Various Artists - 2 Tone - The Albums (2 Tone)

Various Artists – 2 Tone – The Albums (2 Tone)

Given the cultural impact and influence of 2 Tone Records, founded by Jerry Dammers in 1979, it’s somewhat staggering to realise that the label only released a mere 6 studio albums during the course of its existence, and that three of those were by his own band The Specials, albeit in a different guise later on, under the Special AKA banner. Not only this, but two of the other three were by Rico, he himself an integral part of many of those bands’ hit records. The only group here with no affiliation with The Specials, to speak of, is The Selecter.

Regular readers of God Is In The TV will already be aware that I consider the label’s first release – the self titled 1979 debut album from The Specials – as one of the ten finest records ever committed to vinyl, so I won’t waste time fawning over that again, but you can read what I said about last year’s 40th anniversary re-issue of it here:

The Selecter‘s premiere appearance in the long playing format came a few months later with Too Much Pressure. Oddly, their (then) recent smash hit ‘On My Radio‘ was not included, and I’ve never really been sure why that was, but they made up for it with the follow up singles ‘Three Minute Hero‘ and ‘Missing Words‘, which really should have propelled them into the realms of chart legends for many years, but sadly, all that was left in the tank was one number 36 hit called ‘The Whisper‘ and the band split up barely a year after hitting the big time. At the very least, they left us a mouthwatering taste of what may have been on the horizon with tracks such as the joyful ‘Everyday‘, the “try not to dance” impossibility of ‘Street Feeling‘ and the cheeky ‘My Collie (Not A Dog)‘, which is effectively Millie Small‘s ‘My Boy Lollipop‘ with thinly veiled references to smoking weed thrown in for good measure. Perhaps the standouts here though were Too Much Pressure‘s title track, which surely epitomises what 2 Tone was all about in three minutes and fifty one seconds, and the stunning version of the ‘James Bond‘ theme which closes the album. One can only wonder about what the band COULD have gone on to achieve.

Shortly afterwards came The Specials‘ second album, aptly titled More Specials. I’ve had many conversations with fellow God Is In The TV contributor Jonathan Wright, in which he has asserted that More Specials is the better of the two original albums. Despite the debut being lodged staunchly in my all time top ten, sometimes I think that, actually, he might just have a point. For a start, it includes the splendid ‘Do Nothing‘, which might just be their best single that didn’t reach number one, and something of a diversion for the band musically, though I guess you could point to ‘Doesn’t Make It Alright‘ from the debut as its closest bedfellow. It still had that reggae undertone but Lynval Golding’s lyrics cut even closer to the bone and chime depressingly close with the world in 2020: “I walk along this same old lonely street / Still trying to find, find a reason / Policeman comes and smacks me in the teeth / I don’t complain, it’s not my function.” ‘Hey Little Rich Girl‘ is a vibrant, pulsating number that reflects, at one point, on a father’s despair with his daughter, unable to come to terms with her decision to become an adult film star. The song doesn’t try to judge anyone but merely tells the story. ‘Stereotypes‘ was a highly infectious, albeit rather odd, slice of electro post-punk ska and that single’s double A-side, the astounding ‘International Jet Set‘, with its skewiff muzak overtones, truly signified that Dammers was trying to move the band in a completely new direction. Sadly that decision was the beginning of the end for the band (until recent years at least), some members not too keen on such a wild digression. In hindsight, it was absolutely the right thing to do, and it’s rather ironic that, during the seeming unrest within the camp, the band chose to bookend the album with versions of Carl Sigman‘s ‘Enjoy Yourself‘. Still, with bright summer vacation tunes like the instrumental ‘Holiday Fortnight‘ and the very real fear of atomic warfare expressed on ‘Man At C&A‘, The Specials ensured that both their long players from their initial run would remain out and out classics 40 years later. “It’s all a load of bollocks” is the much repeated refrain of ‘Pearl’s Cafe‘, except that, where More Specials is concerned, it very much is NOT.

Next came the documentary Dance Craze, made by Joe Massot, who’d previously been responsible for the now legendary Led Zeppelin flick The Song Remains The Same. Initially intended as a purely Madness focused affair, his son pointed out to him the various other acts of a similar ilk that were around at that time, so the main intention after this was the capture the essence of that live ska sound as vividly as possible. He did a good job. The only professional association Madness had with 2 Tone, of course, was that their debut single, ‘The Prince‘, was released on the label, but that’s not included here, Massot preferring to showcase the incendiary ‘One Step Beyond‘ and the more soulful sound of the Chas Smash led ‘Razor Blade Alley‘, both of which are heady proof of what a remarkable institution Madness have always been live. One thing I’d forgotten until now was just how much fun Bad Manners were, but that’s summed up here with the entertaining ‘Lip Up Fatty‘ and the brilliant ‘Inner London Violence‘. Other classic tracks included here are The Beat‘s ‘Mirror In The Bathroom‘ and The Bodysnatchers‘ ‘Easy Life‘. There are fifteen songs in total here but they fly by.

Perhaps the biggest revelation in this set, for me at least, is Rico‘s That Man Is Forward, and its follow up Jama Rico from 1981 and 1982. They’d passed me by somewhat at the time, and I wouldn’t have imagined that albums full of “jazz inflected horn flourishes of instrumental ska” would hold up that well as a coherent album. I was wrong. As soon as the great man’s version of Theo Beckford‘s ‘Easy Snappin’‘ kicks in, you kind of know there’s something special afoot. “We’re lost in music” sang Sister Sledge back in the seventies, and that’s exactly what you find happening to you as this joyous first album for 2 Tone feels like the celebration to end all celebrations. Jama Rico on the other hand embraces African rhythms some 4 years before Paul Simon made about 200 billion pounds from doing the same thing (yes, I know that’s an exaggeration). Anyway, lots of fun to be had for all.

Other than the compilation This Are Two Tone, featuring all the usual suspects and worthwhile not only for being splendidly enjoyable, but also for the leftfield curio ‘Mantovani‘ by The Swinging Cats, 2 Tone’s swansong was the much underrated 1984 album In The Studio. Credited to The Special AKA and coming three years after Terry Hall, Lynval Golding and Neville Staples had left to form The Funboy Three, this was a remarkably weighty album that included the history changing ‘Nelson Mandela‘, a single which raised the profile of then prisoner Nelson Mandela considerably, and undoubtedly contributed at least partly for the man’s release and eventual tenure as South African president. Stan Campbell, who had unsuccessfully auditioned for The Selecter earlier in his career, took centre stage and delivered one of the most powerful anthems in the UK’s music chart history. Other singles here include the still far too relevant ‘War Crimes‘ and ‘Racist Friend‘, holding valid messages, and ‘Alcohol‘ later on is something of a pioneering track, no doubt leading to what would be known as trip hop in the 1990s. We’ve all know guys like Jerry Dammers’ falsettoed creep on ‘What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend‘ too. There’s no reason why In The Studio shouldn’t be loved and cherished just as much as The Specials or More Specials.

Anyway, look, I’ve babbled on enough now. 2 Tone was a groundbreaking label, both in social concept and on a musical level. Obviously then, this is a must-have box set.

2 Tone The Albums is out now on…um…2 Tone.

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.