Deadpan, brash and slightly menacing, Terry Hall, who died at the age of 63 after a short illness, rose to fame at the end of the 1970s with the multiracial Coventry avant-garde band The Specials. They emerged on the heels of punk, with its effervescent and politically charged mix of ska and new wave, and enjoyed instant success with their debut album, The Specials, which reached No. 4 on the UK chart. For a time, the Specials’ 2 Tone Records operation became the label’s biggest hit in the UK, with releases from Madness, Beat and Selecter alongside the Specials.
Their second album, More Specials, featured a broader, more soulful musical palette and finished at No. 5. The band scored top 10 singles with Gangsta, Letter to You Roady, Rat Race, Stereotype, and Do Nothing, peaking with their chart-topping classics. Ghost town in 1981.
Hall commented that “I don’t think music can change anything” because “all you can do is get your point across”, but the specials captured the charged and dangerous atmosphere of the turn-80s with eerie intensity. The ghost town in particular eerily evoked the sense of social collapse and economic decline gripping riot-torn Britain.
The SS found themselves at the center of the storm, as their vehicles were frequently targeted by neo-Nazis. Hall and the band’s keyboardist, Jerry Dammers, were arrested when they walked in to try to break up a fight between fans and security guards at a gig in Cambridge. They were found guilty of “inciting a riot” and fined £400 each.
However, upon recording Ghost Town to appear on Top of the Pops, Hall and bandmates Neville Staple and Lynval Golding announced that they were leaving the band, as a result of internal personality clashes. They went on to form Fun Boy Three.
Building on the ska legacy of their previous band, Fun Boy Three reached the UK Top 10 with their eponymous debut album (1982), and scored a Top 5 single with “It Ain’t What You Do” (It’s the Way It Is). You Do it), its chart-topping ease is greatly enhanced by the addition of the female trio Bananarama. Hall brought them on board after seeing them in Face magazine.
The same joint team enjoyed another top 5 hit with Really Saying Something, which also reached the Top 20 on the US club chart. After their second album, Waiting, and Top 10 hits with The Tunnel of Love and Our Lips Are Sealed, Fun Boy Three split up after a US tour.
Hall was born and raised in Coventry, but his childhood was plagued with horrific sexual abuse. When he was twelve, he was kidnapped by one of his school teachers and put into the clutches of a pedophile ring in France. He wrote about the episode in “Well Fancy That”, a song he recorded with Fun Boy Three in 1983. It included the lyrics: “On school trips to France / Well fancy that / I had a good time / Turned sex into a crime”. Hall commented, “The only way I could deal with the experience was to write about it in a song. It was very difficult for me to write, but I wanted to convey my feelings.”
Traumatic events put Hall on Valium at the age of 13, and the effects of these experiences will haunt him. During the 1990s, he used drinking as a crutch and slipped into alcoholism. In 2004 he attempted suicide and was later diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which had to be controlled with antipsychotic medication.
He left school at the age of 14 and took a series of temporary jobs, including construction work and apprentice hairdresser, before joining punk band Squad as lead singer. Hall described the band lightly: “It was like 1-2-3-4 and then make noise for two minutes, then stop and say 1-2-3-4 again.” When the Squad supported an early incarnation of the Specials, then known as the Automatics, the Dammers were impressed and invited Hall to join them. Hall liked the Automatics’ songs enough to accept them, though it would take some polishing and refining before the special distinctive sound emerged.
Hall’s post-Fun Boy Three career has found him juggling a bewildering variety of projects. In 1984 he formed Colourfield with Toby Lyons and Carl Schell, which produced the top 20 album Virgins and Philistines (1985) and a string of singles, which made a huge impression on the charts. Hall also did songwriting collaborations with Ian Broudie of Lightning Seeds, before forming Terry, Blair and Anouchka in 1989, along with Anouchka Grove and American actress Blair Booth.
United by their penchant for cheesy 1960s pop, the trio covered Captain & Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together”, but their solo album Ultra Modern Nursery Rhymes failed to chart, and some of the singles fared only slightly better. “A lot of the things I’ve done are pretty much finalists,” Hall admitted. “Terry, Blair and Anushka were taking the confusion out of us and everyone else.”
Another project was Vegas, a collaboration between Hall and Dave Stewart of Eurythmics. Their solo album fared poorly, although their version of Charles Aznavour did reach the Top 50. He did further collaborations with Tricky, Lily Allen, Shakespears Sister, Nouvelle Vague, Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz, and with Mushtaq (of Fun-Da-Mental) .
He has also been a part of the various post-2008 reunions of the Specials, and is one of only three remaining original members. The group’s comeback album Encore (2019) topped the UK chart. In 2021 they released Protest Songs 1924-2012, a collection of cover versions of popular socio-political songs over the decades, which reached number two.
Hall is survived by his second wife, Lindy Heyman, their son, Orson Welles, and two sons, Leo and Felix, from his previous marriage to Janet, which ended in divorce.
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