Although most of his career has been defined by music (as bass player with The Specials), the artist formally know as Sir Horace Gentleman graduated in 1975 with a degree in Fine Art from what was then called ‘Lanchester Polytechnic’ in Coventry (now Coventry University). It was there that he first met Jerry Dammers and the concept of the concept of the Punk/Ska band materialised.
He has been exhibiting in the UK since 2009, and his Cassette vs Vinyl exhibition has already visited Manchester, Los Angeles and Dublin. Horace talked to Tootal Blog ahead of his latest exhibition in London.
You have a degree in Fine Art. Was there ever a risk that music would have lost out to a life dedicated to art?
For a little while. I did my Foundation Course at Northampton School of Art, and it was very prescriptive. It was, like, Monday morning we will do this. Wednesday we will do this. And there was Life Drawing and Objective Research. I got to the Polytechnic in Coventry in 1972 and it was, “Okay, get on with it”. ; I was waiting for someone to say, “It’s Monday afternoon, you need to do this”. So, I kind of floundered for a while. I was halfway through my second year, and it was like, “Hang on. You could get a degree out of this. Your parents will be so upset if you went home…” So, I buckled down but to be honest I was learning to play the bass guitar at the time, which was far more exciting. So art was something that I did during the day but then by night I dreamed of being Andy Fraser from Free, or the bloke from Booker T & the MGs.
Why the bass guitar?
Bass is easy, one note at a time. It was always the thing; the clever guy at school learnt to play guitar, his mate played rhythm guitar because he had been taught by the first guy, and, to their friend who was too stupid to play barre chords, they’d say, “Oh, you can play bass”. That’s always how it was back in the Sixties. Though I’d always wanted to play the bass guitar because I wasn’t very good at playing a six string, but I kind of got on with it and at college I met Bob Carter who taught me the rudiments of the thing then it started to make sense. Bob went on produce Lynx, Junior Giscombe and the first Wham! single (sadly, he died in 1988 and I lost a good friend).
It sounds like you were a very conscientious student. A bit at odds with the ‘Young Ones’ image of students in the ‘70s?
Art College in the Seventies was the preserve of the English eccentric or the work shy. Although I had aspirations to be the former I was actually the latter. You went to Art School to join a pop group. It worked for me.
When The Specials took off did you give up on Art completely?
Art was always there, especially when we (The Specials) started travelling. It was like, “Hey, we’re in New York”. Everybody else went out to Studio 54, or some nightclub, and I went to bed so I could be up early to go to the Whitney Museum and the Guggenheim the next day. So, art and music jockeyed for centre stage for quite some time but art was always there. I could come off a tour, and art was my way to relax, to decompress.
And then in the Nineties I became an Art Teacher, so I had to focus on art because that was my profession. It was like, “How can I enthuse children, especially children with special needs, about art? How can I make this interesting and exciting?” And that made me focus a lot on what I like about art but it’s been an up and down exercise, really.
It must be quite a leap to go from being an art student, or an art ‘fan’ to being an exhibiting artist?
I kind of use the music business model, if you get a great band you don’t just keep it in the rehearsal room, you go out and you do gigs. If you’ve got a collection of paintings you don’t keep them in your attic, you go out and get some exhibitions. The art is a commercial enterprise. I’m not just sitting up in my garret thinking, one day, fifty years after I’ve died these will be worth something. Let’s get these out to people. Let’s make fine art prints of them and see if someone wants to buy them.
With Music, I’m the Bass Player. I’m a member of the team. Can’t go out to a pub and get my bass out and start singing with it. It doesn’t make sense; I need to work with a drummer, or a keyboard player or a guitarist. I’m a cog in the machine. I’ve often thought I could do a solo album but “No, you can’t. You’d like to but (A) you can’t sing, (B) you don’t write songs and (C) you can’t play a melody instrument well enough”. With the art, that’s my solo album. The work stands or falls by my efforts alone. I can’t blame the drummer if it’s a bad painting.
Your collections include a portrait of The Specials, but there’s not a lot that points to ‘Horace Panter: Ska Musician’. Is that deliberate?
I haven’t really thought about that. No, I don’t suppose you can see Horace from The Specials but then I don’t just play Ska or Reggae, I play Blues, I play Country.
A while back I did what I called my Blues Series. Collages of my favourite Blues musicians and I did a couple of Jazz guys as well – Miles Davis, Charlie Parker. I wanted to actually “paint music”, if you now what I mean. It’s all very well doing a nice portrait of Muddy Waters but loads of people do that. I wanted to do something that explained how the music impacted on me. Blues has got an awful lot to do with history and a sense of place. The people who moved from the Mississippi and Alabama, up to Chicago to work in the factories, and they took their music with them. But then they discovered electricity, and you have Chicago Blues. I wanted to do something that captured that.
Did music play a large part in your life when you were growing up?
Oh, enormous, yes. My father bought an orange and lilac transistor radio round about 1962. It was about the size of a Kellogg’s Corn Flakes packet. It was amazing; the Pirate radio stations changed my life. Before them you had a programme that played Pop music for about 45 minutes – ‘Midday Spin’ or something it was called but that was the only Pop music you heard on the radio. Than all of a sudden the Pirates came along and you could hear Pop music all day. It changed my life and I think it changed the music industry here as well. Radio Caroline, Radio London; all of a sudden there was somewhere for all this new music to be heard and the results were tremendous. At that time I wanted to be a Pirate radio DJ; I was obsessed by Pop music when I was younger.
There are people who were equally as obsessed with The Specials when they were younger. That first album is almost 40 years old now. Why do you think they have endured?
The songs are great. The lyrics are really clever and the rhythm is just so seductive. I think that’s a testament to the longevity of the band. That Ska music, especially with the energy of Punk Rock is just so infectious. That’s why bands are still playing it.
The source material for your ‘Master Tape’ paintings must be very rare. Are you painting the original tape, from photos or are these imagined?
Let’s think of a seminal album or a seminal session. Then I’ll try and get some research done. If I can’t a get a picture of an actual cassette from that particular recording studio at least I can look on various websites and find the logo for the studio and concoct something. So, some of it is from photos of cassettes and some are sort of, shall we say, my artistic license because out there somewhere something like that does exist. Or did exist.
The nice thing about the cassettes is you’ve got a very limited time span. I couldn’t really do an Oasis cassette because everything was on CD by that time. And I couldn’t do a Beatles one because that was before it. I think Philips made the first cassette in something like 1962 but they didn’t become popular until the late the late Sixties and they were done and dusted by about ’92, but that’s fine by me because that’s when I grew up.
If you’re an Undertones fan you’re going to know that they recorded at Wizard Recording Studios in Belfast. You’re going to have a connection with that particular work. It has to be an album that I like; I’m not going to do an ABBA cassette. Another professional artist I know suggested I paint Thriller, because it was the biggest selling album of all time. And I did some research – Westlake Studios in L.A. – but I didn’t have the fire in me to do it. I didn’t like Thriller particularly. Whereas I do like New Boots & Panties. A: It was great and B: It was recorded in the Old Kent Road.
Are you pleased that the vinyl revival offers an opportunity for artwork to be better appreciated?
I think that’s great; there’s something to be said for artefacts. I think there’s a general reaction to the Digital era. There’s a really good book called The Revenge Of Analogue by a Canadian writer called David Sax. He documents all this; it’s not just vinyl. You can now buy Polaroid cameras; 35mm film is back on sale. People get together to play board games. Lots of different things where he’s saying there is a movement back towards the actual artefact. Back in the 1960s I was buying albums because I liked the cover. The type face on the Free records, especially their second, I think it’s Arnold Böcklin, I’m not sure. And I fastidiously learnt how to draw like that.
I’m surprised you haven’t done more album artwork?
I did a couple for Stone Foundation. I was up for doing the last one but the record company said, “Oh, no, we want photos of the band”.
I’ve started to branch out. There’s a little independent Reggae label in Holland; I’ve done some work for them. I did some work for the new Doc Marten’s store in Camden, and I’m actually designing a beer can for a small London restaurant chain called Chick’n’Sours. So, it’s kind of putting your different irons in different fires.
The first Specials album shows the band in the archetypal 2-Tone dress code; suits, button down shirts, skinny ties, pork pie hats. How important was the band image to you?
On the back of that first album, it’s the canal basin in Coventry. We are on the “sea bed’ but the actual canal has been drained. Carol Starr took that one, and we are looking up at Chalkie Davies, who is taking the front cover photo. The white shoes were a bad idea but never mind.
I think every band had a ‘Look’; The Beatles had those funny collarless suits, whilst The Rolling Stones tried to look as scruffy as possible. But it was a tribal uniform. I’m very aware that you have to look a certain way if you’re on stage, especially if you are connecting with a particular tribe. You announced who you were by what you wore. I always had this idea that the Mods who took acid became Hippies, and the Mods who drank became Skinheads. I was always aware you had to look like something, especially if you were in a group.
Was The Specials “Look” a collective decision?
When The Specials first started we were a Punk band that played Reggae, if you like. So, we’d play a Punk song, and then we’d play a Reggae song. Musically it wasn’t particularly cohesive and visually it wasn’t either. I didn’t like the idea of wearing safety pins and bin liners. So, I had my hair cut short and bought some combat trousers and button down shirts. I affected the guise of a Skinhead. When we introduced Ska – which meant that we could play our Reggae songs faster but our Punk songs slower – but still maintain maximum danceability it was like, okay, we should look like a Mod group. And there was this Mod thing doing the rounds at the time – The Merton Parkas, The Chords, Secret Affair – and you could by a second hand tonic suit on Gosford Street, like the suit I wore on that album cover, for seven quid. It probably cost more than that to get it altered.
Can you remember the first time your parents let you buy your own clothes?
Vaguely. I think the first fashion item I ever owned was a Batman t-shirt. A bit Pop Art I suppose. I also bought a big Batman poster so that was obviously a big influence in my life. I did own a Paisley shirt. I thought I was absolutely amazing wearing it.
And can you recall the first record you ever bought?
The first record I bought was by The Byrds. It was called ‘5th Dimension (5D)’. It was in 3 / 4 time. That was me nailing my cultural colours to the mast. The second single I bought was ‘All Or Nothing’ by the Small Faces. How about that?
What’s next for you?
I’m working on Cassette vs. Vinyl, for the Truman Brewery exhibition. This is great fun. It is three artists – me, a guy called Chris Barton who makes giant facsimiles of cassettes; they’re amazing. It’s an actual cassette and the box it goes in. And Morgan Howell; he makes giant paintings of 45 RPM singles. They are stunning. I’ve seen them hanging in record company boardrooms, and the BBC offices.
And me and my studio demo cassettes. So the three of us, it really works together because I don’t do vinyl, I don’t do sculptures, and they don’t do cassette paintings, but it’s a music related thing. One example of your childhood is going to be there. We exhibit together, we started off last year in Manchester, and then we took it to Los Angeles. We recently had a show in Dublin, and now we’ve got the Truman Brewery show in Brick Lane, for a week.
What can visitors expect to see? How would you describe it?
It’s very good; it’s like a musical experience but a visual musical experience. It’s amazing the number of people that come up to me and say, “I’ve got a box load of cassettes like that in my garage”. Or you hear their children ask, “Dad, what’s that?’ I’ve also done a painting of a Walkman. That was an amazing piece of Pop history. Totally redundant now but in 1983 everybody had one. These images are like “repositories of memory”, to offer a really pretentious answer. When people look at them the number of sentences that start with “I remember…” I always thought that’s what art should do; it should trigger an emotional response, and these certainly do.
I have this other bonkers theory that Pop Art was to the art world, in the late Fifties and early Sixties, what Punk Rock was to the music business in the Seventies. Up to that point, you had the abstract expressionists – Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Robert Motherwell – huge paintings with swathes of colour, which dealt with the hefty subjects of doom, tragedy and ecstasy. Then all of a sudden this bloke comes along with a soup can.
There again, in the Seventies you had Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and Yes with their triple album, and along comes Anarchy In The UK.
On the subject of Pop Art, your other works include a portrait of Elvis Presley, in the style of Peter Blake.
I hadn’t realised this before but I read up a little bit about it and that Peter Blake painting was based on a Gainsborough apparently. I was asked by a friend of mine to contribute to an exhibition commemorating the 60th Anniversary of Elvis Presley recording ‘I Love You Because’. Whilst I’m not a great fan of Elvis I am a great fan of Peter Blake. And on the original self-portrait Peter Blake is standing there with an Elvis Fan Club book. So I just changed it around, so it’s Elvis in the picture with a Peter Blake book. Some of the badges that are on my Peter Blake figure are stuff that wouldn’t have happened in 1961, when the original portrait was done. There’s a (Punk band) Black Flag one, and Rock Against Racism and the Rolling Stones… stuff like that.
Peter Blake is obviously a big fan of music. Do you know if he’s a fan of The Specials?
I met him once. It was at a Paul McCartney show at the O2 and I was in the backstage bar. And there was Noel Gallagher over there, and there’s Bob Hoskins over there and all of a sudden this figure appeared in the doorway. A little man with a goatee beard and a stick, with his family. And I thought, “Fuck me, that’s Peter Blake!” And I don’t do all of that Pop Star stuff. I don’t like that “Hey! Great to see you, I’ve got all your records”. I don’t “hang out” very well. But it was, like, “Come on, Horace, you’re not gong to have this chance again”. So, he settled down and I plucked up the courage; walked over and said, “Hi, I’m Horace Panter. I’m in a band called The Specials. I really like your work”. And luckily his family said, “Oh, we saw The Specials at Chelmsford the other week. You were great”. And I thought, “Thank you. A bit of kudos.” And I just slobbered and made a total fool of myself for about 30 seconds in front of Peter Blake. But, you know what? Everybody else can fuck off, because I’ve met Peter Blake.
Cassette vs. Vinyl featuring works by Horace Panter, Morgan Howell and Chris Barton, is at The Old Truman Brewery, London E1, from the 19th to 24th October. Admission is free. More details at www.trumanbrewery.com/cgi-bin/exhibitions.pl
For details of all Horace Panter Art Editions visit www.horacepanterart.com
With thanks to Horace and Clare Panter for generously giving up their time for the Tootal Blog