Wednesday, 7 July 2021

2 Tone - Lives and Legacies

2 Tone - Lives and Legacies

at the Herbert Art Gallery, Coventry.

In 1979, a new sound hit the pop charts. A blend of Jamaican ska and punk, 2 Tone was dance music with a message and Coventry was its epicentre.

2 Tone emerged in the late 1970s, a time of economic and social turmoil in Britain.  Britain in the 1970s seemed to be in a state of continuous crisis, but in the wintry early months of 1979, the country felt close to outright collapse.  Strikes disrupted basic services, filling city streets with mounds of garbage. Far right movements marched and clashed with counter-protestors. In towns and cities like Coventry, factories were closing and many people were unemployed. Young people especially felt alienated and pessimistic about their future. Racial tensions were also high, with racist attacks and anti-immigration demonstrations making the news.

The national situation was reflected in Coventry where factories were struggling and unemployment was rising. In 1979 nearly 7% of people were out of work and by 1982 this would rise to almost 20%, one of the highest rates of any British city at the time. Fewer employment opportunities led to a decline in the population and the city centre began to look run down due to lack of investment. The city became known as a violent place and racial tensions ran high. 

A demonstration against the National Front in Southall ended in violence, resulting in the death of anti-racism protestor Blair Peach from injuries sustained in clashes with police. 

Geopolitically, things looked alarming too: renewed tensions between NATO and the Soviet Bloc revived fears of nuclear destruction, inspiring young people to join CND. As unemployment steadily rose, Thatcher and the Conservative opposition campaigned against the rudderless government under the slogan 'Labour isn't Working' - only to implement, after a landslide election victory in May 1979, economic policies that ultimately tripled the jobless figures, accelerated the de-industrialisation of Britain, and condemned a generation of youth to hopelessness.

These conditions formed the backdrop to the distinctive sound that hit the charts in 1979 with release of the single Gangsters by the Specials and The Selected by The Selecter. Conceived by Jerry Dammers, 2 Tone carried a strong message of inclusivity and anti-racism.

It was also an exciting time for music with punk branching out into new directions and reggae becoming increasingly influential. Album releases included London Calling by the Clash and Pink Floyd's The Wall, both driven by strong feelings of anger and alienation. 

Inspired by the fight against racism and the opportunity to blend punk and reggae, Jerry Dammers formed a band made up of black and white musicians in Coventry. Originally called the Automatics, then The Coventry Automatics, in 1979, they changed their name to The Specials. The Selecter also emerged from the Coventry music scene, their line up including several former members of reggae band Hard Top 22. Similar things were happening in other parts of the country, with The Beat in Birmingham and Madness in London, both forming part of the ska revival.

One of the key features of 2 Tone was its strong visual identity. This was created by Jerry Dammers as part of his plan to form a new movement with its own distinctive look and sound.

It included the black an white chequerboard design - it became a symbol for the 2 Tone message of black and white people coming together. 

The clothing worn by the bands was also carefully planned, combining the styles of Jamaican rude boys and British mods. This was enthusiastically adopted by the fans. 

Another key part of the 2 Tone look was the hat, usually a pork pie hat, or sometimes a trilby. The pork pie hat was part of the Jamaican rude boy style.

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We thoroughly enjoyed this exhibition which brought back so many memories. These were very important years for me. We were angry and active. The Leamington Anti-Racist and Anti-Fascist Group (LARAF) was very active and had a wide appeal in our area. We had 2000 subscribers to our monthly newsletter, and for a town of 60,000 this is very impressive. We campaigned widely, but we also had fun. It was a real coup when we managed to book The Specials for a gig at the Spa Centre. It was an amazing night: exciting, electric.

Equally active was the Anti-Apartheid group. There was so much going on at the time: a group for a woman's right to choose, as there were always attempts to restrict access to abortion. Later, we campaigned to support the miners and formed a group against Clause 28.

I was teaching at Foxford School in Coventry at the time, an inner-city, multicultural school that somehow seemed to reflect the zeitgeist. The children at that time were particularly proud as one of The Specials had been to Foxford school.

These were hard, depressing times, but very exciting politically.

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