A personal look back at the halcyon years of 2 Tone Records as it marks its 40th anniversary with three of its key bands currently embarking on tours to celebrate this milestone, by Martin Gray.
The greatest year for music ever?
1979 was probably the single greatest year ever for pop music in my opinion. Being a kid in the 1970s meant I could enjoy and marvel at most if not all of the genres around, as many of them rubbed shoulders with one another on our weekly episodes of Top Of The Pops, among other music programmes on TV. In the early 1970s I was enthralled by the glam rock era: Slade, Sweet, Bolan, Bowie, Roxy Music, Suzi Quatro, Mott, Roy Wood, et al, but I still lacked any real alliance with any particular scene or style, as I also loved funk, soul and disco music as I was approaching my teens.
By 1977/78 however, my world was about to be turned upside down when punk gatecrashed everything. Initially I was a bit bemused by this cacophonous anarchy on the TV which had displaced a lot of my favourite funk and soul acts at the time, but when the initial rush of tabloid outrage and sensationalism gave way to a sleeker, more refined and less discordant ‘new wave’ of post-punk by the onset of 1979, I started to sit up and take notice. Dozens of new bands which signaled the future were suddenly on the TV and the radio: among them Blondie, The Stranglers, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Wire, XTC, Buzzcocks, Elvis Costello, The Pretenders, Joe Jackson, The Police etc.
This was certainly the dawning of a new era – but better was to come. In direct contrast to the bleakness of the times (1979 saw the inevitable decline of an unstable Labour government making way for the even more destructive Tory administration of Margaret Thatcher – Britain’s first female Prime Minister – wreaking havoc and sowing the seeds of disharmony among the populace and the trade unions, leading to the bitter ‘winter of discontent’), music was at its most potent and adventurous. Barely a week went by during the whole of 1979 where there wasn’t another new band on Top Of The Pops to get excited about: The Ruts, The Jags, Stiff Little Fingers, The Undertones, Public Image Limited, The Cure, New Musik, Gary Numan, etc.
A Brave New Black and White World?
Halfway through 1979 however – a year already bursting with so much great chart music of so many diverse genres it was almost ridiculous – something new came along which really ignited my passion. During the summer of ’79, an unknown band from Coventry debuted on Top Of The Pops with a song which lifted its opening bars from the old rocksteady/ska classic Al Capone by the legendary Prince Buster.
The track was titled Gangsters and there on the TV were seven guys – five of them white, two of them black – all with cropped haircuts, and smart tonic suits, skanking away with real attitude and with one of them (Neville Staple) yelling “don’t call me ska-face!” into the mic before the deadpan singer (Terry Hall) let loose his strange alienated whine. I was sold.
This was like nothing I had ever seen before. Who were these cool as fuck guys? They were The Special AKA – more commonly referred to as simply The Specials. And special they were indeed. The single gatecrashed the top 10 in July and I never looked back.
From that moment onward I was hooked. I so wanted to know more about these seven people and what made them come up with such an arresting image and stage presence. I didn’t have to wait long, because these guys were immediately huge.
Previously known by the name The Coventry Automatics, they sharpened their act, honed their craft, and in no time the world was, seemingly, their oyster.
This was a perfect distillation of the rocksteady / reggae vibe with the attitude and urgent tempo of punk. This was 2 Tone: the name of the record label started by Specials main man Jerry Dammers and the name which defined the whole ethos, the entire movement, and influenced a whole generation. Better still, they were all over the music papers at the time: Smash Hits, Record Mirror, The NME, Zig Zag, Melody Maker.
More hits followed in quick succession, and they were not the only ones who were doing this new ska revival thing. Quickly, other bands appeared, which were signed to the label and were immediate hits on Top Of The Pops: Madness – from Camden, London – with The Prince (a tribute to Prince Buster no less); and then The Selecter (fellow Coventry-based collective, fronted by their female vocalist Pauline Black), whose debut On My Radio swiftly followed Madness into the top 10.
In fact my favourite episode of TOTP ever was one in early November 1979 when all three bands appeared on the same stage one after the other performing their respective top 10 hit: The Specials with A Message To You Rudy, Madness with One Step Beyond, and The Selecter with On My Radio. It was a truly incredible moment which has been matched for epochal significance only by the simultaneous appearance on the same programme – exactly 10 years later in 1989 – of The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays when post-Acid House Madchester had started to dominate the yoof culture.
Into the new decade
Come 1980 when the hit machine was well and truly in top gear (a fourth signing to the label made their debut at the end of 1979 – Birmingham’s The Beat – with a stonking version of Motown classic Tears Of A Clown), 2 Tone was unstoppable. And they seized the initiative and cranked up the momentum by embarking on tours with all three or four bands on the bill, and played to sold-out theatres and venues up and down the country. It really was like nothing else.
Inevitably, a film was made documenting this incredible time: Dance Craze – and the soundtrack featured every 2 Tone act that was around at the time. Sadly I wasn’t able to experience any of the euphoria and excitement of this first rush of success for the whole scene, being just 14 meant I was reluctant to do any gigs until a while later. In hindsight, that’s something I now regret of course. It would have been absolutely incredible to be witness to the sheer adrenalin and electricity coursing through the venue (and our veins) had I attended at least one of those legendary ‘package tour’ shows.
What made 2 Tone so special, and “vital” was that the whole reason behind it was to make dance music that brought together opposing factions of society. Uniting people from all social denominations and bringing them together in the name of racial harmony was no mean feat. Considering that the 1970s was still relatively speaking a decade of polarisation, extreme prejudice and political incorrectness, what 2 Tone achieved in its short, explosive, heyday was nothing short of remarkable. All of the 2 Tone bands were also very politically active, all united in one agenda – of opposing the toxic Thatcher regime and the sheer hardship that her destructive policies were causing.
The lyrics in particular spoke to – and with – the disenfranchised and dispossessed, and, in the case of The Specials and Madness in particular, also offered wry and sardonic observations on the tedium of ordinary lives. It was, in a way, a form of escapism for many of us from the humdrum, and what better way to do this than to revel in the wonderfully energetic music with which these bands spread the message?
True, some unsavoury elements soon started to tag along with the gigs – chiefly followers of Madness, who, being the only all-white act of the four big bands (the rest all had black members among their personnel), attracted a small faction of undesirable far-right fans. They were taken in with the skinhead image, completely ignorant and oblivious to the irony that the whole 2 Tone scene was championing multi-racialism and anti-fascism, hence the skanking rude boy image that was the 2 Tone label logo (created by Jerry Dammers and christened Walt Jabsco – which was based on an image of the reggae star Peter Tosh) – but decided nevertheless to completely hijack the normally working class and Trojan reggae/soul-loving 1960s British skinhead subculture for their own devious and racist agendas.
This aberration aside, it’s still undeniable just how big an impact the 2 Tone scene had on many, including myself. The effect it had on my sense of style and dress – well, a complete lack of it – cannot go unremarked, as my previous directionless and gormless teenage self now aspired to get my hair cropped and dress in the trademark Crombies, Fred Perrys, Ben Shermans, porkpie hats, Army surplus bombers, Harringtons, Sta Prests, Doc Martens and braces that so many cool kids at my school and everywhere else started to deck themselves out in.
I was never a punk either, so never had any desire to spike my hair into a mohican or wear bondage or safety pins for that matter. But the 2 Tone, rude boy/Crombie/suedehead/skinhead look certainly pulled me in! By early 1981, I was finally able to get myself my first pair of Doc Martens and the rest, as they say, is a near lifelong obsession.
What goes up, inevitably has to come down….
Most of the 2 Tone stable of bands (excepting a small number of latter second generation acts like The Bodysnatchers, Rico Rodriguez, The Swinging Cats, etc) were regular chart visitors, none more so than Madness, who, despite leaving the label after just their first single to set up home at Stiff Records, had more than 20 hits before their first split in 1986.
The Specials themselves split in summer 1981 (with Terry, Neville and Lynval leaving to form the more eclectic pop outfit Fun Boy Three) but not before their most iconic and chilling social political statement yet – the truly stunning Ghost Town. It still sends shivers down my spine right now, just thinking about the seismic impact it had when it was number 1 for a month in summer 1981 during the height of the social and civil unrest exploding round the country in riots wrecking our inner cities as Liverpool, Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester and London were ablaze. No other number 1 hit – before or since – has captured the times so perfectly in one four minute blast of righteous anger.
The Special (AKA) changed tack after 1981, becoming more experimental and completely reinventing their sound with guest members and collaborative projects. The Beat and The Selecter also continued to release more albums well into the late 1980s.
After another landmark hit in 1984 from the Special AKA (Nelson Mandela) which may or may not have been (in)directly instrumental in ensuring the eventual – much-celebrated – release of said political figurehead in 1990, 2 Tone as a going concern eventually ran out of steam and the label wound down its operations, closing in 1985, with founder Jerry Dammers concentrating on political activism and campaigning with various Labour-supporting causes (most notably Red Wedge), becoming a vocal member of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, and collaborating with other artists. But what an amazing and incredible few years of productivity that was.
Reflection and consolidation
I have been a lifelong fan of The Specials, Madness and The Selecter ever since. The latter two bands in particular have continued to record, tour and release (still great) records regularly – although Madness had a 10 year break between their first comeback of 1999 and 2009 when they issued their absolute masterpiece: the concept album Liberty Of Norton Folgate, exactly 30 years on from their stunning debut One Step Beyond.
Presently, all three of the major players of 1979 have been embarking on their 40th anniversary tours: The Specials (just Terry, Lynval and Horace from the original line up) hit number 1 earlier this year for the first time with their new comeback album Encore and are still tirelessly gigging to mark their fourth decade since they first burst on the scene.
Jerry meanwhile has long refused to partake in any of the nostalgia, instead happy to pursue his DJ activities and his maverick Sun-Ra influenced vision in the form of his own Spatial AKA Orchestra.
The mighty Selecter are also currently on their own 40th anniversary tour as well which promises to see skankers and rude boys (and girls) of all generations united as one. Having met, and spoken briefly with, Pauline Black not once but twice during my time playing with bands over the years has been an absolute privilege – such an inspirational lady who still commands huge respect and admiration for sticking to what she truly believes in.
As for Madness – well, let’s just say that they were probably the only UK band I went absolutely apeshit for when I was 14 until Siouxsie And The Banshees started to overtake them in my affections in the 1980s. However, with the Banshees now long retired and gone for good, Madness are still there, commanding a special place in my heart.
They have continued to release records, and play their resident headliner shows pretty much every year since they regrouped for the third time in 2009. And yes, I was kinda star struck when I met Suggs in person for the first time ever (with his wife Anne – aka Bette Bright) in 2009 at a Deaf School gig in Liverpool.
2 Tone may have had a really explosive impact on immediate showing and then burnt out within three years but its legacy and influence during those glory years simply cannot go ignored. Fans who were there at the start have been with the bands ever since, it’s a lifelong devotion this 2 Tone lark I guess.
We’ve all pretty much grown up and grown old together – and now the younger generations have repeatedly cited 2 Tone as a huge influence on their lives, their sounds and their style, attitude and outlook on life. Not a bad legacy for a self confessed record geek from Coventry with gap teeth is it, eh, Mr. Dammers?
All words by Martin Gray, you can find his Louder Than War author’s archive here