Special Forces: The 2 Tone Story
As the embers of punk faded, 2 Tone’s message of unity shone bright, offering hope to a generation lost. Forty years on, Long Live Vinyl talks to its prime players: Jerry Dammers, Lynval Golding and Neville Staple of The Specials, The Selecter’s Pauline Black and The Beat’s Ranking Roger, to tell the full story of a label that morphed into a whole genre.
Sandwiched between the fury of punk and the flamboyant new romantics, 2 Tone was the DIY indie label whose roster of bands not only raised questions regarding social ills but offered solutions. Bursting out of the deprived city streets of Coventry, The Specials and The Selecter were joined by Birmingham’s The Beat and London’s Madness to lead a ska revival that reflected a nation’s anxieties in Thatcher’s Britain.
At the heart of the musical movement was Jerry Dammers. “I grew up with The Beatles, Stones, Kinks, but The Who and Small Faces were my favourites,” Jerry tells Long Live Vinyl. “But I also loved soul, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Stax and Motown. When I was about 10, inspired by all that incredible music, I started writing songs. I got into reggae around 1970 when hits like Liquidator and The Israelites were in the charts.
“Around 1977, I was at art college in Coventry but paying my dues in a funky soul outfit from Birmingham called The Cissy Stone Band. I couldn’t persuade them to do any of my songs, which were quite soulful. Suddenly, punk happened and it turned everything upside down. I spiked and bleached my hair, some peroxide got on my eyebrows, so I bleached them too. I looked like a Thunderbirds puppet, and it didn’t quite go with the one-piece zip-up jumpsuits we had to wear in the band. I was so fed up with only doing covers that I started bashing my elbows on the keyboards. Afterwards, I was asked to leave the band, so I knew the time had come to form my own band.
“My friend Neol Davies had a Revox tape recorder and he let me record some songs. Reggae was always part of my plan and I recorded a reggae-ish track for the soundtrack of an animated film I made at college. Horace Panter played bass on it and that was the first thing we did together. I also had lyrics for that tune, which eventually became Nite Klub.
“Charlie Anderson, H and the other guys who later became The Selecter had a reggae band called Hard Top 22 in Coventry, and I played keyboards with them for a while. The most popular punk band in the city were Squad, who Terry Hall sang with. Meanwhile, Lynval Golding and Desmond Brown were playing covers with soul singer Ray King, in his band Pharaoh’s Kingdom.”
“I first met Jerry when I was playing in soul bands around Coventry,” remembers Golding when Long Live Vinyl catches up with him separately. “I was born in Jamaica and exposed to all the early roots-reggae. My father was from the generation who came to England on the Windrush, and settled in Gloucester where he found a job in manufacturing. After he was laid off, he followed the work to Coventry and its thriving motor industry.
“One day, Jerry asked me round to his house to discuss a few ideas that he had. I was really into soul and reggae, but it was the time of punk and its anyone-can-play attitude – I think we were a more advanced group of musicians.” “I was a bit frustrated with what was going on in Cov at the time,” continues Jerry. “I wanted to be part of something original, so I decided to form a punk-reggae band. I was inspired as much by what wasn’t happening in Coventry, as by what was.
“I first recruited Horace, drummer Silverton Hutchinson, Neol on guitar and Tim Strickland on vocals. I wanted an authentic reggae element, so I brought in Lynval with his trebly Fender Telecaster and he replaced Neol. After our first couple of gigs, Lynval left because he didn’t want anything to do with punk. I had to beg him to come back. Tim was more of a speaker than a singer, so I persuaded Terry in from Squad and Roddy Radiation to leave his own band [The Wild Boys], to make it punkier, plus Roddy had some good songs.
“The contrast between punk and reggae was so extreme it didn’t really work, but I heard a record by Capital Letters who, unusually for roots-reggae, had the old ska rhythm. Eureka! I realised the two styles could be blended much more successfully over that energetic old rhythm.”
Music journalist and curator of the Coventry Music Museum, Pete Chambers, recalls seeing an early incarnation of the band: “Did I think I was witnessing the future of Coventry music when I first came across The Coventry Automatics one Monday night at Mr George’s? No, but the mixture of punk and ska they were playing was definitely something new and exciting.”
Also impressed by The Coventry Automatics’ enthralling fresh sound was The Clash’s Joe Strummer. No stranger to cross-genre pollination having covered Junior Murvin’s Police And Thieves on their eponymous debut, Strummer invited the band, now gigging as The Special AKA, on their On Parole tour. “We managed to blag our way into one gig supporting The Clash because we knew their roadie Roadent,” recalls Jerry.
“The Clash liked us, so we got the whole tour. Neville Staple, who was one of our roadies, jumped on stage and added a lot of energy with his dancing and toasting interjections.”
Staple, like Golding, was born in Jamaica and moved to Rugby as a child. Staple says: “When I was a teenager my cousin, who was a local DJ, introduced me to the likes of The Skatalites, Desmond Dekker, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry… When I moved to Coventry I followed in his footsteps, touring the nightclubs with my Jah Baddis Sound System, toasting over reggae records. I practised at the Holyhead community centre and can remember hearing this punky ska sound from the room next door. The mix of sounds drew me in, and I asked if I could hang out. I remember toasting along during soundcheck on that Clash tour and Jerry invited me on stage… and that’s where I stayed.”
BERNIE RHODES KNOWS DON’T ARGUE!
Following The Clash tour, Silverton quit the band and Dammers approached John ‘Brad’ Bradbury. Dammers recalls: “Silverton left because he didn’t like my idea of going back to 60s ska, which he saw as a retrograde step, so I brought in Brad who was the only other drummer I knew in Cov who could play reggae, plus I shared a house with him. It was hard to persuade Lynval to ditch the flares and wide lapels and wear second-hand tonic suits, but he got into it eventually.
“I started The Specials as a vehicle for my songs and I wrote about half of all the material, covers made up some of the other half, but I did all I could to encourage everyone to contribute songs. There was always a bit of an overall concept, but part of that concept was to be flexible and to change with an eye on what was happening. Rock Against Racism was an influence on our specifically anti-racist stance and gave birth to songs like Doesn’t Make It Alright.“I’m always grateful that Coventry seems so proud of The Specials nowadays, because some of our lyrics didn’t entirely paint a rosy picture.”
The Special AKA entered the studio to record their debut single Gangsters. Although originally written by Dammers on Strummer’s guitar in the dressing room on the Clash tour, Jerry later added a musical quotation from the 1964 track Al Capone by Prince Buster. He swapped ‘Al Capone’s Guns Don’t Argue’ to ‘Bernie Rhodes Knows Don’t Argue’, a jibe towards The Clash’s manager, who had attempted to take the band under his wing. Gangsters was a bombastic statement of intent. However, there was one problem… “Nobody wanted to sign us,” says Golding. “So Jerry formed 2 Tone Records to release it.”
With all his money invested in 2 Tone and the recording of Gangsters, Dammers approached his old friend Neol for help.
Pauline Black, vocalist of The Selecter, explained: “Jerry wanted to release Gangsters but had ran out of money to record a B-side, so he asked Neol if he had anything. Neol had this instrumental track called The Selecter, with Brad and a trombonist called Barry… the result was the Gangsters vs. The Selecter single.”
ON MY RADIO
Black, who lived with adopted parents in Romford, says: “My earliest musical memories involved listening to old Tamla Motown records. I went to a school where there were a lot of Dagenham skinheads. They’d take over the common room and play Prince Buster, The Skatalites, Toots & The Maytals, Desmond Dekker, Millie Small, and that is where I first heard Long Shot Kick De Bucket by The Pioneers. So, my introduction to ska came via Dagenham skinheads.
I left Essex to study Combined Science at the Lanchester Polytechnic and I would see Horace and Jerry hanging around the arts faculty. John Peel started giving Gangsters regular airplay. After the success of that single everyone said Neol should form a band. I was singing in local pubs when Lynval introduced me.”
Dammers adds: “I was really pleased Neol formed The Selecter, because I felt a bit bad about having replaced him.”
The mounting curiosity that surrounded Gangsters vs. The Selecter was shared by A&R departments at record labels. As the single climbed the charts, peaking at No.6, Dammers received several offers. However, he held out for a deal that would allow 2 Tone to keep its identity.
Dammers says: “When we signed the label to Chrysalis, we retained artistic control. I just wanted to give like-minded bands a break and thought if we worked together instead of competing, we could build a ska movement up to support each other. Chrysalis was the only company who agreed to let us have the facility to release other bands through 2 Tone, that was one of the main reasons we signed with them.” Staple continues: “2 Tone could’ve happened anywhere, but it took Jerry’s insight. It was all his vision.”
(DAWNING OF A) NEW ERA
With a deal struck, it was time for Dammers and his band to hit the studio. “I suppose I was trying to put a bit of my socialist worldview onto it all,” says Dammers. “For the first album, we just went in and laid down what we had developed in our live set, but with Jamaica’s legendary trombonist Rico Rodriguez adding some real blues and ska authenticity. The importance of his contribution to The Specials can’t be overstated, I regard him as the real heart and soul and best musician in the band. We were so privileged to have him amongst us. He and Dandy Livingstone brought live ska and reggae to Britain in the first place.”
Elvis Costello had heard Gangsters on the John Peel show and wanted to produce our first album,” adds Golding. “So, we went into the studio to record it with him. We just planned to have a good time with a few beers and bottles of wine.”
However, outside the studio a 2 Tone movement was growing. “I remember a buzz quickly developing,” says Pete Chambers.“But it needed Jerry and his energy to galvanise it. Coventry was very much like Detroit, in that it was a multi-cultural city and home to the motor industry. There was an undeniable sense of civic pride that here was a credible band putting the city on the music map.”
Dammers says: “Coventry had the heart bombed out of it in the war and was a city in decline at the end of the 70s after the car industry boom had initially brought high wages. But 2 Tone didn’t just happen in Coventry, Madness had independently come up with a similar idea of playing ska in London before they ever saw The Specials. I’d first seen Ranking Roger toasting punk lyrics over reggae rhythms in Birmingham, so the punk-reggae fusion was already in his mind. The band he toasted with became The Beat.”
It was a strange time in Birmingham,” says Roger. “Everyone was in a band or wanted to be in a band. It was a time of high unemployment and music offered a way out.”
JUST CAN’T STOP IT
Born in Birmingham, Roger’s early influences included Dillinger, Big Youth and Lee Perry, but then came the Sex Pistols. “They were totally different to everything else,” he says. “Demonised by the press, they really had something to say. Around the same time, Steel Pulse had developed momentum with their debut album Handsworth Revolution, it made us realise we stood a chance.”
The origins of The Beat began on the Isle Of Wight, where Dave Wakeling and Andy Cox met while building solar panels. They decided to form a band and, on moving back to Birmingham, recruited the rhythm section of David Steele and Everett Morton. Roger recalls: “I was playing drums in a punk band called The Dum Dum Boys and The Beat blew us off stage when they supported us. There was something special about The Beat. I’d always join in with them and Dave eventually asked me to become a permanent member.
The Beat happened to be in the right place at the right time. Jerry saw us and asked if we’d like to put out a record and tour with The Selecter. It was phenomenal, I was fresh out of school and within months I was on Top Of The Pops performing Tears Of A Clown.”
Prior to The Beat landing their prized spot on TOTP, The Selecter, The Specials and Madness appeared on one notable episode of the show, while the 2 Tone Tour, featuring all three bands, was in full effect. The Specials’ eponymous debut album, released in October 1979, had shot straight into the UK album charts at No.4. 2 Tone had arrived.
I think we realised something big was happening when we set out on that first 2 Tone tour,” says Lynval. “It was then I realised just how much we were bringing people together.”
There was a real camaraderie between the three bands delivering the same unified message,” agrees Black. “But it was the fans that turned it into a movement.”
Those early shows were complete chaos,” adds Staple. “It was music that the kids could dance to and the word spread quickly that we were actually really good.”
Well, we didn’t realise it at first,” says Dammers, “but reggae and ska are a kind of ecstatic music, based in African traditions, and it’s impossible to describe the energy that comes from playing that music. The whole of the band is much greater than the sum of the parts, and everyone is supporting each other rhythmically, it’s a feeling of unity which spreads to the audience, it’s an incredible feeling. There were times when I felt like I was floating above the ground. Those dancehalls were literally shaking, it was very exciting seeing it all come together and take off, those were the best times, so good that it’s all a bit of a blur now.”
There was nothing like our early shows,” offers Roger. “We attracted some of the disenchanted punks and those shows were an opportunity for them to let off steam.”
Pete Chambers agrees: “I adored punk, but always thought it had a big mouth and not a lot to say… 2 Tone had a big mouth and everything to say. With its black and white imagery and political stance, the music made you think.”
Punk was very much embedded into the foundations of what we were doing,” adds Black. “The forward-thinking kids in the white community mixed with forward-thinking kids in the black community to create a hybrid happening. Youngsters were looking for something new, and visually 2 Tone fit the bill with the Walt Jabsco black suit, white shirt, black tie, pork pie hat, white socks and black loafers.”
TOO MUCH PRESSURE
Punk nihilistically predicted no future, but 2 Tone asked what we could do about it, addressing racism, sexism and class division. “There was a lot of disillusioned people that didn’t understand different cultures,” says Roger. “Our music was a melting pot designed to unite. We spoke about world politics, people politics, personal politics.”
You can deliver a message of unity, but you can’t make people listen,” admits Black. “With 2 Tone you had black and white on stage together. I was a woman and I was black. It was difficult for the likes of Poly Styrene [lead singer of X-Ray Spex] and me to be heard. We weren’t selling what a lot of women of the day were selling, namely sex. There were some wonderful women forging their own path and there is the famous NME photograph of Debbie Harry, Viv Albertine, Siouxsie Sioux, Chrissie Hynde, Poly and myself, which captures perfectly that moment in time. There was widespread dissatisfaction and it was a time of Too Much Pressure. Industries were closing and cities were becoming ghost towns.”
Dammers adds: “The events in my songs didn’t all happen in Coventry, Glasgow was the initial inspiration for Ghost Town [released June 1981], but it’s irrelevant really, I wanted my songs to be as universal as possible, with a sort of ‘Anywhere, Anystreet, Anytown’ address on them.”
People think that Ghost Town was about Coventry,” confirms Golding. “But it was about all the cities we visited. Nearly 40 years on and Britain is in political turmoil again with widespread division. Coventry is still multi-racial, but it’s lost its industry and its roots. Local kids, who might not have the same opportunities, are lost. But it’s not just Coventry, it’s across the country.”
WHY MUST THE YOUTH FIGHT THEMSELVES?
Forty years since Jerry Dammers and 2 Tone vocalised social consternation, we again find ourselves in troubled times. Coventry is one of the most violent places in Europe and, like many cities in Britain, suffers from prevalent knife crime.
I think it’s a bit dangerous to say that we’re facing the same problems,” says Dammers. “We have to adapt our response to the times. In those days, mass unemployment was the main problem, now it’s low wages, poverty, zero-hours contracts, run-down social services, bureaucratic and sometimes inadequate welfare benefits, and a crisis in health care, especially mental health and for old people.
Once again, immigrants have been wrongly getting the blame, in fact, immigration has been boosting our economy, servicing the NHS. One of the many real problems is the government’s failure to build social housing, which would also boost the economy.” Tragically, Staple’s grandson recently being stabbed to death shows that whatever causes it, the violence and the gangs have not gone away.
What’s going on today is really frightening,” admits Staple. “Kids take knives out with them for protection and Fidel got caught up in it all and lost his life. The glamourising of gangs in American rap culture has filtered down to trapped British youths and there’s no way out for them. Not every kid is going to go into further education and, when they can’t reach that required level, they are marginalised or they’re seen as underachievers.”
Austerity is driving deprivation and it is not being addressed by politicians,” adds Black. “Society needs to look at why young people are turning on each other. You can’t hope for change, religion peddles hope and look where that has got us. People need to be proactive if things are to change.”
ALL OUT TO GET YOU
On his new album Public Confidential (DMF Records), Roger reflects how 2019 life echoes that of 1979: “We need people to take control as a society. If something is wrong, you need to act and fix it. This is an album influenced, however indirectly, by Brexit, the Windrush scandal, Grenfell Tower, the Manchester terrorist attack. It’s political in its own way.”
Similarly, Golding has reconvened with Terry Hall and Horace Panter for Encore (Island/UMC), the stunning new Specials album that landed universal critical acclaim and reflects on the band’s opinions on 2019. Minus Jerry, Neville, Roddy and Brad, who died in 2015, the album topped the UK chart in February.
“>Golding says: “I was brought up with racism and was stabbed in Coventry. I can see how the city has changed and how the eastern European families that moved here are now subjected to the same racial abuse as the black West Indian population did. “On the new track B.L.M., I address the racism that my father experienced when he moved to the UK. All lives matter and he came here to help rebuild the country, but the Government has treated his generation very badly. The song also reflects on the kind of abuse I suffered, being called ‘black bastard’ and a ‘goddam nigger’.”
A MESSAGE TO YOU
2 Tone’s message of solidarity continues to be heard as incarnations of The Specials, The Beat and The Selecter appear on stages all over the world. “It’s incredible,” admits Golding. “All these youngsters singing along to Too Much Too Young, those kids weren’t even born when it was written. It shows there’s a longevity to what was created, they get it, there’s no gimmick and it was great music. I have to pinch myself because it’s absolutely wonderful to be in my 60s and still be talking about The Specials and making new music.”
Staple concurs: “The young crowds who come to my Neville Staple Band gigs know how to have a good time and there’s a really friendly vibe… it’s just like those early shows.”
Yes, we have the old-school fans and we’re very grateful for their continued support,” says Black, “but it is heartening to see and speak to so many young people at our shows who have discovered The Selecter and like how politically adventurous we are. 2 Tone, like many great movements, burned brightly for a short time, but made a lasting impression. I look back with immense pride, at a young age we created music that meant something to so many people.”
Our music still moves and appeals to all ages,” agrees Roger. “2 Tone helped change a generation willing to open their minds and every generation has a shining light: a Bob Marley or John Lennon… we had Jerry Dammers.”
IT’S LATER THAN YOU THINK
So, what is the legacy of 2 Tone for Dammers and how does he feel now that the dust has settled and he can look back? “Thankfully, there are some great recordings and I’m proud of most of them. They really do seem to have stood the test of time. Hopefully we achieved something important in the fight against racism, working alongside other people like Rock Against Racism, The Anti-Nazi League and the Anti-Apartheid movement.
Looking back on it, I still think it was very sad and unnecessary for The Fun Boy Three [Lynval, Terry and Neville] to leave The Specials when they did, but at least 2 Tone was able to carry on and create Free Nelson Mandela.
While I think Ghost Town is better musically, Free Nelson Mandela had a lot more effect than any other 2 Tone song, and it also led to me being asked to organise Artists Against Apartheid, which included putting together a concert with a quarter of a million people protesting apartheid on Clapham Common. That led to the two Wembley Stadium Mandela Concerts broadcast to millions around the world.
I hope to have something out soon, but it is a bit hard for me personally to celebrate the 40th anniversary when it feels like The Specials has been kidnapped and is not really being treated in the way that I would have liked. However, I will celebrate the good times.”