There's a scene in Alex Cox's 1986 film Sid & Nancy that foreshadows the end for the star-crossed punk lovers: One of their cohorts shows up in a trilby hat, shiny tonic suit, and skinny tie, having ditched his safety pins and leather. "I don't wanna be a punk anymore," he explains. "I wanna be a rude boy, like my dad."
Seeing no future, the new rude boys and girls sought to reinvent the past as a place where black kids and white kids could look sharp in vintage clothes and skank in harmony to a ska-punk hybrid. 2 Tone, the indie label founded by Jerry Dammers, keyboardist and chief songwriter for the Specials, was its cornerstone. In 1979, 2 Tone Records issued its first five electrifying singles (the Specials' "Gangsters" and "A Message to You Rudy," Madness' "The Prince," the Selecter's "On My Radio," and the Beat's "Tears of a Clown") and tore down the barricades of a segregated pop scene nearly a decade before Run-DMC and Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" did.
Unlike British punk, born in London's fashionable King's Road, 2 Tone came from the bleak urban counties of the West Midlands, where working-class kids of mostly Irish and West Indian backgrounds lived and worked in close quarters.
JERRY DAMMERS: I was a very young mod. The older mods at school used to like me because I brought in a copy of Mad magazine every week and let them read it. I think Mad magazine is the biggest influence in my life. At the age of ten, I decided I was going to have a band, one of the best in the country. I worked through my teenage years getting the songs together, learning music. I played in a Teddy Boy rock'n'roll band, a funk band, even in a country-western band.
DAVE WAKELING (singer-guitarist, the Beat): There'd been a West Indian community in Birmingham, where we were from, since the '50s. In postwar Britain, they sent out invitations to people living in other parts of the empire, saying, "Help rebuild England from the bombings and you can make loads of money and then go back home and build yourself a huge house." So a lot of people came over with that notion, but of course, there was never quite enough money for the boat trip home, and then people started having kids. So we grew up with the first set of those kids born in England. The first Jamenglish set, I suppose. So the early mods and the rude boys had been quite friendly [toward one another]. Both were dapper dressers.
The influx of West Indians helped popularize Jamaican music in record shops and nightclubs. "Al Capone" by Prince Buster's All Stars became a big crossover hit, and the image of the cool, shades-wearing Jamaican hard man or "rude boy" became an icon among England's youth.
DAMMERS: My brother was in a soul band, and at one of their shows a friend of his was dancing around to this weird record. It was called "Al Capone." I've never heard anything like it.
SUGGS (a.k.a. Graham McPherson, lead singer, Madness): Going around school with a record under your arm sort of said who you were. You'd go to school with a Bob Marley record under your arm all day. We listened to vintage music and wore vintage clothes. It was our own thing, our own identity. Amongst the wrath of Fleetwood Mac and all this global corporate rock music, punk was starting to happen. At the Roxy, they were playing reggae as they were playing punk.
DON LETTS (DJ, filmmaker): It was so early in the scene that there wasn't any punk-rock records to play, so I played what I was into: Big Youth, Prince Far I, Toots and the Maytals. Lucky for me, the audience liked it as well. England had a long tradition of white, working-class youth gravitating toward black music. What were the Beatles and the Stones listening to but black music from the Mississippi Delta? The difference with the Jamaican music of the late '70s was that kids were fascinated by a music and a culture that weren't really removed from their day-to-day life.
WAKELING: The punks had tried to bring down society. Unfortunately, society was still there. Things were actually as bleak, if not bleaker, than they'd been before -- recession bordering on depression, unemployment reaching double digits, war and rumors of war -- and everybody kinda felt like the world was coming to an end.
In 1977, Dammers formed the Coventry Automatics with future Selecter guitarist and songwriter Neol Davies, bassist Horace Panter (Sir Horace Gentleman), and drummer Silverton Hutchinson. Original singer Tim Strickland sang in a conversational Lou Reed style, which clashed with their high-energy sound. Guitarists Roddy Byers (a.k.a. Roddy Radiation) and Lynval Golding joined next, making the Automatics a multiracial force. Strickland and Hutchinson soon departed (the latter replaced by Davies cohort John Bradbury), and, with the addition of 17-year-old singer Terry Hall, late of punk act Squad, the classic lineup was nearly complete. Roadie Neville Staple joined as second lead vocalist after being overheard toasting -- talking over a rhythm or beat -- before a show. Their name was shortened to the Specials (as they sometimes performed as the Special AKA the Coventry Automatics).
DAMMERS: Terry was very striking. Whereas all the other punks were wearing leather jackets, he would be wearing a patent leather jacket. And he looked kind of psychotic. I don't know if effeminate is the right word, but camp. Lynval, Horace, and myself, we were very much into black music. The punk-rock element was from Terry and Roddy. Ska brought it all together. We were able to create something between us that individually we couldn't.
Often just connecting to rehearse was a challenge, as unemployment led to asurge in violent street crime.
DAMMERS: The [Coventry] city center was notoriously rough. There were a lot of fights, and you put your life into your hands going there.
SUGGS: Racially, England was a lot more divided. Even in the playgrounds at school, the mixture between white kids, Chinese, West Indian, and Pakistani kids was pretty tough. It was a bit like that scene in Do the Right Thing where they're all calling each other names.
The rise of the British National Front and the racist rhetoric of former Conservative politician Enoch Powell preyed on the paranoia and resentment of economically marginalized whites. An apparently drunk Eric Clapton fanned the flames, cautioning a 1976 Birmingham audience that England was in danger of becoming "a black colony" and encouraging support of Powell, which in part prompted the formation of Rock Against Racism. In the spring of 1978, the organization drew 100,000 demonstrators to a rally headlined by the Clash in London's Victoria Park.
DAMMERS: The Clash had done a bit of mixing punk and reggae [with their cover of Junior Murvin's "Police & Thieves"]. But I wanted to do it with actual reggae musicians and a racially mixed band. I managed to talk my way onto the Clash's  "On Parole" tour with manager Bernie Rhodes. He hadn't even heard us. But the fact that I'd managed to get a reggae/punk band together with black and white people was enough for him. He didn't even need to hear it. I think he believed it was impossible, so he was impressed.
Rhodes briefly managed the young band. By tour's end, the Special AKA had their look -- short hair, Wayfarers, sharp suits, skinny ties, porkpie hats, checkerboard socks -- and stance down.
RHODES: I just gave them content and a philosophy. I understood ska. I knew more about music and clothing, all that shit, from day one. They could take instruction well.
DAMMERS: He just wanted to do it to make things happen. In music you have to occasionally have somebody sit back and think, What is it all about?
LETTS: Bernie would have tried to focus them, but I know Terry and Jerry, and they weren't puppets. They had something to say.
RHODES: I'm certainly not liberal. But I thought that if you're going to respect the music, then respect it. And add to it, not take away.
LETTS: Was it a give-and-take? It was more take than give. What the punks got out of it was some really cool bass lines. The lyrical approach -- which were political sound bites -- the punks really picked up on that, too. And the rebel stance, the antiestablishment vibe, was something that white kids gravitate toward black music for. And they liked the weed, lest we forget. What'd reggae get out of it? Exposure, which is by no means to be underestimated.
DAMMERS: We started getting a very genuine street following. We could win over a crowd, and by the end we'd have four or five encores. It wasn't hyped by anybody. We did gigs all over the country. The energy was so infectious, so we built up a reputation.
Read the entire 2 Tone oral history in the October 2009 issue of SPIN, on newsstands now.