• A Very British Talent: Artist Pete McKee Talks To Tootal Blog

    Name ten great things about Sheffield, please? Arctic Monkeys?, Yes. Sheffield Steel? Yes. Henderson's Relish? The Crucible, The Full Monty? Parks, pubs, trees and beer? Yes, yes, yes.

    Okay, then. Now, you've all got Pete McKee on your list, haven't you? If not, stay behind and see me afterwards

    Hi Pete. For anyone not familiar with your art, how would you describe it?

    It’s a 60 / 40 mix of every day life, and my imagination. It’s my life story and growing up on a council estate in Sheffield but I’m telling stories about everybody’s lives. So there’s a lot of reference to people I know, people that I see in the street, places I walk past and shops that I used to visit. It’s every day vignettes of the world I see around me. It’s a little bit Pop Art but it’s also got a bit of a cartoon element. It’s working class art. Another key element is my passion for Music, and all the Youth Cultures I grew up with; things like Mod, then 2-Tone, the Indie scene and then Baggy.

    You didn’t become a successful artist overnight. How did you get to where you are now?

    Revolution From Your Bed by Pete McKee

    When I left school I was convinced I was going to be a Pop Star. I was waiting for the moment when I would be playing my keyboards on Top of the Pops. Unfortunately I was still waiting five years later so I switched to Plan B, which was my art. I had to hold down other jobs, so I worked on the post for a while, and then I was five years at Tesco, picking out the orders for Home Delivery. So, I started as a cartoonist and I did that for about thirteen years at the Sheffield Telegraph but the problem was you got paid once, and then you had to hope and wait for the next commission. With commercial art, if it’s good enough, you can sell it time and again. But all those years being a cartoonist, that helped me develop the distinctive style that I suppose I’m known for today. My first exhibition was in a pub. In fact, my first few exhibitions were in pubs or cafes, where you could reach ordinary people, where they would feel comfortable and where they’d have time to appreciate my work.

    Some artists could be described as quintessentially British, or English. Your work seems even more localised than that.

    Well, you take something like my Girl In The Red Coat series and it’s a flight of fancy, something conjured from my imagination, but you have to work with what you know. Even Salvador Dali, he might have had clocks and elephants in the foreground of his pictures but the background, the hills particularly, they are based on the landscape around his home in Catalonia.

    You once wrote, “You know you love a city when you never want to leave”. What it is that makes Sheffield so special for you?

    It’s hard for me to compare it to anywhere else but it’s definitely the people. They say Sheffield is the biggest small village in England. There are supposedly six degrees of separation from any other person in the world but in Sheffield it’s only two degrees. You start talking to anyone in a pub and you soon realise that you have someone or something in common. Particularly if you’re into Music, chances are that you go to the same two or three pubs so there’s a brilliant sense of community. Plus there are all the parks, and the thousands of trees; it has a certain beauty, and a certain pathos. And Sheffield is on seven hills, so you never get the same view twice. And we are on the edge of the Peak District, which Sheffield helps to manage.

    Is there such a thing as a “typical working day” for you?

    The very talented Pete McKee.

    If I’m preparing for an exhibition then that whole process starts about six months up front, thinking about what I want to show, how I’m going to arrange it, but I do spend a lot of time just looking around me and waiting for inspiration to strike.

    I’m working on a new exhibition for next year; I’m going to try to get a few other friends involved in it as well, to make the show lovely, and varied. It’s a celebration of the Working Class; I’m trying to put a bit of pride back into being Working Class. The media has lambasted it; we’re an underclass of people now and it shouldn’t be that way. There’s a lot of pressure on people to live a lifestyle that’s out of their reach, in some respects. People are encouraged to own a big flat screen TV and then they are criticised for owning one. You can’t have the best of both worlds. Obviously the concept of what it means to be Working Class is changing all the time; it’s evolving but we are the backbone of this society; without the Working Class no one gets anything done, nothing gets manufactured. We should be proud of where we come from, and of our upbringing. For some reason it’s getting a bit distorted at the moment, so I just wanted to have a celebration of what it is to be Working Class.

    Music plays a big part in your art. Was there a lot of music in the house when you were growing up?

    My dad was a steel worker, and used to play in the local pubs, but he had an accident at work and lost a finger, so when we moved house the piano got sold. He used to listen to bands like The Ink Spots, the old Doo Wop music. I have three siblings, all older than me, and I was influenced by the music they were playing. One was into stuff like Alice Cooper, Queen and Supertramp, my other brother was really into the Folk movement, whilst my sister was a fan of The Beatles and the Stones. There’s a Blood, Sweat & Tears album that I still play, and every time I hear it, it takes me back to a time and a place.

    Back when we grew up Social Media wasn’t invented; we just bought what was on Top Of The Pops, what you read about in the NME. Our house was basically on ‘Tick’ or what you could buy weekly from the Club catalogue books; that fashioned what your expectations were. Our TV, our hi-fi systems, our cocktail cabinet unit and bookshelves, everything we sat on was owned by somebody else, and we just paid every week for it. That’s how you did it.

    Can you remember the first record you bought?

    There are two records that I asked my brothers to get me when they were in town. One was Mott The Hoople “Roll Away The Stone” and the other was Sparks ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us’. That got to Number Two in the chart. I was so disappointed because I thought just by dint of me buying a copy it would go to Number One. I love that song, though I could never understand the words.

    Your Great Labels In Popular Music suggests that you are a lover of vinyl?

    I am but I’m one of those people that had a moment when they had to sell their collection. I was probably behind with my Council Tax, or something. But recently I’ve been building it all back, bit-by-bit. I’ve got a small record deck and I’ve started replacing the old copies but it’s a lot more expensive this time round. I love that tactile experience that comes with going into a record shop, escaping into this unique environment. That’s one of the reasons why I like having my own gallery. And I like being able to pick up a record and look at the sleeve. I’ve even bought albums based on the artwork alone.

    Can you remember the first time you were allowed to buy your own clothes?

    Station To Station by Pete McKee. New for 2017.

    Because my Mum passed away when I was about six, my Dad bought me up, and when it came to clothes purchases I relied on him. When the Mod movement came along and everyone was walking around in military Parkas, I asked my Dad to get me a Parka, and he came back with one from C&A. I was already classed as a ‘Plastic Mod’ and no matter what genre you’re into, you don’t want the C&A version of something that everyone else is wearing.

    So, that was the first part of my upbringing, getting it slightly wrong cause I relied on my poor Dad to get me these things. Then eventually I saw this one jacket - it was like a stud button up, with the different coloured sleeves. The Jam were wearing something similar about this time, I think it’s round about when ‘Start’ came out. And I saw one in a shop window and I just begged my Dad, “Can I get this for my Christmas present?” I remember that as my first proper choice; it was an expensive item but it was the “one thing” that I want; that treasured thing. When you’re into a music culture, or into a fashion culture, you’ve got one of two options; you either buy one item that’s THE thing, and you wear that to death. Or you’re fortunate enough to have enough money to buy several. And I was definitely in the bracket that buys one; has one certain look, one uniform, and wears it to death because I’d got no option. I had one pair of jeans that I’d wear all week, this one jacket, and this one pair of shoes, and I wore to death because that’s all I could afford.

    Youth cults, or music movements figure large in your artwork. Why is that?

    What I loved about Music fashion growing up was the codes, the dress codes. Whether it was the Mod movement, the Skinhead movement, the Suedehead movement, anything, even the Metal Heads, walking around at school with Rainbow embroidered on the back of their jacket, they had to be the right denim jacket. It was either Wrangler, or Levis or Lee but if you got the wrong one you were a fake. So, I love dress codes.

    With the Music fashion thing, the Working Class aspiration is to pick the more expensive brands, to show they’re not poor; it’s a peacock thing, in a way. When the Teddy Boy movement came in, their Drape Coats were like military officers coats, and then the Mod movement was aspirational for an American look, things they’d seen in movies. Look at Hip Hop culture; it’s all linked to the high-end brand stuff. The Casual movement was knicking very expensive Tacchini tracksuit tops because they couldn’t afford them, but that’s the thing with expensive brands, that’s what they want to be associated with. Working Class fashion has always been aspirational but now it’s become a bit more sinister

    Do you have your own particular style now?

    A sort of Fifties look, in some respects. My hair’s been in kind of a quiff thing since I was twenty four, when I saw Edwyn Collins third album, and I thought, “That’s a smart move, that”. I’ve worn a quiff of some kind ever since really. I like that kind of style, an “American-esque” look. I like the Harrington style jackets but with a bit more of a shirt sort of collar.

    How did your fondness for Tootal come about?

    Pete McKee: Enjoying the spoils of his hard won success.

    I remember the famous ‘Mods’ book, the black and white one by Richard Barnes, we got that as kids, or one of us had it and the rest of us all kept looking at it. That was our dress code bible; what was acceptable to wear as Mods. I remember this one photo where some kids are dancing in a nightclub, and one kid has got a scarf tucked into his crew neck sweater. And I thought, wow, that’s a look; I’m going to look out for that. My brother-in-law used to be a Mod, and still had this Tootal from the Sixties in his wardrobe; I remember it cause he used to wear it to work. And he gave it to me; a Mustard Paisley Tootal. So I was the first kid, and only kid, to wear a Tootal scarf in our school. Since then I rarely had one off me neck. And that founded my desire, and love and passion for Tootal scarves.

    You have collaborated with Clark’s Shoes on Desert Boots, and projects with Paul Smith. Any plans for a range of scarves?

    Only if Tootal ask me. I’d love to do something for Tootal. I do love a good brand association, particularly brands with class and cache and coolness; I’d love to be able to work with Tootal at some point in my life.


    To see more of Pete’s wonderful art visit

    And if you’re lucky enough to find yourself in Sheffield (once voted Happiest City In The U.K.) Pete’s gallery, A Month Of Sundays, is at 365 Sharrow Vale Road, Sheffield, S11 8ZG.

    You can follow Pete on Twitter @PeteMcKee or on Facebook @PetemckeeArt

  • A Special Talent: Horace Panter Talks To Tootal Blog

    Although most of his career has been defined by music (as bass player with The Specials), the artist formally know as Sir Horace Gentleman graduated in 1975 with a degree in Fine Art from what was then called 'Lanchester Polytechnic' in Coventry (now Coventry University). It was there that he first met Jerry Dammers and the concept of the concept of the Punk/Ska band materialised.

    He has been exhibiting in the UK since 2009, and his Cassette vs Vinyl exhibition has already visited Manchester, Los Angeles and Dublin. Horace talked to Tootal Blog ahead of his latest exhibition in London.

    You have a degree in Fine Art. Was there ever a risk that music would have lost out to a life dedicated to art?

    For a little while. I did my Foundation Course at Northampton School of Art, and it was very prescriptive. It was, like, Monday morning we will do this. Wednesday we will do this. And there was Life Drawing and Objective Research. I got to the Polytechnic in Coventry in 1972 and it was, “Okay, get on with it”. ; I was waiting for someone to say, “It’s Monday afternoon, you need to do this”. So, I kind of floundered for a while. I was halfway through my second year, and it was like, “Hang on. You could get a degree out of this. Your parents will be so upset if you went home…” So, I buckled down but to be honest I was learning to play the bass guitar at the time, which was far more exciting. So art was something that I did during the day but then by night I dreamed of being Andy Fraser from Free, or the bloke from Booker T & the MGs.

    Why the bass guitar?

    Bass is easy, one note at a time. It was always the thing; the clever guy at school learnt to play guitar, his mate played rhythm guitar because he had been taught by the first guy, and, to their friend who was too stupid to play barre chords, they’d say, “Oh, you can play bass”. That’s always how it was back in the Sixties. Though I’d always wanted to play the bass guitar because I wasn’t very good at playing a six string, but I kind of got on with it and at college I met Bob Carter who taught me the rudiments of the thing then it started to make sense. Bob went on produce Lynx, Junior Giscombe and the first Wham! single (sadly, he died in 1988 and I lost a good friend).

    It sounds like you were a very conscientious student. A bit at odds with the ‘Young Ones’ image of students in the ‘70s?

    Art College in the Seventies was the preserve of the English eccentric or the work shy. Although I had aspirations to be the former I was actually the latter. You went to Art School to join a pop group. It worked for me.

    When The Specials took off did you give up on Art completely?

    The Specials in 1979 (L. to. R) Lynval Golding, Neville Staples, John Bradbury, Terry Hall, Jerry Dammers, Horace Panter, Roddy Byers.

    Art was always there, especially when we (The Specials) started travelling. It was like, “Hey, we’re in New York”. Everybody else went out to Studio 54, or some nightclub, and I went to bed so I could be up early to go to the Whitney Museum and the Guggenheim the next day. So, art and music jockeyed for centre stage for quite some time but art was always there. I could come off a tour, and art was my way to relax, to decompress.

    And then in the Nineties I became an Art Teacher, so I had to focus on art because that was my profession. It was like, “How can I enthuse children, especially children with special needs, about art? How can I make this interesting and exciting?” And that made me focus a lot on what I like about art but it’s been an up and down exercise, really.

    It must be quite a leap to go from being an art student, or an art ‘fan’ to being an exhibiting artist?

    I kind of use the music business model, if you get a great band you don’t just keep it in the rehearsal room, you go out and you do gigs. If you’ve got a collection of paintings you don’t keep them in your attic, you go out and get some exhibitions. The art is a commercial enterprise. I’m not just sitting up in my garret thinking, one day, fifty years after I’ve died these will be worth something. Let’s get these out to people. Let’s make fine art prints of them and see if someone wants to buy them.

    With Music, I’m the Bass Player. I’m a member of the team. Can’t go out to a pub and get my bass out and start singing with it. It doesn’t make sense; I need to work with a drummer, or a keyboard player or a guitarist. I’m a cog in the machine. I’ve often thought I could do a solo album but “No, you can’t. You’d like to but (A) you can’t sing, (B) you don’t write songs and (C) you can’t play a melody instrument well enough”. With the art, that’s my solo album. The work stands or falls by my efforts alone. I can’t blame the drummer if it’s a bad painting.

    Your collections include a portrait of The Specials, but there’s not a lot that points to ‘Horace Panter: Ska Musician’. Is that deliberate?

    Horace Panter: Equally adept with bass and brush (Photo by Conor McCabe)

    I haven’t really thought about that. No, I don’t suppose you can see Horace from The Specials but then I don’t just play Ska or Reggae, I play Blues, I play Country.

    A while back I did what I called my Blues Series. Collages of my favourite Blues musicians and I did a couple of Jazz guys as well – Miles Davis, Charlie Parker. I wanted to actually “paint music”, if you now what I mean. It’s all very well doing a nice portrait of Muddy Waters but loads of people do that. I wanted to do something that explained how the music impacted on me. Blues has got an awful lot to do with history and a sense of place. The people who moved from the Mississippi and Alabama, up to Chicago to work in the factories, and they took their music with them. But then they discovered electricity, and you have Chicago Blues. I wanted to do something that captured that.

    Did music play a large part in your life when you were growing up?

    Oh, enormous, yes. My father bought an orange and lilac transistor radio round about 1962. It was about the size of a Kellogg’s Corn Flakes packet. It was amazing; the Pirate radio stations changed my life. Before them you had a programme that played Pop music for about 45 minutes – ‘Midday Spin’ or something it was called but that was the only Pop music you heard on the radio. Than all of a sudden the Pirates came along and you could hear Pop music all day. It changed my life and I think it changed the music industry here as well. Radio Caroline, Radio London; all of a sudden there was somewhere for all this new music to be heard and the results were tremendous. At that time I wanted to be a Pirate radio DJ; I was obsessed by Pop music when I was younger.

    There are people who were equally as obsessed with The Specials when they were younger. That first album is almost 40 years old now. Why do you think they have endured?

    The songs are great. The lyrics are really clever and the rhythm is just so seductive. I think that’s a testament to the longevity of the band. That Ska music, especially with the energy of Punk Rock is just so infectious. That’s why bands are still playing it.

    The source material for your ‘Master Tape’ paintings must be very rare. Are you painting the original tape, from photos or are these imagined?

    Multi Cassette Technicolour 2 by Horace Panter.

    Let’s think of a seminal album or a seminal session. Then I’ll try and get some research done. If I can’t a get a picture of an actual cassette from that particular recording studio at least I can look on various websites and find the logo for the studio and concoct something. So, some of it is from photos of cassettes and some are sort of, shall we say, my artistic license because out there somewhere something like that does exist. Or did exist.

    The nice thing about the cassettes is you’ve got a very limited time span. I couldn’t really do an Oasis cassette because everything was on CD by that time. And I couldn’t do a Beatles one because that was before it. I think Philips made the first cassette in something like 1962 but they didn’t become popular until the late the late Sixties and they were done and dusted by about ’92, but that’s fine by me because that’s when I grew up.

    If you’re an Undertones fan you’re going to know that they recorded at Wizard Recording Studios in Belfast. You’re going to have a connection with that particular work. It has to be an album that I like; I’m not going to do an ABBA cassette. Another professional artist I know suggested I paint Thriller, because it was the biggest selling album of all time. And I did some research – Westlake Studios in L.A. - but I didn’t have the fire in me to do it. I didn’t like Thriller particularly. Whereas I do like New Boots & Panties. A: It was great and B: It was recorded in the Old Kent Road.

    Are you pleased that the vinyl revival offers an opportunity for artwork to be better appreciated?

    I think that’s great; there’s something to be said for artefacts. I think there’s a general reaction to the Digital era. There’s a really good book called The Revenge Of Analogue by a Canadian writer called David Sax. He documents all this; it’s not just vinyl. You can now buy Polaroid cameras; 35mm film is back on sale. People get together to play board games. Lots of different things where he’s saying there is a movement back towards the actual artefact. Back in the 1960s I was buying albums because I liked the cover. The type face on the Free records, especially their second, I think it’s Arnold Böcklin, I’m not sure. And I fastidiously learnt how to draw like that.

    I’m surprised you haven’t done more album artwork?

    I did a couple for Stone Foundation. I was up for doing the last one but the record company said, “Oh, no, we want photos of the band”.

    I’ve started to branch out. There’s a little independent Reggae label in Holland; I’ve done some work for them. I did some work for the new Doc Marten’s store in Camden, and I’m actually designing a beer can for a small London restaurant chain called Chick’n’Sours. So, it’s kind of putting your different irons in different fires.

    The first Specials album shows the band in the archetypal 2-Tone dress code; suits, button down shirts, skinny ties, pork pie hats. How important was the band image to you?

    An advert for The Specials album (1979). Band photo by Carol Starr

    On the back of that first album, it’s the canal basin in Coventry. We are on the “sea bed’ but the actual canal has been drained. Carol Starr took that one, and we are looking up at Chalkie Davies, who is taking the front cover photo. The white shoes were a bad idea but never mind.

    I think every band had a ‘Look’; The Beatles had those funny collarless suits, whilst The Rolling Stones tried to look as scruffy as possible. But it was a tribal uniform. I’m very aware that you have to look a certain way if you’re on stage, especially if you are connecting with a particular tribe. You announced who you were by what you wore. I always had this idea that the Mods who took acid became Hippies, and the Mods who drank became Skinheads. I was always aware you had to look like something, especially if you were in a group.

    Was The Specials “Look” a collective decision?

    When The Specials first started we were a Punk band that played Reggae, if you like. So, we’d play a Punk song, and then we’d play a Reggae song. Musically it wasn’t particularly cohesive and visually it wasn’t either. I didn’t like the idea of wearing safety pins and bin liners. So, I had my hair cut short and bought some combat trousers and button down shirts. I affected the guise of a Skinhead. When we introduced Ska – which meant that we could play our Reggae songs faster but our Punk songs slower – but still maintain maximum danceability it was like, okay, we should look like a Mod group. And there was this Mod thing doing the rounds at the time – The Merton Parkas, The Chords, Secret Affair – and you could by a second hand tonic suit on Gosford Street, like the suit I wore on that album cover, for seven quid. It probably cost more than that to get it altered.

    Can you remember the first time your parents let you buy your own clothes?

    Vaguely. I think the first fashion item I ever owned was a Batman t-shirt. A bit Pop Art I suppose. I also bought a big Batman poster so that was obviously a big influence in my life. I did own a Paisley shirt. I thought I was absolutely amazing wearing it.

    And can you recall the first record you ever bought?

    The first record I bought was by The Byrds. It was called ‘5th Dimension (5D)’. It was in 3 / 4 time. That was me nailing my cultural colours to the mast. The second single I bought was ‘All Or Nothing’ by the Small Faces. How about that?

    What’s next for you?

    At the launch of Cassette vs Vinyl in Dublin, July 2016. (L. to R.) Chris Barton, Morgan Howell and Horace Panter (Photo by Conor McCabe)

    I’m working on Cassette vs. Vinyl, for the Truman Brewery exhibition. This is great fun. It is three artists – me, a guy called Chris Barton who makes giant facsimiles of cassettes; they’re amazing. It’s an actual cassette and the box it goes in. And Morgan Howell; he makes giant paintings of 45 RPM singles. They are stunning. I’ve seen them hanging in record company boardrooms, and the BBC offices.

    And me and my studio demo cassettes. So the three of us, it really works together because I don’t do vinyl, I don’t do sculptures, and they don’t do cassette paintings, but it’s a music related thing. One example of your childhood is going to be there. We exhibit together, we started off last year in Manchester, and then we took it to Los Angeles. We recently had a show in Dublin, and now we’ve got the Truman Brewery show in Brick Lane, for a week.

    What can visitors expect to see? How would you describe it?

    It’s very good; it’s like a musical experience but a visual musical experience. It’s amazing the number of people that come up to me and say, “I’ve got a box load of cassettes like that in my garage”. Or you hear their children ask, “Dad, what’s that?’ I've also done a painting of a Walkman. That was an amazing piece of Pop history. Totally redundant now but in 1983 everybody had one. These images are like “repositories of memory”, to offer a really pretentious answer. When people look at them the number of sentences that start with “I remember…” I always thought that’s what art should do; it should trigger an emotional response, and these certainly do.

    I have this other bonkers theory that Pop Art was to the art world, in the late Fifties and early Sixties, what Punk Rock was to the music business in the Seventies. Up to that point, you had the abstract expressionists – Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Robert Motherwell – huge paintings with swathes of colour, which dealt with the hefty subjects of doom, tragedy and ecstasy. Then all of a sudden this bloke comes along with a soup can.

    There again, in the Seventies you had Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and Yes with their triple album, and along comes Anarchy In The UK.

    On the subject of Pop Art, your other works include a portrait of Elvis Presley, in the style of Peter Blake.

    Elvis with Badges by Horace Panter. A homage to Peter Blake.

    I hadn’t realised this before but I read up a little bit about it and that Peter Blake painting was based on a Gainsborough apparently. I was asked by a friend of mine to contribute to an exhibition commemorating the 60th Anniversary of Elvis Presley recording ‘I Love You Because’. Whilst I’m not a great fan of Elvis I am a great fan of Peter Blake. And on the original self-portrait Peter Blake is standing there with an Elvis Fan Club book. So I just changed it around, so it’s Elvis in the picture with a Peter Blake book. Some of the badges that are on my Peter Blake figure are stuff that wouldn’t have happened in 1961, when the original portrait was done. There’s a (Punk band) Black Flag one, and Rock Against Racism and the Rolling Stones… stuff like that.

    Peter Blake is obviously a big fan of music. Do you know if he’s a fan of The Specials?

    I met him once. It was at a Paul McCartney show at the O2 and I was in the backstage bar. And there was Noel Gallagher over there, and there’s Bob Hoskins over there and all of a sudden this figure appeared in the doorway. A little man with a goatee beard and a stick, with his family. And I thought, “Fuck me, that’s Peter Blake!” And I don’t do all of that Pop Star stuff. I don’t like that “Hey! Great to see you, I’ve got all your records”. I don’t “hang out” very well. But it was, like, “Come on, Horace, you’re not gong to have this chance again”. So, he settled down and I plucked up the courage; walked over and said, “Hi, I’m Horace Panter. I’m in a band called The Specials. I really like your work”. And luckily his family said, “Oh, we saw The Specials at Chelmsford the other week. You were great”. And I thought, “Thank you. A bit of kudos.” And I just slobbered and made a total fool of myself for about 30 seconds in front of Peter Blake. But, you know what? Everybody else can fuck off, because I’ve met Peter Blake.


    Cassette vs. Vinyl featuring works by Horace Panter, Morgan Howell and Chris Barton, is at The Old Truman Brewery, London E1, from the 19th to 24th October. Admission is free. More details at

    For details of all Horace Panter Art Editions visit

    With thanks to Horace and Clare Panter for generously giving up their time for the Tootal Blog

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