2 Tone

2 Tone: Race, Music, and Pop Culture in Thatcher’s UK

2 Tone found a sweet spot between punk anger and pop sensibility that mirrored the myriad poles they were trying to bridge in their band members and audiences.

Too Much Too Young: The 2 Tone Records Story: Rude Boys, Racism, and the Soundtrack of a Generation
Daniel Rachel
June 2024

There was a culture war going on in England at the end of the 1970s, and for an extraordinary 18-month stretch, it looked like 2 Tone Records, an independent label out of Coventry, were winning it. From late 1979 to the summer of 1981, 2 Tone released three top-10 albums and nine top-10 singles and EPs (by the [English] Beat, the Selecter, and the Specials), dominated the pop music scene and changed the conversation about race in the UK. The bands signed and produced by Jerry Dammers, founder of 2 Tone and creator of the Specials, were multiracial, multigender, intentionally activist in their music and performance, and left-wing in their politics. They were also shot through with contradiction and conflict and soon collapsed under the weight of their ambitions and the expectations of their meteoric success: too much too young, as one of their most popular songs went.

Too Much Too Young is the well-chosen title of Birmingham-born music writer Daniel Rachel’s definitive history of 2-Tone. Exhaustively researched and exhaustingly detailed, Too Much Too Young was released in 2023 in England and appears this summer of 2024 in a US edition. Pulling no punches and sparing no accolades, Rachel set out to tell the full story of Dammers and his labor of love—and has succeeded admirably in his goal.

In the course of his research, Rachel interviewed some 80 individuals, including multiple members of the ten bands whose singles or albums were released on 2 Tone during the six-and-a-half years of the label’s existence. One of the book’s strengths, and one justification for its being nearly 500 pages long, is Rachel’s care to present a multi-voiced story without smoothing over the tensions between often wildly differing versions of the same events. Too Much Too Young is packed with compelling portraits of memorably quirky individuals. Its pages vividly recreate the creative sparks that fly when a diverse bunch of very brilliant, very young, and very angry artists come together to make music in a way that had never been before, at least not in such a public way.

In addition to its laser focus on a formative but relatively neglected moment in pop music history, Too Much Too Young features entertaining and illuminating cameos by bands and musicians outside the 2 Tone Records circle. We glimpse the Clash, who gave the Specials their first break as a supporting act in early 1978 when they were still the Automatics and hadn’t even released a single. There’s Elvis Costello, who would produce their first album and whose Sam and Dave cover “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down” Dammers refused to release on 2 Tone Records because it wasn’t ska.

The Go-Gos briefly appear when their eventful June 1980 tour supporting the Specials and the Bodysnatchers inspires the soon-to-be hit single, “Our Lips Are Sealed“. And there’s multiracial Birmingham reggae band UB40, who toured with the Specials in 1979 but whom Dammers claims to have turned down as too radical in their lyrics (this was before their reinvention as a pop-reggae band on 1983’s Labour of Love). In contrast, UB40 contended they wanted a major label signing and didn’t want to be “bagged with the ‘ska’ thing” that was 2 Tone Record’s core identity.

Ska music emerged in Jamaica in the early ’60s, around the time of independence, and came over with the postwar immigration of British citizens from the Caribbean to work in the UK. Like the slower reggae that would soon supersede it, ska was eagerly embraced by musicians and charted occasionally with singles by Millie Small, Prince Buster, and others. It did not fully break out of the diasporic community until popularized by punk artists, especially the Clash, the Slits, and others, in the late ’70s. By that point, punk’s initial wave had already broken, with bands either falling apart or branching out of the movement’s narrow confines.

Dammers experienced reggae covers like the Clash’s “Police and Thieves” as welcome respites from punk’s aural assault, but he considered the two forms musically irreconcilable. His brainwave was to wed the faster pace of ska with punk’s political attitude and rebelliousness, restoring the pop “listenability” lacking from early punk and adding lyrics drawn from the lives of the decimated communities of Coventry’s post-industrialized inner cities. The initial response of the Black musicians he brought in to record “Gangsters” which would be the nascent Specials’ first single, was, in the words of young Jamaican-born guitarist and vocalist Lynval Golding, “old-man music … Music must forward!” Despite their reservations, Dammers’ recruits were soon converted to the contemporary hybrid that would soon become known as 2 Tone.

“Racism,” writes Rachel, remained “the very oxygen of British society” in the ’70s. Right-wing politician Enoch Powell had infamously attacked proposed civil rights legislation in 1968 by prophesying “rivers of blood.” In the ensuing decade, neo-Nazi iconography and racialized violence were rampant across the UK, especially among disenfranchised young white men. In 1979, conservative leader Margaret Thatcher returned the Tory party to power on the strength of an anti-immigrant and anti-union platform that openly appealed to the National Front. The South Asian and Caribbean minorities were constant targets.

These communities were, of course, familiar with economic inequality from their home countries; however, especially for the Black Caribbean diaspora, this kind of racism was something they had only experienced on arrival in the UK. In inner-city slums like Coventry’s Hillfields, created by brutalist redevelopment or sheer neglect of urban centers decimated by German bombs during World War II, marginalized working-class populations of whites, Afro-Caribbeans, and South Asians shared common hardship under Thatcher’s draconian policies even as they fought over resources and identities.

This is a typical scenario for musical creation, as in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury and Motown’s Detroit in the ’60s, the ’70s New York City that birthed salsa, hip-hop, disco, and punk, or the gangster rap that came out of Compton in the ’80s. What was less usual about 2 Tone was the conflict at the core of its identity: a sizeable chunk of the audience for their punk-ska came from the very skinhead community to which its songs and culture were adamantly opposed. Raised middle-class in southern India by a left-wing church dean whose “Life Style Movement” preached that “there is enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed”, Dammers was drawn to Hillfields and ska and punk not only because they were musically ripe for innovation, but because he was on a cultural and political crusade.

Rock Against Racism was formed in 1976 in reaction to a rise in racial violence and to overtly racist language and actions from prominent musicians like David Bowie and Eric Clapton, no matter their musical affinity to Black soul music or reggae. Rock Against Racism paired white punk acts with Black reggae acts. Dammers’ vision was far more radical and, incredibly in hindsight, almost unprecedented in British popular music: to form a multiracial band with Black and white musicians making and performing music together as a creative entity.

The original members of the Specials included German-Jewish, Coventry-born Terry Hall and Jamaican-born Neville Staples on vocals; bassist Horace Panter, a white college friend of Dammers; the afore-mentioned Golding and Roddy Byers, born in a mining village, on guitar; Coventry-born John Bradbury, son of a staunchly-antiracist hospital worker, on drums; Dammers on keyboards; Liverpool-born Dick Cuthell on horns; and Rico Rodriguez, Cuban-born veteran of the Jamaican ska and reggae scenes, on trombone. At the august age of 45, Rodriguez was the only band member not still in his twenties.

The Selecter were equally mixed: fronted by Coventry-born composer and guitarist Neol Davis, fronted by Anglo-Jewish/Nigerian singer Pauline Black, and featuring members born in Jamaica, St. Kitts, and Ghana. The Bodysnatchers comprised six white women fronted by mixed-race Anglo-Panamanian singer Rhoda Dakar. The Beat (marketed as the English Beat in the US) matched a white trio on vocals, guitars, and bass with a drummer from St. Kitts. Their saxophonist, Saxa, had played in Jamaica with first-wave ska legends Prince Buster and Desmond Dekker. In contrast, their “toasting” vocalist, Ranking Roger, was so young when he joined the group (15) that he was a second-generation immigrant, born in Birmingham to parents from St. Lucia. The north London septet Madness, the only all-white, all-male band associated with the peak years of 2 Tone, was also the only band to predate the Specials. 2 Tone gave them their break, releasing their first hit single (Lee Thompson’s “The Prince”). As with the Beat in a similar scenario, Madness then chose to sign with a major label.

Madness was also the only of the 2 Tone bands to endure beyond that initial wave. Of the others, as the Beat’s David Steele put it, “You’ve got six or seven really strong characters. It’s like sticking all your favorite things in a suitcase and sitting on it: you know it’s going to burst open.” Live sets were legendary, both for the tighter bands like the Specials and Madness that had been together more than a few weeks and had actual instrumental chops and for the ones that were able quickly to pull it together and learn on the job, like the Beat and the Selecter, and those, like the Bodysnatchers, who simply got by on raw punk energy.

These gigs were not for the faint of heart. Fights were a nightly occurrence, including on stage; fans would rush the stage, sometimes invited, sometimes not; bandmembers would attack audience members; knives were common, and the bouncers could be even more indiscriminately violent than the skinheads. As the Selecter’s guitarist Compton Amanor suggested of the band’s music and their stage fighting, “The point wasn’t that violence is not the way. It was saying that violence is part of everyday life.”

2 Tone was more about negotiating a community of difference than living happily in a multicultural world. Dammers’ lyrics addressed teenage pregnancy (#1 hit “Too Much Too Young“), empty partying (“Nite Klub“, “Stereotype“, “Friday Night, Saturday Morning”), urban decay, unemployment, and violence (#1 hit “Ghost Town” and “Concrete Jungle“), breaking ties with racist friends or relations (“Racist Friend“), racial violence (“Doesn’t Make It Alright“, “Why?“), and apartheid in South Africa (Dammers’s 1984 swan song “Nelson Mandela“, the profits from which he donated in full to the African National Congress).

Rhoda Dakar’s harrowing monologue “The Boiler“, backed by the Specials, began with Saturday shopping and ended in a violent rape scene. The Selecter addressed sexual violence (“Murder“), urban brawling (“Out on the Streets“, “Danger“); the Beat sang against neo-Nazis (“Two Swords“) and gun violence (“Click Click“), while Madness wrote about a white family rejecting their daughter’s interracial marriage (the top-ten single “Embarrassment“). All of 2 Tone sang against Thatcherism (“Ghost Town”, “Stand Down Margaret“, and a pointed cover of Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm“). They sang vignettes of depressed working-class urban life, transformed ska, reggae, and Motown classics into sped-up ska-punk workouts, and counseled dancing, not fighting, as the cure for all ills.

Even there, however, party music could unexpectedly turn into something else. The Beat’s first single, which peaked at #6, paired a gloriously sped-up, offbeat cover of Motown classic “Tears of a Clown” with Ranking Roger’s toasting showcase, “Ranking Full Stop“. The bittersweet notes of Smokey Robinson’s lyrics stood out once paired with a song that crowned 2 ½ minutes of dance hall instructions with a final lyric turn, stopping on a dime at “Stop. I’m dead.” Rhoda Dakar’s “The Boiler”, written with the Bodysnatchers and recorded with the Specials, begins eerily but quickly opens up into a dance groove, even as Dakar’s talking vocal creeps inexorably into full-bore screaming terror during the six-minute duration.

None of the messaging would have worked if the music had not been irresistibly fun and propulsively danceable. The Sex Pistols had hit #1 out of fury, iconoclasm, and pure attitude. The Clash, more versatile and enduring, wouldn’t get their first #1 single until “Should I Stay or Should I Go” was rereleased in 1991. But 2 Tone quickly found a sweet spot between punk anger and pop sensibility that mirrored the myriad poles they were trying to bridge in their bandmembers as also in their audiences: middle-class and working-class, male and female (there’s not a hint of LGBTQ in Rachel’s book, although I’d be shocked if at least some of 2 Tone’s members weren’t in the closet, if not at least partially out to someone), London and Midlands, England and diaspora, and, of course, Black and white.

The design principle inherent in the label’s name was similarly mirrored in the detail-obsessed Dammers’ omnipresent checkerboard motif, the black-and-white clothing, the label’s nattily-dressed cartoon figureheads Walt Jabsco and, later, the Beat Girl, based on a 1964 old photo of Prince Buster with white ska singer Brigitte Bond. Beat Girl had been introduced, according to Ranking Roger, to ridicule the machismo of their National Front fans, to pitch “the Beat as an antisexist, antiracist dance band”, and to get more women on the dance floor. The Beat’s Dave Wakeling argues that the 2 Tone style was accessible to women and men, Black and white alike, as opposed to the almost exclusively white male, punk-derived audience they had begun with: “Now we get dreads and Black beat girls, 2 Tone girls or whatever. It’s easy to get into ‘cos it’s the same fashion for the Blacks and the whites. They all come as rude boys, so it’s not half as weird as some of them coming as punks and some as Rastas.”

This is not to say that 2 Tone was as progressive in terms of gender as it was in terms of race or even always consistent regarding race. The Beats first album includes the stereotype-laden “Hands Off… She’s Mine“, “Twist and Crawl“, and “Best Friend“; however, the video for their cutting portrait of narcissism, “Mirror in the Bathroom” (“Can I take you to a restaurant that’s got glass tables? / You can watch yourself while you are eating”) gives equal time to the male singer.

While the Specials’ “Too Much Too Young” and “Stupid Marriage” spread blame with equal vitriol at both parties, “Little Bitch” could easily slot into the Rolling Stones’ pantheon of lyrical misogyny, although it’s a lot more danceable. Some of the lyrics no doubt were meant as ironic critiques of misogynist attitudes voiced by the song’s first-person subject, as when Pretenders singer Chrissie Hynde added backup vocals to the bridge of “Nite Klub”: “All the girls are slags /And the beer tastes just like piss.”

At the same time, Pauline Black, the only woman in the Selecter and the only woman on many of the early 2 Tone tours, noted how uncomfortable her presence was in the late ’70s: “Male musicians don’t like women being around, and being the lead singer made no difference.” On tour with the Selecter, the Bodysnatchers’ Penny Layton remembers, “The dressing rooms were awful … They’d never had a woman in these places. … I don’t know how Pauline coped. She was with an all-male band.”

2 Tone was not just a collection of firsts; it was a concerted, intentional effort to use the languages and communities of pop music, partying, and dance clubs to transform mainstream attitudes and cultures. Jerry Dammers may have driven band members crazy with his obsessive attention to every detail, musical, sartorial, and visual, and his refusal to prioritize economics over vision. But there’s no question they all more or less bought into that vision or were willing to bring their related views along with them, at least for a while.

According to Lee Thompson of Madness, “If we are forced to drop out then none of us would have any regrets at all. We don’t want anything to do with the National Front. As far as I’m concerned, if they start venting their political feelings at our gigs, then we can call it a day.” Explains Layton, “Part of 2 Tone was to educate the audience and say Black people invented this music. You need to accept that the world is two tone.” The bands would stop playing mid-song, question and confront audience members, and try to point out “the inherent contradiction between supporting 2 Tone and having racist attitudes.” Black recalls, “You felt obliged to say something. If it persisted, you’d try to shame them.”

There’s no consensus among the participants over how successful they were in the end. “The image was of all these people in 2 Tone bands, Black and white, living and working together in total harmony,” Pauline Black recalls. “But of course it wasn’t always like that. We were angry young people.” Shocked by the continued presence of Nazi salutes from the same fans who were “going nuts during the songs”, Dammers conceded that, “It just shows they haven’t understood what we’re trying to put across at all.” And there’s a chilling moment when Dammers recalls Specials vocalist and former skinhead Terry Hall telling him “that there was no racism in Coventry before the Specials started talking about it. … ‘You expect some of the audience not to get the point of what you’re doing, but when the lead singer of the group doesn’t get the point,'” he trails off.

At the same time, Rachel claims with some justification that “Nelson Mandela” was instrumental in forcing Thatcher to change her policy towards apartheid and the ANC. Black persuasively distinguishes between rewriting policy or laws through politics and impacting cultural norms through music and art: “We changed attitudes. People talked about Blacks and whites together, but they didn’t have a language that actually encompassed that.” According to white, Trinidadian-born publicist and manager Juliet de Vie, “For the first time Black and white youth found a common language in this unique hybrid of ska, fired up with the reality of growing up in seventies Britain.” And Dammers succinctly explains, “It helped make everyday racism unacceptable.” But it’s probably not coincidental that the only 2 Tone band to remain continuously together and continuously successful was the socioculturally homogeneous, all-white Madness.

Some of the most riveting and disheartening stretches of The 2 Tone Story describe the disastrous US tours undertaken by the 2 Tone bands, reminding us that the British Invasion was the exception that proved the rule of the difficulty of translating UK bands to the utterly different US market. While I may have worn out the cassettes I had dubbed from a generous New York acquaintance and happily talked shop with the handful of fellow fans I could find as a teenager in Louisville, there were not a lot of us.

No 2 Tone album or single charted higher than #84 in the US until “Nelson Mandela” (still a lowly #34). The (English) Beat would crack the top 50 with a few post-2 Tone singles, including “I Confess” and “Save It for Later“, which hit the top 10 of Billboard’s “Bubbling Under Top 100”. Madness’ charming 1982 ditty “Our House” soared to #7 on the Hot 100. But as good as they are, those songs cleave much closer to New Romantics than to the bands’ 2 Tone roots. The most influential moment 2 Tone had on US soil was likely their performance of “Gangsters” and “Too Much Too Young” on Saturday Night Live in April of 1980—the seed, evidently, of the third wave of ska that would crest out of California punk at the end of the decade.

2 Tone may have been, as Pauline Black self-deprecatingly sums it up, “a two-year blip between the end of punk and New Romantics”, but what a blip it was. Daniel Rachel’s immersive history marvelously details what made that blip so resonant and enduring, even as he and his interviewees resolutely cannot agree on exactly what that resonance may mean. Too Much Too Young suggests that, while punk has left a more robust musical legacy, its “air of despondency and willfulness to reject a generation’s future” also limits that legacy to repeated adoption by successive generations of disaffected young musicians.

In contrast, Rachel argues, “2 Tone encouraged audiences to be positive, engage with music as an active tool of change, and above all to enjoy themselves and have fun.” This conclusion may downplay the subversive power of punk that permeates 2 Tone as it permeates the more recent appropriation of punk by feminist, Black, Indigenous, and global South artists. But it does capture how effectively joy and anger together can, at times, also be channeled into positive change, especially in the sphere of culture. It also illuminates the thrill, power, pressures, and costs of instant fame for young musicians.

RATING 8 / 10