In the mid-1960s, the UK was introduced to a new kind of music. It was an eclectic mix of jazz and R&B, with a heavy dose of Jamaican mento and it soon had the youth of Britain transfixed.
The music was ska, and in a few years, it had reached the mainstream. Millie Small raced to the top of the charts with ‘my boy lollipop’ and artists such as Desmond Dekker, Jimmy Cliff and Prince Buster were heard in club nights from London to Manchester and beyond.
Heading into the 1970s, ska drifted away from the mainstream for a little while. Althoughnever leaving the club nights and dancehalls where it was so loved, ska slipped away fromthe charts. Then came the late 70s, and the mod revival and a whole new group of youngsters learnt how to skank.
One such place where ska had become a key component of the nightlife was Coventry, where a young mod named Jerry Dammers danced along to the latest tracks from Jamaica. His music taste was vast. As a young man, he obsessed over mod icons such as The Who and Small Faces, as well as soul music such as Otis Redding. When he heard Desmond Dekker, a lifelong love of reggae was ignited.
He was easy to spot on the dancefloor, with a shaved head, pork pie hat and missing front teeth from two different incidents, one which involved a bicycle and one which involved a thrown cider glass.
By 1977 Dammers had met Horace Panter and the rest of what would be the Specials. With a plethora of songs written about his hometown and performed in the reggae style Dammers loved so much, the band, then known as The Special AKA, caught the ear of Clash frontman Joe Strummer, who invited them on tour. Dammers had the songs and the support, now all he needed to find was a record label.
It wasn’t easy.
Their blend of ska, reggae and soul wasn’t guaranteed sales. This type of music had spent a decade away from the charts, and nobody knew if it would ever return.
But Dammers had faith. He pumped money into his own label. 2 Tone 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.
So what was 2 tone about?
Well, the logo said it all. It is a black and white image of a man in a black suit. His shirt and socks are white, his loafers and tie black. Based on an image of reggae legend Peter Tosh, the figure was named Walt Jabsco, and he soon became an integral part of the 2 tone brand.
Dammers, backed by the Specials in the label and on stage, began to release their music through the 2 Tone label. The first single was ‘Gangsters’, a tale of a trashed hotel room in France that was mistakenly blamed on the Specials that came packed with thumping bass and the unmistakable rhythm of ska.
It took off.
In a multicultural area such as Coventry, 2 Tone was a symbol of unity and contained lyrics that called out racism and inequality in society. It was universally loved by the youth who danced in the clubs and bars, no matter what their sex, skin tone or social class.
2 Tone wasn’t like other record labels. It offered the chance for its artists to leave after their first single. This was something some bands opted to take advantage of, including Madness who only released ‘The Prince’ and The Beat who did the same with ‘Tears of a Clown’.
2 Tone wasn’t ska as it had been previously known. The emergence of punk in the 70s had a huge influence. The guitars got louder and the pace faster. Another big difference came in the form of lyrics, with songs now being written about the political state of the country and the problems that the youth were facing.
Another band that formed a key part of the 2-tone assemble was The Selecter. Their self- titled single was an A-side to the aforementioned ‘Gangsters’, and they would release more tracks over the following years.
Within the first year, The Specials, The Beat, Madness, The Selecter and Rico had all featured on singles released by 2 Tone in what would later be looked on as an iconic time in the existence of the label.
So, after such a blistering start, what was next for 2 Tone?
Well, with the songwriting skills of Dammer and the influence of Lynval Golding, Neville Staple, Horace Panter and Terry Hall, the hits just kept on coming. ‘Ghost Town’, ‘A Message to you Rudy’ and ‘Too Much Too Young’ were all released on 2 Tone, and are all still regularly played across dance floors throughout the country to this day.
Combined with songs from The Higsons and the Apollinaires, 2 Tone quickly built a library that even the most established labels would be jealous of. The label lasted for 7 years before Dammers decided to call time on it.
UB40 and Dexy’s Midnight Runners had both turned the label down in recent times, and like all good things, 2 Tone records came to an end, but not before it had left a huge imprint on not just the music scene amongst Britain’s youth, but on the cultural and social awareness that was becoming prevalent.
2 Tone played a key part in the mod revival and the resurgence of the skinhead, and despite its short life, will go down in history for some of the songs that came from this iconic music label.