The Oral History of 2 Tone
For the Specials, Madness, and the (English) Beat, ska wasn't all just black and white. Thirty years on, here's the colorful story behind the label that started a revolution.
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.
Bolstered by the response to the live set, Dammers developed his vision of an integrated record label with a like-minded roster of talent — a company so committed to quality that the logo itself would be enough to inspire fidelity in consumers.
SUGGS: I was reading Melody Maker one day, when I saw this band called the Specials. They kind of looked like us, and everything they were saying were things we were interested in, so we went to see them. After the show, Jerry came around to my mom’s flat and was talking about this idea he had for a label called 2 Tone. It seemed like a preposterous idea at the time, that you could start your own label. And he was talking about it being an English Motown, in that it would be self-sufficient and all-encompassing. It was also going to be racially integrated, which was an unusual prospect at that time.
DAMMERS: I just thought that instead of competing, similar bands should work together to cooperate and build something.
2 Tone’s debut single, the Special AKA’s “Gangsters” (backed with an instrumental called “The Selecter” by an early version of the band the Selecter), was released in July ‘79. Thanks to word of mouth and repeat spins by BBC DJ John Peel, it eventually sold 250,000 copies, prompting a major-label bidding war. Courted by Mick Jagger, among others, Dammers signed with Chrysalis (home of Blondie, Jethro Tull, and Pat Benatar) for less money and more control, enabling him to sign bands to singles deals himself. Madness were first, with “The Prince.” The Selecter were next with “On My Radio.” All were U.K. Top 10 hits, as was the Specials’ next single, a cover of Dandy Livingstone’s “A Message to You Rudy.” Only the Selecter recorded a full album for the label, 1980’s Too Much Pressure, which reached the U.K. Top 5, fueled by “On My Radio” (later sampled by Basement Jaxx) and the title track.
PAULINE BLACK (lead singer, the Selecter): We didn’t do just one single; we did an album, we did tours. Is that a point of pride? Yeah, absolutely. We believed in it. And I think we fully embodied the whole ethos of 2 Tone, much more maybe than some of the other bands. For a start, there were six black people, one white person, and a female in the band.
Chrysalis graphic designers David Storey and John Sims solidified the 2 Tone aesthetic on promotional material for the Specials and the Selecter, which included the former’s rude-boy mascot, Walt Jabsco (whose name was cribbed from a vintage bowling shirt and whose appearance was based on a photo of reggae star Peter Tosh). Madness’ nutty-boy hat llogo and the Beat’s “Beat Girl” (created independently) were among the other ska icons of the era, nearly all of them sketched in black and white.
DAVID STOREY: Jerry felt that a lot of graphic design was “art for art’s sake” and as such didn’t resonate with the ska/punk fusion he’d invented. His design approach was bold, direct, and devoid of any gratuitous embellishments, which was the antithesis of everything else going on at the time. He had a jokey mantra: “Standards must be lowered!” We designed hundreds of items under Jerry’s direction, and it was always a slow, torturous process. Having said that, we were aware that something momentous was being created.
DAMMERS: The black-and-white checks goes back to the mod thing, because we used to have this black-and-white tape we’d stick on our bikes.
LETTS: The black and white reflected the mood of the country at that time. It did feel like everything was very black and white. Very polarized.
WAKELING: The week our single [“Tears of a Clown”] came out — it was amazing — one of the tabloids had a black-and-white checkerboard on the front page, and it was “It’s 2 Tone Mania!” Everybody was walking around dressed in black and white.
SUGGS: I remember seeing David Bowie when I was a kid, and he’d come out in G.I. gear, and the next week all the kids would be wearing G.I. gear. Then one day you were in a band and everyone was wearing what you were wearing — like, fuck me!
In fall 1979, the 2 Tone tour, featuring the Specials, Madness, and the Selecter, sold out all across the U.K. The Specials’ self-titled debut album, produced by Elvis Costello, was an instant rebel-nerd touchstone. Songs about the absurdity of adult coupling (“Stupid Marriage”), disgust over urban brutality (“Doesn’t Make It Alright”), and alienation (“Blank Expression”) struck a chord with a generation of disenfranchised teens. The album’s first single was “Too Much Too Young,” which turned the band’s acid wit to the issue of contraception (“Keep a generation gap / Try wearing a cap”).
SUGGS: At that point, we’d only played a few pubs. We’d probably been out of London once or twice. And then we’re going on 2 Tone’s tour, and our trombones are sticking out the window. It was really fucking amazing. I remember very clearly that the tour manager would have to get off at every service station and phone ahead, and then he’d go, “Fuck, the venue’s been trashed! There’s 4,000 kids outside, and they’re smashing the place up.” So he’s trying to ring ahead trying to find a bigger venue while we’re driving to the venue that’s already been burned down.
RHODA DAKAR (lead singer, the Bodysnatchers; singer, the Special AKA): I went to see the 2 Tone tour with Knox from the Vibrators, and he said, “Oh my God, I can’t believe you’re still wearing bondage outfits.” I looked down and thought, “Yeah, actually, I’m kind of over this.”
Less easy to convert were the National Front skinheads, many of whom dressed like rude boys and frequented the gigs, although Dammers never stopped trying.
SUGGS: There were times you’d see 3,000 people sieg heiling. That was a pretty unpleasant situation.
DAMMERS: To put it in a nutshell, the hippies wanted people to change their clothes and minds. I’ll keep the clothes, but I’ll change your mind.
LETTS: The fashion version, not the fascist version of skinheads, was emulating a Jamaican style. It’s a timeless look.
RHODES: It’s the perversity of the way things are: The most radical Anarchist vote Tory or Republican. They think if the Labour party gets in, they don’t have a role. They can only operate in the society that they’re opposite to. They can only operate in the society that they’re opposite to.
BLACK: Obviously, we were reflecting what was going on in society within our band, and that made for some very uncomfortable situations while we were on tour. Madness didn’t have that problem: They were all white, and they were all male.
DAKAR: I can remember a gig where we had to stop playing because the fighting in the audience had become so ridiculous. You had to stop people who were trying to beat the hell out of each other. Why would you come to the gig, pay to get in, and then fight? You can do that outside for free. It was nonsensical.
In spring 1980, the Specials made their live U.S. debut at Manhattan night-club Hurrah’s. They also performed “Gangsters” on Saturday Night Live.
DAMMERS: I thought it was too early to go to America to do some gigs. We didn’t have a cat’s chance in hell of making it there, because at that time retro culture hadn’t come to America at all. They were still living in the real world. But our new manager had all these ideas of breaking us. When we arrived, the guy who picked us up in the airport said to me, “Say, are those guys from a mental institution?” And he was serious.
BLACK: Between New York and Los Angeles, there’s this gap, is there not? Possibly with Chicago rearing its divine head in between — redneck kind of people who think that black and white people sharing a stage together, certainly in 1979 or 1980, is a pretty weird thing. Maybe they don’t think so now with a black president, but who knows? When we toured America, we went into the Deep South, and if we walked into a truck stop and expected to be fed, no one would come near us.
The Specials sold out a four-night stand at the Whisky a Go Go in Los Angeles, supported by the Go-Go’s. The American version of rock-star privilege — limos, fancy hotels, overindulgence — created an idealistic rift within the band. A speedily recorded follow-up album, 1980’s More Specials, found the band creatively torn as well, between high-energy ska and spacier dub muzak such as “International Jet Set” and the hit “Stereotype.”
DAMMERS: On that tour in America, I was listening to music in the hotel bars and elevators. Vibraphone music in elevators. Obviously this was classed as rubbish. I don’t know if it was my state of mind, because I was so zonked, but it stuck me as a really weird, psychedelic music, which is now called lounge or exotica. It’s been rehabilitated, but at that time, to say you actually liked that music was mad. It completely freaked out some of the band.
The Specials, the Selecter, and the Beat appeared in the 1981 documentary Dance Craze, a ska concert film that also featured Bad Manners (fronted by enormous bald singer Buster Bloodvessel). The Specials would have one last transcendent moment with the single “Ghost Town.”
DAMMERS: The first album was very easy to play. And then when I started to push people (nothing that difficult — why not try this or develop and progress a bit?), certain people didn’t want to push themselves. Unfortunately, it went in two camps. [Hall, Golding, and Staple] came in the dressing room [at Top of the Pops, where the Specials were performing “Ghost Town”] and said, “We want you to share out all the songwriting relatively equally in the whole band, and if you don’t, we’re leaving.” I said, “Well, I’ll share out some of it, but I’m not going to share every penny.” So they left. It was as simple as that. The same reason as every other band that splits.
DAKAR: I don’t know, things happen like that. A lot of bands just don’t last that long, do they?
DAMMERS: I’d suggested that everyone take a break, go away and write songs, then reconvene and put them together for the next album. The first one they came up with was “The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum,” which they thought was good enough, so they just left. I don’t think it was on par with “Ghost Town.” There were just two chords to it. I don’t want to get bitchy, but as John Peel said at that time, “‘The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum’ — stale news, lad.”
Hall, Golding, and Staple’s new group, Fun Boy Three, lasted only two years before Hall formed new-wave band the Colourfield. Dammers, Panter, Bradbury, and Dakar continued on as the Special AKA. The Beat — called the English Beat in the U.S. — morphed into the more mainstream General Public, the Bodysnatchers (minus Dakar) became the Belle Stars, and Madness enjoyed an American smash with “Our House” before dissolving in the late ‘80s (they would later re-form, and they recently released a new album, The Liberty of Norton Folgate).
WAKELING: Well, we were all destroyed by the New Romantics. All of a sudden our utilitarian gear looked plain next to these dandies. People wanted music as escapism again. There was a point where you’d have Elvis Costello, the Jam, and the Beat on Top of the Pops saying, “Here’s a brand-new song about unemployment.”
LETTS: When your songs do have some sort of social content, there are going to be honest dilemmas come up. How do you sing them from the heart when the bank’s full up?
2 Tone would continue to release politicized singles, including Dakar’s brutal date-rape narrative “The Boiler” (1982) and the Special AKA’s “Free Nelson Mandela” (1984), the latter a worldwide radio hit that introduced a young audience to the plight of the then-jailed African National Congress leader. Mandela would be released six years later and elected president of South Africa in 1994.
STOREY: When I played “Free Nelson Mandela” for the first time, I was knocked out and really thought it was a sound that would herald a new, second wave of 2 Tone music. Sadly, although it was a big hit, it was the last truly great piece of work to be released on the label.
DAMMERS: In the ‘60s in Jamaica, there was this thing called “ska exhaustion.” It’s such a high-energy form with absolutely frantic dancing, there does come a point in time when you’ve had enough of it. Ska exhaustion.
West Coast bands such as the Untouchables, Fishbone, and Operation Ivy, plus East Coast bands like the Toasters in New York and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones in Boston kept the tradition going through the ‘80s.
NORWOOD FISHER (bassist, Fishbone): In the late ‘70s, the R&B radio stations in Los Angeles were playing reggae: Steel Pulse, Black Uhuru, Third World were big. When Fishbone started playing, in ‘79, we got excited, so we sped these songs up. When we first played ska, we thought we invented it! Then one day [Fishbone vocalist-trumpet player] Dirty Walt [Kibby] said, “You ain’t invented shit. It’s called ska.” He brought us the Selecter record and the Beat record, and we all thought, “Oh, my God.” We related to it because it was dance music. In the black neighborhoods in L.A. at the time, black kids were listening to Devo, the B-52’s, and the Specials and the Selecter. That shit was impacting the hood. It spoke to the youth across the color line. Later, after we got totally immersed in 2 Tone, we started to discover these older Jamaican acts, like Desmond Dekker and the Skatalites. And there was a sense of pride, man. We were black kids from the hood, and these were black hillbillies from Jamaica making the baddest fucking music.
No Doubt took the 2 Tone sound to the masses with 1995’s Tragic Kingdom, which has sold 17 million copies worldwide.
TONY KANAL (bassist, No Doubt): It’s funny, I grew up in England. We didn’t move to California until 1981, but I was too young to know [about 2 Tone] at the time. I got into it in 1987, after [No Doubt cofounder] Eric Stefani played it for me. I really responded to the sense of racial unity and the celebration of diversity. When we first started, we had Gwen Stefani singing — a white girl. We had John Spence singing — a black guy. It was what all those bands were about. It shouldn’t be any other way.
BLACK: A version of the Selecter toured with No Doubt in 1997. Gwen Stefani was quite nice and fully acknowledge that her whole influence had been “On My Radio.” It was very nice to see them being successful and still carrying that ska flag.
A few years ago, word began spreading of a possible Specials reunion. Last December a British tour was announced. Dates sold out instantly, but the old rancor had not abated. Dammers, who had been performing with a full orchestra (often as Spatial AKA Orchestra), released a statement dismissing the reunion as a “takeover, rather than a proper reunion, representing Terry Hall and his manager’s ideas of what the Specials should be and do.” Hall countered, “I’ve read Jerry’s statement, and I just don’t get it.” (Invited to participate in this story, the Hall-let Specials expressed interest via their publicist, who then cited touring commitments in England and Japan as rounds for their inability to schedule an interview.)
DAKAR: When the Specials played in London [recently], it was brilliant. I’ll never forget it. It was a genuinely powerful show. You’d forget how different from all the others they were.
BLACK: The people who are going to the Specials reunion were probably ten or 11 when the Specials were going, and for some of them, I think they kind of miss the point about what the hell we were doing. But they like the style.
LETTS: I get to travel around the world and I see the impact it’s made. Jamaica spent loads of years under colonization and has gone on to culturally colonize the planet. 2 Tone had a major part in that.