While much of the pop world mourned this unique figure, some also see another legacy that went far beyond music…
AMONGST the many moving tributes to Terry Hall, the lead singer of the 1970s and 1980s music group, The Specials, were artists of colour who saw something brilliant and brave, not just in his music but his ability to counter racism – especially of those times.
Hall died of pancreatic cancer, aged 63 on Sunday (December 18) and many have continued to pay tribute to the singer-songwriter who grew up in Coventry. Much of the city marked the sad passing with gantries and public signboards this week carrying tributes and there are moves now to build a permanent tribute to the man who meant so much to so many.
Artists of colour who grew up at the time, and become fans of The Specials and Terry Hall, spoke about their grief and loss and recognised Hall’s distinct fight against racism and discrimination at a time when it was rife.
Many feel that he was among the first to recognise, embrace and celebrate Britain’s multi-cultural heritage.
Well-known for her friendship with Hall and her early passion for the band and enjoyment of Two-tone – the style of music The Specials and other groups developed – is film director Gurinder Chadha.
She said it wasn’t just the music that meant so much but also Hall’s interest and consideration for others shone through.
She first encountered Hall at a university gig in Norwich where she was studying as an undergraduate at the University of East Anglia. Hall was only 19 himself.
The Specials were virtually unique at the time in having both black and white band members and were popular among many young white working class communities. Originally this type of music had come through West Indian communities and genres such as Ska and Reggae. These in turn fed into British youth styles of dress and manner: Mods, Rockers and Punks.
Talking to Nihal Arthanayake on BBC Radio Five Live on Monday (December 19), Chadha recounted how dressed in the Two-tone trademark unform of black and white colours and a hat, Hall noticed her being pushed around as people danced.
“He came to me afterwards and asked if I was ok and gave me a signed album,” she told Radio5 Live. She was taken aback by the gesture and then went on to converse with the singer for some time.
“It was a wonderful coming together, I saw difference, he saw similarities.”
Chadha also said Hall had been affected by an earlier incident at a concert in Coventry when a group of Asian girls had turned up and then been dragged out by an irate Sikh father.
Racial and cultural divisions were a lot starker in the 1970s and 1980s. The fascist and violently racist political party, the National Front (NF), was growing in popularity and winning local elections. It openly called for people of colour to be forcibly repatriated; ‘P**i bashing’ was a recreational pastime for some white teenagers; and the NF routinely agitated and recruited at football grounds and schools; and there wasn’t a single person of colour in the House of Commons.
Hari Kunzru, a novelist best known for ‘The Impressionist’ (2002) and his recent work, ‘Red Pill’ (2020) took to Twitter yesterday, to express his feelings.
He wrote: “I was a 12 year old brown wanna-be Mod, surrounded by P*ki-bashers and NF skins, Terry Hall and the Specials existed in a place of far-away cool, where the racists were the outsiders. They gave me hope in a period of my adolescence when I was very depressed. Thanks Terry.”
Omid Djalili, the well-known comedian and actor of Iranian origin, broke away from his tweets denouncing the Iranian regime and its repression of women and young people in the country, to pay tribute to Hall.
He wrote: “#TerryHall too soon at 63. Loved @thespecials. ESP their strong anti racism stance that made their gigs a target for racists. Getting chased by NF skinheads after a gig in Finsbury Park 1981 a cherished memory. Huge influence.”
Koushik Banerjea, another novelist, recalls seeing The Specials and fellow Two Tone stalwarts, The Selecter in South East London in the early days and both his novels – ‘Another Kind of Concrete’ (2020) and his latest ‘Category Unknown’ (2022), cover the 1970s – paid handsome tribute to Hall.
Talking to www.asiancultureculturevulture.com, Banerjea said: “It’s very sad, Terry Hall was quite simply one of the best musicians, songwriters, and frontmen this country has ever produced.
“When I was growing up, Terry Hall and The Specials made me feel part of something. It was thrilling, incredibly stylish, and the anti-racist message of Two-tone was very powerful, certainly helping to combat the rampant street racism of that time and create the possibility at least for a sense of Britishness that was inclusive. But it was about more than that too. We learned to live, love, flounder and sometimes even succeed together.”
As recently as last year, Hall addressed the need to continue to combat racism, speaking to presenter-editor Sima Kotecha on the BBC’s flagship daily late night current affairs programme, ‘Newsnight’. He told Kotecha: “There’s still a need to fight it and never accept and keep fighting it.”
In among the tweets commemorating Hall, was one that referred to an infamous incident in 2017 when 18-year-old Saffiyah Khan faced up to the leader of the nationalist English Defence League on a Birmingham march, whilst wearing a Specials t-shirt and Hall is reported to have remarked: “It felt like a vindication of everything the band set out to do.”
Banerjea feels Hall has a left a rich legacy and artists will continue to draw inspiration from his life and work.
“And Terry, to the very end, reminded us of what really mattered, signing off his shows with the simple refrain, ‘Love, love, love’.
“We’ve been blessed to have him on the soundtrack to our lives, and his legacy, musical, poetic, philosophical will endure, because it has to – otherwise there’s no hope,” Banerjea told acv.
Hall had a difficult childhood and was more or less abandoned at 15 by his school; he drifted into a series of jobs before finding music and joining The Specials and then founding The Fun Boy Three and working with a series of other musicians and bands, including Asian outfit, Fun-da-mental.
Rubika Shah’s award-winning documentary, ‘White Riot’ (2019) covers the period when The Specials and other bands such as The Clash began to emerge and turn the tide against racism in populist British culture and chronicles the formation of the successful movement, Rock Against Racism.
Hall leaves a second wife, Lindy Heymann, son Orson and has two other sons, Theo and Felix, from a previous marriage.
Terence Edward Hall, singer-songwriter, 1959-2022.
The Specials (Facebook announcement)
Gurinder Chadha talking to Nihal Arthanayke on BBC Radio Five Live
Newsnight – Sima Kotecha (BBC Archive)
Tweet about Saffiyah Khan
Previously (acv stories)
‘White Riot’ by Rubika Shah