Terry Hall, singer and songwriter front man of the Specials, dies at 63


LONDON — Terry Hall, the British musician and lead singer in the late 1970s ska-punk band the Specials, has died at 63, the group announced Monday.

The songwriter — who left school at 15 and became a leader of the British punk scene by 22 — died following an illness, according to the band’s statement. No further details were disclosed.

Mr. Hall’s best-known hits with the second-wave ska revival group include “Gangsters” (1979), “Too Much Too Young” (1980) and “Ghost Town” (1981), a track whose bleak lyrics came to embody the sense of alienation gripping England’s postindustrial towns and cities. It was a haunting soundtrack to the summer of riotous unrest that gripped neighborhoods in the country’s cities one month after its release.

Thousands of mostly Black young people clashed in riots with police officers in more than 20 British cities that summer, as unemployment rates soared and tensions with police boiled over, resulting in the arrests of more than 1,200 people.

“Ghost Town,” which catapulted the Specials to wide recognition, was recorded over 10 days in April 1981 in central England’s Leamington Spa, according to a history of the band shared on its website.

“It captured how we were feeling — not just in Coventry, but we were touring in the north and saw all these factories closing down, all these people becoming unemployed,” Mr. Hall told the Big Issue magazine in a 2021 interview.

The track, which spent three weeks at the top of the British charts, was ultimately what led the band to breaking up — a decision made by its members in a dressing room following a live musical appearance on the television program “Top of the Pops,” the Specials said.

“We were expected to get a gold disc for that record, but I found that pretty horrible. Why do we need that reward?” Mr. Hall recalled in the 2021 interview. “Our country’s in a mess, do you like my gold record? It felt like the perfect moment to stop.”

“We’d gone from seven kids in the back of a van to being presented with gold discs,” he added, “and I never felt massively comfortable with that.”

In addition to being the frontman with the Specials — which disbanded in 1981 before regrouping in 2009 — Mr. Hall performed with bands Fun Boy Three, the Colourfield and Vegas.

Terence Edward Hall was born in Coventry, England, on March 19, 1959, to a family that worked in the city’s then-thriving car industry.

In 2019, he said in interviews that he had been abducted by a teacher at 12 and taken to France, where he was sexually abused for four days before being abandoned on a roadside. The trauma left him in a state of depression and addicted to Valium, which he had been prescribed. “I didn’t go to school, I didn’t do anything,” he said. “I just sat on my bed rocking for eight months.”

He wrote about his anguish in “Well Fancy That!,” recorded in 1983 by Fun Boy Three. The lyrics include the lines: “On school trips to France/ Well fancy that/ You had a good time/ Turned sex into crime.”

Mr. Hall said he suffered from mental illness much of his life. He held odd jobs, including apprentice hairdresser, before deciding to pursue music after seeing the Sex Pistols in concert.

The Specials fused elements of 1960s-era ska — with its roots in Jamaican dance music and imported American R&B — with British punk. The resulting 2-Tone movement, so named for the biracial lineups of its bands, became popular on the country’s radio stations in the late 1970s, and was known as ska’s “second wave.”

Known for creating a soundtrack that captured the mood of the late 1970s, the Specials were one of Britain’s most prominent multiracial music groups, and many of its songs grappled with contemporary racist violence. Mr. Hall shared frontman duties with Neville Staple, a Jamaican-born Black performer who specialized in toasting, a style of rapping.

“Just because you’re a Black boy, just because you’re a White boy, it doesn’t mean you’ve got to hate him, it doesn’t mean you’ve got to fight,” Mr. Hall sang in “Doesn’t Make it Alright,” one of the Specials’ slower tracks.

In a 2021 interview with the Financial Times, he described how the band’s music gigs were targeted by racist hooligans.

“It got really extreme,” Mr. Hall recalled. “We were playing with Madness in a university town somewhere, we walked offstage and there were casualties all over the dressing room. People who had been cut and slashed. It looked like an emergency room. It was heartbreaking, the last thing we wanted to see.”

British musician Billy Bragg described the Specials as “a celebration of how British culture was invigorated by Caribbean immigration,” in a Twitter tribute posted to Mr. Hall. The musician’s onstage demeanor, he added, “was a reminder that they were in the serious business of challenging our perception of who we were in the late 1970s.”

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