In this post, Rock Hall curator Meredith Rutledge-Borger, who traveled to the UK to collect and research for a new 2-Tone Records exhibit, shares background on the label and its lasting impact on popular culture.
Between 1979 and 1986, the 2-Tone label released 28 singles – 20 of which charted in the U.K. – including hits by the Specials, the Selecter, Madness, the Bodysnatchers and the Beat (known as the English Beat outside of the U.K.). Although only the English Beat –and to a lesser extent, Madness – ever had much success outside of the U.K., the 2-Tone movement combined infectious dance music and progressive ideals to confront the status quo. 2-Tone laid the groundwork for the success of such American artists as the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, the Toasters, Fishbone, Smash Mouth, Sublime, Reel Big Fish, the Pietasters and the multi-platinum selling No Doubt.
2-Tone was a group of black and white kids from Coventry, Birmingham and London, England – white punk rockers and black rude-boys and -girls who stood against the economic policies of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government and the Neo-Nazi National Front, promoted racial harmony through the irresistible and exuberant rhythm of ska music and revolutionized the British music scene. Jerry Dammers, 2-Tone mastermind, keyboardist and songwriter for the movement’s forward guard shock troops, the Specials, told Mojo magazine: “We were aiming for revolution. We were trying to change minds.”
Coventry, center of the British auto industry, had been known as “the Detroit of Britain.” However, by the late Seventies, with an unemployment rate above 20 percent and youth and violent crime rates spiking, hard times had come to Coventry – and most of the U.K. Specials’ lead singer Terry Hall recalled: “Coventry was such a violent, dead-end place. So many people were losing their jobs. It was depressing.”
“Nothing positive seemed to happen in Coventry,” said Specials’ guitarist Roddy Radiation. “It was a forgotten place, given over to drinking and fighting. That’s why we were in a group. We wanted to go a different way.”
“I had wanted to get a band together for some time," said Dammers. "I was playing in all sorts of soul bands and club bands….I wanted to do my own songs. The whole punk thing opened up the way. It gave me the confidence to do my own thing. It made you realize that anything was possible.” Dammers formed the Specials with bassist Horace Panter, guitarists Roddy Radiation and Lynval Golding, drummer John Bradbury and vocalists Terry Hall and Neville Staple in 1977. They played ska music, described by Panter as: “The music that predated reggae, ska was a combination of traditional Caribbean mento rhythms and the R&B walking bass backbeat that late 1950s Jamaicans were hearing on their radios when they tuned into American stations.” The first ska records were released in Jamaica in 1960, and the sound soon travelled to England, where it took the dance halls and house parties by storm. In ska music, the Specials found the perfect fit for their punk and reggae roots. “We were playing a music that combined black and white influences, that was united,” said Dammers.
Using Berry Gordy’s Motown as a blueprint for a record label was fitting for a group of ambitious and soulful kids from the Detroit of Britain. With “an agenda for social change resulting in racial harmony,” Dammers and his gang of rude-boys and punks created the 2-Tone label. Dammers designed its black-and-white checkered logo and rude-boy symbol “Walt Jabsco,” so-called after a name on a thrift shop-purchased bowling shirt. The first release on the 2-Tone label, “Gangsters,” backed with “The Selecter,” was shared between the Specials and fellow Coventry band the Selecter, which featured Neol Davies, Dammers’ old bandmate, and charismatic rude-girl frontwoman Pauline Black. The Selecter’s 1979 2-Tone single, “On My Radio” reached Number Eight on the U.K. chart, while their album, Too Much Pressure, reached Number Five.
Voices from outside of Coventry soon began spreading the ska gospel as Camden Town’s own Madness became part of the 2-Tone congregation. Madness released its first single, “The Prince,” in October 1979, the same month that they joined a 40-date 2-Tone tour of Britain along with the Specials and the Selecter. “The Nutty Boys” – as Madness are affectionately known – would eventually become the 2-Tone group most embraced by its nation. The Madness body of work, the group’s longevity and its distinctive “Britishness” has embedded the group in the British consciousness. The group became an archetype of British culture, performing on the roof of Buckingham Palace for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and at the 2012 Olympics’ closing ceremony. Birmingham’s the Beat released their 2-Tone debut, “Tears of a Clown” in January 1980. The Beat eventually established their own Go Feet label, following the 2-Tone example of the Specials. The Beat’s Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger would go on to form General Public with the Specials’ Panter, while Beat guitarist Andy Cox and bassist David Steele formed Fine Young Cannibals with vocalist Roland Gift. 2-Tone returned to Coventry to round out its label roster with the all-female Bodysnatchers, fronted by Rhoda Dakar. The Bodysnatchers hit the charts with their singles “Let’s Do Rock Steady” and “Easy Life.”
The U.K. anthem during the summer of 1981 was the Specials’ Number One hit “Ghost Town,” though the hope and progressive spirit of the 2-Tone movement had given way to violence at Specials’ gigs as skinheads and rude-boys clashed. The U.K. erupted in riots against Thatcherite policies and streets were set ablaze in Brixton, Birmingham and Liverpool. By October 1981, the Specials split, with Golding, Hall and Neville Staples forming Fun Boy Three. Dammers continued to record as the Special A.K.A., recruiting Bodysnatchers’ lead singer Dakar. In 1984, the Special A.K.A. recorded the anti-apartheid anthem “Nelson Mandela,” demanding the release of the decades-imprisoned civil rights leader who would eventually become the first black president of South Africa. By 1986, 2-Tone had released its last single and all of the groups had dissolved, although various configurations of the Specials, the Selecter, the Beat and Madness continue to tour. Specials’ bassist Panter may have said it best when describing 2-Tone’s legacy: “(We) took the spirit of the time and turned it from negative, apathetic and nihilistic to positive. We changed the way kids dressed, danced and thought.”