Terry Hall Changed British Pop Music Forever

A few words on the passing of the Specials' frontman...

When news of Terry Hall’s death flashed across news channels hundreds of memories seemed to pass through my mind. Seeking out old Specials vinyl in charity shops, searching for clips online, and marvelling – mouth-open – as the band reformed, playing some truly incredible live shows in the process. With their brief span, and slim catalogue – two studio albums before fracturing – it’s easy to discount the Specials, but hopefully now, with their final chapter written, Terry Hall’s life can be seen for what it was: a game-changing moment in British pop.

Few singers have channelled so much emotion with so little. In interviews, Terry Hall reflected that as a teen he would ‘rehearse’ in his bedroom not by singing, but by gazing into the mirror, perfecting his dead-eyed stare. A kind of emotional disconnect, it seemed to perfectly reflect the alienation of the times. Indeed, if you go back and listen to some of those vital Specials cuts – ‘Nite Klub’, ‘Blank Expression’, ‘Man At C&A’ – they’re shot through with sadness and alienation, cut off from empty commerciality and dystopian politics.

A band as good, as vital as The Specials couldn’t last forever. Parting in the aftermath of their seminal single ‘Ghost Town’, Terry Hall, Neville Staple and Lynval Golding would go on to form Fun Boy Three, scoring some era-defining hits of their own. This, too, would reveal another hallmark of Terry Hall’s career – the urge towards reinvention, and his longing for collaboration. Whether scoring hits alongside Bananarama or helping sculpt some early Lightning Seeds hits – once more shot through with hidden darkness – Terry Hall’s voice, and idiosyncratic approach, proved unbeatable in whatever circumstance he found himself in.

Indeed, the complexities of his catalogue mirror its many-splendoured charms. The Colourfield’s sole studio album continues to amaze, while frequent collaborations with Damon Albarn across the decades reveal the depth of respect the Blur artist had for his fellow frontman.

And it could well be the tributes of musicians that reveal Terry Hall’s deep and abiding impact on British music. Elvis Costello – who produced the Specials’ seminal debut album –  described Hall’s voice as “the perfect instrument for the true and necessary songs on The Specials. That honesty is heard in so many of his songs in joy and sorrow.”

Billy Bragg praised The Specials’ multi-racial show of unity in the face of hard right pressure in the late 70s. The songwriter comments: “The Specials were a celebration of how British culture was invigorated by Caribbean immigration but the onstage demeanour of their lead singer was a reminder that they were in the serious business of challenging our perception of who we were in the late 1970s. RIP Terry Hall.”

Dexys singer Kevin Rowland writes: “Very sorry and shocked, to hear the sad news about the lovely, and brilliant Terry Hall. Rest in peace Terry. All the best to Terry’s family and The Specials. Love from Dexys.”

Rave legends Leftfield mourned the frontman: “Just heard the very sad news that Terry Hall has died. Such an amazing singer. He sang about real people and real issues. People I could identify with. Such a loss. A brave guy.”

Terry Hall’s own life was shot through with darkness. A suicide attempt in 2004 led to him being diagnosed with manic depression, while a 2019 interview with Spectator saw the singer open up about a devastating experience of child abuse. “I was abducted, taken to France and sexually abused for four days,” he said. “And then punched in the face and left on the roadside.”

The experiences tore apart his adolescence, and left deep and lasting psychological scars. Sifting through the acres of tributes to Terry Hall, however, it’s impossible to ignore the sheer joy and inspiration he brought to generations of music fans, across a myriad of projects. He changed the lives of those around him, and re-shaped British pop forever. Terry Hall is, quite simply, a legend.

Follow Clash

Buy Clash Magazine