If you want a solid overview of the 1980s ska revival, there’s no better place to start than this label compilation from the record company that have the movement its nickname. 2 Tone was (for a time anyway) the home of the Specials, Madness, the Bodysnatchers, and the Beat (a.k.a. the English Beat), all of whom are represented here — though the Specials contribute disproportionately. It’s the Beat who steal the show, though, with a spritely rendition of Smoky Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown” and their own joyful “Rankin’ Full Stop.” The Swingin’ Cats were never heard from again.
Ska emerged in Jamaica in the 1950s. It was a spritely, galloping pop music form recognizable by its distinctive off-beat rhythmic pattern: in ska, while the snare drum would hit beats two and four – just like in the American soul and R&B music that influenced it – horns and guitars would play chopping chords immediately after each beat in the measure, often with a swing feel and accompanied by a walking bassline. Ska was irresistibly danceable, nothing else sounded quite like it, and it quickly became hugely popular both in Jamaica and among the West Indian diaspora communities in England.
Soon, however, the style began to morph: ska’s galloping tempo slowed somewhat and the rhythmic orientation began to shift. Its metronomically steady backbeats thickened into a more elastic groove that came to be called “rock steady” – which, itself, eventually slowed still further into the more laid-back rhythmic patterns of reggae. By the late 1960s, ska had been almost entirely overtaken in both Jamaica and the UK by these newer sounds, and by the early 1970s reggae had completely taken over Jamaica’s airwaves, dancehalls, and open-air sound system dances.
But ska had left a documentary record behind: songs by bands like the Skatalites, Justin Hinds, Desmond Dekker, and even future reggae stars Bob Marley and the Wailers (who, as the Wailing Wailers, had scored major hits during the ska era with songs like “Simmer Down” and “Rude Boy”) were there to be discovered by a new generation, and it wasn’t too many years before British youth rediscovered those records and fell in love with the original sound of ska. This rising generation of ska fans was largely located in the British Midlands, particularly in Birmingham and Coventry, where West Indian and white kids were going to school and hanging out together. In the late 1970s, a new wave of young ska bands arose and coalesced around the Coventry-based 2 Tone label. The label was founded by Jerry Dammers, keyboardist for the Specials, one of the most influential of this group of second-wave ska bands. Madness were signed as well, and the Beat (known in the US as the English Beat). The Selecter, Bad Manners, and the all-woman band the Bodysnatchers signed on as well, all of them bringing a fresh and punky energy to the traditional ska sound.
That sound was distinctive, but also diverse: the Bodysnatchers and Bad Manners drew deeply on a more traditional ska style, while the Beat began experimenting quickly with calypso and dub reggae, the Specials drifted into music hall and cabaret-inflected songs, and the Selecter specialized in a high-energy, punky ska sound. The 2 Tone brand (with its black-and-white checkerboard color scheme) had an important political subtext as well: these bands were all mutiracial, and at a time when racist skinheads and Rock Against Racism punk rockers were in constant conflict, the racial makeup of the 2 Tone groups was neither accidental nor entirely separable from their musical messages: songs like “Gangsters” (an early hit for the Specials) and the Selecter’s “Too Much Pressure” captured the tension of the moment.
Most of the 2 Tone bands left the label within a couple of years, and the label itself was defunct by the mid-1980s. But its influence continues to be felt: a third wave of young ska bands emerged in the early 1990s, many of them explicitly influenced by the sound of that first ska revival, and since then ska itself (in an ever-widening spectrum of stylistic varieties) has never fully disappeared from the pop music landscape.
Always the hardest-edged of the 2 Tone ska revival bands, the Selecter get even darker and more serious on their second album, which features song titles like “Washed Up and Left for Dead,” “Selling Out Your Future,” and of course the title track — which could have been a hit, except that the album’s release coincided with the murder of John Lennon and the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, both of which caused radio stations to shy away from playing it. The album is more stylistically varied than Too Much Pressure, and despite its lyrical grimness is a tremendously rewarding listen.
Although billed as a ska band and nurtured in the bosom of the 2 Tone stable, the Beat’s sound was complicated from the start. On I Just Can’t Stop you can hear them veering from edgy new wave popcraft (“Mirror in the Bathroom,” “Two Swords”) to vintage rock steady (“Rough Rider”) to new-school ska (“Ranking Full Stop”), with Dave Wakeling’s sly and allusive lyrics regularly interrupted by Ranking Roger’s Jamaican patois toasts and interjections. This is one of the most interesting and exciting albums to emerge from the 2 Tone scene.
Led by manic frontman Buster Bloodvessel, Bad Manners brought a sense of chaotic energy and madcap fun to the 1980s British ska revival. The title of the band’s debut telegraphs their intent: the program was a mix of ska-inflected R&B and pop covers (“Caledonia,” “Monster Mash,” “Ne-Ne Na-Na Na-Na Nu-Nu”) along with some old-school ska (“Lip Up Fatty”) and a handful of original songs. Bloodvessel himself capitalized on his hefty physical frame and his large tongue, both of which played a prominent part in the band’s stage presentation.
The third album by 2 tone ska stalwarts the Specials is an odd release, partly because the band’s lineup had changed significantly by this point, leading to the album being credited to the Special AKA. Singer Rhoda Dakar had joined the group, though the harrowing single “The Boiler,” which she recorded with them earlier, was not included on the album. In the Studio yielded a hit in the form of “(Free) Nelson Mandela” and went further than the group’s previous two albums in exploring non-ska sounds — though the frank and direct “Racist Friend” would have fit comfortably alongside anything on the Specials’ debut album.
Of all the 2 Tone ska bands, the Selecter had the hardest edge and the punkiest vibe. While Madness were silly and fun, the Specials were ironic and reggae-inflected, and the Beat experimented with calypso and soul, the Selecter pumped out tense, high-energy ska that simultaneously celebrated the tradition (note their wonderful cover of Justin Hinds’ “Carry Go Bring Come”) and brought a new intensity to it (“Too Much Pressure,” “Three Minute Hero,” “Danger”). The not-very-subtle “Collie (Not a Dog)” brought some humor to the proceedings, but overall this is a tense and serious album.
The Beat’s second album is arguably their most complex and multilayered. It finds them emerging from under the stylistic umbrella of the 2 Tone ska scene, embracing calypso (“Monkey Murders”), French lyrics (“French Toast [Soleil trop chaud]”), and syrupy dubbed-up reggae (“Drowning”). As always, Dave Wakeling’s lyrics vacillated between romantic confusion and political angst, while Ranking Roger pops in intermittenty to shine a bit of Jamaican sun on the proceedings — and the band bounces and snaps with elastic energy.
Arguably the most significant one-band release of the 2 Tone era, the Specials’ self-titled debut was like a master class in ska revivalism. Stylistically it ranged from punk-tinged raveups like “Night Club” and “Too Much Too Young” to darker and more introspective reggae fare like “Blank Expression” and the magnificent “Ghost Town” — everything delivered with the mix of quiet anger and sardonic wit that would become the Specials’ lyrical hallmark.
The Bodysnatchers stood out from the rest of the 2 Tone pack for a simple and important reason: they were an all-woman band, the only one in that scene. Sadly, they only recorded a couple of singles before disbanding (most of the members later regrouped to form The Belle Stars), but they did appear on the Dance Craze documentary, and their most popular song shows their talent and skill. Let’s Do Rock Steady is a blues-based midtempo tune that harks back to the late-60s transition period between ska and reggae, when the galloping offbeats of ska were beginning to slow and thicken into something new.
Madness’ second album finds the band continuing to explore the sounds of vintage ska while more deeply incorporating elements of R&B and the English music hall. There’s a distinctly vaudevillian vibe at work here, created in part by Suggs’ strong Cockney accent and by the predominance of tinkly honky-tonk piano, though cheesy Farfisa organ brings a subtle new wave flavor to the proceedings and the band’s horn section keeps the overall sound rich and dense. And of course you’ve got the novelty material as well, notably the blues-based “Solid Gone.”
Of all the 2 Tone ska revival bands, Madness had the greatest commercial success (the Beat probably came in a close second). This was almost certainly due in part to the band’s willingness to depart from the stylistic strictures of ska, as is obvious on “Our House,” their biggest hit in the US. On their debut album, however, the mode is straight-up ska, with lashings of vaudevillesque humor. The iconic instrumental (mostly) “One Step Beyond” and their signature tune “Madness” (a Prince Buster cover) are the distilled essence of the early Madness sound.