Horace Panter is a creative everyman, holding down effortless ska bass-lines with the Specials and compiling a book of his artworks. Joel McIver meets him.
Formed in 1977, split into factions in the following decade and now reunited since 2008, the Specials are revered among British and American ska and 2-Tone fans for their reggae- and soul-influenced songwriting, and among bassists for Horace Panter’s immense, dexterous lines, which gave the music a bottom end often missing in songs of their era. A painter and teacher as well as a musician, Panter has a book of artwork out as we speak, simply titled Art and a fantastic insight into his creative personality.
When BGM spoke to him, he had just come off tour with the Specials. “The tour dates were fabulous,” he says. “We opened with [1981 hit] ‘Ghost Town’, which I thought wouldn’t work because it’s such a downer, but it was epic. There were 11 people on stage for that song including horns and strings, and it was like a symphony orchestra. It was a real triumph. Nowadays we have mixed audiences. You get the people who came to see us back in the day, and then you get their children too, who are now 18 or whatever. It’s a pan-generational spread, and they all have a riot.”
Asked about bass matters, Panter informs us: “For this tour I got out my old faithful 1972 Fender Precision, which I bought in ’75 for £160. It’s now absolutely knackered: a lot of the finish is coming off, but it’s the lightest guitar ever. I had some work done on it at my local music shop and the Fender rep was there: he said he’d never seen such a light Precision, because the wood had sweated out after being used so much. It was the one I played on the first Specials album and tour in 1979. My backup bass was the black Jazz that I used on the last tour, but I never used it once. Amps? I used to have an Ampeg SVT, but I couldn’t lift it. I really couldn’t! So I sold it and got a lighter Ampeg instead. I’ve got two 4x10s but I only use one of them. No effects. I don’t do tap-dancing…”
Take a listen to any of the Specials’ hits – ‘Too Much Too Young’, ‘A Message To You Rudy’, take your pick – and you’ll immediately notice Panter’s super-precise bass parts, which leave plenty of space like all the best reggae masters. To this day he doesn’t deviate from those original bass-lines, he tells us: “I play the same parts every night and anchor the whole thing. The person who improvises the most in the Specials is John Bradbury, the drummer. I always maintain that reggae is like African drumming but on Western instruments. Everybody is playing rhythm. One reason I like reggae is because all the musical rules don’t apply.”
It’s appropriate that a certain Motown-influenced bassist is one of Panter’s heroes. “Andy Fraser was my first influence,” he explains. “He was the first bass player who made me sit down and listen. He’s still a big influence today. I love the way he uses melodies and will play the third note of a chord instead of the root, and stuff like that. I also loved ‘Green Onions’ and those really simple bass parts that work, and I obviously doff a cap to James Jamerson and Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn. Don’t get me wrong – I think virtuosos are great. I love what people like Jaco Pastorius and Flea have done to raise the profile of the instrument, but it’s not what I do.”
Turning to Art, a remarkable collection of Panter’s portraits and collages, how has Panter combined his art and music careers? “I met [original Specials keyboardist] Jerry Dammers at art school, so art has always been my hobby, and I taught art as a schoolteacher until the Specials reformed in 2008. I started doing it as a serious concern after that. Being in a pop group that travelled a lot was a great reason to see a lot of the world’s great art galleries. When the Specials first went to New York, everybody else went clubbing – whereas I went to bed early so I could get up and go to the Guggenheim and the Museum Of Modern Art the next day.”
Does Panter’s philosophy as an artist overlap with his approach to playing bass, we ask? “I think it does, yes. In the 1950s there were the abstract expressionists, one of whom was Jackson Pollock, before pop art came along with Andy Warhol’s soup-can pictures. The same happened in music: you had triple albums by Yes and ELP – and then along came the Ramones, playing songs that lasted 59 seconds.”
“I’m of that pop art tradition: it’s called elevating the mundane, where you paint pictures of everyday things and make them extraordinary. It also ties in with an interest I have in religious iconography. Just as the Specials combined punk and reggae, I’m combining bits of pop art with other things. We played ska with the energy of the Clash, and that goes for my approach to art too.”
Art by Horace Panter is out now on Foruli.