By Jacqueline Howell
Sir Horace Gentleman, founding bassist of The Specials. Horace Panter, artist. There’s a number of ways to appreciate the creative work of the iconic bassist these days, as The Specials returned to the road after decades apart beginning in 2009 with all the fire and uncorkable energy that the records and filmed footage always promised. Still, the return of The Specials has been a delightful surprise after decades of longing, anticipation and rotating those early perfect records. The success of the early reunions have assured all concerned that The Specials can join festival bills and play in the UK and beyond whenever they are so inclined, and sell out crowds will be lining up to meet them on the other side of the barrier. The Fall 2016 tour (US September 9th-30th) then UK in October/November) will include Gary Powell of The Libertines on drums.
Crowds now contain multi-generational groups of fans: from those who were there more than 30 years ago to young parents with their children, to raised-right Millenials. A more well-dressed than usual rock club scene forms wherever The Specials land, with a strong representation of Rude boy and mod looks and Fred Perry shirts that have become more emblematic of this music, and more right, somehow, than your typical band t-shirt (though fans will sell those out too, for later dress down days.) For this band, and this rare decades long celebration that will reignite in the coming weeks across North American cities on The Specials’ upcoming tour, one tends to want to wear a collared shirt.
The legacy of The Specials music which led to no less than 7 consecutive top 10 singles from 79-81 (and music of their contemporaries and touchstones) as well as the criss-crossing of American cities over the years has informed the work of Horace Panter the artist. Hailing from Coventry, Panter was a fine artist first, meeting Jerry Dammers at Lanchester Polytechnic (where Panter would earn a degree in fine art in 1975), a meeting that would lead to the formation of The Specials in 1977.
As a fine artist, Panter has created work that reflects a diverse set of influences from the Pop Art movement, a realm that continues to change as culture shifts in new ways, to Edward Hopper’s realist Americana works. Notably, the artist, having had much time to develop and grow in other creative pursuits, as well as the added facets of the unique life experience of a touring musician, has, in our view, also been his own influence, and a worthy one. Memory, highly specific, compelling travel imagery and the life of the idea of Americana are all present in Panter’s recent exhibitions in the U.K. including the recent Myth America show. America and Americana is an idea often best analyzed by visitors from abroad who’ve seen all the films and imagery but then connect that to the actual experience of the place, to dreams and fantasies or to jarring realities and fictions that are different in every different place’s myths. These tend to focus on iconography of the road and its landscapes. The peopled pictures are something else again; the artist has created a definitive painting of The Specials that speaks to legacy and permanence despite the changes of time. A commissioned painting of the late Amy Winehouse moves beyond pop art and into something classical, while looking exactly like the overly-photographed woman, except composed, at peace, with that shrugging shoulder and surrounded by beauty and sun somewhere safe from paparazzi.
Horace Panter’s upcoming art shows (details at the bottom of this page) include Cassette vs. Vinyl, Panter’s continued exploration of iconic music imagery with the technology that is deeply bound in our shimmering memories when the physical object, cassette or vinyl was an inexorable part of music itself, plastic or vinyl treasures with pride of place. A canvas with a recreation of a band’s scrawl and an iconic record brings a sense of immediacy and emotion to something that culture has largely become divorced from in the unreal digital era. It’s a strong statement, and a very timely one. Today’s Pop Art, currently being redefined in these and other contemporary works, is something full of not only vivid colour, but vivid heart. And now, a rare musicality.
As Ska legends The Specials embark on their latest U.S. tour this month and with a full slate of art showings and related travel at home and abroad, Sir Horace Gentleman most generously took time to speak to us about his music, his art, his influences and his treasures.
All photography & artwork is copyright Horace Panter Art (via https://www.facebook.com/horacepanterart/) and links to galleries & the artist’s official site is included at the bottom of this page.
Step On: We’ve followed The Specials for as long as we’ve been aware of music. Like many big music cities in North America, Torontonians have a love of your music that is near and dear to us over the decades and has never left. While many of us weren’t at the shows the first time out in the late 70s, we were there for your unforgettable return to our city in more than 20 years (2010), and the next (2014), and are eagerly awaiting your next stop in our city in September, for which, naturally, we bought tickets for the minute they went on sale. Can you share with us what the first records you remember loving or buying for yourself?
Horace Panter: When I was growing up, music was something I heard on a Sunday. My father would get up early and put a stack of LPs on this huge ‘radiogram’ record player in the lounge. It was Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin or songs from the Musicals (South Pacific, High Society and so on). A little later on, a copy of ‘With The Beatles’ arrived and I loved ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ (1st track, side 2) but could never figure out who C. Berry was! The first single I bought was ‘5D’ (Fifth Dimension) by The Byrds, then I got ‘All or Nothing’ by The Small Faces and ‘Keep on Running’ by The Spencer Davis Group. By then I was becoming obsessed with pop music (1965-66).
SO: Who or what inspired you to take up music(the bass) after first studying art in University?
HP: I was in The Searchers’ fan club, aged 11. I liked the way bass-player Tony Jackson looked, with this big bass guitar, standing centre stage, singing ‘Sweets for My Sweet’ – yes, I’d like to do that! I ended up buying a bass guitar from a kid at school. It cost me £6. I couldn’t play it but I could hold it and pretend to be in The Small Faces. I never got to grips with the instrument until I went to college (1972) where I was fortunate enough to meet a drummer who could actually play and someone who could show me how to make sense of the bass.
SO: We are not art critics, but we see some lovely shades (particularly in bold use of sunshine drenched colour) of David Hockney in your latest collection. As outsiders to America ourselves, we’ve always enjoyed the interpretation and experience of America through the eyes of British artists (and musicians). We know you spent a decade teaching art to special needs children in the 2000s before exhibiting your own art professionally in 2010. How did you come to making Pop Art?
HP: Pop Art was the first thing that got me interested in the visual arts. I’m a child of the 60s so the whole aspect of ‘pop culture’ designs: Carnaby Street, psychedelia and especially Peter Blake (he did the cover to The Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’ album). When I studied art at college I got swept up by the (then) current trends of conceptualism and minimalism but when I revisited my work later on, I returned to what had originally inspired me.
SO: What are your current preoccupations?
HP: In art I’m kind of between projects! I’ve just finished a series of large cassette paintings that will be exhibited in Los Angeles this October. I’ve recently become enamored by the English Ice Cream Van. It’s the nearest thing we Brits have to the colourful aesthetic I see in America. I’d like to paint a series of them and then there are many more ‘Americana’ pictures to do. Musically I’m getting steeped in country music. Reading a lot about its origins and how it has developed over the past 100 years; really interesting. I’ve got a 6-piece country band going (Honky Tonk Rose) which is proving a lot of fun. It has changed the way I play too. I always need something to ‘up my game’ – in music as well as art.
SO: How do you spoil yourself?
HP: I play music. There is very little that gives me greater pleasure than to play music.
SO: What is your favourite era of music?
HP: This is really difficult. It changes quite a bit. Ten years ago I would have said being in Chicago from 1958-1964 would have been amazing. I could see Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Freddie King, Elmore James, Jimmy Reed and Hound Dog Taylor on a pretty regular basis. I consider myself very lucky to have been a kid in the 60s – I remember when Sgt Pepper’s came out, saw Jimi Hendrix on TV and saw Led Zeppelin live when I was 15. In 1978 I was in a band that opened for The Clash and went on to play those venues in my own right a year later. What can I say…
SO: What is your favourite journey?
HP: A journey I’m looking forward to is a train ride across the Rockies from Minneapolis to Seattle. It’s part of our US tour. Some people are flying, others on the tour bus, but the opportunity was too good to pass up. I love travelling. I think airports are very exciting, even romantic, places. Those bus tours I did as a musician in the 70s and 80s were wonderful. Travel definitely broadens the mind.
SO: What was the last great movie or TV show you saw? What book do you return to?
HP: I don’t watch a lot of TV but I’ve always got a couple of books on the go. I’ve recently finished ‘The Country Music Reader’ by Travis D. Stimeling and a selection of articles from ‘No Depression’ magazine, both of which I found really informative. I was very impressed by ‘Into the Silence’ by Wade Davis, which is about British mountaineer George Mallory. Once every 18 months I read ‘Goodbye Darkness’ by William Manchester. My favourite music books are ‘Get in the Van’ by Henry Rollins and ‘s.t.p. A Journey through America with The Rolling Stones’ by Robert Greenfield. I’m a sucker for Rock Biographies (I wrote one myself: ‘Ska’d for Life’ 2007)!
SO: What is your most treasured tool or instrument?
HP: I suppose it has to be the 1972 Fender Precision bass that I’ve owned since 1975. It’s the instrument that I used on the first Specials’ album – I still bring it out from time to time; used it on The Specials UK tour in 2014. I’ve recently had it x-rayed and turned the x-rays into silkscreen prints!
SO: What is your favourite curse word / the phrase you overuse the most?
HP: I find myself using the word ‘famously’ a lot. I have no idea why ‘The Specials famously played in London in 1979…’ or ‘Oscar Wilde famously said…’; ‘Andy Warhol famously painted his soup cans… blah blah blah’. It sounds crap and I wish I didn’t do it!
SO: Who is the most underrated band or underrated album?
HP: An album I keep coming back to is ‘River’ by Terry Reid. I still have my vinyl copy, which I bought the day after I first heard it in 1975. I also have it on CD and it is on my iPod; the sound of his voice – the funk of the rhythm section and David Lindley’s slide guitar are an irresistible combination.
SO: Your art has been hugely well received and now holds pride of place on many walls across the UK (and beyond). How has your work as an artist intersected/influenced your work as a musician (if it has)?
HP: The two things are very separate in most instances. As a musician I am a team player. I need a drummer, guitar player, singer, and keyboard player etc. to work with. The art is my ‘solo album’. The pictures stand or fall by my efforts alone. The series of paintings I have done of Blues musicians were my attempt to describe how music affects me and my attempt to interpret it. Other than that, the two practices are separate. I feel very lucky to be able to work in two creative spheres.
SO: What’s next for Sir Horace Gentleman?
HP: Short term:
The Specials US tour: 9th-30th September 2016
Art exhibition ‘Cassette Versus Vinyl’ in Los Angeles 8th-11th October 2016
The Specials UK tour: 19th October-19th November 2016
Art exhibition ‘Cassette Versus Vinyl’ in London 12th -16th February 2017
The Specials tour: Far East (Australia, Japan) April/May 2017
Playing music and painting!
With very special thanks to Horace Panter.
Horace Panter Art Official Website
Horace Panter Art on Facebook
The Specials Official Website