How Ska And 2-Tone Woke Up The Nation

An extract from a new book looks at how Jerry, Terry, Suggs and the rest breathed life into a country looking for new heroes....
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The day in March 1980 that Going Underground entered the charts at #1 was a cause for national celebration. Records just didn’t debut at the top in those days; they climbed, fell, rose, got on TOTP and soared again, all over a period of many weeks. It might take a single seven weeks to dent the Top Ten. Entering at #1 was pretty much unheard of. The day, a few weeks later, when Polydor re-released all their previous singles to capitalise on this national Jam-gasm and they all charted was another milestone. Seven cool songs in the Top Forty at the same time was enough to celebrate in itself but seven new entries from The Jam alone in the Top 40 caused amazingly exciting scenes. We crowded round inefficient static-riddled transistor radios in the playground to hear the Top 40 on Tuesday lunchtime, cheering through the crackles and static. It was like your team winning the FA Cup, only much more so, because it seemed like it was everyone’s team. I don’t know that there was another band that united the whole country like that until Oasis. The whole business of being in the Jam was getting to Weller though, and the stoic king was about ready to inject colour and fun into his music.

Angry, tense and political, A Town Called Malice was another very Jam song and duly went straight in at #1 in the charts. It was a double A-Side and the flipside caused ripples among the Jam fanbase. Precious is a funk song. No doubt about it. It’s not Punky or Mod at all. The sixties Mods were very much into Ska, Soul and R’n’B, but the 1978 Mod Revival was whiter, more conservative and more allied to Punk. The Jam were pretty shouty when they started up, often lumped with the Punks, not least by Bob Marley, in his song, Punky Reggae Party, looking forward to seeing “The Jam, the Damned, The Clash”. Worse still, Precious was also just a straight ahead love song. Weller had not got time for this, surely? He had more important issues to attend to, surely? Man’s work. A broken country was more important than a broken heart. Was Weller abandoning the fight?

Well, The Jam were massive now and Weller could do as he damn well pleased. They performed both songs on a very memorable Top Of The Pops; the first band since the Beatles to do so. Their next single was a soul ballad and the band’s finale was an EP with covers of Curtis Mayfield, The Chi-Lites and Edwin Starr. Soul music was a frivolity and regarded with extreme suspicion by many of the Jam’s hardliners. To them, Weller stood for something and, it being a Mod thing, it was all quite delineated and easy to follow. 

Having broken up the band, Weller relaunched almost immediately as The Style Council, initially with songs the other two in the band had not been comfortable with, because “they didn’t sound like The Jam”. This was not a Mod band at all. Beatniks maybe, fops definitely. This was not real man’s music and there was an outcry. Weller brought his love of soul, jazz and more into the mix and The Style Council were a freeform and really rather adventurous band, even going as far as making an Acid House album some years later.

I’ll admit that I found it all a bit confusing too but I have always loved being confused and stretched by music. It’s important to regularly tap into your childlike sense of wonder, after all. I sort of lost faith in Weller after The Style Council, when he started his conversion to becoming Steve Winwood in the Nineties, inventing Britrock, Britpop’s chubbier, mouth-breathing older brother, along the way. It was a brave move breaking up the Jam and the further Weller pushed The Style Council, the more it seemed quite suicidal, and the more I respected him for it. Sales declined inevitably, the final album remained unreleased by Polydor and Weller was dropped.

Liking The Jam and The Clash prepared us for 2-Tone, the first craze I felt swept up in and, like a first love, it was very exciting, uncharted territory and came with a welcome frisson of danger and a good chance of getting hurt. The look was not hard to approximate: the hair as short as possible, an ironed school shirt and skinny black tie, in cotton or leather, ideally emblazoned with Walt Jabsco, the cat from the 2-Tone logo or the girl from the Beat’s logo, or the democratic Madness M-man. In 1980, those ties were EVERYWHERE.

Trousers would ideally be Sta-prest, hems should be high to show off pristine white socks, just like Walt’s. Shoes should be shiny. School shoes would do at a push, but ideally you wanted Doctor Marten Eight-hole boots, if loafers were unavailable or if, as in my case, you thought/think them a bit twatty. Topped off with a black Harrington or a woollen Crombie overcoat with a two-tone satin lining. Oh and monochrome badges. My word, 2-Tone and Ska gave good badge.

ska badges 300dpi 11cm.jpg

2-Tone was conceived and aesthetically overseen by The Specials’ Jerry Dammers, and launched from Coventry. They released records by Madness, Specials, The Beat, The Selecter, ska veteran Rico, and later, the punk funk of The Higsons). The bands featured black and white members on an even footing, which was still pretty unusual. They recycled Sixties Ska, injecting its tight-or-nowhere riddims with punk’s ragged energy and witty, direct socio-political lyrics that pulled no punches in stories about unfortunate characters that were half familiar and wholly believable.

Being a teenage craze, it didn’t last forever but, for two years or so, it felt like a new Motown, with its own dances, clothes, slang, films, posters and records. And politics. It was a new kind of unifying folk music, seemingly spontaneous and not led by fashion or London. It was, on paper, extremely unfashionable music for the time but succeeded so swiftly and convincingly on the back of the song-writing of these amazing characters, all in their early twenties. The stories were easy to grasp and resonated with the audience, even if the point only lodged after you’d been singing them for a while. Or, y’know, not at all.

The first two albums each by Madness, Specials and The Beat were fixtures in the charts and in the windows of record shops non-stop for two years. The fact that the music was so digestibly relevant to kids in Britain, stacked with colossal choruses and bursting with angry energy, allowed it to sweep a nation, who knew almost nothing about Desmond Dekker or any of the original, more laidback, Sixties Ska bands. 1979 remains the only time I have ever had a Number Two haircut. It makes your head cold and people regard you a little more warily. Formative experiences indeed.

Elvis Costello produced the debut Specials album and set out to capture the ragged energy of their live show. He succeeded brilliantly and the album is crackling with Punk bile set to Ska rhythms and huge tunes; bum notes and all, the band singing over each other. It is all kinds of exciting - an angry party album, lashing out at the world, taking on targets large and small, from where they live (Concrete Jungle), the government (all of it, really) to girls who have slipped somewhat in the bands’ estimation (Little Bitch, Too Much Too Young). I hadn’t noticed that so many of the songs were covers until quite recently. They all fit so perfectly with bands’ own songs that it doesn’t really matter.


Anyway, after the brief, intense, imperial phase of The Specials, they went out with a bang and a shudder. Dammers had already been rocking the ska boat, (and cash cow) musically with the second album, the completely fantastic More Specials, much to some of the band’s annoyance, by introducing Bossa Nova, Jazz, Muzak, and 60s Soundtracky burbles to the pot. This shuffling off of shackles, refusing to stand still and challenging the expectations was very much a theme throughout the early Eighties; as was breaking up a band at their peak, which Weller, David Sylvian and others also did, in order to break the mould and flex those innovation muscles. This was not like Oasis cleaving to make two more slightly rubbish Oases. Massive unpredictable right turns were all the rage. Bands weren’t in it for careers. Careers were for old people. They were young and bored; making music for fun and to see if it could be done. And, having succeeded, they moved on. All this reinvention was invigorating Pop music. Kids were buying singles again and these records were selling in huge quantities. In 1979, a Specials Live EP had gone to #1.


Aside from being a particularly brilliant, and brilliantly timed, song, that absolutely captured the hearts and minds of a nation, gripped with riots and unemployment; The Specials’ finale, Ghost Town, was an innovative blend of Crooning, Reggae, Music Hall, 60s Soundtracks and Brass, with hysterical backing vocals and fiddly chords; all twisted into a lopsidedly stumbling arrangement. Dammers has said, “The overall sense I wanted to convey was impending doom”. Job done, Jerry. Atypically, all three of the weekly music papers made it Single Of The Year and it was #1 for three weeks in June. Dammers again, “I can only write about things that make me angry”. It sounded totally unique and totally on point with how Britain FELT in 1981, even to my thirteen year old mind. All the clubs, as you’ll have heard, were being closed down. In ghost towns, everyone was going to have to make their own fun, thanks to Thatcher making everyone poor and angry and sad.

After the majesty of Ghost Town, and a bust up with the main songwriter, Dammers, Terry broke up the band taking Lynval Golding and Neville Staples to form Fun Boy Three. For my money, The Specials had taken a left turn on their second album and the Fun Boy Three’s debut was a continuation of the path marked out by Ghost Town, heading off into a cartoonish take on Dr John and Tom Waits territory. The three refugees wasted no time however, shaking off the shackles that remained, including Dammers’ relentless, angry polemic and embraced fun, adventure and wearing silly hats right away.

Fun Boy Three still had plenty of that voodoo to their sound but this took a back seat to playfulness and increased band democracy, and thus a decrease in intra-band tensions. The writing credits for Fun Boy Three are spread equally with Hall, Lynval Golding and Neville Staples. The Specials reputation for seriousness and Hall’s growing reputation for being morose (he was later diagnosed as bipolar) was probably getting a bit tiresome for these three men. Never had a group’s purpose been more clearly set out with their name than Fun Boy Three. Witness the band virtually smiling on this front cover.


Their debut single The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum is another really weird song. It starts with a few pips from a phone hang up, signalling a break from the Specials (to me, anyway). Dr John’s New Orleans records are about the closest antecedent to the noises that follow but even that is not too helpful. Bone-clattering tribal drums, crickets and chanting makes up the backing track. The song on the top is a fitting follow up to Ghost Town and covers the same disgust with those in charge of the country. It can also be read that the trio are the lunatics in charge of the band now. Clever.

The new band were meeting furrowed brows from the critics and fans alike over such issues as Terry’s unusual palm tree hairstyle, not sounding like The Specials anymore and the new band’s dabbling with Fun. And smiling. Lunatics stalled at Number Twenty, which was quite the drop-off after Ghost Town’s reign of weary terror at Number One.

Terry is often depicted as miserable, and I am sure he is a bit but he is also bloody-minded and faced with such a lack of faith from the faithful, it must have been just too tempting not to go further away from expectation. Fun Boy Three teamed up with Bananarama for the next two singles (It Ain’t What You Do (It’s The Way That You Do it) and Really Saying Something). Both were completely brilliant and massively FUN Top Five Hits. Terry, Lynval and Neville had gone Pop. This might equal, in today’s money, Thom Yorke and Ed O’Brien departing Radiohead, circa OK Computer to have hits with Sugababes, except Terry was still only 22 with a hugely successful band and People’s Hero status behind him. Regarded as sacrilegious by many, it was in fact showing how absolutely on the money they were. Going fully Pop was the coming thing in 1981. It took people a while to catch on but the smart ones moved quickly and very happily.

Madness had obviously wanted to be a Pop band right away. They had started at the same time as The Specials (and on 2-Tone) and had almost immediately included Crooning, Reggae, Music Hall, 60s Soundtracks and Brass into their Ska music. And humour. And the kitchen sink. Not saddled with the granite-faced image of The Specials, they were English eccentrics and proud to be labelled Nutty from the outset. The songs covered the same topics as the Specials but in a more cheerful and fun way. Echoing the straight-hair/curly-hair grass-is-greener envy that keeps Boots in business, Madness craved to be taken seriously after a few years of coathanger smiles on children’s TV, whereas members of The Specials, burdened with tombstone tendencies, had craved Madness’ fun and freedom, which wishes were shortly to be granted. Madness’ popularity was instant and huge. Their first single, The Prince, was a Top 20 Hit, as were the singles and albums followed in quick succession and without pause for about four years.

The Beat were the smallest of the Big Three Ska bands and the ones that devoted more time to playing in America, which paid off handsomely for them, where they are regarded as perhaps the biggest of the crop. They weren’t as smiley as Madness, or as dour as the Specials, although they were perhaps more politically focussed than both. Their irresistible singles were always aimed at the feet as well as the mind, calling for the Prime Minister’s dismissal on Stand Down Margaret, a double A-side with Best Friend and a Top Thirty hit. It was a pretty popular sentiment and sure to meet with approval and yet no-one else of their stature thought to do it. I don’t recall the last time I heard such clear dissent in the charts, except for Thatcher’s memorial, Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead, hitting #2 in 2013, which showed the country’s long memories, when it comes to That Woman. They too split up shortly after 2-Tone faded, and David Steele and Andy Cox had regrouped with the polished Pop of Fine Young Cannibals by 1984.

I finally saw them play at Glastonbury in 2006-ish and even though some members had, mind bogglingly, been replaced by their own children (hello Rankin Junior), they were utterly fantastic and, while not a big draw at first, had pulled an absolutely colossal crowd by the end, purely on the merit of that string of perfect pop singles that they hit big with from 1979 and 1983. You can’t hear Best Friend, Mirror In The Bathroom, Hands Off…She’s Mine and Too Nice To Talk To without having a little dance. Particularly on a sunny afternoon, as you are pulled gently through a wormhole of reverie, on a chemical cushion. It is without doubt one of the best festival performances I’ve ever witnessed and one with no need for props or big screens or lights or anything but those rhythms.

Well after the peak of 2-Tone, most of the kids still wore black and white. We had to. School Uniform was almost fashionable for a minute there and we didn’t want to let that go. In about 1981, I went on a school trip to Paris. Fifteen billion hours on an airless coach, there and back in a day; leavened by a non-uniform policy and, being foreign soil, a taste of the unknown and exotic. It was mine and many others’ first time abroad. ALL of the boys wore black Harrington jackets, Sta-prest trousers in black or, for fashion reasons I (choose to) forget, burgundy, and, for the most part, loafers. We had never looked so homogenous. The teachers did not stop laughing at our hopelessly rubbish efforts at freedom of expression... 

This is an extract from David's ace new book, DARE.  Get a signed copy here