A couple of months ago I had the aim of posting a clutch of 2 Tone material on the site. Well, as often is the case, other priorities cropped up and it didn't happen. So this is attempt number two and a 2 Tone themed week.
The Specials played at the Moonlight Club, a small pub venue in North London's West Hampsted, on 2nd May 1979. They were on stage just ten or so hours before the polls opened nationally in a General Election that would change the face of Britain for ever. Opening the set, the ever deadpan lead singer, Terry Hall, said 'I haven't got much to say, it's the eve of the election and it's 'Up to You'. By the end of the following day Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party swept into power with a new brand of politics that would polarise the country over the new decade.
For me, 1979 marks the pinnacle of British popular music.... even the shite was good in someways! But it wasn't always easy to like the music you liked, left leaning bands attracted elements of the far right hell bent on violence and disruption. Multiculturalism brought to these shores throughout the '50's and '60's by the Windrush generation followed by an influx of Bangladeshi migration in the '70's, was not welcomed by all. The National Front had a popularity in the late '70's that has never been bettered by any far right group since. The British Movement, like The Specials, also headquartered in Coventry, were also on the scene. Both of these organisations knew that the life blood of their groups were young people. Both the NF and BM sought to recruit disaffected white, working class youth into its ranks. In order to do this they targeted those places where such individuals could be regularly found, on the football terraces and in gig venues. A good radio documentary 'Too Much Fighting on the Dance Floor', which describes the problems in music at the time, can be found here.
The music of 2 Tone melded the rhythmic tempo of Bluebeat ska with the urgency of punk to create something unique. I remember that in the class room, colour was abandoned as half the class adopted monochrome. The familiar images of Walt Jabsco and the Madness pork-pied 'M' were seemingly ubiquitous on school bags and exercise books! However, for those a bit older, who were of an age where they could see their 'Three minutes heroes' live, there was a danger in the gigs. Whilst the 2 Tone sound had an obvious appeal for reggae loving skinheads it also attracted right wing skinheads for whom the sight of black and white musicians sharing the same stage was an affront that invariably lead to violence. Many of the songs from the 2 Tone songbook addressed this situation head on, 'It Doesn't Make It Alright', 'Concrete Jungle' and 'Why?' by The Specials and 'Two Swords' by The Beat being good examples. The two aforementioned bands were the most overtly political bands having a 2 Tone affiliation, whilst some of the other bands were less upfront with the political message. Nevertheless, all of those bands were making a political statement simply by existing and spreading a message into the bedrooms of teenagers from Inverness to Ilford that peace, love and unity was not a pipe dream.
The 2 Tone flame burned with the intensity of magnesium ribbon, but like magnesium the brightness was short lived. The personalty differences within The Specials lead to an acrimony that on the one hand produced such brilliant music but meant that on the other hand their existence was also likely to be short lived. They split in the summer of 1981 but not before their crowning glory, 'Ghost Town'. Whilst it's iconic video was filmed in the deserted streets of a dawn morning in London, the song was a metaphor for all of those UK cities that were starting to feel the iron bite of that new politics, now known to all by the name of 'Thatcherism'. Unemployment rose as centuries old industries locked the factory gates for the last time. At the same time, race relations were at an all time low and in a scenario that could have come from the pen of JG Ballard, in the week that the bands last single reached No. 1 (June 1981) the inner cities of London, Bristol and Liverpool exploded as the country witnessed the worst riots for many decades.
So The Specials were no more, Lynval, Neville and Terry went off to form The Fun Boy 3, The Selecter soldiered on for some time in the face of diminishing record sales before throwing in the towel. The Beat fragmented sometime afterwards into General Public and The Fine Young Cannibals
(who enjoyed considerable commercial success) and the Bodysnatchers with some personnel changes emerged as The Belle Stars. As record company executives foisted on the record buying public a sanitised, apolitical and frankly lightweight musical diet that fitted the new mood in Britain, only Madness (always something of a 2 Tone outsider) seemed to weather the storm with their greater pop sensibilities augmented by those Nutty Boy videos..... but even they succumbed by the middle of the '80s.
There was one more notable coup that the General, Jerry Damners masterminded when he wrote 'Free Nelson Mandela' in 1984. Mandela was still imprisoned in South Africa and this was an effort to return the spotlight on his plight. Whilst not a huge hit (reaching number 9 in the UK charts) the impact of the song was very far reaching indeed. The song and Jerry were pivotal to the organisation of a huge benefit gig to mark Mandela's 70th birthday in 1988. The campaign for his release gained an unstoppable momentum that resulted in his eventual release two years later. As one of the last releases on 2 Tone Records the recording reunited many of the leading lights of the 2 Tone movement such as Elvis Costello (producer of the first album as well as a short lived artist on the labels roster), Rhoda Dakar, Brad, Lynval, Dick Cuthell, Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger all appeared.
In time, even those bands that had spun off from the '79 originals petered out leaving the avid fan with nothing other than the records and the memories. That was the situation until the early '90's when some f those original musicians put together something of a 2 Tone co-operative that went by the name of Special Beat. Comprising, yes you guessed it, ex-members of The Specials and The Beat, their shows were some of the best that I have ever been to in nearly 40 years of gig-going. The energy, the heat and the sweat in those small venues was something to behold. But even more extraordinary was the reaction of the audiences, in raptures at hearing those songs again! Extensive touring by Special Beat demonstrated quite clearly that there was still a huge appetite for those 2 Tone classics.
Periodically, throughout the '90's and the first years of the 2000's various members of The Specials re-ventured into the studio and released new material, but with the exception of 'Guilty 'Til Proved Innocent!' the recordings were lackluster and failed to propel the band back into the public's view.
It was not until 2008 that fans began to think the unthinkable. In the summer of 2008. Terry Hall and Lynval Golding shared the 100 Club stage in London under the moniker of Terry Hall & Friends. Perhaps more importantly, Terry appeared to be comfortable once more with his early back-catalogue as the band played four Specials songs on the night. The road to reconciliation led to the 2009 Isle of Wight Festival which saw six sevenths of the original band performing together for the first time since 1981. Whilst it was disappointing that the main architect, in the form of Jerry Dammers, was not with them, for fans such as myself who were too young to see them live first time around, this was good enough.
The band's first dates on the tour that followed are the best gigs that I have ever witnessed (even over the best performances of The Stranglers - and there have been many).
The Specials at Brixton Academy 2009.
Live success in the UK lead to tours further afield, notably the US and Australia. But with the pressures of touring upon them once more, the rankles and personality clashes that existed within the band seemingly resurfaced and trouble ensued. Whilst The Specials have continued to tour, the current line up has only Terry, Lynval and Horace as the original members. Nevertheless, upon the release last year of a new album, 'Encore' they clocked up their first No. 1 album! Fair play to them!
The Specials 2019.
If you care to download the gigs that will follow during the week, you will understand the power of the music and message of 2 Tone which together if the reason why we are this year celebrating the Ruby anniversary of the label and the bands behind the label.
'Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think'.