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In an east London photographer's studio, one man is dancing and two men are not. Beres Hammond is playing over the speakers and the dancer - Lynval Golding, guitarist - is in constant motion. Bassist Horace Panter, determinedly non-dancey, stands dead still, chin jutting, as though he's ready to punch you if you get too cheeky. And in between them is singer Terry Hall, who doesn't move much. Hall's face, though, is always changing, flicking between exasperation, resignation, wry amusement and a withering teenage side-eye. His left hand sticks out. It looks as though there's a gap for a cigarette in between your fingers, I say, and Hall says "You're right", and goes outside to smoke.
These three men are The Specials, 2019. The Specials started in Coventry in the late 1970s, a mixed-race ensemble playing a thrilling mixture of ska, reggae and punk, with pointed, politically sharp lyrics. Originally, there were seven members - the three here today, plus band founder/songwriter/keyboardist Jerry Dammers (creator of the 2 Tone record label, to which The Specials were signed), as well as singer Neville Staple, guitarist Roddy Radiation and drummer John "Brad" Bradbury. Much of The Specials' impact back then was collective: a group of street-tough individuals, the band as gang. Their gigs were raucous, confrontational affairs, occasionally marred by far-right elements wanting to cause trouble with a group that had both black and white members.
In 1981, after their scorching single Ghost Town went to No1, Hall, Golding and Staple left to form the Fun Boy Three. The remaining Specials added more members and continued as The Special AKA, before splitting in 1984 (though Dammers was held in a record company contract until 1987). Since then, there have been various Specials reincarnations. People have been in and out (30 members since 1979).
Panter was an art teacher for special needs children for a while, Golding moved to Seattle. He and Hall didn't speak for more than a decade. Neither Dammers nor Hall rejoined for years. Hall was focused on his solo career. Dammers - who started the group and owned the name - tried to restart The Specials in the late '00s on the condition that they play new material. They got as far as two rehearsals before everyone fell out again.
When I ask if Dammers will ever rejoin, Hall, Golding and Panter give answers that are noticeably varied. Is the door open for him or not? Dammers himself, when I speak to him later, says that he was served with a legal letter and forced out of the band.
"There was never a long-term plan," says Panter. "But once we got ourselves established, the obvious thing to do would be to make a new album. It was just getting the right consensus between the individuals."
As you can imagine, embroiled as they were in legal battles, this consensus took time. From 2009 on, The Specials, sans Dammers, toured, and then toured, and then toured again. According to Panter, it wasn't until 2012-13 that there was a settled membership: but then, in 2013, Staple left, due to ill health, followed by Radiation in 2014. This left Hall, Golding and Panter, plus Brad, the drummer. But then Brad died, in 2015, and, once more, things were put on hold. Until last year. "We were in California playing with Neil Young and the Pretenders," says Hall, "and I remember thinking: `Well, they're writing new stuff, why don't we?'."
Now, much-loved reggae and jazz drummer Kenrick Rowe has joined them to play live; Steve Cradock is on guitar; Nikolaj Torp Larson plays keyboards and, along with Hall, Golding and Panter, wrote and produced the new album, Encore.
Encore is strong, musically, with an unexpectedly broader palette that takes in disco, funk and oompah as well as reggae. For original fans, there are callbacks. The lead single, Vote for Me, opens up with ascending Ghost Town-style chords, and there's three covers: of the Equals' 1970 track, Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys, of Blam Blam Fever (Gunfever) by the Valentines (1967) and of the Fun Boy Three's The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum. Prince Buster, a huge influence on the band (Gangsters, their first single, was a reworking of Buster's Al Capone), is referenced in 10 Commandments, featuring the words and vocals of activist Saffiyah Khan. It's a clap-back to Buster's 1966 track that, for the benefit of any Buster-fancying woman, listed his 10 jokily chauvinistic lady friend requirements. (Prince Buster also made Princess Buster's original 1967 answer track.)
Lyrics take on the personal and the political, the United States and the United Kingdom, although more ambiguously than The Specials' original precision attacks. On BLM (Black Lives Matter), Golding talks us through three racist experiences from his past. And then there's Vote for Me. Golding points out that the Specials' (as opposed to The Special AKA) last release was Ghost Town, so it seems right that the next release, 38 years later, is Vote for Me. Hall agrees: "With Ghost Town we didn't say, `This is the right way, this is the wrong way', we just said, `Things are pretty s***, really'. And we're saying the same with Vote for Me. I find it difficult to vote on anything, really. Whereas before, we were staunch Labour. Now, I feel like I don't trust you, I don't like your face. On a personal thing with Corbyn, I definitely can't do it any more. But what are the alternatives?"
It must be strange to make a comeback now, to return in your middle age at a time when Britain appears to be determined to return to the more depressing parts of the early 1980s.
"Well," says Hall, "if we'd released a record at any point in the last eight years it would have been relevant. Because not a great deal has changed. There's different names for it, like Brexit, which sounds nuanced, but isn't far from the one called `unemployment' and the one called `racism'. Look, we didn't plan it. We didn't say: `Let's get a mix done quick, because Brexit's out at the end of January'."
There are non-political songs on the album. The penultimate track, The Life and Times, addresses Hall's depression. Though his unsmiling demeanour has always been part of Hall's appeal - "God, people saying, `Cheer up' and `Why don't you smile?' ... I get fed up with saying, `F*** off'," - a resting bitch face is far removed from the actual terror of depression.
"With every record I've done, I've made reference to it," says Hall, "but this is out-and-out. I was diagnosed with manic depression and schizophrenia about 11 years ago and that diagnosis made a big difference, because then I started taking medication. And the change in me, to be able to function ... I couldn't have done this 12 years ago. People used to say to me, `Why don't you try yoga? Or St John's wort?' But there's a massive difference when you're in a deep depression and feeling s***** with the world, and the stage that I got to, where you want to give yourself a lobotomy, it's that bad."
Medication - "lithium, hardcore drugs" - has really helped. Hall knows that his episodes are cyclical and he can feel when a depression is coming on. "And before, I used to have to give in to it and people would say, `You've been in bed for three weeks', and I thought it was 10 minutes. But now I can feel it coming and I can also feel the medication blocking it. It's brilliant. Recognising you're blocking it is amazing. It's really weird. It's like looking at a bruise develop on your leg."
The album's final track, We Sell Hope, is uplifting musically and lyrically, a contrast to all the excoriation that comes before.
"Well, in the end," says Hall, "if you're talking about each other, all you can offer is love. To respect people, and be kind to people, and hope that they give it back. They sometimes don't, but they sometimes do. But there's that sense of hope. What else have we got?"
- Guardian News & Media