The bass player from The Specials has put his spin on classic characters from the ‘Beano’, writes Ed Power.
One of the most rock ’n’ roll comics of all time deserves a rock ’n’ roll anniversary to match.
Which is why the publishers of the Beano commissioned Specials bassist Horace Panter to produce a series of art pieces celebrating 80 years of Dennis the Menace, Gnasher the Dog, Minnie the Minx and chums.
“The Beano was ubiquitous in everyone’s childhoods,” says Panter from his art studio in Coventry,the city from which The Specials emerged in the late 1970s with their political, often polemical, mix of punk, reggae and urban angst.
“This project was a collision of two of my favourite things — arts and comics. It was a labour of love.”
The Beano exhibition, which opens at Dublin’s Ebow Gallery on Thursday after an acclaimed tour of the UK to mark the 2017 anniversary of the publication, is high concept with a vengeance.
Drawing on four decades of experience as a visual artist — a career he pursued in parallel with his music —Panter has transposed the comic’s best loved characters into famous pop-art pieces.
So we see Lord Snooty rendered in the style of Roy Lichtenstein, Minnie the Minx redone as a Warhol screen-print (the technique Warhol applied to images of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe) and Dennis and trusty fleabag Gnasher plunging into a pool — a cap-doff towards David Hockney’s swimming pool paintings.
“Pop art was to the art world as punk was to the music business,” says Panter.
“Before that you had the abstract expressionists like Rothko and Jackson Pollock — people doing these huge emotive paintings about doom and ecstasy and tragedy.
“And then along comes Andy Warhol with a soup can. In music you had the new Yes triple album and Emerson Lake and Palmer. And along comes The Ramones and The Sex Pistols and they blow everything out of the water. That’s why I like pop art.”
The Beano was quite punk rock itself, he agrees. Published first on July 30, 1937, at the height of its popularity it was selling nearly 2m copies a week (the current total stands at around 30,000).
Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx, the Bash Street Kids and the rest would become part of the background noise of our childhoods.
Dennis, who appeared in 1951, already wearing his black and red stripped jumper was a proto-Bart Simpson, a bad boy who couldn’t keep out of mischief.
Just as revolutionary was Minnie the Minx, whose miscreant behaviour was seen as striking a blow for equality — proving that girls could be just as out of control as boys. In the ‘50s this was deeply subversive.
Yet lately the magazine has moved away from celebrating rebellious behaviour — with Dennis the Menace last year rebranded as plain old “Dennis”.
“Today’s Dennis is a flawed hero, a 10-year-old boy who fears nothing and sometimes gets into trouble as a result,” said the publisher. “He makes mistakes just like any other person but his mistakes only make him more determined to succeed.”
But for Panter the characters are still clearly subversive figures — which is why he chose to give them a pop-art makeover.
“I quite liked the idea of Dennis and Minnie going to Warhol’s Factory [studio] and creating havoc. That’s where it came from.”
Art and pop have always gone hand in hand for Panter, who joined The Specials after moving to Coventry to study fine art. In his second year at Lanchester Polytechnic, he met Jerry Dammers, with whom he would form the iconic band.
He never lost his passion for the visual arts. The first time The Specials went to New York in 1980 he toured the galleries while his bandmates toured the clubs and bars.
“The story I tell is that they went night clubbing and I was to bed early so I could get up the next morning and visit the Guggenheim. I’ve used The Specials and travelling the world to see some fantastic art.”
New York in 1980 still had some of the rough-at-the-edges energy that had drawn Andy Warhol and his peers to the city.
“It was pretty gritty the first time we visited,” recalls Panter. “However the reality doesn’t really set in for a couple of days because it feels exactly like being in a movie. Then you start to wonder, why is everyone snarling at me?… Well actually that’s what they do.”
Panter is a life-long Americanophile and had immersed himself in Kerouac and the blues and Robert Greenfield’s writings about The Rolling Stones; early adventures in the US. There were obvious parallels with Coventry — a declining industrial centre which had a lot in common with the rustbelt cities of the American Midwest.
“By the time The Specials came along all the industry had beendismantled,” he says. “That’s what was happening to British industry in the ‘70s.”
The Specials’ music was evocative of a specific time and place — a British provincial town at a time of spiralling unemployment and building racial tensions. Simply by being mixed race and singing about the devastation all around — one of their biggest hits, ‘Ghost Town’, mourns the hollowing out of Coventry — they stood for something bigger than themselves.
Forty years later, it’s worth asking if Panter sees history as repeating itself. Again Britain is in a period of strife — and again there is a sense that musicians should be the ones to articulate the dread many people feel.
He’s not so sure, however, if we really are living through the late ‘70s again.
The world has changed in so many ways and the Britain that produce The Specials is gone forever.
“Most of the major cities have had a lot of money thrown at them,” he says.
‘Beano – The Exhibition’ opens at Ebow Gallery Dublin today.