2 TONE celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, and The Specials are on the road again. I take a look back on three decades of music that shaped a generation.
Almost 30 years since Ghost Town reached number one to the backdrop of record level unemployment, strikes and violent protests in the street, The Specials are back, with an uncannily familiar atmosphere of political and social upheavel.
2009 marks the 30th anniversary of 2 Tone, a musical sub-genre named after the record label started by Jerry Dammers, organ player and creative force behind The Specials. 2 Tone records kick-started the careers of bands including Madness, Bad Manners, The Beat and The Selecter, and had Elvis Costello and the Attractions on the books.
2 Tone was primarily influenced by Ska and reggae, music that came over with the Windrush, and fused it with elements of the British Punk scene that was striking a chord with teenagers in the late 70s.
Dammers said “I saw punk as a piss-take of rock music, as rock music comitting suicide, and it was great and it was really funny, but I couldn't believe people took it as a serious musical genre which they then had to copy. It seemed to be a bit more healthy to have an integrated kind of British music, rather than white people playing rock and black people playing their music. Ska was an integration of the two.”
He wanted to create “a weird new music that was a Jamaican-British crossover” that united the country’s youth, going beyond the boundaries of race and culture. The band that came from that ideal was The Specials, integrating the aggro punk sound with the beats of reggae and ska. Not everything went smoothly though, as bassist Horace Panter recalled. “I used to have reggae lessons, Lynval (Golding) used to come round my flat, play records and go, 'Listen, mon! De bass should sound like dis! I got the hang of it eventually."
The core identity of the band wasn’t solidified until the 1978 On Patrol tour, where they supported The Clash. It was during that tour, at the gig at London’s Music Machine, that Neville Staple went from roadie to adding his toasting to the mix. There was also trouble from racist skinheads at the Bracknell gig, which led to the band deciding that they were going to stand up against racism and the right.
"It was obvious the Mod/skinhead revival was coming and I was trying to find a way to make sure it didn't go the way of the NF,” Dammers said. “I idealistically thought, we have to get through to these people, and that's when we got the image together and started using ska rather than reggae.” The look also came together on the tour, with the band adopting a cohesive image of tonic suits and pork pie hats, a style seen on Jamaican rude boys but also similar to the mod wardrobe.
It was through their Clash connection that the band hooked up with legendary manager Bernie Rhodes, who got them some European gigs, including one in Paris that saw him immortalised in the first of The Specials’ songs to hit the charts. The opening line of ‘Gangsters’, ‘Bernie Rhodes knows, don’t argue’ howled by an angry sounding Staple, refers to a now mythical incident at a Paris hotel when the band’s instruments were confiscated to pay someone else’s debt. (The Damned had stayed there previously and smashed the hotel up and left, refusing to play their bill.)
In the end, a scary combination of Rhodes and the gun toting venue manager led to the band getting their guitars back and being able to play the gig. But the European dates were the beginning of the end for the band’s relationship with Rhodes. Ironically, Chrysalis signed The Specials after the success of ‘Gangsters’ and they hooked up with a new tour manager, Rick Rogers, who had previously worked with The Damned.
After signing The Selecter and Madness to the 2 Tone label, things really took off, a UK tour for the label culminated in all three bands appearing on Top Of The Pops on the same day, something most labels could only dream of. A US tour soon followed, but it wasn’t the resounding success tour manager Rogers envisioned.
"It's hard to believe now, but at the time, the concept of retro did not exist in America at all," Dammers recalled. " We arrived at the airport in our tonic suits and pork pie hats, ready to take America by storm, and this bloke who picked us up in the minibus said to Rick, 'Say, are these guys mental patients?' He really thought we were from a mental hospital because of the suits and short hair".
Any good feeling that existed between the band was destroyed by the gigs at LA’s Whisky A-Go-Go, where they took up an eight night residence, playing two shows a day. This is identified by many of members of The Specials as the point when they stopped getting on. In his book, Ska’d For Life, Panter notes that they finished the tour as seven individuals, rather than the unified band they had been when they first arrived in the States.
When they got back to the UK, the band had stolen the chart top spot from label mates Madness with The Specials Live EP. They also had their fourth consecutive top ten single, ‘Rat Race’, an anti-student rant penned by guitarist Roddy ‘Radiation’ Byers. But racial tension was still simmering beneath the surface, and Golding was attacked by skinheads leaving the Moonlight Club in Hampstead.
"I got beat up badly," he said. "My ribs were smashed in. It was a frightening experience. It was a racist attack, it was because I was walking down the road with two white girls." It was this experience that prompted Golding to write the B-side ‘Why?’. Despite their anti-racist stance and the fact that the band had two black musicians in it, members of the right wing National Front continued to turn up at Specials’ gigs.
“It made no sense whatsoever, racists liking The Specials and what we were saying. I’ve thought of that many times…why some took to us…but haven’t been able to figure it out. Two black guys and a Jew fronting the band. The black and white imagery and Unity messages. Songs like ‘It Doesn’t Make It Alright’ can’t spell it out any clearer. In many ways though I do believe it was good they came. You have to bring them in and talk to them. You can’t change anything by not talking to people.” Golding said.
Even though they stood united on issues of race and equality, this wasn’t enough to stop the band splitting in 1981, shortly after Ghost Town reached number one. This left a bitter taste in Dammers mouth, as he recalled. "After more or less getting on my knees and begging the band to do the song, I thought after it got to number one that I'd proved myself to the band, that they were going to realise that I knew what I was doing," he said. "We had popularity and critical acclaim. We got to Top Of The Pops, and Neville came into the dressing room and announced they were leaving. I was really, really upset."
Panter and drummer John Bradbury remained for a while and, along with Rhoda Dhakar from The Bodysnatchers, they continued to produce music under the slightly altered moniker The Specials AKA. A third album emerged, In The Studio, but despite the hefty wedge spent in the making, it failed to set the charts alight. It did produce stand out tracks ‘What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend’ (the only Specials tune Dammers’ sings on) and the amazing ‘Free Nelson Mandela’. The song highlighted the plight of Mandela at a time when the establishment still dismissed him as a terrorist. Bradbury is understandably proud of the song. “It really woke people up," he said. "A lot of people had never heard of the guy before that."
It’s not surprising that the UK tour marking the 30th anniversary of 2 Tone (albeit without Dammers) sold out within hours of tickets going on sale. It’s easy to connect to a band that boasts blistering tunes and lyrics that are still relevant.
The political stance that The Specials stuck to is what keeps their fans loyal and brings new rude boys and girls into the fold all the time, making them true music legends.