December 9, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Ska and 2Tone – the sound of Coventry

2 min read

Walk down Oxford Street today and it’s impossible to avoid glimpsing the ever present influence of 2Tone whether it’s the black and white check patterns, porkpie hats, tonic suits, etc, etc. The style pioneered by The Specials, The Selecter and The Beat has proved to be timeless. Don’t believe me – look at these images from 1980/81. Still achingly cool.

Back in 1981, the Coventry ska and 2Tone bands provided the sound track to a Britain mired in recession. That year, the country erupted in riots from London to Birmingham, Manchester to Liverpool. I remember seeing the aftermath of the turbulence in Manchester Moss Side and Liverpool Toxteth. Young people were out of work and racism was endemic.

What is incredible to think back on now is how forward looking 2Tone was. A second wave iteration of the Jamaican ska sound, it took that genre and married it with the punk-style fury of young Britons under the first Margaret Thatcher led Tory government. But instead of just shouting expletives as the punks had – 2Tone was like a talking newspaper. It related the misery and frustration of young people in almost poetic terms.

Most importantly – it put black and white performers on stage as fully equal human beings. That sounds like an odd thing to say. But in the 1970s, despite the presence of strong black musical performers, too often a mixed act involved a white front man or women with black musicians relegated to backing vocals or dancers. 2Tone tore up that rule book.

The late 70s and early 80s saw a series of British youth cults sweep over the pop music scene. Most of them lasted 18 months to two years max and sadly 2Tone was no exception. I know many would argue that Jerry Dammers did continue to fly the chequered flag for a few more years but the classic Specials/Selecter/Madness/Beat combination that ruled the charts was dominant from only 1979 to 1981. But what an impact it had.

DISCOVER: 2Tone bands and the Coventry riots in 1981

Even growing up in Essex at the time, where there was plenty of racism going around, 2Tone challenged the bigots.

What was so unique about 2Tone was that it centred on Britain’s mini-Detroit – the motor city of Coventry. But like Detroit, a city whose car factories were in decline. Big urban centres like Liverpool and Manchester had made their mark on the music scene and would do so again. But this was a time when Coventry broke through. And this was greeted with some bemusement by followers of fashion.

I’m very proud to have worked on two Coventry based biographies – both published by Aurum Press. The life story of Neville Staple, vocalist in The Specials, and Errol Christie, the first black British boxing captain and a trailblazing champ. Sadly Errol died in 2017 of cancer.

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