Joe Massot’s film Dance Craze is more than a concert film. It’s also about art, culture, and time and place. It captures performances from many musicians, including the Specials, Madness, the Bodysnatchers, and the Selecter. This legendary film is a wonderful chronicle of the British ska revival that saw multiracial bands emerge from the post-punk movement, their work a response to the post-industrial malaise of Thatcherite England of the late 1970s as well as the hateful rhetoric of the National Front. It also spotlights the explosive creativity of 2 Tone Records, the pioneering indie label founded by Jerry Dammers of the Specials.
The story of Dance Craze is the story of 2 Tone Records and the city of Coventry. Coventry, situated in the English West Midlands, would become an important city in the history of Two-tone music and the founding of 2 Tone Records. Despite being devastated during WWII, the city would emerge from that tragedy to grow during the mid-century industrial boom, becoming a significant hub for the British auto industry.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Coventry enjoyed economic success, which saw growth of the arts and sports industries and a growing population of Asian and Black communities. Though, like many of the cities in the USA that saw their local economies shattered by the decline of the auto industry, Coventry entered a distressing period of economic anguish in the ’70s. The United Kingdom would see difficult economic periods in the ’70s leading to a severe recession. Right-Wing nationalism was one of the resultants of these crises.
During the 1970s, Jerry Dammers was a young music fan with diverse taste in music, much of it based on Black popular music, citing “Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Stax, and Motown.” Key to his love of music was his affection for reggae. Reggae would eventually lead him to meet with his future band members and form the Specials, catching the ear of the Clash‘s Joe Strummer, who invited the Specials to go on tour. The Specials personified the post-punk Two-Tone genre, which saw ska and reggae married to rock and dance. Strummer saw something in the Specials. Now, Dammers needed to find a record label.
“It wasn’t easy…[The Specials’ music] wasn’t guaranteed sales…But Dammers had faith. He pumped money into his own label. 2Tone was coming to fruition. When Chrysalis Records made a move to sponsor the label, Dammers agreed. Now, backed with funding and a platform from which to release his music, 2 Tone Records was officially born,” says an article from Mazey’s Mod Clothing.
2 Tone Records would briefly but profoundly impact British popular music. Dammers, in particular, saw the raw, vital talent eager to record for the label as a natural outgrowth of the tumultuous times he was experiencing. He also saw the label’s roster of bands as a model of the possibility or potential of a racially harmonious Britain. “What made 2 Tone so special, and ‘vital,'” Martin Gray wrote for Louder Than War, “was that the whole reason behind it was to make dance music that brought together opposing factions of society.” Dammers pointed out, “Uniting people….in the name of racial harmony was no mean feat.” The work on 2 Tone rebuked racist, prejudiced, and divisive rhetoric and was a collective reproach to Thatcherism and its damaging politics.
Dance Craze was initially released in February 1981 and is returning to cinemas 42 years later. Some may ask if the film and its subjects are still relevant or if it’s showing in 2023 is just an exercise in nostalgia. Though pop music has changed significantly in the four decades since Dance Craze‘s release, the social and political environs that helped create the Two-Tone musical movement are still with us in 2023. Our current political scene sees a conservative government facing financial crises, social and political division, the encroaching rise of alt-right and hard-right factions of political parties, and nationalist backlash to the social and political progress we’ve made since 1981. So, even though the music and performances on Dance Craze are marked by a propulsive sense of energy and fun, the music was an expression of a youth movement that was looking to reject the ascendant political right that was capitalizing on the country’s social and financial woes.
Because so much of our current societal ills feels like a rehash of what happened in the late 1970s and early ’80s, there’s an almost-squeamish feeling of déjà vu. We can relate to what propelled these young and gifted artists to set their concerns to music. So, though Dance Craze is a film that celebrates pop art and youth culture, it also reflects angst or unease that then-contemporary audiences felt. The political climate of the era is evident in the lyrics of the songs, the diversity among the band members, and some of the stage antics. (The pointed lyrics of urban blight in the Specials’ “Concrete Jungle” are acted out in staged fights in front of the audience).
Massot created a textbook example of an entertaining and exhilarating concert film. Dance Craze‘s restoration for the 2023 re-release makes the footage remarkably clear and crisp. The sound is incredible, full without the tinniness that sometimes plagues concert films. Visually, it’s a marvel to watch. The bands perform with unbridled passion and enthusiasm to ecstatic audiences. The film’s pace doesn’t flag as the various acts take the stage to perform their tunes, all of which are high-energy post-punk dance tunes spiked with influences of retro-soul, Jamaican ska, and reggae.
There’s cheeky humor and irreverence to the performances, conveying joy. There’s also a democracy of sorts among the bands – though wildly gifted and talented, these assembled performers exhibit a raw and hungry youth. This contrasts Dance Craze with the polished, glamorous slick concert films of pop superstars like Madonna, Beyoncé, and Britney Spears. The lack of high-gloss and expensive production values gives the documentary and its subjects the exciting and lively vibrance that reflects the DIY approach to much of post-punk pop music.
For example, when the Bodysnatchers bound on the stage for a kicky performance of “007 (Shanty Town)”, we can see a star born in the charismatic and energetic lead singer Rhoda Dakar. Her appearance spoke to the importance of visuals in pop music. Bouncing on the beat onstage, Dakar is a post-punk Ronnie Spector/Dusty Springfield, with a retro-beehive and heavy eye makeup. Leading a sea of (primarily white) teens in a clap and singalong, the band and its lead singer, especially, show the delicious juxtaposition of professional showmanship and the hardscrabble life of an up-and-coming musician.
Speaking of charismatic frontwomen, new wave legend Pauline Black shows up with her band, the Selecter. Playing with gender mores, Black flirts with androgyny, wearing natty suits and rakish hats. She commands the stage with a striking presence, leading her band, whose diversity in race and gender reflected much of what the movement was trying to accomplish. Black’s excellent memoir from 2012, Black by Design: A 2-Tone Memoir, is an excellent read and a great story of growing up Black in a working-class white family in England in the 1950s and 1960s, as well as a first-hand account of the new wave and Two-Tone movement in the 1970s.
Other highlights in Dance Craze include Madness, one of the few bands of the 2 Tone label to become mainstream pop stars in the mid-1980s. “The Prince” is a joyful tribute to the band’s influence, reggae star Prince Buster, and its follow-up, the strange, jangly take on Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” is the kind of odd, esoteric indulgence that makes concert films worth watching. It’s often live on stage that music acts explore their weird musical eccentricities that don’t get played on the radio.
The contribution of the Birmingham-born band, the Beat, is also a high-octane burst of bouncy punk-and-reggae-spiked pop. As for Bad Manners, well, they’re a sight to behold. Lead singer Buster Bloodvessel is a compelling figure, a natural showman. On the novelty tune, “Ne-Ne-Na-Na-Na-Na-Nu-Nu”, the singer is a stomping, mugging mass of jokey energy. The song is punctuated by brass and horns and a pogoing bounce, and the band members, led by Bloodvessel, enact controlled chaos on the stage. Dammers’ band, the Specials, inject the proceedings with some salient social critique with the excellent “Concrete Jungle” and wisdom with “Too Much Too Young”, which advocates for safe sex and contraception. The electricity of these performers’ stage work transfers beautifully to film, and Massot brilliantly captures the sweaty, frantic, animated energy.
The director also does something quite extraordinary in Dance Craze. About halfway through he interrupts the film with an old newsreel from Pathé News. “It’s the Age of the Teenager”, issued in the summer of 1958, looks at youth culture in Great Britain. The newsreel depicts the rock ‘n’ roll revolution that muscled pre-rock pop out of the popular consciousness, with dance contests having Twist competitions. As kids created dance and pop music trends in post-war England, strong parallels are drawn between these them and the kids of the 1970s – namely, the appropriation of white and Black American popular culture filtered through working-class white kids.
An odd passage in the newsreel is an interview with an elegant society matron, Lady Lewisham, who enthusiastically defends youth culture and teenagers. A fixture in London society, Lady Lewisham gushes that teens are “splendid”. Lady Lewisham would later become Countess Spencer, infamous for her strained relationship with her fun-seeking stepdaughter, Princess Diana.
Including the newsreel is an excellent way to highlight the constancy of youth culture. When Lady Lewisham giggles disapprovingly at the complaint, “Young people aren’t what they were in my day,” she speaks to a false nostalgia that builds up around one’s youth. Adults cannot look at their youth and contrast it with their kids. Though the newsreel highlights evident and important differences in race and gender between the 1950s and ’70s (the kids in the newsreel seem uniformly white and straight), its place in Dance Craze creates a historical continuum, exposing one of the many ways that teenagers rebel against their parents’ society and culture.
The other important thing about the newsreel – which is critical when looking at how Massot approaches his subject – is that its producers seem bemused and patronizing towards their subjects. Therefore, the youth culture in the newsreel is depicted as merely a somewhat facile and superficial trend. There’s little exploration of why the teenagers need to rebel, and there’s no look at where their cultural markers – namely music, fashion, and dance – come from. Instead, while largely positive, the newsreel is somewhat smug and amused at its subjects. With Massot’s approach to documenting his subjects, he sees real artistic and social value in what the people do.
The 2 Tone Records ethos was about challenging racists and discriminatory parts of British culture through a musical sound borrowed heavily from Black American and Black Caribbean sounds. Currently, we’re seeing and hearing many questions about nationality and national identity in the UK. Questions of authenticity and what it means to be British are being challenged. There is a constant, vigilant backlash to these questions in the guise of “anti-woke” legislation or “patriotism”. As we see statues of slaveholders being toppled, language evolving and changing, names of institutions being challenged, and historical “heroes” being revisited, we’re also grappling with divided communities, much like what was happening when Jerry Dammers conceived 2 Tone Records.
That is why Dance Craze is an important and timely film despite being over 40 years old. It speaks to Dammers’ and Massot’s vision and prescience. Dance Craze is a celebration but also a loud warning that still resonates today.
Black, Pauline. Black by Design: A 2-Tone Memoir. Serpent’s Tail. June 2012.
Classic Pop. “2 Tone Records Interview: 40 Years of 2 Tone Records”. 19 August 2019.
Gray, Martin. “40 years of 2 Tone – a personal recollection”. Louder Than War. 15 November 2019.
Mazey’s Mod Clothing. “The Creation of 2-Tone Records“. 9 June 2022