Terry Hall: his 10 greatest recordings with the Specials and beyond
The singer’s musical free spirit scored him hits with everyone from the Specials and Fun Boy Three to collaborations with the Go-Go’s and Bananarama
Terry Hall was the self-assured eye of the Specials storm | Alexis Petridis
Terry Hall: lead singer of the Specials dies aged 63
The Specials – Gangsters (1979)
The astonishing split single (with an embryonic version of the Selecter on the B-side) that introduced the Specials and the 2 Tone label to the nation. With the lineup drawing on ska, punk, eastern music and rockabilly, Gangsters radically reworks the tune of Prince Buster’s 1964 ska classic Al Capone. A misunderstanding – or possibly an argument – with Clash manager and Specials champion Bernard Rhodes over some hotel damage provided the initial inspiration for songwriter Jerry Dammers’ lyrical odyssey about paranoia and surveillance. Hall sang two vocals – one bored and deadpan, one combative – which were then mixed to startling effect. The song began life on 5,000 hand-stamped singles; eventually it reached No 8 and kickstarted the 2 Tone sound’s ascent to global phenomenon.
The Specials – Do Nothing (1980)
In their first two years as recording artists, the Specials enjoyed seven Top 10 singles and two gold albums. But all was not well in the camp. Guitarist Lynval Golding had been the victim of a racist attack and the band were worn out by the touring lifestyle and divided over Dammers’ creative control and musical direction. Out of such turbulence came gems such as this smash from second album More Specials. Dammers’ fairground keyboards provide an eerie, haunting backdrop and Hall sounds appropriately detached as he sings about the dangers of apathy in the face of approaching social and political storms, the consequences being that “nothing ever change, oh no”.
The Specials – Ghost Town (1981)
The Specials’ era-defining No 1 single brilliantly captured 1981 Britain, which wasn’t that dissimilar to today. After two years of the divisive Margaret Thatcher government, culture was in peril (“Bands won’t play no more … too much fighting on the dancefloor”), unemployment had rocketed (“Government leaving the youth on the shelf”) and decay was everywhere (“All the clubs have been closed down / This town is ’coming like a ghost town”). Hall sounds exquisitely bleak, but the giddy delight he briefly brings to the question “Do you remember the good old days before the ghost town?” conjures a fleeting joy, like someone finding a family photograph in a bombed-out building.
Fun Boy Three – The Lunatics (Have Taken Over the Asylum) (1982)
After continuing trouble in the band, Hall, Golding and toaster Neville Staple chose the improbable location of the backstage area of Top of the Pops (where they were performing Ghost Town) to announce their departure from the Specials. The trio soon returned as Fun Boy Three with a more percussive sound that showed that Dammers wasn’t the only stellar songwriter in the group. Their first single – and first hit – finds Hall using his most eerily becalmed, conversational delivery to warn that political leaders will lead us into Armageddon.
Fun Boy Three – It Ain’t What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It) ft Bananarama (1982)
Fun Boy Three’s second hit showcased yet another of Hall’s multiple talents, this time as talent-spotter. Having bought the first single by unknown London pop trio Bananarama, he read about them in the Face and suggested they do a song together. This resulted in this joyous cover of a 1939 jazz tune (first recorded by Jimmie Lunceford, Harry James and Ella Fitzerald) which became an 80s dancefloor staple and put Bananarama in the Top 5 for the first time. The three young women returned the favour by asking Fun Boy Three to sing on their next single, Really Saying Something.
Fun Boy Three and the Go-Go’s – Our Lips Are Sealed (1983)
Anyone arriving early to see the Specials on their “seaside tour” in 1980 might have glimpsed support band the Go-Go’s way before they became the most successful all-female rock group of all time. Hall and guitarist and vocalist Jane Wiedlin’s brief romance on that tour resulted in this supreme example of catchy 80s pop, which subsequently became a hit for both their bands. Wiedlin reacted to news of Hall’s death by paying tribute to their time together, tweeting that the song “will forever tie us together in music history”.
The Colourfield – Thinking of You (1985)
With Fun Boy Three splitting after an American tour and two Top 20 albums, the ever-restless Hall moved to Manchester and formed the Colourfield with two musicians from fellow Coventry and 2 Tone ex-pats the Swinging Cats. Their third single – a No 12 hit – perfectly demonstrates Hall’s mastery of the pop craft and the more sensitive, tender side of his songwriting. It’s a lovely tune and devotional message to someone who has walked away: “If you ever think of me / I’ll be thinking of you … If you decide to change your views / I’m thinking of you.”
Terry Hall – Sense (1994)
As his activities so far suggest, Hall always had an eye for a musical kindred spirit. He had met Lightning Seeds’ head honcho Ian Broudie when the Liverpudlian produced the Colourfield, and this sublime 1992 Lightning Seeds hit was the first song that resulted from a songwriting partnership which became a lifelong friendship. Hall recorded his own version for his first solo album, 1994’s Home and it’s not hard to see why. From the delicately yearning verses to the triumphantly celebratory chorus (“When you’re near / It all makes sense”) it touches all the places a perfect pop song should.
Terry Hall & Mushtaq – A Gathering Storm (2003)
As a West Midlands former punk with Polish refugee and Jewish heritage, Hall’s musical free spirit led to all manner of musical curveballs: Fun Boy Three’s Urdu version of Our Lips Are Sealed, the short-lived electro duo Vegas with Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart or the pop trio Terry, Blair & Anouchka with now-renowned psychoanalyst Anouchka Grose. For 2003’s The Hour of Two Lights, the singer joined with Mushtaq Uddin from Bradford rap fusion band Fun-Da-Mental, a Polish Gypsy band, a jazz pianist and a 12-year-old Lebanese singer to startling effect. Here, Hall’s inimitably downbeat vocals sound utterly tailor-made for a gloriously striking collage of Arabic and global grooves.
The Specials – Vote for Me (2019)
Towards the end of his 63 years on the planet, Hall was wearied by successive Tory governments and feared that the multiracial society celebrated by the Specials and 2 Tone had started to go backwards. Appropriately, then, he ended his musical career where he started it. From the re-formed Specials’ album Encore, Vote for Me takes aim at contemporary Britain and especially its politicians every bit as passionately as Ghost Town and suggests that, despite such a glittering legacy, Hall’s work was far from done.