Horace Panter in his studio. Click to enlarge. Photograph: David Markham
David Markham meets one of Britain’s music legends who is now developing his name as an artist
In 1981 England’s green and pleasant land was scorched by the white hot heat of race riots. Revolution was in the air and while England burned the number one single in the charts was Ghost Town by The Specials. A haunting song that cast a shadow over a nation on its knees.
Gruelling tour schedules and band histrionics both played their part in an on-off relationship between group members, but The Specials continue to perform to good sized audiences to this day.
Co-founder and bass player of The Specials is Horace Panter (aka Sir Horace Gentleman). During “off” time with the band he rekindled his practical love of art (he is a fine art graduate from Lanchester Polytechnic) and demand for his work has grown incrementally.
His next show is at According To McGee, the gallery on Tower Street, York. The exhibition runs from June 7 to June 30.
The sun was blisteringly hot and my car’s air conditioning set to cold on the day I went to meet Panter in his Coventry studio.
No interview could be complete without reflecting on The Specials before we took a walk through his appetising portfolio of art and what we can expect at the York exhibition.
We headed towards his vaulted attic studio and we start to talk music and art.
You described The Specials support slot with The Clash On Parole tour in 1979 as your “Battle of Britain” moment. Can you tell me a little bit about it?
Until that tour I’d really only played working men’s clubs – where if you were lucky people danced. The audiences on the Parole tour were incredibly energetic. It was controlled chaos.
It was really scary going out on stage and I guess it was our bootcamp. We started the tour as civilians and came out hardened pro’s.
We became used to that level of energy and to be fair – The Clash set the bar high. We finished the tour and we thought hey – one day we’re going to be like that.
The Clash kept themselves to themselves. As we did. If we were lucky we got a dressing room. Sometimes they paid for accommodation but sometimes we stayed overnight in the van.
You’re 25 – if you’re doing what you want to do you can sleep in a hedge.
After the tour you spent time at the Clash rehearsal studio in London – “Rehearsals Rehearsals”. How did that work out?
I don’t think it was a waste of time but we’d got this head of steam from the tour – you know – c’mon we can take on the world!
We were under Bernie Rhodes wing (Clash manager and legendary music svengali) and he wasn’t sure what to do with us.
He kept testing our resolve. It was like a continuation of the bootcamp. We slept and rehearsed there. It was appalling.
We got pretty friendly with Mickey Foote (the Clash Sound Engineer) and he came with us to Paris to take care of our sound.
You moved back to Coventry after rehearsals in London and then the whole 2 Tone phenomenon kicked off
Yeah we managed to get some money and do some recording. Jerry Dammers and I took the recordings to Geoff Travis at Rough Trade and he remembered us from the Clash dates at the Music Machine.
We’d also been getting bits of press and we’d met the Damned manager Rick Rogers. We had a gentleman’s agreement that he’d take us on – no contract.
John Peel started playing Gangsters and our live audience continued to build. We then signed to Chrysalis and 2 Tone Records was licensed to them.
We had an agreement to be able to record other bands on the 2 Tone label. Madness and The Selector both followed. Essentially Chrysalis had signed their own A & R department!
It really started out as a Motown or Stax type concept.
You toured the USA while things were happening commercially back home. Did that cause pressure in the band?
I think so. We were really happening in the UK and playing an intense schedule in the US too. For example – two gigs a night over four days at the Whiskey a Go Go!
You just can’t do that but that’s what bands did in those days.
In England we could create our own agenda but not in the US. It’s such a huge country. We suffered from it.
We went to Japan afterwards and the cracks started to show. We were exhausted and it just started to fall apart.
We really should have taken a break.
You then spent time with your wife building a business before joining General Public. You played some big dates in the US again didn’t you?
That’s right I was in General Public from ’83 to ’87. We were MTV darlings for a while! We played some big shows – especially on the West Coast.
In a later incarnation of the Specials and the Beat we supported Sting and played places like the Red Rocks Arena and Madison Square Gardens.
I then reached the point where I wanted to spend time with my family and retrained as a primary school teacher. Got a proper job. I was a special needs teacher – ultimately the art teacher.
So you started to rediscover a practical interest in art again?
That’s right. I had an art school training anyway and when I was touring with the band I also got the chance to visit some of the most prestigious art museums in the world – it was great.
I’d always been interested in it. I started to work up some drawings based on Japanese toy robots. Paintings followed and there was interest in what I was up to.
They sold and it’s all grown from there. I was an artist before I was a musician if you like.
My best subject at school was technical drawing. I’ve always liked the idea of graphics.
You’re interested in pop art?
Yes I am. People like Robert Indiana. The flat colour thing.
Do you get as much of a kick out of art as out of music?
Definitely yes. This is my solo album! I become part of a unit in The Specials but this is my solo career. Music and art go hand in hand for me.
You’re also interested in iconography – the symbolic representations of images and position of images…
Yes I am. I’ve travelled in South America and the Far East quite a bit and I picked up on the notion of elevating the mundane.
I’ve been to many places in the world but never any where like Bejing for example. It’s fascinating. The sound of Bejing in the morning is not birds – it’s jackhammers. Inspiration everywhere. I painted some hoodies when I was out there.
I like seven. The number of perfection. It’s sometimes featured in my life and in my images too.
Your love of ska is well documented but you also love the blues too. How does that manifest itself in your art?
I took the notion of iconography and mashed it up with my love of the blues. I undertook four pieces with Chicago blues players at the core and I’m now up to 12 pieces. There’s a narrative throughout the work.
The process I use to create these pieces is really great. It’s all part of it for me.
I first noticed your work by way of the Cassette pieces. What is it about cassettes that captured your imagination?
I used them as inspiration. I painted the first one and wrote “Enjoy yourself” on it. People seemed to get it.
They’re wonderful. They have no real use anymore in terms of holding recorded music but they work as paintings. I call them repositories of memories.
You look at them as paintings and you go – that takes me back! It’s not what the painting is – it’s what it represents. We’ve also taken some prints from the originals too.
Art for everyone
Sir Horace Gentleman is a gentleman by name and gentleman by nature. Panter has retained an unbridled enthusiasm for both music and art.
A lifetime devoted to creating and performing is welded to a sense of curiosity and wonder about the world. His experiences of the world have informed his art.
In a sense his music with The Specials bears comparison to his art.
You don’t have to be a “rude boy” to like Panter’s work. You don’t have to have a trained eye. It’s for everyone.
He creates contemporary pieces that are cool. They’re not heavy. They make you feel connected to life in a modern world. He’s well versed in the vocabulary of modern art and particularly pop art.
I recommend you see the exhibition. See for yourself. Enjoy yourself. Artists like Horace Panter are few and far between.
A credible musician with the skills and patience of a painter. He’s a very “special” kind of artist.
- Horace Panter: Icons and Iconoclasm opens at According To McGee, Tower Street, on Saturday, June 7, 1pm-5pm and runs until June 30
- Horace Panter will be at the gallery on Saturday, June 21 between 3pm and 5pm talking about his work and signing purchases
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