Terry Hall, frontman of the ska band Specials, dies at 63 after brief illness

An obituary from The Guardian.

Terry Hall, frontman of the ska band the Specials, has died aged 63 after a brief illness.

Hall found fame in the 1970s and 1980s with songs including Ghost Town and Too Much, Too Young. The Specials broke up in 1981 and he formed Fun Boy Three with his bandmates Neville Staple and Lynval Golding.

A statement posted on Twitter by the Specials described him as “one of the kindest, funniest, and most genuine of souls”. They added: “He will be deeply missed by all who knew and loved him and leaves behind the gift of his remarkable music and profound humanity. Terry often left the stage at the end of the Specials’ life-affirming shows with three words, ‘Love Love Love’ ”.

In the middle of the Specials’ hit Ghost Town, the lead singer Terry Hall let out a cry of anguish that said every bit as much as the song’s doom-laden lyrics.

Released in 1981 at a time when Britain was in the grip of recession, unemployment was at its highest levels since the 1930s and there was rioting on the streets, the song seemed to echo a moment of crisis in the national psyche — and Hall’s mournful, deadpan delivery as he sang “can’t go on no more” captured the sense of decay and disillusion.

Yet the song’s success made the singer deeply uneasy. “Ghost Town was No 1 for weeks when all the riots were going on,” he later recalled. “All this money and all these gold discs were floating in from this record about how terrible everything was. Something about it just wasn’t right.”

Backstage as they prepared to perform the song on Top of the Pops, Hall announced that he was leaving the band, seemingly traumatised not only by the highly charged politics of the divisive times but equally by the spotlight into which the rapid rise of the Specials had unexpectedly thrust him.

Formed in Coventry in 1979, the Specials went on to score six consecutive Top Ten hits in little more than 18 months, including GangstersA Message to You RudyRat Race and Stereotype. In doing so they had launched a musical genre and an entire youth movement known as 2-Tone, a fusion of Jamaican ska and punk elements.

The name referenced both a fashion style and the multiracial nature of the group. For a time, the Specials’ 2 Tone Records became Britain’s most successful label, as they signed similar-sounding groups including Madness, the Beat and the Selecter, all of whom followed them into the charts.

However, the intensity of their sudden success took its toll. Aligning with the Rock Against Racism movement, the Specials found themselves in the eye of a storm as their highly politicised stance made them a target for National Front thugs. The group’s black guitarist Lynval Golding was badly injured in a racist attack in south London and Specials’ gigs became a magnet for trouble. Fighting regularly broke out in the audience and at a gig in Cambridge in 1980, when Hall and Jerry Dammers, the keyboard player, were arrested, charged with incitement to riot and fined after intervening in a fracas between fans and security staff.

Hall performing with Horace Panter, John Bradbury and Lynval Golding in Los Angeles in 1980

Hall performing with Horace Panter, John Bradbury and Lynval Golding in Los Angeles in 1980

When not battling with neo-Nazis in the audience, Hall also found it difficult to deal with his “own side” as the Specials garnered a young and mostly male following that was fervent in its devotion to all things 2-Tone.

“Everything was a drama,” Hall complained. “You couldn’t get any space, not even for an hour or two, because wherever you went there were these lads who’d travelled miles to see you play and didn’t have anywhere to stay, so you had to put them up in your room and then you had to sit up all night with them, talking about the f***ing Specials.”

The pressure took its toll on Hall’s already fragile mental health. On the group’s early hit Nite Klub, he sang the line “Is this the place to be? What am I doing here?” with such existential angst that it seemed to be far more than simply an expression of feeling uncomfortable on the dancefloor.

On TV and in photoshoots his demeanour was so lugubrious that a rumour gained traction among fans that he had a rare medical condition affecting the muscles in his face that left him physically unable to smile.

Hall with bandmate Neville Staple at the Hope and Anchor in London, 1980

Hall with bandmate Neville Staple at the Hope and Anchor in London, 1980

It later emerged that his problems dated back to a traumatic incident of sexual abuse. At the age of 12 he was abducted by one of his schoolteachers and delivered into the clutches of a paedophile ring in France.

He was found abandoned by a roadside and rescued, but he was so scarred by the episode that he was unable to cope with going to school and spent much of his adolescence sedated on Valium (now known as diazepam). “I didn’t do anything. I just sat on my bed rocking,” he said.

He made a brave attempt to forgive his abuser. “You can let it eat away at you but you know paedophilia is just part of life,” he said. Yet he spent years trying to come to terms with what had happened. “The only way I could deal with the experience was to write about it in a song. It was difficult for me to write, but I wanted to communicate my feelings.”

The song was Well Fancy That, which he recorded with Fun Boy Three in 1983. It included the harrowing lyric: “The hedge that you dragged me through led to a nervous breakdown/ If I could have read what was going on inside your head/ I would have said, that I was blind to your devious mind/ There’s no excuse, but your abuse, and the scars that it leaves.”

Hall performing at a Rock Against Racism show, Potternewton Park, Leeds, in July 1981

Hall performing at a Rock Against Racism show, Potternewton Park, Leeds, in July 1981

The effect of the abuse eventually led to him being diagnosed with bipolar disorder after an attempt to take his own life when he was in his forties. He was again put on anti-psychotic drugs and to the end was still talking about the decades of mental turmoil that the abuse caused.

“It sort of switched something in my head and that’s when I started not listening to anyone,” he said in a 2019 podcast. “But you can’t just let it destroy your life”. He worked hard to ensure that it did not, and music was his escape, albeit a restless one. There were further hits in the 1980s with Fun Boy Three on It Ain’t What You Do (featuring Bananarama) and with The Colourfield on Thinking of You.

He later recorded with Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics as Vegas, and with Damon Albarn and Dub Pistols among others. After years of “putting as much distance between myself and the Specials as I could”, he finally relented and at his instigation the band reunited for a tour in 2009.

The reunion became permanent and the esteem in which the original group was still held was evident when their 2019 album Encore topped the UK chart. “Without wanting to sound arrogant, I think we made some important music and there’s a timelessness about it, so I hope new generations of fans can continue to latch on to it”, he said.

The Specials c 1979: from left, John Bradbury, Lynval Golding, Jerry Dammers, Terry Hall, Horace Panter, Roddy Radiation and Neville Staple

The Specials c 1979: from left, John Bradbury, Lynval Golding, Jerry Dammers, Terry Hall, Horace Panter, Roddy Radiation and Neville Staple

It was followed last year by Protest Songs 1924-2012, a collection of cover versions of politically charged songs from different eras of struggle that showed Hall had lost none of his political militancy. It went to No 2 in the UK album chart.

Hall is survived by his second wife, Lindy Heymann, a film director, and their nine-year-old son Orson. He is also survived by two adult sons, Felix and Leo, from his first marriage to Jeanette Hall, which ended in divorce.

Another relationship was with Jane Wiedlin of the American band the Go-Gos, whom he met in a club on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles in 1980. They co-wrote the song Our Lips Are Sealed about their romance, which became a Top Ten hit for Hall with Fun Boy Three.

Terence Edward Hall was born in Coventry in 1959. His upbringing was so dominated by what happened to him at the age of 12 that he seldom talked about other aspects of his childhood, other than to describe his family as “gypsy-spirited . . . and everyone used to sing in pubs.”

He left school before his 15th birthday and drifted through a series of dead-end jobs, including as a bricklayer and a trainee hairdresser. His weekends were spent watching football, supporting Manchester United rather than his local club Coventry City.

He was inspired to try his hand at singing by hearing David Bowie’s 1975 album Young Americans and later joined a punk band named Squad. When the band supported an early incarnation of the Specials, then known as the Automatics, Dammers invited Hall to join them, impressed by his transgressive approach to performing by singing with his back to the audience. At the time Hall was working in a stamp shop and Dammers claimed to have told him: “Philately will get you nowhere.”

By 1979 the Specials had scored their first Top Ten hit with Gangsters. Less than two years later Hall quit, taking his fellow Specials Neville Staple and Lynval Golding with him to form Fun Boy Three.

Despite his mental health struggles, he professed to be looking forward to growing old. “A lot of people think that 60 is part of the downward spiral, which it is if you allow it to be, but you can fight it. I always thought I’d make my best music in the years between 60 and 70.”

Terry Hall, singer, was born on March 19, 1959. He died after a short illness on December 18, 2022, aged 63

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