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Two Tones of Horace Panter: 'I'm Making the Invisible Visible'

17/07/2014 13:10 BST | Updated 15/09/2014 10:59 BST

"It was something of a shock when The Specials became famous," Horace Panter tells me. "We started off doing things at our own pace, and then, after playing in pubs and clubs, we got a recording contract and started making music at the much faster pace of the record companies."

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As the bassist of The Specials, the English 2 Tone and ska band formed in 1977 in Coventry, Horace helped gild the charts of the day with the potent combination of ska and punk, a power to which Joe Strummer was alert when he asked The Specials to support The Clash on tour.

But there was always something of the avant garde about The Specials in the early days, with art school Horace Panter providing the precision, rock steady baselines for songs like Gangsters and A Message To You, Rudy, and the number one hits Too Much Too Young and Ghost Town.

Like Lewis Wharton of Little Barrie, Horace is a bassist and an artist, graduating in 1975 from Coventry's Lanchester Polytechnic with a bachelor's degree in fine art. When on tour, he always found time to investigate local art galleries, which is something he still does.

"I'm a pop artist. My job is to make the invisible visible," he tells me in explanation of his contemporary take on British pop art, an art form that replaced the destructive, satirical impulses of the Dada movement with the use of artefacts of mass culture; Warhol had his Campbell Soup tins, as Panter has his cassette tape paintings.

These days, via the agency of his wife, Horace hopes his art will receive greater exposure. "Ideally, I want to live off my art, and it helps being that bloke from The Specials. But along the way, to get to this point, it's been a case of trial and error to reach a point where I can get together a body of work."

We live in an age of super-consumerism, so pop art remains relevant. It is art for the masses, and specifically, for a collective sensibility of the post-war years which has yet to be abandoned.

When Horace went to art school, he followed in the tradition of Ray Davies and John Lennon in the embracing of a post-war counter-culturalism. I ask him if he's a political man. He tells me he isn't, but adds that "there has definitely been a hardening of the right wing in this country, and what happens in the mainstream with Cameron, Clegg and Miliband is them looking out for their own jobs".

He's 60 and says he's busier now than he has ever been: "The Specials aren't on the road at the moment, so my painting has taken over." He tells me the World Cup left him cold, but that Terry Hall "is a man who checks the Manchester United fixtures list whenever we're on the road. He likes his football". Such are the disparate characters who make up a band.

Not so long ago, Horace believed he was going to retire as a teacher having retrained to teach art, but then, like a drug, comes the call of the band. The Specials are frequently back on the road, having toured the UK and the US in the past year, with the Isle of Wight Festival a highlight of this summer.

Such is their enduring appeal that Steve Cradock of Ocean Colour Scene and the Paul Weller band has also caught the bug and joined them on guitar to get back to his musical roots.

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It's all a matter of artistic influences, with Horace citing Henri Rousseau, Peter Blake, Mark Rothko and Wayne Thiebaud as artists from whom he has derived inspiration, having assimilated such vaulted styles to help subvert the iconography of popular music in which he is steeped. He's also a fan of Morgan Howell, a pop artist who is currently exhibiting at Chelsea's Proud Gallery.

The Panter oeuvre is work in transition and, after more than three decades in the music business, Horace has managed to evade the dissipation that afflicts musicians not in possession of as many artistic outlets as he. This is also art as an escape from a music world grown staid.

"But rock'n'roll will re-assert itself," he says, "despite it currently being the preserve of men my age." Think of the Stones or The Who and you catch his drift. "But it's still a wonderful thing when an 18-year-old with a guitar plugs it in and realises he can affect so many people with the sound he makes. For this reason, I still like to see young bands do their thing."

When Horace hears me tell of how young artists blessed with traditional skills are undeterred by a lack of income and the grace and favours of patrons, he says "that's great to hear, because that's the spirit of punk". He knows whereof he speaks.

These are exciting times for a man who has packed his life with incident. "It's impossible to choose art over music," he says, "and I think there'll come a time when I can't physically play a bass. But I reckon I'll still be able to wield a small paint brush or pencil...so I'll let my body dictate."

Watch Horace here and follow him @HoracePanterArt

Photo 1: David Markham / Image 2: Courtesy of Clare Milne