Sunday 25 February 2018

'The Specials is nice... like putting on a pair of old slippers'

Horace Panter used to be best known as the bassist with ska heroes The Specials and is now just as well known as a visual artist. 'I'm a supporting musician,' he tells our reporter ahead of his Dublin exhibition. 'But the art is my solo album'

From ska to pop art: Horace Panter at work on pieces for his Dublin exhibition
From ska to pop art: Horace Panter at work on pieces for his Dublin exhibition

Hilary A White

'It is a bit spooky," Horace Panter considers aloud. 'Ghost Town' - the politically charged anthem that Panter lent bubbling basslines to as a member of ska heroes The Specials - is 36 years old this month.

The single chimed with a Britain in the grip of race riots and economic instability. Like much of the Specials' early output, the idea was to move minds by first moving the feet. It has not gone unnoticed by Panter and his comrades that all these years later, race and the economy are back on the table in Brexitdom.

"I suppose it's one of the things that makes those songs timeless, because injustice is timeless," the 63-year-old says.

Still touring with an incarnation of the two-tone luminaries, he's just back from Montebello festival in Canada where the Specials shared a bill with riff-rockers Queens of the Stone Age and Eagles of Death Metal as well as thrash overlords Megadeth. If he sounds bemused by all this, it's because such generic cross-polination was unthinkable in those days.

"Back then, you could get beaten up if you bought a Deep Purple album or a Best of Trojan, Vol 3," he quips, but only half-jokingly. "Toots and the Maytals played Reading in 1978 and got bottled off stage by the metal fans. Now it's better. People are more accepting of different styles."

Panter elaborates his way into a discussion about how music is consumed today, and how with the loss of those fiercely tribal musical lines that young people used to define themselves has come a new attitude of disposability towards music. Increasing vinyl sales are a reaction to music being deprived of a physical presence but the intent behind the making of music is still lagging severely from the precedent set in the punk era.

"I can't think of anything else that has been as prescient [as The Specials] in that social-political sphere since, where pop music is a little bit more than 'here's a happy tune to dance to'. Perhaps I'm wrong - I don't listen to an enormous amount of contemporary music and I know there's a lot being made - but the way it's absorbed is very disparate. Back then, it was on Top of the Pops, or you could read about it in various publications."

The reason that we've meandered into this topic isn't one of nostalgic disillusionment about the good-old-bad-old days when music was "real". Panter, in fact, is these days only partly defined as the one-time 'Sir Horace Gentleman', decked in Mod attire and rocking-steady to adoring legions. Most of the time, he is more regarded as a visual artist.

A decade before 'Ghost Town', Panter was studying fine art in Lanchester Polytechnic (now Coventry University). He left college with not only a collaborative bond with fellow Specials founder Jerry Dammers, but also a BA in Fine Art. He always kept a foot in the world of visual art, and when the Specials one time played New York, Panter famously got an early night so he could rise early to check out Moma and the Guggenheim.

After a spell as an art teacher to special needs children, he decided to go full-time as an artist. When the Specials became a touring concern once again in recent years - albeit without Dammers' involvement - Panter was happy to have "a parallel career" back on the four-string precisely because he didn't have to.

"It's very difficult to choose which I like more," he says. "The Specials is nice because it's like putting on a pair of old slippers. It's enjoyable and I get to travel with nice people who I enjoy being with. And I get this fantastic experience of walking out in front of thousands and playing these songs. But I'm the bass player - I'm a supporting musician. I need a drummer, a keyboard player, a guitarist etc. But the art is my solo album. The work stands or falls by my efforts alone."

Panter's colliding montages and stark iconography echo the very best of the traditional pop art of Warhol and Roy Lichenstein while blending in hints of Barnett Newman's bold-coloured expressionism and the faded romance of Hopper and Hockney.

Elevating the mundane to an iconic level fascinates Panter, as only a glance at his new collection, Cassette Vs Vinyl, shows. Images of cassettes are personalised to invoke teen dreams of headphone soundtracks, playlists compiled for lovers and spiritual importance placed on these pieces of cheaply manufactured plastic. And he is suitably delighted to hear that our conversation is being recorded on a cassette-tape dictaphone.

"I've got this theory that pop art was to abstract expressionism what punk rock was to the music that went before it. There's Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko and the deep philosophical arguments about their work. And then along comes a bloke with a soup can. In a way, I like to think I'm doing the same sort of thing. The cassette is the audio equivalent of a soup can. It's a disposable piece of early cheap music technology but your life is on there. I love Lichtenstein's idea of elevating the mundane."

This fascinating, pitch-perfect amalgam of a nostalgic narrative - cassette images will be adorned with scrawled names of generation-defining acts such as The Clash, Bowie and Nirvana - and the primary-coloured punch of pop art is likely to go down a treat when Cassette Vs Vinyl arrives to the Ebow Gallery. It will be Panter's first visit to Dublin since a Midnight at the Olympia show in the 1990s that he remembers fondly as being "absolutely wild". "If the response to the art stuff is half as good, it's going to be fantastic."

Bright, chipper and self-effacing, Panter looks to have come out the other side of a notoriously casualty-strewn era in rock music unscathed. Touring today is a lot more comfortable than it once was, and besides, it allows him to travel the world with his camera finding images to bring back to his studio. His collections have exhibited in art capitals such as Los Angeles and New York, and he is looking forward to being the official artist for the 80th Anniversary of the Beano comic house. Many musicians pick up paint brushes in their later years. Not all achieve credibility in the medium.

"I think there is that thing with some musicians doing art that you're basically buying an autograph," he says, "but I like to think my work stands or falls because it's good. Being the bass player in the Specials does help - the galleries don't put the phone down so quickly - but what's happening now is people are going, 'these are really good, what band did you say you play in again?' And that's good."

Cassette Vs Vinyl opens Thursday, July 27, at the Ebow Gallery, 1 Castle Street, Dublin 8, and runs for four weeks.

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