It's no secret that my novel, Ghost Town takes its name from the single by the Specials that, for many, was the soundtrack of 1981. So for the second of my series of interviews with people involved in the real-life events behind the novel, it's a particular honour introduce a member of the band that was for a time synonymous with Coventry: bassist, HORACE PANTER, otherwise known as Sir Horace Gentleman.
Like me, you first came to Coventry as a student in the 1970s. Can you describe what the city was like back then?
|"Sir Horace Gentleman"|
During the punk era you could see a band almost every night of the week - I got swept up in that.
What was your first introduction to Ska? How did that come about? What kind of music were you listening to before that?
I started by listening to the pirate radio stations in the 60s then John Peel at the BBC. The first single I bought was by The Byrds; the first album was ‘Freak Out’ by The Mothers of Invention. I was very impressionable on those days.
By the time I got to Coventry, I was into Free, The Doors, Fleetwood Mac - blues/rock. I got into soul music - Tamla Motown and Booker T and the MGs. I didn’t play reggae before I joined The Specials and we didn’t start playing ska until Christmas 1978. Ska was like blues, but the guitar played the off-beat, so for me, it wasn’t that much of a challenge. Reggae was harder to play.
What do you think it was that made Ska take root in Coventry in particular?
Ska, along with soul, was the music of the mods and by the time The Specials rose to prominence there was something of a mod revival going on. Coventry, I have now realised, was a multicultural city before multiculturalism existed. This worked for musicians as well. You got the gig because you were a good guitar player, not because you were the ‘right’ colour.
The Two-Tone label stood squarely for anti-racism. Yet there was sometimes a disturbingly ambiguous relationship with a certain section of the fans - with gigs sometimes attracting skinheads who weren’t exactly ‘on message’. How hard was that to deal with?
|Horace Panter today|
Racially-motivated violence at Specials' concerts was very rare. I can think of three concerts in our entire career where this happened and it was during our 1980 ‘More Specials’ tour. The main problem at our shows was young, over-exuberant males suffering from the effects of alcohol and football partisanship. Also, you had to know your skinhead: original and into ska/soul music; gay, or ultra-right!
Black and white kids alike saw Two Tone as ‘their’ sound. But what about young British Asian kids in Coventry? Sukhbender Singh’s play ‘Concrete Jungle’ suggests they, too, identified with the music. Did you used to see them at Two Tone gigs?
Our concerts were predominantly attended by whites. We bemoaned the fact that there were not more black/Asian fans. There were some, but a very small minority. At that time though, ska was seen by most young people in the black community as being music for old men so it wasn’t groovy.
In Coventry young Asians hadn’t quite found their feet as their culture conflicted with local culture; also, they had reason to be nervous of the skinhead uniform. They did seem to like the music though as it later influenced the emergence of Bangra music which also started in Coventry.
My novel covers the period in the spring and summer of 1981, when the student Satnam Singh Gill was murdered in broad daylight in the city centre. The resulting protests sparked violent battles between skinheads and Asian kids. The Specials’ response to the violence was to organise a Concert for Racial Harmony in the Butts Stadium. My memory of that time is that something in the city changed afterwards. There was a release of tension. Certainly it’s true that, almost alone among English cities, Coventry did not experience riots that summer. How did the concert come about? And do you have a sense of what pulled the city back from the brink?
I remember Coventry as a ‘grimmer than usual’ place in 1981, but I viewed my world through ‘rock star’ tinted glasses back then. We were aware of racial tensions in the city, not helped by the growing presence of the National Front and the murder of Satnam Singh Gill. It was obvious we had to do something about the racial tensions in the city and this was the best way to do it.
The weather wasn’t great but it didn’t rain. Attendance wasn’t that good; I think people were wary about the whole place becoming a focal point for rival factions to congregate and cause trouble, but they didn’t. The National Front had threatened to show up but, again, they didn’t. It was definitely worth it. As you have noted, there was no repeat of the civil disobedience that infected other British cities in the summer of 1981. It would be nice to think we had a part in that.
[Follow this link to see photographs from The Specials' Concert for Racial Harmony, held in the Butts Stadium, Coventry on 20th June, 1981: http://thisthen.co.uk/bands/specials/festival-against-racism/?nggpage=2 ]
How has Coventry changed since those days?
The factories have closed.
The pubs have closed.
The independent stores have closed.
The precinct has been rebuilt (badly).
Horizon Studios got knocked down and they build the Central Six shopping mall.
The Polytechnic became a University and has expanded dramatically.
I daren’t even mention the football team!
I jokingly say ‘Coventry: European city of low self-esteem - 35th glorious year’ but it’s a joke! If you’re from Cov, you’ll get it.*
That would have something to do with Coventry City winning the FA Cup in 1987? Ah, the glory days! Thank you, Horace.
Read more about Horace Panter on http://www.horacepanterart.com/