The Specials debut album was released 40 years ago. Here in an abridged excerpt from my upcoming book Time and Place: The Adventures of a Soleboy (Spring 2020) I look at the importance and continued relevance of the Two Tone movement…
On the 7th May 1979 John Peel played a new record called Gangsters by a band named The Specials from a place called Coventry. The world would never be the same again.
Okay that last sentence may be an exaggeration, to say the least, but for a large number of British youth it was a pivotal moment. A great big “fuck off” moment where music, politics, clothes and humanity came together to dance and fight the system.
“Black and white unite and fight to smash the National Front”.
Smash the National Front with a great big smile on your face. A great big smile on your face while wearing some ace clothes, while dancing your heart out.
The music that quickly became known collectively as Two Tone (or 2 Tone) after the label set up by The Specials’ leader Jerry Dammers would soon become the sound of a generation. And what was not to like? I mean, just take the song Gangsters for starters. Based around Prince Buster’s 1964 ska classic Al Capone and infused with punk energy.
“Bernies Rhodes knows don’t argue,” and off we go on one great big skank.
However, in amongst that great big skank you can also hear the deathly tones of Ghost Town – that was some years down the road – the crackle and pop, the retro guitar sounds, the despair in the lyrics, the general pessimism and yet it still makes you want to dance. It makes you dance. For a couple of years it made a whole load of kids dance. Dance while you expanded your mind and your wardrobe.
The Specials got much better than Gangsters. Two Tone as a movement was more than just a Prince Buster remake. The Selecter, a fellow Coventry band, featured on the ‘B’ side of Gangsters. Eponymously titled it is an instrumental that until this day I cannot describe. Sure it skanks, but again you can hear and feel the desperation in the music. Essential it is a dub plate, albeit quite a light dub, that interested this twenty-year-old enough to play on a regular basis back then.
The Two Tone movement that came out of the Midlands was absolutely relevant for the time and place that was the late seventies/early eighties but as we have discussed throughout the book it was organic. While The Specials, The Selecter and The Beat were creating waves in the Midlands, Madness were listening to the same sounds in London, and developing their own ska-infused tunes but you can go back further. Back to the debris that all these bands’ members will have played on when they were kids in the bombed out cities of Coventry and London, then onto senior school and mixing with the first generation of West Indian schoolkids. Back to theirs to listen to their older brothers’ tunes, little skinheads at thirteen and it then all comes together in their early twenties as they help to produce the third wave of ska music.
Sussed music, great imagery, punk attitude and energy and neat fucking attire. Skinhead and punk influences but now adding lots of black and white. Checkerboard patterns, black suits, white shirts, black ties, white socks, black loafers. Topped off with a pork pie hat Walt Jabsco evolved. Walt was the fictional character, based on a photograph of original rudeboy and member of the Wailers, Peter Tosh, and was the logo of the Two Tone label. The logo of the label and a blueprint for a load of young Herberts the length and breadth of Britain and across the world.
Walt of course was an amalgam of a whole load of styles. On the face of it he was Ian Dury’s Sweet Gene Vincent of white socks, black shoes but he was also the little urchin off the council estate, the rudeboy back in Brixton in 1965, Joe Hawkins hanging around the bus stops in 1969, a sticksman at the blues dance in The Grove in 1977, a punk on the tour bus with The Clash in 1978 and now he was one of the Nutty Boys on top of the fucking pops.
The Specials debut album came out in the November of 1979, and the black and white image of the band on the front cover captures the mood beautifully. Visually it’s all three-button-hand-me-down suits, skinny ties, loafers and suede boots. Whilst the track-listing documents Britain as it enters the eighties: Titles such as Nite Club, Concrete Jungle, Blank Expression, (Dawning of A) New Era and Too Much Too Young tell you everything you need to know. Add in the fact that it is a tremendous record and you can understand why it galvanised the nation’s youth. It was the music and the image that did it. The look was familiar enough but just that little bit different. There wasn’t the anarchy of punk or the precision of mod. It was just messier enough to get sweaty on the dance floor in before buttoning up the jacket, polishing the Docs and finding a quiet corner to chat up the girl wearing the tight Fred Perry and pencil skirt.
It was a movement with meaning. It made you think. It still does but there were enough rules to keep it smart. Different. It felt it then and it feels different now. I remember coming up from London in 1980 and going for a Saturday night around Wigan. I was in an MA-1 flight jacket, white Fred Perry, Levis and loafers. We went to Bluto’s Bar and then a basement club in King Street and I was amazed to find it was wall-to-wall Fred Perry, wall-to-wall Two Tone. While my head was obviously now immersed in the London bubble the fact it really took me by surprise was that only a couple of years earlier I was one of the few punks in the village. Despite every Wigan 60-plus-year-old now claiming they were at – if not the Free Trade Hall in 1976 then at the Bier Keller in Wigan – punk never took off in the way that Two Tone did. This had really captured the imagination of the provincial and especially working-class towns. It was exactly the right time, right place, right mood and right moment for Two Tone to have taken off.
Madness, The Beat, The Special, The Selecter and others looked and sounded smart. They still do to this day. Suggs and the Nutty Boys from Camden Town are still wonderfully dressed. Pauline Black is more gorgeous, more sassy and just as relevant as she ever was; and is now one of the best-dressed and uniquely-dressed women in the world. She has “it”. The remaining Specials still look tremendous while Jerry Dammers, the leader, the captain, the legend ploughs his own furrow and remains one stylish cantankerous genius.
I also guess that a lot of this kids that fucked art and just danced back then are still the smartest men and women down their local boozer.
The music is still about. All the bands are pretty much touring, and their musicians and members are bringing out music in one form or another. Meanwhile, there are a plethora of new bands across the world from The Skints in London to The Interrupters in Los Angeles that are providing a fourth wave of ska. that sounds similar but different enough to matter, their members dipping into the wardrobe and adapting it to the twenty-first century.
Forty years and counting. Still enjoying ourselves even if it is later than you think…