The return of The Specials: We’ve always had something to say

The Specials’ bassist Horace Panter has spoken to Headliner about the band’s live return later this year, new music and last year’s covers album Protest Songs 1924-2012.

On Friday, June 3, the iconic outfit kick off a series of dates across the UK and Europe at Bedford Park. The band’s live return follows the release of Protest Songs 1924-2012 late last year. The covers collection, which includes renditions of songs from the likes of Bob Marley and Talking Heads, was released after plans to get together in person to write material for a new album were waylaid due to the pandemic.

Here, Panter opens up on the concept of the protest song, returning to the live stage, the band’s evolution over more than 40 years, and why The Specials have always had something to say…

Towards the end of 2021 you released a record of covers of protest songs called Protest Songs 1924-2012. How did this come about?

That came out of Covid, really. We’d scheduled to write a new record of new material, then Covid came along, which threw that part of the creative process out of the window. It was a case of ‘what do we do now’? So, we decided on a covers album instead. Covid was very much responsible for us having to think outside the box. And it was a feeble excuse to get the band back together in a room and make some music.

Why these songs, and why this time period?

The Specials have always had something to say – it wasn’t like we wrote songs about fast cars and girls. And 2020 became the year of protest. It was that perfect storm of people being locked up at home, and then the Black Lives Matter thing kicked off in America and went around the world; there was the response to the ‘woke movement’. Protests became a thing again. But obviously protest songs are nothing new, people have been writing them for centuries, so we decided to record some of them. The hardest part was choosing what songs to do.

One of the songs you personally chose to cover was Talking Heads’ Listening Wind. What was the reason for that particular choice? It’s not overtly a ‘protest song’.

I don’t know if Listening Wind is my favourite Talking Heads song but Remain In Light is probably my favourite Talking Heads album. It’s very non-specific, you don’t know what the character in the song Mojique is railing against, you don’t know what country he lives in. It could be that he’s in Marbella and is upset that everyone is building houses for foreigners, or it could be Haiti, it’s non-specific and I really like that. But I wanted to approach it differently and wanted to make it a bit more ‘world music-y’ and I mentioned this to Kendrick [Rowe, drummer] so he said he’d get these guys he knew from Brixton along. And Terry, who is a huge Talking Heads fan, said he couldn’t sing it as it was one of his favourite songs, so we got Hannah Hu to sing it and she nailed it. It became something else. I don’t know if David Byrne wrote it as a protest song, but it has that feeling, and it is quite dark.

How did you go about selecting the rest of the songs?

It was pretty democratic. Between the three of us we had a hit list of 60, which we narrowed down to 30, and then it was narrowed to 15. Then we recorded 13 and released 12.

There are no rules. There is no one way of writing a Specials song. Horace Panter, The Specials

Do you think it is harder for protest songs, or songs concerned with social and political issues, to cut through today?

I think it’s harder for anyone to make the impact they once did, even if you are writing about girls and cars. I would hate to be 18 with a handful of good songs now. How do you go about it? What the hell do you do? People still do make protest songs and write intelligent stuff about things that matter to them, but getting it to a wider audience is a real challenge.

Luckily with The Specials we have a name, so we can do what we’ve always done in terms of writing what we want and hopefully connecting with people, but I don’t think major record labels would want to take on a new artist writing the kinds of songs we write. Or maybe they would. Grime and hip-hop is railing against things. But whatever the case, reaching a wide audience is harder today, regardless of what type of song you’re writing.

Have you been able to pick up the plans you had just before Covid to get back in the studio with the band and start writing new material? And how excited are you about making new music?

Yes, we are going to be getting together very soon. It’s fantastic and I’m so excited to be still doing this, but at my age it’s just great to be anywhere! Honestly, I’m 68 years old and a rock star, how stupid is that?! If you’d have said to me in 1979 that I’ll still be doing this in 43 years’ time I’d have laughed in your face. I’m very lucky to be able to do this.

How has your approach to making a record with The Specials changed since the ‘70s, if at all?

Back in the day it was very much that Jerry would come with the songs in his head, he’d tell us all what he wanted, and the song was more or less complete. Whereas that doesn’t happen now. Terry is our main lyricist and he’ll have a vague idea of what he wants the music to sound like, so there is a lot of interpretation and using of your imagination. Some weeks we’ll labour over things and go nowhere fast, and other weeks three songs will be finished in three days. There are no rules really, there isn’t a Specials way of writing songs.

What can people expect from the upcoming live shows? Will it be themed around some of the protest songs from the covers album?

No, it’ll generally be a greatest hits set, but we will still play a few of those covers at the shows. We haven’t thought too much about the setlist yet, but it’s going to be in the summer, outdoors, people wanting to dance, we probably won’t give them a party political broadcast [laughs]. But then The Specials have always made people dance anyway.

The Specials play live in Bedford Park, Bedford on Friday 3rd June supported by Tribes. Tickets available from