1979 was probably the single greatest year ever for pop music in my opinion.
My world had already been turned upside down in 1977/1978 when punk gatecrashed everything. Initially I was a bit bemused by this cacophonous racket on the TV which had displaced a lot of my favourite funk and soul records at the time, but when the initial rush of tabloid outrage and sensationalism gave way to a sleeker, more refined 'new wave' of post-punk, I started to sit up and take notice. Dozens of new bands which signaled the future were suddenly on the TV and the radio: among them Blondie, The Stranglers, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Wire, XTC, Buzzcocks, Elvis Costello, The Pretenders, Joe Jackson, The Police etc....
This was certainly the dawning of a new era.....but better was to come. In direct contrast to the bleakness of the times (in May 1979, Labour had been ousted by the Tories with Britain's first ever female Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher creating social divides all over the country) the music was at its most potent and adventurous. Barely a week went by where there wasn't another new band on TOTP to get excited about: The Ruts, The Jags, Stiff Little Fingers, The Undertones, Public Image Limited, The Cure, New Musik, Gary Numan, etc.....
Halfway through 1979 however - a year already bursting with so much great [chart] music it was almost ridiculous! - something new came along which really ignited my passion. During the summer of '79, an unknown band from Coventry debuted on Top of The Pops with a furious rendition of the old ska classic 'Al Capone' by the legendary Prince Buster. The song was titled 'Gangsters' and there on the TV were seven guys - five of them white, two of them black - all in cropped haircuts, and smart tonic suits, skanking away with real attitude and with one of them (Neville Staple) yelling 'don't call me ska-face!!' into the mic before the deadpan singer (Terry Hall) let loose his strange alienated whine. I was sold!
This was like nothing I had ever seen before. Who were these cool guys? They were The Special AKA - more commonly known as The Specials. And 'special' they were indeed. The single gatecrashed the top 10 in July and I was hooked!
From that moment onward I never looked back. I so wanted to know more about these seven geezers and what made them come up with such an arresting image and stage presence. I didn't have to wait long, because these guys were soon huge. This was a perfect distillation of the rocksteady / reggae vibe with the attitude and urgent tempo of punk. This was 2 Tone: the name of the record label started by Specials main man Jerry Dammers and the name which defined a whole ethos, an entire movement, and a whole new generation. Better still, they were all over the music papers at the time: Smash Hits, Record Mirror, The NME, Zig Zag, Melody Maker.
More hits followed in quick succession, and they were not the only ones who were doing this new ska revival thing. Quickly, other bands appeared, which were signed to the label and were immediate hits on Top of The Pops. Madness - from Camden, London - with 'The Prince' (a tribute to Prince Buster), then The Selecter (fellow Coventry band fronted by iconic female vocalist Pauline Black), whose debut 'On My Radio' swiftly followed Madness into the top 10. In fact, my favourite episode of TOTP ever was one in early November 1979 when all three bands appeared on the same stage one after the other performing their respective top 10 hit: The Specials - 'A Message To You Rudy', Madness - 'One Step Beyond', and The Selecter - 'On My Radio'. It was a truly incredible moment which has been matched for epochal significance only by the simultaneous appearance on the same programme - exactly 10 years later in 1989 - of The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays when post-Acid House Madchester had started to dominate the yoof culture!
Come 1980 when the hit machine was well and truly in top gear (a fourth signing to the label made their debut by Xmas 1979 - Birmingham's The Beat - with a stonking version of Motown classic 'Tears Of A Clown'), 2 Tone was unstoppable. And they cranked up the momentum by embarking on a massive package tour which had all three or four bands on the bill, playing to sold out theatres and venues up and down the country. It really was like nothing else.
Sadly, I wasn't able to experience any of the euphoria and excitement of this first rush of success for the whole scene, being 14 and probably a bit too young to do any big shows just yet. In hindsight, that's something I now regret of course. It would have been absolutely incredible to be witness to the sheer adrenalin and electricity coursing through the venue (and our veins) had I attended at least one of those legendary 'package tour' shows.
What made 2 Tone so....um..... special was that its ideal was to create a new kind of dance music that united people from all social denominations and bring them together in the name of racial harmony. Considering that the 1970s was still relatively speaking a decade of polarisation, extreme prejudice and political incorrectness, what 2 Tone achieved in its short, explosive, heyday was nothing short of remarkable.
All of the 2 Tone bands were also very politically active, all united in one agenda - of opposing the toxic Thatcher regime and the sheer hardship that her destructive policies were causing. The lyrics in particular spoke to - and with - the disenfranchised and dispossessed, and, in the case of The Specials and Madness in particular, also offered wry and sardonic observations on the tedium of ordinary life. It was, in a way, a form of escapism for many of us from the humdrum, and what better way to do this than to revel in the energetic music with which these bands spread the message?
True, some unsavoury elements soon started to tag along with the gigs - a small fraction of far-right fans were taken in with the skinhead image, completely ignorant and oblivious to the irony that the whole 2 Tone ethic was about multi-racialism - hence the skanking Rude Boy image which adorned the 2 Tone label logo (created by Jerry Dammers and christened Walt Jabsco - which was based on an image of the reggae star Peter Tosh). All of the 2 Tone bands vehemently disassociated themselves from any racist factions, banning them from attending their shows.
It's still undeniable just how big an impact the 2 Tone scene had on many, including myself. The effect it had on my sense of style and dress - well, a complete lack of it - cannot go unremarked, as my previous directionless and gormless teenage self now aspired to get my hair cropped and dress in the trademark Crombies, Fred Perrys, Ben Shermans, pork pie hats, army surplus bombers, Harringtons, Doc Martens, braces and Sta Prests, that so many cool kids at my school and everywhere else started to deck themselves out in...... By early 1981, I was finally able to get my first proper pair of DMs, and the rest, as they say, is a near lifelong adoration / obsession!
Most of the 2 Tone stable of bands [bar the latter-day second generation signings like The Bodysnatchers, Rico Rodriguez, The Apollinaires, The Swinging Cats, etc] were regular chart visitors, none more so than Madness, who, despite leaving the label after just their first single to set up home at Stiff Records, had more than 20 hits before their first split in 1986. The Specials themselves split in summer 1981 [with Terry, Neville and Lynval leaving to form the more eclectic pop outfit Fun Boy Three] but not before their most iconic socio-political statement yet - the truly stunning 'Ghost Town' - which still sends shivers down my spine right now just thinking about the seismic impact it had when it was number 1 for a month in summer 1981 during the height of the inner city riots exploding round the country, as parts of Liverpool, Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester and London were ablaze. No other number 1 hit - before or since - has captured the times so perfectly or chillingly in one four-minute blast of righteous anger.
The Specials changed tack after 1981, reverting to the name Special AKA, and becoming more experimental and completely reinventing their sound with guest members and collaborators. The Beat and The Selecter continued to release more albums well into the late 1980s. 2 Tone eventually ran out of steam in the mid-1980s and the label closed in 1985, with founder Jerry Dammers moving on to political campaigning with various Labour-supporting causes and production and collaboration with other artists.
Presently, all three of the major players of 1979 have been embarking on their 40th anniversary tours: The Specials (just Terry, Lynval and Horace from the original line up however) just hit number 1 earlier this year for the first time with their new comeback album 'Encore' and are still tirelessly gigging to mark their fourth decade since they first burst on the scene. Madness have been releasing records, and playing their resident headliner shows pretty much every year since they regrouped for the third time in 2009. The mighty Selecter are also currently on their own 40th anniversary tour as well which promises to see rocksteady 'skankers' and rude boys [and girls] of all generations united as one. Having met, and spoken briefly with, Pauline Black not once but twice during my time playing with bands over the years has been an absolute privilege .... such an inspirational lady who still commands huge respect and admiration for sticking to what she truly believes in.
As for Madness.... well, let's just say that they were probably the only UK band I went absolutely batty for when I was 14 until Siouxsie And The Banshees started to overtake them in my affections in the 1980s. However, with the Banshees now long retired and gone for good, Madness are still there, commanding a special place in my heart! And yes, I was kinda star struck when I met Suggs in person for the first time ever (with his wife Anne - aka Bette Bright) in 2009 at a Deaf School gig in Liverpool...
2 Tone may have had a really explosive impact on immediate showing and then burnt out within three years but its legacy and influence during those glory years simply cannot go ignored. Fans who were there at the start have been with the bands ever since, it's a lifelong devotion this 2 Tone lark, I guess! We've all pretty much grown up and grown old together - and now the younger generations have repeatedly cited 2 Tone as a huge influence on their lives, their sounds and their style, attitude and outlook on life. Not a bad legacy for a self-confessed record geek from Coventry with gap teeth is it, eh, Mr. Dammers?
All views expressed are the writers own.
The British Music Experience welcomes Lee Thompson, songwriter and saxophonist of Madness on the 20th November, for a screening of One Man’s Madness, a fresh, disorienting, quirky, slapstick romp through the history of Madness, accompanied by Lee himself.
The film will be followed by an in-conversation with Lee and film writer/director, Jeff Baynes. Tickets are £10 each and on sale now.
As part of our permanent collection, we pay homage to Reggae and Ska and the importance both genres played in the history of music and how they helped change the political landscape and society as a whole.