A Brief History Of Two Tone Ska Music

Punk was undeniably a critical musical movement, injecting much needed vitality and attitude into the British music scene in the late 1970’s. While the music was thrilling and visceral, the empowering social messages behind punk were all too often lost in a mire of nihilism, negativity and anarchy. While The Clash brought black influences into their music, they didn’t go as far as having black band members. One man sought to rectify this. Inspired by the stories of Motown and Stax, Jerry Dammers was quietly constructing a band and a revolutionary music label that would bring together reggae, punk and soul in a pop wrapper. It was a deliberate attempt to advocate the benefits of multicultural life in urban Britain. This band, initially called the Coventry Automatics, became The Specials. The record label would be called 2 Tone.

The Summer of ’79

It all began in the Summer of 1979. Initially distributed by Rough Trade with record covers printed by the band members themselves, the first release on 2 Tone would be Gangsters (as The Special AKA), with local Coventry band The Selecter providing an instrumental for the B side. The 7″ single was soon picked up by the Chrysalis label, who signed The Specials as well as providing funding for the 2 Tone label. The second single to be released on the label would be from a little known London band by the name of Madness. Dammers offered the nutty boys a release on the basis of a demo tape. Determined to offer an alternative to the restrictive and demanding clauses of traditional record labels, he offered bands a clause allowing them to leave the label after just one single. Madness took advantage of this clause, and the band weren’t expected to release more than their 7″ of “The Prince”. The band were later described by Dammers as “a bunch of chancers”.

Public Success

Word quickly spread about this addictive new music that had an image and an attitude to go with the sound. In fact, the image of the label was as important as the music. Planned to the finest detail by Dammers and bandmate Horace Panter, the iconic black and white graphics were put together with Chrysalis designers John Sims and David Storey. The image of the dancing chap in the sharp suit and tie, sunglasses, pork pie hat and loafers was known as Walt Jabsco, and was based on a photo of Peter Tosh (of the Wailers). In addition to the records themselves, Walt would appear on numerous badges, posters and flyers in the years to come.

By October, the three bands set out on a tour of the UK, playing some of the most energetic and legendary gigs of the era. Again, the visual aspects of the gigs were important. For The Specials, the non-stop energy of guitarist Lynval Golding and singer Neville Staple would be in stark contrast to the dry, sardonic performances of lead singer Terry Hall. By the end of the year the label’s fifth release (The Beat’s version of “Tears of a Clown”) hit the Top 10, and in a single week the popular Top Of The Pops music programme featured all three bands. Dammers’ vision had become a bone-fide public success.

The Other Bands

Other bands and artists who either featured on the label, or were associated with the musical movement it created, include Bad Manners, The Bodysnatchers, Elvis Costello, Rico and The Beat. While Madness and The Beat each only released one single on the label, 2 Tone was responsible for launching the careers of those bands to the masses, leading to deals with Stiff and Go-Feet respectively.

The Fans

Fans were mainly from working class backgrounds, but importantly racial and gender backgrounds were unimportant to the ethos of the music. Fans would often wait for hours, even camping out overnight, to see their favourite bands on tour.

As with many social movements, the messages of peace and unity were misinterpreted – and the style misappropriated – by a small but disruptive minority. Right wing groups mistook the skinhead look as support for their obscene views, and the bands sometimes faced violent crowds. Even Terry Hall was perturbed: “We don’t like violence at our concerts, we’ve made that clear from the outset. We offer music as an alternative to fighting.” Madness faced similar scenes at some of their concerts, and again have repeatedly expressed their displeasure at this element of the crowd.

Living in a Ghost Town

Thatcher’s brutal economic cuts were starting to hit the nation hard, particularly the industrial heartlands of the Midlands where two tone had its origins. Coventry’s unemployment rate hit 20%, and the Summer of 1981 saw large scale riots in Brixton and Toxteth. It was in this environment that the UK had one of its most unusual Number One singles; The Special’s Ghost Town. A dark and evocative journey through the recession ravaged streets of urban England captured the public imagination in a way that few songs have before or since. The song has since been covered by No Doubt, The Prodigy, The Aggrolites and Get as well as being sampled for the Gorillaz song “Slow Country”.

The End of an Era

Two tone was, by definition, a high energy form of music, and burn-out was inevitable. As the 1980s continued, music and culture began to move away from subtle reflection and into the brash materialism of the New Romantic movement. The wear and tear of incessant touring were taking their toll on The Specials. Without The Specials, there was no 2-Tone. “We were young, overworked and didn’t know how to say no” claims Terry Hall. “If you’ve got seven lads on a bus drinking all the time, they’ll get on each other’s nerves.” Drink and drugs contributed to deteriorating relationships between band members, particularly Dammers and Byers who were both heavy drinkers. Dammers’ final fling was the 1984 single “Free Nelson Mandela”, which became part of a huge worldwide movement to secure the political protestor’s release from captivity. While the label’s appetite for new releases was beginning the fade, the music had secured a part in the hearts of people across the UK and beyond.

The Specials Re-union

Inspired by seeing the emotional “Smile” tour from the great Brian Wilson, as well as the reformed Pixies, Terry Hall started thinking about a reunion. Pushed by fan and former Crystal Palace owner Simon Jordan, talks with the rest of the band started in 2007. A well received date at Bestival in 2008 was followed with a series of tour dates in 2009. Tickets for the gigs sold out in less than an hour.

The gigs were notable for the diversity of their audiences as well as the incredible energy of the band, who put acts half their age to shame with a series of explosive performances. “They’re good songs” explains Hall. “It doesn’t matter what year, month or venue it is. It’s about feeling comfortable and feeling relevant. As long as we feel that, that’s enough.”

Meanwhile, Bad Manners have continued to tour on and off since their early Eighties heyday. Madness go from strength to strength, reuniting in 1992 for two massive gigs in Finsbury Park (dubbed “Madstock”) and more recently releasing their ninth studio album, The Liberty of Norton Folgate.

With The Specials, Madness, The Beat and Bad Manners all on tour in 2010 amid an environment of increasing unemployment, social upheaval and general recessionary malaise, it’s clear that this music is as important now as it has ever been, with bands such as The Refinements keeping the two tone ska flame burning bright.

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