Terry Hall never craved the spotlight and yet it kept finding him, sometimes in the most surprising ways. The musician, who has died aged 63 after a short illness, had to be talked into joining soon-to-be iconic ska band The Specials by the group’s guiding light Jerry Dammers.
Later, he collaborated with Bananarama, helped The Go-Gos write their most enduring tune and had a starring role – of sorts – in the best-ever episode of Father Ted. At no point did Hall ever give the impression that he wanted to be the centre of attention.
That is surely one of the reasons why the music in which he had a hand has weathered the years so magnificently. There’s nothing in the least showy about his haunting vocals on “Ghost Town”, the June 1981 number one that blazed up the charts even as it held up a mirror to a Britain mired in racial strife and unemployment. Where other stars of that era – John Lydon with the Sex Pistols, Joe Strummer in The Clash – leaned in and it made it all about them, Hall was an uneasy spirit camped out in the negative spaces of his own songs.
It was a sort of performative minimalism that has aged remarkably well.
If rooted in the social unease of the early years of Thatcher’s Britain, “Ghost Town”’s evocation of a country laid bare by strife speaks powerfully to the contemporary listener. Today, the streets are stalked not by the spectre of unemployment but eviscerated by the cost of living crisis and the death rattle of bricks-and-mortar retailing.
While the racial tensions of which The Specials sang have meanwhile shape-shifted and gone underground. And yet, emerging from the carnage of Brexit and witnessing yet another vicious establishment attack on Meghan Markle, it is clear that old demons endure.
As the deliverer of the unhappy news that powered The Specials’ most memorable songs (“Too Much Too Young” despaired of the heartache of teen pregnancy), Hall blended charisma and diffidence. He was among the first of a new species of anti-pop star, leaving The Specials as soon as they became a juggernaut. Hall from that point seemed determined to steer his own course, a musician with a natural gift for melody but a fear of having every eye in the room on him.
He was remarkably open-minded, by the standards of the time, in his choice of collaborators. Today pop is regarded as rock’s equal. Forty years ago, the fluffier reaches of the charts were seen as forbidden territory for “credible” artists. Hall was ahead of the curve. This he demonstrated when recruiting Bananarama to provide vocals on “It Ain’t What You Do, It’s The Way That You Do It” by his post-Specials band Fun Boy Three (formed with Specials bandmates Neville Staple and Lynval Golding).
“It Ain’t What You Do” is Hall in a spooky nutshell. It’s catchy as anything yet arrives with a ghostly afterglow. This is pop steeped in dread.
“I thought they held up that punk ethic of trying to do something for yourself, trying to pull away from the majors, from the idiots,” Hall would later tell me. “The thing I had in mind when I met Bananarama was The Shangri-Las – that untrained, quite rough and dirty approach to what you do.”
Hall spent his career trying to pull away from the major label “idiots”. But behind that anti-mainstream stance lay unimaginable heartache. His life had taken a turn for the tragic at age 12 when he was kidnapped by a teacher near his home in Coventry.
“I was abducted, taken to France and sexually abused for four days,” he revealed to The Spectator in 2019. “And then punched in the face and left on the roadside.”
The incident left him traumatised and suffering depression throughout his life. He became addicted to the Valium he was prescribed as a teenager and, at 14, dropped out of education.
“I didn’t go to school, I didn’t do anything. I just sat on my bed rocking for eight months.”
Music would be his salvation – a place into which he could channel his pain. He was recruited by the ambitious Dammers, who felt that the 1976 Rock Against Racism Movement could open the door for musicians trying to cross the racial divide.
Dammers had spotted Hall at the Coventry nightclub Mecca Locarno, where Pete Waterman DJed and, learning he could sing, pleaded with him to join his work-in-progress group. The Specials were soon a leading light in the “two-tone” scene that challenged racial schisms by blending Jamaican ska with British punk.
As a lyricist and guiding light, Dammers was the driving force behind The Specials. Hall was its magic ingredient, the vulnerability in his vocals existing in tension with Dammers’s spitfire poetry. But success, when it came, was suffocating.
“It was difficult for a seven-piece band to be together all the time,” Hall would later tell me. “There was no space for thought. There were always arguments, always niggles. We had to break away. Fun Boy Three was started not because we wanted to form a band – but because we wanted to leave one.”
Hall from there resurfaced in surprising ways. In 1981 he and Jane Wieldin of The Go-Gos wrote “Our Lips Are Sealed”, foreshadowing the jangling indie pop of the 90s. And then, in the 90s themselves, he recorded the bruised and vulnerable “Home” with Ian Broudie of the Lighting Seeds, which yielded the hit single “Sense”. A few years later, “Ghost Town” had its immortal cameo in Father Ted, when it was played – over and over – at the Craggy Island disco. Hall was bemused to have been co-opted into the Ted-verse.
“I thought, if you had to have one song to put on repeat at the disco… would it be ‘Ghost Town’? It wasn’t very get up and dance, was it?
The Specials reformed in 2008 though Dammers has stayed away. Just last year, with their strident Protest Songs 1924-2012 covers LP, Hall and his bandmates reminded us that they were still plugged into the issues of the day. The record was conceived explicitly in response to the Black Lives Matter protests and featured Hall wrapping his melancholic vocals around Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up” and other anthems of disaffection.
It was a reminder of his still ferocious talent – this outsider who found himself inside one of post-punk Britain’s most compelling stories.
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