Written by Thomas Hanslowe
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a new sound emerged from Great Britain: two-tone ska, also known as “second wave ska.” Combining the attitude and aggression of punk rock with the danceable rhythms of Jamaican ska and reggae, bands like the Specials, the Selecter, and Madness bridged cultural and racial divides to bring together England’s working class youth. The most important and iconic record label that documented this burst of creativity was 2 Tone Records.
Two-tone ska first broke into the British mainstream in 1979, but its roots had existed for years. Ska was first heard in Jamaica during the 1950s, when musicians began fusing elements of Caribbean styles like ‘calypso’ and ‘mento’ with ‘rhythm and blues’ from the USA. This genre dominated Jamaican music for much of the 1960s, and was a huge influence on later ‘two-tone’ bands, many of whom would regularly perform covers of songs from this era. Some of the most famous artists, like Desmond Dekker, Prince Buster, and future reggae legends Bob Marley, and Peter Tosh, would later be recognized as “the first wave of ska.” In Jamaica, ska would gradually evolve into related genres; like rocksteady, reggae, dub, and dancehall.
Ska was brought over to England during the long aftermath of World War II. England needed workers to help rebuild London and other areas that had been devastated during the Blitz. They encouraged immigration from a number of Caribbean nations, including Jamaica, which was a colony of the UK until 1962. This wave of new Jamaican arrivals, which later came to be called “the Windrush generation,” brought over its music with the influx. This created new points of contact between Jamaican and British working class culture. And by the late 1970s, the sound of Britain’s working class youth was punk rock.
Punk rock exploded onto the British musical scene in 1976 with the Sex Pistols. The Pistol’s outrageous attitude and fashion, alongside their stripped down, aggressive take on rock ’n’ roll, soon inspired a wave of British punk bands; including the Clash, the Damned, and the Slits. The British punk scene emerged so quickly that for a while, there were simply no British punk records for DJs to play at the shows. One of British punk’s most important DJs was Don Letts, whose parents had moved to the UK from Jamaica. Letts changed the course of music by spinning Jamaican dub, reggae, and ska at British punk clubs. His contributions in creating the tie between punk rock and ska would directly influence bands like the Clash, who quickly began incorporating Jamaican rhythms and sounds into their hard-edged punk anthems.
It was during this first explosion of British punk that one of the most important “two-tone” bands was formed. In 1977, keyboard player and songwriter Jerry Dammers teamed up with local musicians from his hometown of Coventry to form a punk reggae band called the Automatics. After several lineup changes (and a performance as the opening act for the Clash on their 1978 “On Parole” tour) the band rechristened themselves to the ‘Special AKA,’ which was later shortened to just the Specials. Early in 1979, the Specials hit the studio to record their self-financed debut single, “Gangsters.”
“Gangsters” was a reworking of Jamaican ska luminary Prince Buster’s classic record “Al Capone;” and documented the band’s experiences while touring in France. While they were in Paris, the Specials were held responsible for damages to their hotel rooms, damages which were reportedly caused by an entirely different English band. Their guitars were confiscated as collateral. Fortunately, the band got their gear back before that night’s gig, but the incident was still memorable enough to inspire lines like: “Can’t interrupt while I’m talking / or they’ll confiscate all your guitars.” The band also took the original line from Al Capone—“Al Capone’s guns don’t argue”—and changed it to reference their former manager: “Bernie Rhodes knows don’t argue.”
Unable to scrape together the funds to record a B-side, the Specials decided to include a reworking of an old demo, done by guitarist John Bradbury and local musician, Neol Davies. This song was “The Selecter.” “The Selecter” (named after the Jamaican term for DJ) was credited to The Selecter, who would soon flesh-out its own lineup, led by Davies, and grow into one of the most important bands in two-tone. The single garnered critical praise, radio play, and interest from a number of record labels. But it was only Chrysalis Records that was willing to sign the Specials and give financial backing for Dammers to run an independent label: 2 Tone Records.
The term “two-tone” refers to second wave ska’s interracial scene where young Black and white music fans went to shows and jammed together. Dammers and Specials bassist, Horace Panter, collaborated on the artwork for the label’s logo, which has since become one of the most iconic images in ska music. The logo is a black and white drawing of a man in a suit, dubbed Walt Jabsco, whose face, hat, and skinny tie are outlined in the negative white space of the image. The inspiration for Walt Jabsco was a photograph of Peter Tosh in a sharp suit and dark sunglasses. The picture was from his early days with the seminal Jamaican ska and reggae band, the Wailers, which was led by reggae’s first international superstar, Bob Marley. The logo also featured the checkered pattern of black and white squares that is still closely associated with ska music today.
2 Tone quickly became the centerpiece of the second wave of ska. According to Don Letts: “When two-tone broke, it hit big time. It had that magic combination of danceable music with style and attitude” (“Under the Influence: 2 Tone Ska,” Noisey 2015). Bands like the Specials, the Beat, Madness, and the Selecter signed to the label and became the soundtrack for a young, working-class, interracial fanbase that called themselves “rudies,” or “rude boys;” a slang term taken from 1960s Jamaican street culture that ska originally emerged from.
Two-tone ska was also associated with the revival of the skinhead subculture and fashion, which often included suspenders, boots, collared shirts, and a close buzzcut. Unfortunately racist groups began to co-opt the style throughout the 1970s and 80s, and by the 1990s it was associated primarily with white supremacists and neo-nazis in spite of its originally close relationship with first and second wave ska.
Musically, “two-tone” ska bands share many traits with the genre’s Jamaican predecessors from the 1960s. One of the style’s dominant traits is the “skanking rhythm”—named after the long-associated dance style with ska music. It’s heard in the guitar and organ, which most-often play on the eighth-note upbeats. “Two-tone” bands also continued “first wave” ska’s practice of including horn lines that played hooky melodies, solos, and (sometimes) supporting sounds for the guitar and organ’s upbeat rhythms. “Two-tone” ska bands also paid tribute to their “Jaimacan” ska influences through the many covers of first wave ska songs that they recorded and played live, such as the Specials cover of “Message to You Rudy” originally by Dandy Livingstone, or Madness’s cover of “Madness,” originally by Prince Buster.
Two-tone artists also took cues from the Jamaican musical styles that came after ska, especially reggae and dub. This is particularly easy to hear in the bass lines. First wave ska frequently features jazzy walking bass lines, sometimes on upright basses. Reggae and dub bassists, on the other hand, played bass guitars and focused more on playing slow, swampy, rhythmic lines at very high volume, a sensibility heard in the bass of two-tone songs like “Ghost Town” by the Specials.
“Ghost Town” is also just one example of how two-tone bands would sometimes adopt another one of dub’s most distinctive musical traits: the heavy use of reverb and echo, which created ‘trippy’ sonic effects. The influence of punk rock on two-tone is evident, not only in the style’s attitude or the biting social commentary in the lyrics, but also in their vocal style. Two-tone singers like the Special’s Terry Hall often had a debt to the impassioned, half-shouted stylings of British punk rockers like the Sex Pistol’s Johnny Rotten and the Clash’s Joe Strummer that highlighted their working class English accents.
Classic 2-Tone Albums: The Specials by The Specials
Fueled by the success of their “Gangsters” single, the Specials entered the studio in 1979 with producer Elvis Costello to start cutting tracks for their self-titled debut album. You can physically hear that the production is stripped down, and captures both the sound and energy of their live performances. The album features original songs, including “Nite Klub (featuring backup vocals by Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders),” “Blank Expression,” and “It’s Up to You.” It also showcases a number of covers from ska’s Jamaican 60s roots, like: Toots and the Maytal’s “Monkey Man,” Prince Buster’s “Too Hot,” and Coxsone Dodd’s “You’re Wondering Now.” “Too Much Too Young,” wasn’t a cover in the strictest sense of the term, but it was an acknowledged adaptation of Lloyd Charmer’s “Birth Control,” from 1969. Their cover of Dandy Livingstone’s “A Message to You Rudy” was released as a single, and climbed up to number 10 in the UK Singles Chart. The band even called-in Rico Rodriguez, a prolific session musician from ska’s first wave who played on the original Livingstone record, to supply the song’s memorable trombone solo.
Lyrically, the Special’s self-titled album is full of biting, bleak, social commentary. Beneath upbeat, danceable grooves and hooky melodies, songs like “Concrete Jungle” painted a grim picture of social conditions in urban England at the end of the 1970s and describes violent crime and racism in lines like :“I have to carry a knife / Because there’s people threatening my life / I can’t dress just the way I want / I’m being chased by the national front.”
The Specials was released on October 19, 1979, and was a success, peaking at No. 4 on the UK Albums chart. Although the album received mixed reviews when it was first released, it has since become regarded as a two-tone classic and one of the defining moments of the British ska scene. Publications like Rolling Stone, Q, Pitchfork, and NME have included The Specials on a variety of retrospective “best-of” lists.
Classic 2-Tone Albums: Too Much Pressure by The Selecter
Following the success of “The Selecter” single, which was released as the B-side to the Specials single “Gangsters”, guitarist and songwriter Neol Davies began recruiting other local musicians to form a full seven-piece band. This band included singer Pauline Black, one of the few women involved in the two-tone ska scene and who was later nicknamed “the Queen of British Ska.”
The Selecter recorded their debut album Too Much Pressure at the Horizon Studios in Coventry, the same studio where their labelmates, The Specials, recorded their first album. Too Much Pressure was recorded over the span of just two months, from December of 1979 to January of 1980. The band collaborated with producer Erroll Ross and drafted several horn players to help flesh out their sound, including the illustrious trombonist Rico Rodriguez who had helped out the Specials earlier that year.
The track listing was a combination of original songs, primarily penned by Davies, and covers of Jamaican artists; such as “Time Hard” by the Pioneers and “Murder” by Owen Gray. The group drew from some more eclectic sources as well, recording ska renditions of the iconic James Bond theme-music and rewriting the 1956 Barbie Gaye doo-wop hit “My Boy Lollipop” as “My Collie (Not a Dog).” This thinly veiled ode to the effects of cannabis came complete with a faux-government health warning at the beginning.
Members of the Selecter have said that they were somewhat dissatisfied with the hastily-completed recording and felt that, with more time, they would have been able to produce an album that they were happier with. This did not stop the album from reaching Number. 5 on the British charts after a well-received tour. Nevertheless, the Selecter left 2 Tone Records after just one album, and signed with Chrysalis. Their sophomore album, Celebrate the Bullet, departed from some stylistic conventions of “two-tone” ska, and was influenced by the burgeoning new wave genre.
Classic 2-Tone Albums: One Step Beyond… by Madness
In 1976, Mike Barson, Chris Foreman, and Lee Thompson formed a band called the North London Invaders. Over the next several years, the band expanded to a seven piece and, in 1978, changed the group’s name to Madness—as a tribute to a song by Prince Buster. The song would later appear on their first album. The band played extensively around the London area and quickly began to make a following. By 1979, Madness released their debut single on the newly minted 2 Tone Records. “The Prince,” written by Thompson, was yet another tribute to their beloved Prince Buster. The single launched the band to a new level of success and reached Number 16 on the UK Singles Chart. Madness soon signed with Stiff Records and released a follow up single, a cover of (you guessed it) another Prince Buster song. “One Step Beyond” peaked at Number 7 on the British charts.
Propelled by their newfound success, Madness quickly entered the recording studio and began laying down tracks for their debut album, One Step Beyond…, released on October 19, 1979 (the same day that The Specials debut album dropped). The band worked with first-time producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who would go on to collaborate with Madness on several more albums; as well as artists like Elvis Costello, Morrissey, and David Bowie. The album was a major hit, and stayed on the British charts for more than a year after reaching a peak position of Number 2. Madness was well-on-the-way to becoming one of the UK’s most popular groups, with a string of no fewer than thirteen, back-to-back, Top Ten singles from 1979-1983.
“One Step Beyond…” sweetened the raw, punk-inflected edge of the two-tone sound through its slick production and a pop sensibility. The album primarily features original songs by a number of different band members, though it also features re-recordings of their two “Prince Buster” covers, and a ska arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.
While Madness is one of the key bands in “two-tone” ska, they were somewhat resistant to being pigeonholed as a “ska revival” band. Drummer Dan Woodgate summarized the attitude which helped give the band such wide appeal when he said:
“…we don’t want to be labelled as a rude boy ska band. We want to get across to as many people as possible so that they can all come along and have a good time.”