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By Juliana June Rasul
The New Paper
Saturday, Mar 31, 2012

When the London riots played out last year, it was to the soundtrack of a song that was released 30 years ago.

The song Ghost Town, about violence in cities and disenfranchised youth, was singled out as particularly striking, given the mood in London last year.

But suggest to The Specials' bassist Horace Panter that his English ska-punk band's music is timeless, and he replies: "Well, injustice is timeless."

The seminal two-tone ska band, sans one of its founding members Jerry Dammers, plays at the Timbre Rock & Roots festival on Friday, alongside blues legend Buddy Guy and blues singer-songwriter Keb' Mo'.

When The New Paper got on the phone with him late last month, Panter, 58, was getting lunch out of the fridge in his home in Coventry, where he spent most of his years as an art teacher, after The Specials disbanded in the mid-80s.

"I honestly thought I would retire as a school teacher," he said. "I didn't think I would be back playing Glastonbury in front of 75,000 fans."

But that's exactly what the band did in 2009, after it regrouped the year before.

Slipping back into songs like A Message To You Rudy, Too Much Too Young and Monkey Man was like "wearing a comfortable pair of shoes", said Panter.

"It was like we'd never stopped playing. The songs are ingrained in our DNA," he said.

He remembers the first moments of being on the Glastonbury stage as "quite possibly the scariest 30seconds of my life", especially when the crowd went mad.

They played everywhere that year, including the V Festival in the UK, a show which, famously, was punctuated by the entrance of late British singer Amy Winehouse, who, Panter revealed, had begged frontman Terry Hall to come on to do a few songs.

"We didn't know anything about it at all, and suddenly this creature with huge hair staggered on stage, and she was really rather good," said Panter.

"Shame isn't it, what happened?"

Unexpected adoration

He was aware that Winehouse had, for several years, been covering The Specials on tour and at festivals, which may have accounted for some of the unexpected adoration thrown at them from "people who weren't born when we made these songs".

Four years since they regrouped, the adoration is still coming hard and fast from all corners.

Panter's response? Meh.

"I think a lot of these grandiose terms are overused, don't you?" he said. "Like the word 'awesome'. People say, 'This pizza is awesome.'

"No, it's pizza."

But it's hard to avoid the fact that those terms have been used rather liberally on the band - they even received an Inspiration Award from Q Magazine in 2009.

"I'll leave that kind of stuff to commentators," said Panter.

The Specials are just one of a number of bands from way back, who have reformed and are touring the world.

The 80s and 90s graduating classes have spilled forth re-energised versions of New Order, Pulp, Black Sabbath and Roxette.

Some try on new material, but The Specials seems to be blissfully happy with its playlist of 30-odd songs that everyone knows.

Panter candidly acknowledged that the group's back catalogue is its "meal ticket".

"We are The Specials, we have to play ska and reggae infused with punk. If we came out with a country music or heavy metal album, that wouldn't sit well," he said.
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