Music

How The Specials and 2 Tone empowered a generation to believe in a multicultural future

Against a backdrop of division and despair, disaffected youth united through The Specials and 2 Tone to challenge the Thatcherite status quo

2 Tone stars The Specials on stage in a black and white photo

The Specials played the Hope & Anchor in 1980. Photo: Justin Thomas

Within a year of the Conservatives’ election victory in May 1979, unemployment had doubled, reaching two million for the first time in 40 years. As Britain braced itself against the first effects of ‘The Thatcher Experiment’, chancellor of the exchequer Geoffrey Howe announced major cuts in public spending. Contemplating another winter of discontent, Margaret Thatcher told the nation, “I prefer to believe that certain lessons have been learnt from experience, that we are coming, slowly, painfully, to an autumn of understanding. And I hope that it will be followed by a winter of common sense. If it is not, we shall not be diverted from our course.”

The Specials disagreed. Having recently celebrated their first number one record – Too Much Too Young – and as one of a handful of bands alongside The Selecter, Madness, The Beat and The Bodysnatchers, they spearheaded the 2 Tone movement rallying against the incumbent government. 2 Tone was black and white; a multi-racial force of British and Caribbean island musicians singing about social issues, racism, class and gender struggles. Their music spoke of injustices in society and took fight against right-wing extremism.

On 30 October 1980, The Specials headlined a fortnight of charity gigs to raise money for homeless people under the banner ‘Blanket Coverage’. Staged at the Hope & Anchor in Islington, North London, guitarist Lynval Golding says, “It was a great gig. Everyone was so enthusiastic. We’d not performed better.”

The Specials introduced themselves with an impromptu round of It’s all a load of bollocks, variously spoken, slurred or shouted in overlapping ad-hoc timings by anyone in close proximity to a microphone. The comic revelry crescendoed with a keyboard riff and an energetic rendition of Pearls’ Café. Adding vocals to the musical melee, special guest Rhoda Dakar (The Bodysnatchers) then collapsed in hysterics as Jerry Dammers pounded at the keyboards with his fists, emitting atonal chords, discordant notes and swirling avant-garde figures over I Can’t Stand It. Impenetrable and deadpan behind a pair of large dark sunglasses and wearing a green paisley shirt, singer Terry Hall insouciantly chewed gum throughout until trapping his foot in a beer crate at the lip of the stage.

A year earlier, Coventry’s Specials had bonded with London’s Madness over the selection of ska on the pub jukebox in the Hope & Anchor. But when Jerry Dammers shared his plans to start a record label, Madness’s lead singer was doubtful. “He said it was going to be an English Motown,” says Suggs. “Then he told us he didn’t have anywhere to stay so he came back to my mum’s flat!

“The Specials were like us but turbocharged,” Suggs continues, “they were playing a tuba and we were playing a trumpet: theirs was more deeply resonating, but you could still hear ours from a distance!”

Madness had no need to worry. Their first single The Prince raced up the charts joining a slew of records – Gangsters, On My Radio, Tears of a Clown, Let’s Do Rocksteady – defining the 2 Tone sound at the top echelons of the chart. Commercially, 2 Tone eclipsed punk as a youth generation embraced the new movement leading British culture. 2 Tone was exuberant and eclectic. It saw musicians of different classes, cultures and ethnicities behaving in extraordinary ways. Black and white people on stage, being creative together, making music and blending the rhythms of the Caribbean with the diverse influences of punk and rock and soul.

Members of The Specials in mid air as they perform
Photo: Justin Thomas

“It changed culture and changed England,” says The Beat’s David Steele. “A lot of people like me came from a little town and it was the first time they’d seen bands like this. It opened their eyes to other things.” Against a backdrop of division and despair, disaffected youth united and asked questions, challenging the status quo. “We weren’t politicians,” says singer Pauline Black. “We couldn’t change things in the way that a policy or law can change society. But we changed attitudes.”

“Before 2 Tone there was black music and there was white music,” says The Selecter’s Compton Amanor, “and never the two shall mix. We didn’t live in a segregated society but there were always those tensions. But for the first time my generation was saying, ‘We’re Black and we’re British and we’re here to stay’.”

Today, Suggs sees a young generation mixing their music “like it’s nothing. But back then it was very delineated: Black people did this and white people did that. 2 Tone had a huge impact on changing that perspective.”

The word was unity. 2 Tone attempted to break through deeply rooted cultural bigotry and empower a young generation to believe in a brighter, multicultural future. It offered rhythm, three-minute bursts of finely crafted melody, fine threads and iconic artwork. “2 Tone was trying to reach everybody: Black or white,” says The Specials’ manager Rick Rogers. “It was trying to appeal to the better parts of people’s human nature and celebrate them.”

This is an edited extract from Too Much Too Young: The 2 Tone Record Story (White Rabbit) by Daniel Rachel, out now. You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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