When I write that the pop star Terry Hall, who has died at 63, was a genius your eyes might roll. We hear it so often, that someone is labelled ‘genius’ merely because they are very good at X (say football) or Y (say acting).
The death of the said person only increases the hyperbole about them. But Hall really was a genius.
I write that without great knowledge about him, indeed without great knowledge about, or interest in, pop music. With time, however, I have come to appreciate Hall's pioneering brilliance. Hearing one of his tracks, ‘Our Lips Our Sealed’, on the radio months ago enhanced that sense. More on that song in a moment.
The eras through which people grow up are extraordinarily influential when it comes to the popular music that they like – if any. In my case, it was the 1980s of Terry Hall and others. I turned eight days before that decade began, and became an adult just before it ended. I have always thought that 80s pop and rock was inspired.
But the musical generations are finely sliced. Minor differences in the ages of my late mum, sisters and brother were all reflected in music.
The eldest, mum, was born in the early 1940s, almost too old for the sixties and already well into her 20s when she saw the Beatles in Belfast in 1964. The middle sister, born mid 40s, was better aged for the Fab Four. The youngest, born late 40s, moved to America in 1970 and touched on the hippy period. Their brother, born mid 50s, was into later genres personified by David Bowie. My dad (early 1930s) loved music but was too old to appreciate any of that.
I see similar fine slicing when it comes to 1970s and 80s music. I was too young for the former, and colleagues born only a few years after me, at the end of the1970s or start of the 1980s, were not much exposed to 80s pop and care little for it.
My 10th birthday was approaching in 1981 when a hit single by Terry Hall’s The Specials was released, ‘Ghost Town’, and I remember an older brother buying it. But the first exhibit in the argument for Hall as genius was in fact the track on the reverse of that single, ‘Friday Night, Saturday Morning’.
Although I was too young to realise it at the time, this strange and repetitive but quite attractive piece of music was an introduction to Hall as not merely a big musical talent, but a poet of the 1980s.
It is about young people, probably in drab and low paid jobs, going out to get drunk at the weekend. The lyrics might on first reading sound basic cliched, such as this section:
I like to venture into town
I like to get a few drinks down
The floor gets packed the bar gets full
I don't like life when things get dull
The hen party have saved the night
And freed themselves from drunken stags
Having fun and dancing in
A circle round their leather bags
But it isn’t basic. Tune and lyrics brought each other alive to convey a time of great societal tension. Also the escapism, romantic disappointments and even violence of then ways of socialising. Later in the 1980s there were regular reports of night disorder in English towns, which local police forces struggled to contain.
In its own way the song captured a post-industrial working existence as well as LS Lowry painted an industrial one. I once had an argument with a friend about whether the tune was more important in popular music or the lyrics. The tune I said. Of course the tune!
But ‘Friday Night, Saturday Morning’ is a composition that always stayed in my head and over time came to make me doubt that. Words and music combined as great art.
The second exhibit in the Hall-as-genius case is the track I mentioned above, ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’. He co-wrote it with Jane Wiedlin of an all female band, the Go-Gos.
That American group’s version of the song is punchy, catchy and fun –first rate 80s pop, which is saying something given the high standards of the time.
A few years later, Hall recorded his own version of ‘Our Lips Are Sealed’ with his new band Fun Boy Three. I remember it from when it reached the UK top 10 in 1983, but had not heard it for so long that when I came across it on the radio this year I could not at first recall who it was by. Then I listened to it again and again.
I am not a music critic so I find it hard to explain why it is such a subtle and layered and stunning aural experience. But it is – melding styles the way early pop did (Elvis and the Beatles, for example, being influenced by black American music from Blues to Motown). In the Specials, Hall had worked with Jamaican-British musicians. Their songs addressed not just the challenges of working class life but racial divisions too.
I do not know if Hall remained a leftist or if his politics drifted rightward as he aged, as that of many of us did. And I do not care either. He was there at the beginning and at the heart of a decade in which the evolving miracle of popular music continued its rapid expansion into new sound territory.
By the end of the 80s I was more interested in politics than pop but I had heard enough to be able to identify the stars of the time, such as Hall and Dave Stewart (a similarly low-profile, multi faceted composer and performer).
I did hope to meet Hall one day, just for the pleasure of telling him I though him a genius, and thanking him for it. Now he is dead at just 63.
When I was a boy he seemed an eternity older. Now that 12 year age gap seems minor.
How sobering to think that such a gifted life is already at end.
Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is editor of our sister title, the Belfast News Letter