Terry Hall of The Specials. Photo: Richard Saker/Shutterstock
Ahead of the release of a new album of protest songs, The Specials’ Terry Hall looks back on his life, from working as a bricklayer to stumbling upon a career as a singer, in this week’s Letter to my Younger Self.
I had come through a lot of trauma in my early teens but being 16 was a great period for me. I left school at 15 and was taking lots of jobs. One day I was a bricklayer, next day I was a hairdresser. When you get kicked out of school with nothing, it closes down a lot of doors, but I was just starting to get an angle on what I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. There was a period where I was signing on and using my dole money to buy records. Young Americans by David Bowie was a defining record for me and I had the first inkling that maybe I wanted to be in a band. But I found it difficult to work out how you actually did it.
My heroes were Bowie, Roxy Music and early Lou Reed. A pattern was developing of what I liked musically. Then punk happened, and when I saw the Pistols and The Clash I realised it didn’t seem that difficult. They didn’t seem like they could play very well either, so the thing was to form a band then work it out. That’s what we did. We didn’t even know who was going to play what – we passed around all the instruments until we found what we were comfortable with. I wasn’t comfortable with any of them so I became the singer.
My feelings before being a singer in a band were locked away. Now I was in a position to let my feelings out. I’m socially inept but all of a sudden I was finding my voice – it’s always been a weird thing that I’ve never quite understood. But I loved it, and having spent years not being listened to, standing on a stage with a microphone was my chance to share my voice, share how I felt and maybe make friends.
Pretty much all my family worked in the car industry. And at that point there were still jobs. But I didn’t want to work in a factory so I tried to get outdoor jobs. I worked on a wholesale market. And bricklaying was great. I started my apprenticeship at 16 but didn’t last long. In the summer it was fantastic; in the winter it was horrible, sitting around in the mud, getting wet and carrying bricks.
When I was younger I trusted no one. It is very hard after trauma. But by 16, I was wide-eyed so I would tell my younger self to be careful who to trust and who to put your faith in. I’ve always been pretty guarded about myself, which is, again, ridiculous considering what I do. Because it’s going to come out whether you like it or not. It has always been a dilemma, how much to reveal to strangers.
I was on Valium when I was 13 and it took me out of life for six months. That was my experience with medication. After that, I refused it for so long. But it got to a point where I didn’t have a choice – and it’s done me so much good. In the last 10 years I got treatment and that allowed me to think in a different way. Talking about mental health problems is a conscious decision. It’s something I want to share with people. The stigma is difficult, but so many people have been affected – in the last year, especially – so if you’ve got knowledge or history, it is good to talk to people going through it. Not to tell them what to do, but to suggest a way to calmer living. It can be done.
My political awakening was in Coventry in my teenage years when I discovered that working men’s clubs had a colour bar on their doors. You could only get in if you were white. That really shook me. I couldn’t work it out. The Seventies was so racist. It was the most racist decade. At my school we had this influx of Ugandan Asians who were kicked out by Idi Amin. They faced racism every day. It opened my eyes, and things haven’t changed. When you see injustice, all you can do is think: what can I do to help, what can I say about this, how can I make people aware of this? That’s not necessarily on a global scale, it can be in your street or family. Influence the people around you, then you live in harmony, and that to me is success. I’ve always had the belief that you should treat people with respect and be kind. So set yourself a standard and try not to dip below it. Mostly, you can wake up every morning and say, I’m going to be kind. It’s not that hard.
One photograph of The Specials told you who we are and what we believe. People could get it straight away so you were either with us or not. Politics and music has always gone hand in hand with The Specials, especially on our first album [in 1979]. Even if we couldn’t change things, we could make people aware. There have been records when I felt it was time to share feelings about racism or fascism or mental health. Even at a very young age, I didn’t want to be in a band to sell records or be well known. I wanted it because it felt like it was the only thing I could do with conviction and honesty. That still applies now.
The song Ghost Town and what it represented was brilliant. It captured how we were feeling – not just in Coventry, but we were touring in the north and saw all these factories closing down, all these people becoming unemployed. To echo that and get a lot of people to listen was a great thing. But that level of record success is a weird one. We were expected to get a gold disc for that record but I found that pretty horrible. Why do we need that reward – to say, OK, the world’s shit, our country’s in a mess, do you like my gold record? It felt like the perfect moment to stop The Specials part one. We’d gone from seven kids in the back of a van to being presented with gold discs and I never felt massively comfortable with that.
If I could relive any days it would be the birth of my three children. Understanding you now share your life through blood and you’ve got to look after, protect and serve these kids takes you away from being selfish in any way. These are the defining days, because the birth of your kid tells you what to do for the next few years. My youngest is 11 – and he showed me another route. He came along when I was 50 and re-kickstarted me with life. He keeps me young. I try to educate them on certain things – like reading The Big Issue. I’ve taught them that if you see somebody on the streets, to realise that person has gone through trauma and we must help when we can. My kids think that way now.
The Specials have always been about protest. Everybody protests whether it’s small or large. We protest from our armchairs more now, but we still do it. We still see injustice and feel like we have to comment. It is great when the world is reflected in your music. That’s what happened with Encore [The Specials’ comeback LP in 2019]. There was no plan, this was how we were feeling and a lot of people felt the same.
My younger self would laugh and not understand how the 62-year-old him could still be making records and playing gigs. Friendship is at the heart of The Specials now. Lynval [Golding] lives in Seattle, so if we didn’t do this I’d hardly see him. It’s like a celebration of our age – he’s 70 and we’re touring – it’s fantastic he still wants to do this and share his joy. We’re still going to play and write and record songs because this is our life. It’s not a career. It’s not a job. It is what we do.
I would like to have one last conversation with my dad. We were of that generation where parents didn’t connect with kids much, which meant me and my dad didn’t have that many conversations throughout our life. There were lots of things that I would like him to tell me about his growing up and his choices because we never got around to it. I have those conversations constantly with my kids. The thing I’m proudest of as a father is that all my kids come to me and know they’ll get listened to. If they’ve got problems, we’ll talk them through and we’ll find a solution.
Looking back, I think my younger self did really well. He paid his way. He didn’t tread on anybody getting there. And he did it on his own terms but with respect for others. What more can you want, really? What more is there?
Protest Songs – 1924-2012 by The Specials is released on October 1
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