The Point
Last updated: 27 June 2022. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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The Dawning of A New Era – A Brief History of 2-Tone and The Specials

Graeme McIver looks at the enduring appeal of 2-Tone, a musical movement that provided the focus for young people to take a stand against Thatcher’s Government and the social conditions of the early 1980’s. They did it with an articulate vision, sharp suits and incredibly infectious dance rhythms. Rock and Roll preached rebellion against your parents, Punk spat anarchy and nihilism but simply by existing, 2-Tone demonstrated a togetherness and solidarity between black and white youth at a time where the far right was active on the streets.

 This article should be read in conjunction with Too Nice to Talk To - An Interview with Dave Wakeling of The English Beat and Roddy Byers from The Specials by Graeme McIver



Do you remember the good old days before the ghost town?

Give even a cursory glance at the newspapers this week in March 2014 and you would be forgiven for thinking you had been transported back in time by over three decades and more. Tony Benn on the front pages, unemployment amongst young people at shameful levels, coverage of the trial of the murder of PC Blakelock during the riots at Broadwater Farm, an unpopular Tory Prime Minister waging class war and The Beat and The Specials are back on tour. There is no doubt that there are significant parallels between the socio and economic situation Britain currently faces and those early years of Thatcherism in the late 70’s and early 80’s. As communities across the country crumbled in the wake of a quite deliberate policy of industrial devastation there emerged a remarkable cultural response. A musical movement with its roots in some of the worst affected areas of the country provided the focus for young people to take a stand against the Government, their social conditions and racism. They did it with an articulate vision, sharp suits and incredibly infectious dance rhythms.

For a short while at the beginning of the 80’s, the 2-Tone Movement was arguably one of the most politicised of all the varied musical and cultural phenomena to emerge during latter half of the last century. Rock and Roll preached rebellion against your parents, Punk spat anarchy and nihilism but simply by existing, 2-Tone demonstrated a togetherness and solidarity between black and white youth at a time where the far right was active on the streets and policing was highly politicised. It inspired and gave a voice to disaffected working class kids across the country and at least one ill-informed current Tory MP - but to (mis)quote The Beat, I’ll save that for later. It also made them dance – even the boys – especially the boys.


The Dawning of A New Era

The punk scene from 1976 onwards had created a new musical landscape, a kind of sonic year zero in the UK. In his seminal book on the history of punk, “England’s Dreaming” the journalist Jon Savage said, “History is made by those who say, “No” and Punk’s utopian heresies remain its gift to the world.” The original scene had revolutionised musical and youth culture in the UK but whilst its light burned brightly it dimmed relatively quickly. Into the void stepped new forms of music, some directly influenced by the sound of punk rock and others more by its attitude.

In the West Midland’s city of Coventry a young man by the name of Jerry Dammers and his friends began the process of combining the raw energy of punk with the dance rhythms of Jamaican Ska. A uniquely Caribbean musical invention, Ska originated in the dancehalls of Kingston and combined calypso with jazz, rhythm and blues producing a dance beat that was a precursor to reggae and rocksteady. Labels like Trojan although based in the UK produced dozens of ska classics. In a city decimated by the Luftwaffe, (for a while the residents of Coventry twinned the City with Stalingrad in solidarity with other victims of Nazi aggression) waves of Caribbean immigration had influenced both the music young people listened to and their sense of fashion and style. Dammers pulled together a band called, The Coventry Automatics and with likeminded mates set about blending ska, reggae and rocksteady with punk and new wave. The result was the seminal group, The Specials one of the most influential bands in modern British musical history.

Dammers, born in India and the son of a high-ranking clergyman, had a clear vision for what he wanted to achieve. The Specials were to be more than just another post-punk group. His desire was to create not just a band but a record label and a whole new movement with a look of its own. That look would merge Jamaican rude boy style with the British mod sensibilities. Drawing inspiration from an early photograph of Jamaican guitarist and member of The Wailers, Pete Tosh; Dammers and graphic designer John Simms created the iconic visual image that became synonymous with 2-Tone - Walt Jabsco. (The name was taken from an old American bowling shirt owned by Dammers.) The black and white cartoon Rude Boy and the chequered pattern behind him seemed to be ubiquitous in my youth whether in lapel badges, posters, record sleeves or in my case, badly drawn versions on homework jotters.

At that time there were very few bands anywhere in the UK that had black and white members appearing together on stage. Along with the iconic imagery this in itself was a powerful statement of togetherness when racism in the media, the workplace and the streets was still widespread and common place.

In an interview for Alexis Petridis of MOJO magazine Dammers said;

“It was obvious the Mod/skinhead revival was coming and I was trying to find a way to make sure it didn't go the way of the NF. I idealistically thought, we have to get through to these people, and that's when we got the image together and started using ska rather than reggae. It seemed a bit more healthy to have an integrated kind of British music, rather than white people playing the two.”

The Specials soon built up a devoted local following and a reputation as a superb and energetic live act. They mixed their own compositions into their live set alongside up-tempo versions of older ska hits such as The Liquidator (by the Harry J All Stars), Longshot Kick De Bucket (by The Pioneers) and Skinhead Moonstomp (by Symarip). Joining Dammers were lead singer Terry Hall, John Bradbury on drums, Lynval Golding on guitar and backing vocals, Neville Staples on vocals and percussion, Horace Panter on bass and Roddy “Radiation” Byers on guitar. The line-up was completed by veteran trombonist Rico Rodriguez who had played on many of the original ska hits. Despite being courted to sign a deal by the likes of Mick Jagger and finding themselves pursued by a number of major record companies, The Specials punk ethos meant that they held out for artistic freedom and control rather than a quick buck. Eventually the 2-Tone label was established as a subsidiary of Chrysalis Records. The Jabsco logo meant that all 2-Tone’s early records were uniquely and instantly recognisable.



Other bands were soon signed to the label most notably fellow Coventrians The Selecter, fronted by the charismatic Pauline Black and Birmingham’s The Beat who included lead singer Dave Wakeling and vocalist/toaster Ranking Roger in their line up. Like The Specials, The Beat also included a legendary original musician from the early days of Jamaican Ska, saxophonist “Saxa” who had played on a number of recordings including those by Prince Buster and Desmond Decker.


Dance Craze

In July 1979, the first 7” single, (apologies to our younger readers….ask your Dad) released by the 2-Tone label was a double a-side with The Specials, (listed as Special A.K.A.) performing “Gangsters”, (inspired by their dealings with some French underworld characters whilst playing in Paris) with The Selecter providing the eponymous track on the flip side. The single spent 12 weeks in the chart reaching number 6. In September of the same year the label released a single by an all white band from North London that paid homage to Prince Buster, one of the best known original Ska acts. The single, “The Prince” by Madness spent 11 weeks in the charts and reached number 16. The band would go onto become one of the most successful UK singles bands of all time racking up 15 top ten hits. Early in 1980, an EP called The Special AKA live, with the lead song Too Much Too Young topped the charts for two weeks. A seminal moment for the label took place in early November 1980 when The Specials, The Selecter and Madness all appeared on Top of the Pops. Add to that the fact The Beat and The Bodysnatchers also had records in the charts then you could not escape the musical juggernaught that was 2-Tone in 1979/80.

At that time director Joe Massot set out to document some Madness gigs as they embarked on a country-wide tour along with other acts signed to the 2-Tone label. Massot was immediately impressed by the vibrancy and energy of the whole tour and ended up making a documentary called, “Dance Craze” which along with Madness included performances by The Specials, The Beat, The Selector, The Bodysnatchers and Bad Manners. The film and the live album of the same name offer a unique insight into the thrillingly energetic musical phenomenon that was 2-Tone and the part that the audience played in contributing to the atmosphere and the event. The Specials often ended their sets with half the crowd up on the stage skanking, (a style of dancing that emerged from Jamaican dance halls) and singing along to the music thereby removing the barriers that often existed between audience and artists in the preceding decades.

Whilst some of the acts may not even have recognised it as such, having black and white musicians on the same stage was a political act in of itself in the late 70’s. The decade had seen the growth of the British Movement (BM) and the National Front (NF) not just as political forces electorally but with boots on the ground as violence and extremism made its way onto the streets. The BM standing on an explicitly Nazi manifesto and including images of Adolf Hitler on their election material managed to secure over 300 votes in the Birmingham Ladywood By-election in 1969. Meanwhile rival far-right organisation the NF polled just under 200,000 votes in the 1979 General Election. Many of the early 2-Tone gigs were marred by fights and violence as far-right skinheads fought with black youth and anti-Nazis. Young people wearing the clothes, buying the records and associating with the 2-Tone scene were making a political statement against racism and for multi-culturism. The courage this took in many parts of British cities should not be underestimated. To underline this point, guitarist Lynval Golding was attacked simply for walking down the street in London with two white girls and had ended up hospitalised with 29 stitches in the head and neck.

Many of the songs released by the label dealt with these racial tensions. The Specials had the likes of Roddy Byer’s Concrete Jungle (I can’t dress just the way I want, I’m being chased by the National Front), Why (We don't need no British Movement, Nor the Ku Klux Klan, Nor the National Front, It makes me an angry man), and a later track, Racist Friend (If you have a racist friend / now is the time for that friendship to end." Asked why he wrote the song Jerry Dammers explained "It is not enough to just be anti-racist yourself. You have to be a positive anti-racist. You have to make a stand against it, because otherwise nothing ever changes."

The Beat’s first album, “I just Can’t Stop It” contained the song Two Swords which dealt with the dichotomy of wanting to deal with Nazi’s physically whilst recognising that violence often encouraged more violence (I've never been one for the punch-up, But look I really hate those Nazis). Their second release Wha’ppen had the song Doors of Your Heart, (Each and every day I walk, through the streets, And I see man and man war and kill each other, Because you are black or you are white, So what's the use in fighting? War alright)

The Beat also wrote possibly the most explicitly political song of the times; Stand Down Margaret;

said I see no joy, I see only sorrow
I see no chance of your bright new tomorrow
So stand down Margaret, stand down please,
stand down Margaret

Dave Wakeling said about Thatcher,

“She made competitors out of neighbours, and people stopped talking at bus stops, even about the weather, in the shadow of her affected, pretend posh accent. Margaret made herself big on the tears and suffering of others, more Cromwell than Churchill….People misunderstand the socialism of the English after World War II. Soldiers like my father got back to England and there was nothing left -- there were no hospitals, land had been decimated, and that carried through our childhood. So everybody built stuff together and looked after each other. It was like, when push came to shove, although we had differences of opinion, we had each others’ backs. Mrs. Thatcher’s introduction of trickle-down economics, and we're still waiting for it to work, broke that mold. She broke the unions. She sold shares of companies that the people already owned, all of which flopped in value. A generation saw their parents give up on life as they saw their own opportunities stunted. They saw the town where they'd grown up dismantled. She was very divisive.”

The song became an anthem not just for fans of The Beat or the broader 2-Tone movement but of young left wingers across the country.

If you thought that David Cameron showed his ignorance by claiming he liked The Jam and their song “Eton Rifles” even though it was a social commentary against the exclusive public school system enjoyed by him and his millionaire chums then his colleague Ed Vaisey takes misunderstanding songs and lyrics to a whole new level.

The MP for Didcot and Wantage, son of Lord Vaizey and UK minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries loved Stand Down Margaret in his youth and would join in the chorus with gusto not for a moment thinking it was a poisoned pen letter to one of his heroes. In 2008 The Guardian newspaper reported that he “adored The Beat despite being an ardent Thatcherite. He assumed that everyone in Britain admired Mrs Thatcher in much the same awestruck terms as he did, so when it came to the song’s target, he naively didn’t realize it was referring to the Tory Prime Minister. He added: “I couldn’t work out what they had against Princes Margret!”


You’re wondering now, what to do now you know this is the end

Acts such as The Beat (to Go-Feet), Madness (to Stiff) and Bad Manners moved on from the 2-Tone record label and despite the success of their Elvis Costello produced debut album released in 1979, internal tensions meant cracks began to appear in The Specials. Constant touring and months without a break took a toll on friendships in the band. Terry Hall would later say he was sick of touring with, “a bunch of shits.” Gigs were constantly interrupted due to outbreaks of fighting, sometimes related to racism but often due to football rivalries. As recording took place for the band’s second LP, (apologies again to our younger readers…ask your Mum!) disputes arose between Dammers and some of the others over the musical direction of the group. The album, More Specials departed somewhat from the ska influences of their early work as Dammers explored other musical styles. Many in the band felt the second side of the album inparticular was just, “muzak” and arguments raged during the recording process. In mid-June 1981 the band in its original form released their final single. Five months previously singer Terry Hall and bandmates Neville Staples and Lynval Golding had already made up their minds they were leaving to form Fun Boy Three. The single would spend a total of 10 weeks in the charts, 3 of them in the number 1 position. The song was, “Ghost Town” a haunting soundtrack to Thatcher’s broken Britain.

This town, is coming like a ghost town
Why must the youth fight against themselves?
Government leaving the youth on the shelf
This place, is coming like a ghost town
No job to be found in this country
Can't go on no more
The people getting angry

Speaking to the Guardian Newspaper in 2002, Jerry Dammers said,

“You travelled from town to town and what was happening was terrible. In Liverpool, all the shops were shuttered up, everything was closing down... We could actually see it by touring around. You could see that frustration and anger in the audience. In Glasgow, there were these little old ladies on the streets selling all their household goods, their cups and saucers. It was unbelievable. It was clear that something was very, very wrong."

In a later interview he was quoted as saying, "The overall sense I wanted to convey was impending doom.”

Dammers prophesy was fulfilled when anger at the police and government in Brixton and Southall in London, then Handsworth in Birmingham, Toxteth in Liverpool, Hyson Green in Nottingham and Moss Side in Manchester all erupted into rioting. Britain’s cities burned in the summer of 1981 as a disaffected youth expressed their anger and resentment whilst the haunting, diminished chords of Ghost Town floated over the air waves.

As Britain’s social fabric fell apart so did The Specials.

The band split in a myriad of different musical directions. Dammers kept going under a new name, Special AKA whilst Hall, Staples and Golding enjoyed a modicum of success with Fun Boy Three. (Hall later formed The Colourfield and took part in various other musical collaborations.) Roddy Byers returned to his rock roots and created another musical fusion, “skabilly” and tours with his band The Skabilly Rebels.

In 1984 Dammers penned his biggest world wide hit, Free Nelson Mandela recorded under the name of Special AKA. The song brought the name of Mandela to the attention of millions of people. Dammers said, "I knew very little about Mandela until I went to an anti-apartheid concert in London in 1983, which gave me the idea for "Nelson Mandela", I never knew how much impact the song would have; it was a hit around the world, and it got back into South Africa and was played at sporting events and ANC rallies-it became an anthem.”

Despite the song’s success Dammers would never again capture the zeitgeist in the same way he had with The Specials. His contribution to the music has been recognised with various awards and received an honourary degree by Coventry University in 2006.

In early 2008, after months of speculation, Terry Hall confirmed that the band would reform for a series of dates. The band re-united 6 of the 7 original members but Dammers was conspicuous by his absence. Whilst the others made it clear he was welcome to join them Dammers released a statement claiming he had been forced out of the band.

“Jerry sees this whole thing as a takeover, rather than a proper reunion, representing primarily Terry Hall and his manager’s…ideas of what 'The Specials' should be and do….Jerry does not believe it represents what the real Specials stood for, politically, or in terms of creativity, imagination or forwardness of ideas…At the moment this is not the proud reunion and thirtieth anniversary celebration Jerry had hoped for.”

Without the founding member the band embarked on a 30th anniversary tour to rave reviews and sold out venues. The Specials continue to tour with dates planned for later this year. Internal tensions still appear to affect the group with first Neville Staple dropping out and then guitarist Roddy Byers leaving the group to concentrate on other projects. Steve Cradock of Ocean Colour Scene is rumoured to be lined up as a replacement.

Of all the bands on the 2-Tone label it was Madness who went onto become the most commercially successful and after a brief hiatus continue to tour and record to this day. They remain somewhat of a British cultural institution.

After a run of hit singles including Tears of a Clown, Mirror in the Bathroom, Hand’s of She’s Mine and the critically acclaimed, Save it For Later The Beat split in 1983 with Wakeling and Roger forming General Public. The duo continued to have success as did the other two guitarists in the group, Andy Cox and Dave Steele who formed The Fine Young Cannibals with Roland Gift. Wakeling’s “English Beat” still tour.

Pauline Black left The Selecter and had a career as a TV presenter, actress and cultural commentator before the group reformed in the late 2000’s.

In 2013 a 2-Tone Museum was opened in Coventry to celebrate the link between the city and the scene it spawned.


Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think

2-Tone and the music it produced continue to inspire to this day. Wikipedia lists the label as representative as the “second wave of ska.” (With the original Jamaican version the first.) A third wave, influenced by the Coventry based label has sprung up across the world with ska bands emerging across Europe, Asia, Australia and Latin America. In the USA groups like The Mighty Mighty Boss Tones, No Doubt, Rancid and Reel Big Fish all found a degree of commercial success playing ska.

In the UK a myriad of different acts have claimed they have been influenced by 2-Tone including Noel Gallagher, Blur, Amy Whinehouse, Tricky and Lily Allen.

It is noticeable that whilst we face a similar socio and economic situation to the one experienced by those 2-Tone trail blazers then the contemporary music business has no modern day equivalent. The idea of a new musical movement, with the image, distribution, publicity and an overtly political message controlled by the artists themselves is an anathema to the industry in 2014. Whilst there are some brilliant underground bands and musicians raising issues of racism, poverty and inner-city violence they do not get the commercial exposure that was afforded to the ska bands of the early 80’s. In almost every town and city across the UK groups of young people were inspired by that vision of black and white together, a great look, a joyful unity and togetherness along with great tunes and a brilliant dance beat.

As Jerry Dammers told MOJO magazine;

"You get this fantastic feeling of togetherness playing ska because no one individual could do it on their own…It all interlocks…you get this communal feeling between the musicians onstage and that spreads into the audience like a fever. That's why The Specials gigs and the 2 Tone gigs were the wildest the country has ever seen. They were just absolutely fucking incredible.” 




Other articles by Graeme McIver in The Point can be found here


External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left


The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

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