"An older friend once told me that going out in the late 80s when Madchester ruled the waves was a much pleasanter experience than when he was growing up in the late 1970s when football hooliganism, violence and menace hung in the air like smoke at a bonfire. "
It's not every day that I will say this but just lately 2-Tone has been on my mind. It's been a series of unconnected events but they have built up to a crashing crescendo until I reached for the Specials CDs in my collection and let the sounds of 2-Tone wash over me for the first time in years.
A snatch of No Doubt on the radio, a kid in Covent Garden in a T-shirt with the distinctive black and white chessboard pattern, a radio DJ saying that the Arctic Monkeys conjured up the same lyrical landscapes as the Specials and meeting with someone that I had previously been to a Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra gig with at the Jazz Cafe. They all swirled around in my head until the need to play some old 2-Tone records became overpowering.
Just the sight of the iconic sleeve of the Specials' first album, with the band looking up at the listener twisted my head back to the 1970s. I was struck by how the band actually seemed to be wearing more grey than black and white but anyway, let me take you back and paint the picture, as this really is a story of my childhood. 2-Tone, or ska as we called it, was the soundtrack of my youth.
When the Specials were the big men on campus I was about 9 or 10. I lived in a small place just outside Coventry, called Nuneaton and 2-Tone swept through the town exactly like a fever. At my school everyone wore a uniform of loafers, white socks, sta-prest trousers and Harrington jackets – probably even the teachers and caretakers as well. The trend was to have your own name or that of a band written on the back of a Harrington as people do now on replica football shirts. My PC parents wouldn't pay for me to do this, so I was envious of the other kids with "Neil" or "Bad Manners" or "Madness" written in white or red felt letters in an arch across their shoulder-blades.
By combining a punk ethos with politically aware lyrics and bouncy blue-beat rhythms plundered straight from Kingston, the Specials were kings of the scene and had a string of hits including a Number 1 with an EP containing Much Too Young. I have vivid memories of taping the charts from the radio at this time (no cable TV or ITunes back then, pop pickers), watching a Specials concert on TV as I danced about in the front room like a maniac (much to Mum's amusement) and going to see the film Dance Craze Tone at Nuneaton's Ritz cinema. I can't recall too much about the film but imagine it would have been hastily pulled together to cash-in on the overnight success of the Specials, Selecter, Beat et al.
Peter Powell introduced the Specials' first appearance on Top of the Pops by calling it "good time music from Coventry." The song was Gangsters so he was probably missing the lyrical theme somewhat. Looking back I now realise that I was too young to fully take on board the messages of racial harmony and lyrics which truly were cries from the depths of urban despair. But my young eyes could see that the late 1970s and early 1980s weren't pretty, especially in England's Midlands. There were times when supermarket shelves were empty and there were queues at petrol stations and job centres alike. I recently saw a photo of Leicester Square during a council strike – every inch was covered in huge towers of garbage bags. That's right - the heart of London's West End was a rat infested shit hole in a way that would seem unimaginable now. In the air was the overwhelming sound of the doors clanging shut on Britain's manufacturing and industrial heritage as it disintegrated under the threat of mis-management, foreign competition and recession.
An older friend once told me that going out in the late 80s when Madchester ruled the waves was a much pleasanter experience than when he was growing up in the late 1970s when football hooliganism, violence and menace hung in the air like smoke at a bonfire. Whether it was the advent of E, the spread of grass or just the fact the 80s generation had hippies for parents, we couldn't agree but Coventry in the late 1970s was a grim place indeed. I had been born and bred there, moving to Nuneaton in 1979, just before Margaret Thatcher swept into power.
One of the Specials tracks on the first album is Concrete Jungle, which just about sums up my memories of the city. Bleak grey concrete designs had been hastily put in to place in the 1950s to rebuild Coventry which had been blitzed by the Germans due to its heavy industry and manufacturing pedigree. Apparently before war broke out it had been one of the finest mediaeval cities in Europe. My Grandad was an Air Raid Warden and so I had heard tales of how the city had been levelled by carpet bombing campaigns and how Coventrians dreaded full moons (known as bomber's moons) as they would mean further shells, fire and destruction. The blitz of November 1940 saw 500 bombers hit central Coventry and the destruction resulted in new verb for the German language – to coventrate or completely destroy.
Of course not one of those pilots could know that the resulting rebirth of Coventry would be in an experimental modern style which would be dated, dysfunctional and dangerous by the late 1970s. What was once seen as a phoenix style rise from the rubble was now concrete, pedestrianised precincts providing dark corners perfect for fights and muggings. Although Coventry is now being renovated, parts of its centre still look a suburb from a grimy Eastern European city. In 1979, it truly was a dreary and depressing landscape which would directly influence the Specials to construct one of the most creative musical trends to come out of the UK. Just as Julian Cope praises the Germans for Krautrock, then fans of 2-Tone must also be thankful to our Teutonic cousins, albeit in a more indirect fashion.
The Specials reached a peak in summer of 1981 with Ghost Town, which remains one of the best pop records ever made. The first time I heard the record kick off with a faint drum beat, eerie organ and brass fanfare, I remember clearly thinking "what the hell is this?" It perfectly summed up a time when riots spread across most of Britain's major cities – a cry of help in direct response to political neglect, unemployment and decay. It remains a powerful record, bold in musical arrangement and lyrical content. Especially as it came out after the Specials' second album More Specials, which was a brave and experimental hybrid of lounge music, pop, ska, and well just plain muzak, really. It was a very distant cousin to the first album – why don't bands experiment like that more nowadays?
It struck me very clearly that Ghost Town seemed a million miles away from the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra gig I went to last year after missing them at Glastonbury for the second time. I could see just how much the band were enjoying themselves (all 10 of them, or however many there are). It seemed odd to me that the bleak Midlands of my youth which spawned the Specials should manifest itself all those years later in such a sunny way. It really was a Prozac tribute to the 2-Tone music phenomenon, without the menacing undertones of grey skies, industrial and urban despair, YTS and violent racism. Why should a music borne out of misery touch young people years later in Japan, and for that matter California and Australia, all geographically and socially miles away from the Coventry of my youth?
I really have no idea. I guess it is a musical marvel – a politicised, protest movement born of a certain moment in British history goes all the way round the world and comes back decades later as Shiny Happy Ska.
An example of music as a sociological puzzle... anyway, did I tell you about the time I was in a noodle bar in Camden with my brother and we noticed Terry Hall sit down with a female companion at the table next to ours? Talk about starstruck...we both dared each other to take action ...did I also tell you about the time I saw Tracy Tracy from the Primitives (just about the only other band to come out of Coventry) in a bar...she had very little hands...but I guess these are stories for another time...