Styles & Forms | 2-Tone | Pop

Only two record labels in pop history have lent their name to an entire musical genre. The first is Detroit’s Tamla Motown. The other is England’s 2-Tone, a late-1970s/early 1980s imprint that still stands as the UK’s most politically significant pop phenomenon.

2-Tone was set up in 1979 by The Special A.K.A., a multiracial ska- and reggae-inspired band from Coventry in England’s Midlands. Comprising Jerry Dammers, Terry Hall, Neville Staples, Lynval Golding, John Bradbury, Roddy Radiation and Sir Horace Gentleman, this dynamic, working-class seven-piece revived the British/Jamaican Trojan label reggae of their childhoods, with the added extras of punk energy and angry, acerbic lyrics. Their songs of youth alienation, racism and working-class life were mostly sung by Hall with a blank, sneering sarcasm.

Black And White Unite

After building strong word-of-mouth supporting punk bands around Britain, the band set up their own independent label. Again inspired by Motown and Trojan, 2-Tone aimed for a strong visual identity, encapsulated by the label itself – a cartoon of a well-dressed, racially ambiguous ‘rude boy’ in pork-pie hat and mod suit (a rude boy is the term for a young ska/reggae fan), illustrated in sharp, chessboard black and white. The 2-Tone name applied equally to the band’s attitude to racial politics, a crucial and courageous stance at a time when the overtly racist political party the National Front was, with some success, recruiting among white British urban youth.

Released in the UK in July 1979, The Special A.K.A.’s first single, ‘Gangsters’, promptly reached No. 6. This surprise hit led to a licensing deal with the major label Chrysalis, a name change to the catchier The Specials and an almost instantaneous skinhead/mod revival among Britain’s punk-and disco-fatigued youth.

Tales Of Everyday Madness

By the end of 1979, 2-Tone had released Top 10 singles by all the main players in the 2-Tone wave. North London septet Madness’s ‘The Prince’ was, like ‘Gangsters’, a tribute to the Jamaican ska legend Prince Buster, but with the punk attack replaced by a cheeky, cheery, but occasionally wistful, cockney music-hall attitude. Graham ‘Suggs’ McPherson and company soon left 2-Tone for Stiff Records and unleashed a string of hit singles and pioneering videos that established them as one of British pop’s best-loved pop institutions until their split in 1986. The band still reform regularly for well-attended live shows.

Coventry’s The Selecter, led by the charismatic female vocalist Pauline Black, made a big initial impact with their debut single, ‘On My Radio’ and first album Too Much Pressure. But although they possessed an even greater ska-punk raucousness than their friends The Specials, they quickly ran out of steam. Finally, the Birmingham six-piece The Beat (called The English Beat in the US) emerged with a Christmas 1979 cover of Smokey Robinson’s ‘Tears Of A Clown’ before forming their own Go-Feet label, again with the assistance of Chrysalis. Their strident punk-reggae protest songs, influenced by both Jamaican dub and classic...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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