influenced by the Sex Pistols and the Clash.
The Specials had formed in 1977 going by the name the Automatics, changing it to the Coventry Automatics, then Special AKA, before settling on The Specials. When Hall joined in 1979, their two-tone sound quickly saw them rise to prominence; especially after touring with the Clash, which introduced them to a whole new audience.
Abducted and abused at just 12-years-old
Before that though, Hall had gone through an awful trauma when at the age of just twelve, he was abducted by a teacher, taken to France and sickeningly sexually abused for four days, after which he said he was “punched in the face and left on the roadside.”
It must have been a terrifying ordeal for him and unsurprisingly the shocking experience left him with life-long depression, and caused him to drop out of education not long after turning 14. He then frighteningly became addicted to Valium, a drug he had been prescribed to try and help him deal with the dreadful event, creating a vicious circle. “I didn’t go to school, I didn’t do anything; I just sat on my bed rocking for eight months.” He later divulged.
Songwriting talent leads to remarkable success
However, music was his salvation to a point, and when future bandmate Jerry Dammers spotted and recruited him for The Specials, he was able to channel all his talents into his songwriting and musical performances. Their rise coincided with the turbulent Thatcher years and provided the perfect subject matter for him to stand up for what he believed in, and present the message through his songs.
This culminated in the classic and menacing sound of the hit track Ghost Town in 1981, which more or less predicted the riots that occurred all across Britain’s streets during that year’s summer, in a response, among other things, to the police’s use of stop-and-search tactics and racial discrimination.
Conflicted by awards and fame
Ironically Ghost Town, which is still regarded as one of the best songs of the eighties if not all-time, was what indirectly led to the break up of the group. Hall was just 22-years-old at the time, and was conflicted by the fame and success the band were receiving, believing it contradicted their political message. He said: “We picked up a gold disc for a record that is about what is happening, the mess that the country is in, and I felt very uncomfortable about it.”
New band and more hits
He left The Specials later that year to form Fun Boy Three with bandmates Neville Staple and Lynval Golding, and proceeded to have more hits, such as “The Lunatics (Have Taken Over The Asylum)” and bravely “Well Fancy That” which was a nod to his childhood abuse. He went on to duet with Bananarama on the chart-successes “Really Saying Something” and a cover of the jazz track: “It Ain’t What You Do.”
The Specials got back together and Hall joined them on their 30th anniversary tour in 2009. They performed at the 2012 London Olympics, and then in 2019 their Album: Encore, made it to number one in the charts, making it their first album to do so.
In October 2022 he released his own album of covers, inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, featuring new versions of tracks such as Bob Marley’s Get Up, Stand Up, and is called Protest Songs.
Statement from band for “great friend”
On his passing the band released a statement that paid tribute to their bandmate, but above all their great friend. “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, that this country has ever produced.”
They went on to say that 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. Continuing the tribute the statement said: “Terry was a wonderful husband and father, and one of the kindest, funniest, and most genuine of souls. He will be deeply missed by all who knew and loved him, and leaves behind the gift of his remarkable music and profound humanity.”
Tributes from the industry
Tributes have poured in from the music industry with fellow West Midlands band UB40 expressing their sadness, saying “another one gone too soon!” Elvis Costello described Hall’s voice as the “perfect instrument”. Boy George tweeted that he was very sad to hear the news, adding: “absolutely loved him as an artist.”
His long time friend and bandmate Neville Staple wrote: “This has hit me hard, we knew Terry had been unwell, but didn’t realise how serious until recently. We had only just confirmed some 2023 joint music agreements together. Rest easy Terry Hall.”
Folk singer Billy Bragg said that The Specials and Terry Hall in particular, were a celebration of how British culture was invigorated by Caribbean immigration; whilst Charlatans frontman Tim Burgess said: “Goodnight Terry. A true genius, it was an honour to consider you a friend.”
A man of great foresight and intelligence
Terry Hall himself often spoke profoundly and with great wisdom, encouraging others to influence people around them, treat them with respect, so as to enable harmony, which he said to him would represent success. “When you see injustice, think: what can I do to help? It may not necessarily be on a global scale, it can be in your street or family. Set yourself a standard to be kind and try not to dip below it; it’s not that hard.”
Long to be remembered
There is no doubt that Terry Hall has made a lasting impression on not just the UK, but the world music scene, with his downbeat delivery, which so often captured the mood of the nation. His distinctive voice and stage presence will never be forgotten; he was the voice of a generation.