The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum unveiled a new spotlight exhibition focused on the history of influential British record label Two-Tone and features handwritten lyrics, photographs, singles, instruments, apparel items and more from numerous bands on the legendary label.
Between 1979 and 1986, the Two-Tone label released 28 singles, including hits by the Specials, the Selecter, Madness, the Bodysnatchers and the Beat, known as the English Beat outside of the U.K. Although only the English Beat -- and to a lesser extent, Madness -- ever had much success outside of the U.K., the Two-Tone movement combined infectious dance music and progressive ideals to confront the status quo. Two-Tone laid the groundwork for the success of such American artists as the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Fishbone, Sublime, Reel Big Fish and the multi-platinum selling No Doubt.
Highlights from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s Two-Tone exhibit include:
Dave Wakeling of the Beat 1980 Jay Dee Six Custom Guitar
Singer, songwriter and guitarist Dave Wakeling played this guitar onstage and in the studio between 1980 and 2006 with the Beat, his follow-up group, General Public, and as a solo artist.
One Step Beyond Master Tape Box, 1979
One Step Beyond was Madness’ first album. It reached Number Two and stayed in the U.K. charts for more than a year.
Five 2-Tone Badges, c. 1979
Badges and lapel pins, especially those depicting “Walt Jabsco,” the iconic record label logo figure, were important signifiers of the 2-Tone scene.
“Tears of a Clown” 45 single, 1979
The English Beat’s version of this Smokey Robinson and the Miracles 1970 hit reached Number Six on the U.K. chart.
“Ghost Town” 45 single, 1981
“Ghost Town” is the Specials’ final recording. It’s an eerie, world-weary document of the final days of the band, the disintegration of the 2-Tone scene and encapsulated the mood of the U.K. in the summer of 1981.
For more information on this and other special exhibitions at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, visit rockhall.com/exhibits.
About Two-Tone Records
Two-Tone was a group of black and white kids from Coventry, Birmingham and London, England – white punk rockers and black rude-boys and girls -- who stood against the economic policies of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher‘s government and the Neo-Nazi National Front, promoted racial harmony through the irresistible and exuberant rhythm of ska music and revolutionized the British music scene. Jerry Dammers, Two-Tone mastermind, keyboardist and songwriter for the movement’s forward guard shock troops, the Specials, told Mojo magazine, “We were aiming for revolution. We were trying to change minds.”
Coventry, center of the British auto industry, had been known as “the Detroit of Britain.” By the late Seventies, however, with an unemployment rate upwards of 20% and youth and violent crime rates spiking, hard times had come to Coventry, as they had to most of the U.K. Specials’ lead singer Terry Hall recalled, “Coventry was such a violent, dead-end place. So many people were losing their jobs. It was depressing.” Jerry Dammers recalls, “I had wanted to get a band together for some time….The whole punk thing opened up the way -- it gave me the confidence to do my own thing. It made you realize that anything was possible.”
Dammers formed the Specials in 1977. They played ska music, described by Specials’ bassist Horace Panter this way: “The music that predated reggae, ska was a combination of traditional Caribbean mento rhythms and the R&B walking bass backbeat that late 1950s Jamaicans were hearing on their radios when they tuned into American stations.” The first ska records were released in Jamaica in 1960 and the sound soon travelled to England, where it took dance halls and house parties by storm. In ska music, the Specials found the perfect fit for their punk and reggae roots. Dammers recalled, “We were playing a music that combined black and white influences, that was united.”
Taking Berry Gordy’s Motown record label as a blueprint was a natural instinct for a group of ambitious and soulful kids from the Detroit of Britain. With “an agenda for social change resulting in racial harmony,” Dammers and his gang of rude-boys and punks created the Two-Tone label. Dammers designed its black and white checkered logo and rude-boy symbol “Walt Jabsco,” so-called after a name on a thrift shop-purchased bowling shirt. The first release on the Two-Tone label, “Gangsters,” backed with “The Selecter,” was shared between the Specials and fellow Coventry band the Selecter, which featured Neol Davies, an old bandmate of Jerry Dammers’, and charismatic rude-girl frontwoman, Pauline Black.
Voices from outside of Coventry soon began spreading the ska gospel as Camden Town’s own Madness became part of the Two-Tone congregation. Madness released its first single, “The Prince,” in October 1979, the same month that they joined a 40-date Two- Tone tour of Britain along with the Specials and the Selecter. “The Nutty Boys” – as Madness are affectionately known, would eventually become the Two-Tone group most embraced by its nation. The Madness body of work, the group’s longevity and its distinctive “Britishness” has embedded the group in the British consciousness. The group became an archetype of British culture, performing on the roof of Buckingham Palace for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and at the 2012 Olympics’ closing ceremony. Birmingham’s the Beat released its Two-Tone debut, “Tears of a Clown” in January 1980. The Beat’s Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger would go on to form General Public with the Specials’ Horace Panter and Mick Jones of the Clash, while Beat guitarist Andy Cox and bassist David Steele formed Fine Young Cannibals with vocalist Roland Gift. Two-Tone returned to Coventry to round out its label roster with the all-female Bodysnatchers, fronted by Rhoda Dakar.
The U.K. anthem of the summer of 1981 was the Specials’ Number One hit, “Ghost Town.” The hope and progressive spirit of the Two-Tone movement had given way to violence at Specials’ gigs as skinheads and rude-boys clashed. The U.K. erupted in riots against Thatcherite policies and streets were set ablaze in Brixton, Birmingham and Liverpool. By October 1981, the Specials split, with guitarist Lynval Golding and vocalists Terry Hall and Neville Staple forming Fun Boy Three. Jerry Dammers continued to record as the Special A.K.A., recruiting Bodysnatchers’ lead singer Rhoda Dakar. In 1984, the Special A.K.A. recorded the anti-apartheid anthem “Nelson Mandela,” demanding the release of the decades-imprisoned civil rights leader who would eventually become the first black president of South Africa. By 1986, Two-Tone had released its last single and all of the groups had dissolved, although various configurations of the Specials, the Selecter and Madness continue to tour. Specials’ bassist Horace Panter may have said it best when describing Two-Tone’s legacy, “(We) took the spirit of the time and turned it from negative, apathetic and nihilistic to positive.”