Terry Hall. Terry Hall. Terry Hall. There’s only one Terry Hall. Okay, there’s probably thousands of the bastard, but there’s only one Terry Hall.
That dour-faced grumpy-looking singer and songwriter who has appeared in as many different bands as there are Terry Halls out there.
Hall seems to have been around for decades now—longer than the careers of most pop stars, but he’s never achieved the heights of success, despite having the talent, the idiosyncratic voice and that surly sneer. Maybe it’s because he’s “too English”? Maybe it’s because he’s perceived as awkward, moody, and trouble? Maybe it’s because he’s never kissed America’s ass? Maybe it’s because he’s actually quite shy, suffers from depression, and gets so wound-up about writing songs that the stress gives him eczema? I don’t know. All I do know is that Hall has been involved with some incredible bands and has produced a diverse and impressive array of work, with a dozen pop classic songs, and a clutch of superb albums. But all that doesn’t help, for really, who the fuck is Terry Hall?
There’s that old pop riddle of why some bands manage to keep a shambling career going on the basis of one Top 40 single; while others, with more talent and charm, disappear after a residency of two-to-three years in the Top Ten. Fitting into this latter camp is the Fun Boy Three, the band formed by Terry Hall, Lynval Golding and Neville Staple, after they quit Ska band The Specials.
Hall had tired of the chaos and aggression (drugs, drink and bottles being thrown by skinhead fans) of life with The Specials. And after too many years of near constant touring, Terry, Lynval and Neville found joyous release producing their own distinct and eclectic music in the studio.
It was as if the three young lads had gone on holiday, and packed-in their 9-5 Two-Tone suits for sweat shirts, three-quarter-length cargo pants and Terry’s distinctive Shockheaded Peter haircut. Their appeal was instant and the Fun Boy Three were soon all over the music press, and bouncing around like teenyboppers on Top of the Pops. But underneath it all, they were just the same three lads wanting to make music, as Terry Hall explained it to the student magazine I edited at the time:
”We created one of the biggest images last year with stupid haircuts, but our image is ourselves. I have had enough of telling people that I am just the same as them; they think I’m different because I’m in a group, but it’s just my job. A lot of people think record companies control us, but they just distribute our records; we manage ourselves.”
Lead singers always receive the focus, because they’re the ones out front, saying those things so many young hearts want to hear and understand. Listening to Hall’s lyrics it was obvious here was no ordinary lead singer, with his near monotone vocals and withering gaze, he was the maverick talent at the heart of the Fun Boy Three.
”I come up with most of the ideas for our songs. I take lyric writing very seriously. I would like to produce other people’s music, to give myself ideas as much as anything.”
It’s been said that Hall has to wear white gloves when he writes lyrics because he gets so stressed his hands erupt with eczema. It’s one of the stories that if not true, should be, for it makes Hall seem near saintly in suffering for his art.
Together Fun Boy Three produced two classic pop albums and a handful of hit singles between 1981 and 1983. Their debut, “The Lunatics (Have Taken Over The Asylum)” may have carried on from where The Specials’ “Ghost Town” left off, but Fun Boy Three were no Specials-lite, and their following singles—“T’Ain’t What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It)” (with backing from Bananarama), and “The Telephone Always Rings”—offered jaunty, enjoyable pop.
“Commercial success takes a lot of pressure from the band. There is tension among us but we can talk about it, and we try to avoid each other as much as possible. With The Specials tension split us up; but I think all groups should eventually. Changing helps the progression of music like doing cover versions to take music further, the way we did ‘T’Ain’t What You Do…’ with Banarama. Unlike Phil Collins, his version of ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ took music back about ten years.”
Hall later jokingly dismissed the band’s first album as “crap,” and that it had only been done to make money, which kinda sums up Terry’s sense of humor. A typical joke by Terry (an avid Manchester United supporter) goes something like this, where you have to imagine he’s reading out soccer results:
“Real Madrid, one. Surreal Madrid, fish.”
I liked their first album, but it was their second (and sadly last) album Waiting, produced by Talking Heads’ David Byrne, that hit me directly between the ears. This was no ordinary record, Waiting is classic pop of an exquisite and thoroughly brilliant and enjoyable kind. From its opening track (a cover of the theme music of the Margaret Rutherford/Miss Marple movie, Murder She Said), through the politically barbed “The More I See (The Less I Believe)” with its Captain Scarlet drum riff, to such pop chart gold as “Tunnel of Love” and “Our Lips Are Sealed” (with Jane Weidlin), Waiting is one of pure pop’s genuine masterpieces, or as Hall described it at the time just “a really good LP.”
”It shows we have grown up in a lot of ways. We are taking our music a lot more seriously than last year. We were enjoying ourselves and hoping that people were enjoying us.”
In 1983, Fun Boy Three appeared on TV show Switch, where they performed “Well Fancy That,” “Our Lips Are Sealed” and “Farmyard Connection.” Their opening number, the jaunty yet hellishly disturbing “Well Fancy That,” detailed Hall’s sex abuse at the hands of a teacher on a “school trip to France.” It’s like a depth charge, as the meaning lyrics only hit you after you’ve started humming along to the carnivalesque tune.
”You took me to France
On the promise of teaching me French,
We were told, to assemble, to meet up at ten,
I was twelve and naive,
You planned out our route
I sat in your car, my suitcase in the boot,
On the M1, and the A1, until we reached Dover,
Through passport control, you pulled your car over
On the liner, we stood on the deck, we left port,
My first time abroad,
A school trip to France.”
Who else but Terry Hall would make such a naked admission in such a public way? As David Byrne pointed out at the time:
“He didn’t tell his mum, he didn’t tell his friends, but he’s going to tell everybody.”
Hall later said writing the song was cathartic:
“It was about me being sexually abused as a kid by a teacher,” says this father of three.
“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 communicate my feelings.”
I bet it was. Every critic nearly peed their pants when John Lennon sang about his mother obsession and his Primal Scream therapy, but along comes Terry Hall singing about his sex abuse as a child, and not one hack says peep, or even “how brave.” No, I seem to recall they were all rubbing their nipples over Flock of Seagulls’ asymmetric haircuts, and Bono’s enormous ego. Plus ca change..
Terry Hall’s approach to such a horrific event reveals something of the essence of the man. Hall has always done things on his own terms. He has chosen how best to deal with his own private demons; and he has followed his own career path from The Specials, to Fun Boy Three, through The Colourfield, Terry, Blair & Anouchka, then Vegas (with Dave Stewart), to his own solo career and back to The Specials again. Hall is an artist who is only ever been beholden to anyone but himself and his own muse. This has meant some people, some journalists, have pettily and foolishly written Hall off. But wait, stop, and take a look at what he has achieved. Hall has a highly impressive and significant body of work, both as a solo artist and through his various bands. And together with Staple and Golding as the Fun Boy Three, Hall has produced some of pop’s best and most lasting songs.
The 1983 Switch performance.
Fun Boy Three live on ‘Rockpalast’ plus more, after the jump…