By Lee Gale
For men of a certain vintage, a Beano annual was a guaranteed gift beneath the Christmas tree, sitting among a pile of pressies that might also include an Airfix plane or three, Matchbox car transporter, farm set, full football kit, five-colour torch and, if you were lucky, a gleaming Raleigh bike. Girls, of course, got dolls and prams. Flicking through the pages of your annual in the evening, stuffed to the gunwales with selection-box chocolate, there was almost a sense of joy that the protagonists in The Beano would usually end up tasting a size-nine slipper. Meanwhile, Walter the Softy was basically a frightening prediction of Shoreditch in 2018.
This year, The Beano celebrates its 80th birthday and to mark the occasion, Horace Panter, bass player with The Specials – and also one of Britain’s finest exponents of pop art and fine art – was invited to paint a series of compositions to be exhibited. The likes of Dennis the Menace, Lord Snooty and Billy Whizz were given the fantastically in-yer-face, wildly colourful Panter treatment, and can be seen at RedHouse Originals in Harrogate until 15 December.
In the more monochrome existence of The Specials, news has emerged that Britain’s reggae-tinged punk-pop kings have recorded a new album: Encore is to be released on 1 February. Panter puts down his brushes to tell British Ideas Corporation about his busy year.
BIC: It looks you had fun working on these paintings for The Beano’s 80th birthday collection. What was your brief?
Horace Panter: Very small, really. It was, “Would you like to do a series of paintings?” That was all. I said, “Well, what do you want?” They said, “Do some sketches and we’ll take it from there.” Six months previously, I’d bought one of the prints that Sir Peter Blake had done for The Beano’s 75th anniversary, which was serendipitous. I sat around and thought, “OK, how am I going to do this?” There were a good six weeks where I didn’t put pen to paper, where I was just thinking about it. I ended up with the surreal scenario where Dennis the Menace and Mini the Minx go to New York and sit for a Warhol portrait, and the chaos that would ensue. And that got me thinking: “OK, I can use pop art, which are my favourite paintings, and I can interpret them through this Beano lens.”
So Roy Lichtenstein vs DC Thomson…
We haven’t got Lichtenstein’s “Whaam!”, we’ve got Billy Whizz going “Whooosh!” but done in the style of “Whaam!” It gradually came together. I’m a big fan of Lord Snooty. I think he gets a lot of bad press, probably because of David Cameron. He’s actually egalitarian: he makes sure all the kids who live in the village get sweets. So I did a Lord Snooty piece in a Lichtenstein style. Do you know Richard Hamilton’s “Just What Is It That Made Yesterday’s Homes So Different, So Appealing”? I thought, “How can I take the piss out of it?” It had to be The Bash Street Kids. It was that spirit of The Beano, that irreverence but paying homage at the same time. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery. I had these little ideas and I went down to see The Beano people and they said, “Great, get on with it.” And I did.
You’ve got Dennis the Menace and Gnasher jumping into a David Hockney swimming pool…
They said to me, “You know, a lot of people like Dennis and Gnasher.” I thought, “How can I include them?” I’d done Lichtenstein, Richard Hamilton, Andy Warhol. There’d been this fabulous David Hockney retrospective at Tate Britain, and I thought, “It’s got to be ‘A Bigger Splash’ cos that’s his most-famous painting. Dennis and Gnasher are invading his swimming pool. That’s the hit of the show and the prints are doing really well. So it was a labour of love, kind of fun, and I learnt an awful lot about how those artists worked. I painted all those f***ing dots by hand over Christmas last year.
Were you an avid comic reader when you were younger?
Oh crikey, yes. The Beano was always around. And you always got an annual for Christmas, didn’t you? From some aunt or other.
It’s worthwhile picking up a Beano annual from the early Eighties and seeing how society has changed. Many of the comic strips end up with the character getting a good hiding.
Yes, yes. When I was at school, a teacher could throw a blackboard rubber at you and hit you on the head.
Did you also read Commando?
Yes, and when I went up to DC Thomson’s office, I mentioned that I used to read them. This bloke gave me a pile of them. They’re dreadful! I was, “Oh my gosh, did I really fall for that?” I used to get The Victor as well: Matt Braddock VC, who singlehandedly defeated the Luftwaffe while flying a Lancaster. Great! They were amazing. Everybody knows about The Beano now. They were antiheroes for the under-12s. Nobody could get away with what Dennis got away with. Everybody wished they could play up the teachers like The Bash Street Kids.
I really like your Sixties paintings featuring Midlands street corners.
OK, yes, the Phyllis Nicklin ones.
Are they copied from old photographs?
Yes. In the Fifties and Sixties, Phyllis Nicklin was part of the geography department at the University of Birmingham and she took a load of colour slides of the city. This was when Birmingham was being totally regenerated. Everything was knocked down and they built overpasses, underpasses and huge buildings. It was an enormous resource of images but it was just kept in this filing cabinet for 40 years. Then, three or four years ago, it was discovered and some organisation to do with the council said, “Wow, we’ve got to do something with this.” I work with a gallery in Birmingham called Reuben Colley Fine Art and they’d been asked, “Could the artists who work for you reinterpret these?” They sent me a load of these images that had come from colour slides. The colour slides had deteriorated over the years. Roofs became purple and grass became lime green. I thought that was fantastic. I love bright colours and pop art. For me it was, “Wow, these are great!” I did four or five paintings. It wasn’t just me, there were loads of other artists.
One of the paintings I liked was of a Bedford lorry.
That’s a Thames Trader. The first lorry that I ever rode in was a Thames Trader. I was eight years old and I was king of the world because I was so high up. There was this great big man with this huge steering wheel in a lorry. I can remember it clearly. A life-changing experience. When I saw one of Phyllis Nicklin’s images was a Thames Trader, I thought, “I have to do that!”
Where do you paint?
I work in my loft. It’s a converted attic. I’ve got natural light from this lovely Velux window. I’ll do a couple of hours, have a cup of coffee, wait for stuff to dry. When I first started, I worked hell for leather and smudged everything. You’ve got to be sensible. When I’m playing in The Specials, I can’t do painting and sometimes there are other household things to do. It’s got to fit itself in.
I’ve just re-read your book Ska’d For Life about your time in The Specials. It’s one of the best music autobiographies ever published.
Thank you. A few people have said that. I like to think that’s because it doesn’t have an agenda. It doesn’t tie in with a new album or tour, or foundation or charity. I wrote it when I was a schoolteacher and I honestly thought I was going to retire a schoolteacher and that would be the end of that. But lo and behold, the year after it was published, Lynval calls me up and hey, here we go.
What did you teach?
I was the art teacher in a small, special-needs school just outside Coventry. I was the art department in a small, special-needs school just outside Coventry. When The Specials went on tour, it was a good excuse to go and visit the world’s great art galleries and the world’s great art.
Did you come up with the 2 Tone logo?
I didn’t do the 2 Tone man, I just did the 2 Tone Records bit. Jerry and I worked quite closely on that. I met Jerry at art college in Coventry. I did my foundation course in Northampton, then I went to Coventry.
Was Bill Drummond of The KLF on your foundation course?
That’s right, yes.
Northampton’s got a lot to answer for, hasn’t it?
The photogenic chap out of Bauhaus went there as well. Pete Murphy. But he was a couple of years after me.
It was a bolt out of the blue to hear this week that The Specials are doing a new album.
The Specials have done a new album.
Whaaat? Already recorded?
We kept it very quiet. We’d been writing it slowly and started recording it in the middle of August. We finished at the end of September. It was about time. We reformed years ago and all we’ve been doing is playing the old hits. OK, so that’s what people wanted, it was fine, but we got to the stage where we were turning into the world’s greatest Specials tribute band. We haven’t got too long left. Lynval’s not quite 70 and I’m of pensionable age. There’s not a great deal of time left. It was time to make a record.
Is your new album reggae-based?
Yes, I think so, but it’s also acknowledging that the past 40 years have existed. It’s not like we’ve attempted to re-write “Monkey Man”. I cross my fingers when I say it’s a bit more mature. We’re 40 years older than the last time we made a record.
I expect you’re asked this a lot – but do you think we need another Specials-type group coming through, bringing people together
People do ask me that in interviews, and I say, “Where are the new Specials, where is the band what will do what we did, and address the issues like we did, but make pop tunes that make people dance as well?” Perhaps the new hip-hop kind of stuff addresses it but I don’t like being shouted at by angry people.
In your book, you talk about your appreciation of a good second-hand shop. Do you still pop into these places?
Oh crikey, yes! Second-hand book stores too.
Birmingham has some fantastic vintage shops.
I think those days of picking up a 1958 Gibson Melody Maker for $50 are long gone but you can still get some amazing stuff in second-hand shops. Thrift stores, they call them in America.
How many guitars do you own?
Ooh, let me have a look and I can tell you. Thirteen, including the tiny acoustic guitar I stole from school.
Do you have favourites or are they all working dogs?
Add two more to that list. Fifteen. I’ve got a white Fender Jazz that I’m currently in love with. That’s the one that’s got Seymour Duncan pickups in it. It’s the one that did the last Specials album. I’ve still got my original 1972 Precision that I did the first Specials album with. A couple of years ago, I bought back the bass that played “Ghost Town”. Like a twerp, I sold it in 1989. I regretted it instantly. Then I saw it on the wall of my local music shop. “That’s my guitar!” So I bought it back for considerably more than what I paid for it in 1980.
The “Ghost Town” video still looks amazing today.
A 1962 Vauxhall Cresta with a three-speed column-shift gearstick. I just remember driving that backwards and forwards through the Blackwall Tunnel at 3.30am. That song was like the soundtrack to riots. It was prescient. It was spooky. I remember when we first came out and we played “Gangsters”, and Peter Powell on Radio 1 goes, “Good-time music from Coventry!” Well, yes… but!
You were a spectacularly cool collection of people.
Still are, mate! Still are!
When you look at the photographs of The Specials, you’re all very individual in your look and style but it all comes together so well.
Yes, the gestalt theory, I suppose. Terry, Lynval and I have very little in common. Lynval lives in Seattle. I don’t like football. But you put us on a stage and something extraordinary happens. We make fantastic music together. We’re all very aware of that, plus the fact we’re a lot older. We’ve become parents. It’s almost like The Last Of The Summer Wine. We’ve told all the war stories, we’ve had the stand-up rows, we’ve had all the arguments. It’s cemented this very peculiar relationship.
Were there any arguments when you were doing the new material?
No, because we all wanted to do this. You could say, “I disagree with you,” which in the past would have been taken personally. Now, it’s like, “Whatever it takes to make a record sound good.” When they did Live Aid there was that sign saying “Leave your ego at the door”. It was a little bit like that.
Do you think The Specials’ experience in 1979 and 1980, especially the gruelling American tour that sent you all mad, was any different to other bands’ experiences at the time?
Those American bus tours… It’s like, a) there’s joining the Army, and b) joining the SAS. Those American bus tours were joining the SAS. If you come out the other end and still want to be in a group, you’ve got it made. They’re frightening. It can destroy you really quickly. I’ve done lots of bus tours since but that one was: this is how far you can go literally and metaphorically. But I also like to think that I keep my feet on the ground .
It read in your book like Apocalypse Now. A tour of Vietnam.
Horace, we’ll let you get back to your painting. We’re really looking forward to the new album.
Yes, it’s great! Released 1 February and it’s called Encore. It’s French for “again”. I wanted to call it Again but Terry said, “No, that’s not very good.” And somebody said, “Let’s call it Encore.” The French will get it.
The Beano Collection by Horace Panter is at RedHouse Originals, 15 Cheltenham Mount, Harrogate, HG1 1DW. On until 15 December. redhouseoriginals.com