When Coventry won the honour of being 2021’s ‘City of Culture’ the one thought at the forefront of my mind was how was 2 Tone going to be represented in the forthcoming celebrations? Whilst not wanting to down play Coventry’s other attractions and achievements (naked Mercian royals, voyeurs, jet engines and cars aplenty, for me the greatest gift that this city gave to the world was 2 Tone. And it was indeed a global gift. Whilst the label and the associated scene burned with great intensity it was short lived. Nevertheless, the legacy of 2 Tone has endured. The music of that initial crop of bands that were signed to the label inspired a new generation of musicians across the Atlantic to produce similar music in the punk/ska mold that was the brainchild of Jerry Dammers some 40 years ago!
Forget the fools who declare that music should be free of politics. Political issues have found a home in music and verse for hundreds of years. Just think of the prevalence of the protest song within the folk tradition. In recent years Live Aid raised millions for famine relief where governments had failed, Artists Against Apartheid (again with the critical involvement of a General Dammers) were instrumental (no pun intended) in bringing about the release of Nelson Mandela, David Hasselhof did his thing atop of the Berlin wall in the moments before it fell. Each of these examples, with the possible exception of the last are testament to the potency of the combined influence of music and politics.
Gunta and I travelled to Coventry to meet friends for food and football in Fargo village. Prior to meeting we did the cathedrals and such, but the cultural focus of the day was a planned visit to the ‘2 Tone Lives & Legacies’ exhibition at the Herbert Gallery and Museum. I think that this is the most comprehensive and in depth gathering of 2 Tone thought and memorabilia collected under one roof to date. Much of the stuff was already familiar to me, the posters and the iconic photos by Chalkie Davies taken at the Canal Basin that features on the first two Specials’ albums.
What was new and exciting were the contributions from Jerry’s own collection that documented the earliest days of the Coventry Automatics/The Specials. Perhaps MrDammers is something of a hoarder, if that is so, that is the fan’s gain. The exhibition contains some remarkable items from his archives such as a sheet of paper on which he experimented with different ideas for the band’s logo. Another sheet of doodles tested out possible images for the band. Such exhibits give the viewer an insight in to how meticulously Dammers plotted out his vision to dominate the British music charts with the 2 Tone roster of bands.
The other highlight of the exhibition is the work of John ‘Teflon’ Sims, one time in-house graphic designer at Chrysalis and hey collaborator with Jerry Dammers when it came to realizing the look of 2 Tone. It was John who took Jerry’s idea and created ‘Walt Jabsco’, the most famous rude boy of them all and the labels iconic logo. It was Walt and the chequerboard design that spread like a monochrome virus that infected school exercise books, school bags and badges on blazers across the country between 1979 and 1981. Whilst the finished artworks are stark and stunning, I do prefer the cut and paste mock ups that John has loaned to the museum. Such methods were the tools available to the graphic designer in the pre-digital age. These items are every bit as beautiful as the finished pieces that went on to become gig posters and record sleeves. Last seen at a pop-up exhibition hosted by John in Margate, after a Specials date there in 2011, these works-in-progress are my favourites. I badgered him then that these images that break down the creative process should be in an ‘Art of 2 Tone’ book…..my 2 Tone related bookshelf needs it!Pretty please Teflon!