REAL LIVES The man who sang, 'Ain't you heard of the starving millions? Ain't you heard of contraception?' now has two sons, but his dry wit remains as sharp as ever
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on the roof of his record company's Kensington office, Terry Hall is being persuaded to lean against some slates. There is only one word to describe his response to the photographer's gentle promptings - he mithers. Though Hall grew up in Coventry and now lives in Leamington Spa, a quarter of a century of fervent support for Manchester Utd has rubbed off on his accent."I've got curvature of the spine," he insists in a voice pitched half way up the M6. "No, I have ... I've got a really strange itch as well."

The very image of the reluctant pop star, Hall's taciturnity has long been the stuff of legend. Once asked by a departing interviewer what his plans were for the rest of the day, Hall's reply ran along the lines of "buying some Venetian blinds and going back to Coventry". His disdain for pop's more self-aggrandising accoutrements has been an example to all, stemming as it does from a surfeit, not a shortfall, of acidic charisma. The man who once demanded "Ain't you heard of the starving millions? Ain't you heard of contraception?" now has two sons - Felix, seven, and Leo, five - but the dry wit that lit up The Specials' immortal "Too Much Too Young" has not gone soggy.

"People have this weird idea about me being miserable and splitting groups up," Hall observes, bottomless eyes twinkling in the hazy way of the young Peter Sellers, "but it's the exact opposite: the only reason I split groups up is because I'm happy - I'm so looking forward to doing something else." That's as maybe, but from The Funboy Three to The Colour Field to the late and wholly unlamented Terry, Blair and Anouchka, to the final indignity of collaboration with Dave Stewart, Hall's post-Specials career progression did - at least until recently - have the look of a steady and somewhat perverse drift into wilful insignificance.

His natural reticence would seem to make him an unlikely talisman for the resurgent self-confidence of British pop music, and yet that is exactly what he's become over the past year or so. "It's good to see people making an effort," is Hall's verdict on Pulp, Supergrass, Oasis et al, "just wearing a different shirt with a certain sound." His own debut solo album Home (EastWest), an engagingly wistful slice of adult pop - sort of ABC's Lexicon of Love with a mortgage - began his rehabilitation in the public ear. Then Bristolian maverick Tricky and Blur's Damon Albarn cited him as a key formative influence. Now both have put their music where their mouths are, co-writing songs on Hall's Rainbows EP to be released at the start of next month, and Terry Hall is set for a long overdue return to the limelight.

What was it about Hall in The Specials that made him such a resonant figure? Assembled piece by piece by Jerry Dammers from local punk, soul, rock and reggae bands, The Specials were supporting The Clash with Sham 69 when they realised how well their music went down with the skinhead fraternity, and decided to court this audience by (Hall's words) "dressing like we were 10". The black faces in the band, and the Star of David which Hall wore, did not always go down so well. "There was an incredible amount of violence," he remembers, "but we felt like the Magnificent Seven, we really did."

The Specials furnished a compelling picture of a multiracial Britain at a time when dark forces in the national psyche were trying to make such a thing impossible, but Hall is wary of having them portrayed as an ideal vision of multi-ethnic harmony. "I never liked that statement that 'everybody's the same under the skin'," Hall says, "because I don't think they are: you should appreciate people's differences. We came from a place where there was a lot of racial tension - we could remember a day where there was a terrible fight in Coventry and people got stabbed and we were on separate sides." Was the divide on racial lines? "It was, but at the same time it wasn't. You were in separate gangs and it just so happened to be a white gang and a black gang." So the band was just another gang then really. "Pretty much - we never analysed the black and white side of it. I'd only think someone was different from me if they supported Leeds."

Hall is similarly sanguine about "Ghost Town" the song which marked the zenith of both The Specials' commercial and sociological ascents, topping the charts in the riot-torn summer of 1981, and which he sings snatches of live with Tricky on the new EP. "It's only recently made sense to me," he says, "why I was uneasy about the fact that 'Ghost Town' was number one for weeks when all the riots were going on. All this money and all these gold discs were floating in from this record about how terrible everything was - something about it just wasn't right."

"When you form a band and people see and hear you for the first time," Hall observes, "you get this flash. It might last 10 minutes or it might last three years, it doesn't often last longer than that, but to get over the flash and carry on doing things for the right reasons is very difficult." He wanted to make a solo record in the years after The Specials broke up, but felt that he "had to reach a certain age, and experience certain things, before doing it".

In typically non-conformist fashion, Hall seems to have derived the confidence he needed from the death of his father as much as the birth of his children. "Watching my dad die a couple of years ago was an incredible thing for me," he says. "I've never experienced anything like it in my life. It gives you a weird strength - you see somebody you've known for 34 years just go and you know they'll never return, and you wake up the next morning feeling a bit like Superman."

Choosing the right people to work with was very important. "They all had to be in their mid-thirties and have two children," says Hall firmly. It was also important that should anybody make what in earlier times might have been considered a serious fashion error - wearing a striped shirt on stage say - no-one would pull them up on it. "You do start forgetting about your weight and whether or not you've shaved," Hall laughs, "but that's the way it should be. Even as early as The Colour Field, age had started to become a big thing with me. I remember going into a rehearsal once with a picture of David Hunter from Crossroads and saying 'This is how we should look.' " What was the reaction? "Well, they didn't agree."

Now out of his David Hunter phase, Hall no longer feels the need to buy green anoraks and trousers from Austin Reed as marks of his maturity. On the day I meet him he is all snappy sneakers, quick phone calls and rolling eyes, preparing at extremely short notice to contribute to Help!, the Bosnia relief album. He and his new Brit-pop peer group go into studios all across Europe tomorrow to record it for release on Saturday. Is it a tall order to finish a song in a day? "You usually get more time than that," Hall smiles, "but the Beatles did it in minutes."

8 'Help!' (Go! Discs) is released next Saturday on CD and tape