2 Tone: England’s Answer to Motown?

Coventry, West Midlands (formerly Warwickshire although some older inhabitants, particularly of the suburbs, refuse to believe the change ever happened.) Population: 316,900. Famous for: WWII air raids, 1960s brutalist architecture, jet engines, a university that confusingly claims to be in Warwick, a small market town about ten miles south down the A46, the rise and fall of the British car industry; and, in the 1980s, arguably one of the most original, politically charged, and unjustly forgotten musical scenes of the late twentieth century.

By the end of the 1970s, punk was well established as the dominant form on the airwaves; although most would claim that the stereotype was exaggerated by mainstream media, the style was increasingly developing unwelcome associations with the far-right (not aided by developments such as “Rock Against Communism”, an explicitly fascist series of music festivals set up by National Front activists, or the “White Noise Music Club” co-founded by current BNP leader Nick Griffin).

Political associations notwithstanding, however, the commercialisation of punk created a hole in the musical landscape, ready to be filled by a new authentic movement: in particular, one which reflected the increasingly multicultural nature of British working-class towns and cities such as Coventry.

The name “2-Tone” (like Motown, originally the name of a record label but later extended to describe the genre as a whole) ostensibly comes from the iconic black-and-white checkerboard pattern of the label’s album artwork, but its implications run deeper. In yet another parallel with Motown (set up in the American car-manufacturing powerhouse of Detroit two decades earlier), 2-Tone’s major bands such as The Specials and The Selecter notably included both black and white lead members – an almost unheard-of step in a musical landscape which on this side of the Atlantic especially had been predominantly segregated along racial lines.

Most importantly, however, the genre synthesised elements of contemporary punk rock – the guitars-and-drums combo, and chanted, strictly post-watershed, regionally-accented lyrics – with a heavy undercurrent of Jamaican ska, rocksteady and reggae, emblematised by off-beat skanks and prominent features for horn sections, Hammond organs and harmonica. As well as their own compositions, 2-Tone bands also achieved chart success with covers such as The Specials’ version of “A Message To You Rudy” (originally released by rocksteady artist Dandy Livingstone in 1967), which features an extended solo by legendary Jamaican trombonist Rico Rodriguez, a member of The Specials who had also played on Livingstone’s original recording.

The political edge to the 2-Tone movement means that it’s sometimes difficult to tell how far the punk stylistic elements in songs such as The Specials’ “Do The Dog” or “Concrete Jungle” (released on the same 1979 album) are actually satirical of the racist skinhead subculture that stalked Britain at the time. Whatever, it can certainly be said that the genre brought together disparate elements of British youth musical culture, reflected the uneasy racial tensions inherent in 1970s and 1980s urban life (brought to a head in the race riots of inner-city areas such as Brixton and Handsworth in the summer of 1981), and to some extent provided a voice for the anti-racist 1980s political left. This is an effect most obviously demonstrated by “(Free) Nelson Mandela“, released by The Specials in 1984, which helped propel Mandela’s imprisonment to the status of cause celèbre in the UK, reached back to South Africa as an anthem played at ANC conferences, and was famously mandated to be played at the end of every Wadham bop in Oxford as a political statement by the Students’ Union (it’s still played now, nearly thirty years later).

O. Hubbard

Owen will be publishing a regular playlist, traversing genre and geography. If you have Spotify, follow our Oxford Culture Review playlist.

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