1979 and 1980 were the glory years of the so-called “second wave” of ska music – first wave in Jamaica twenty plus years before and now the 2Tone wave came crashing out of Coventry. The Specials seized the charts by the scruff of the neck with a string of hits. And even WH Smith felt the vibe as the his ad from 1980 shows.
But…by the end of 1981, political pop gave way to bubblegum pop. However, fans of bands like The Specials, The Selecter and The Beat have remained fiercely loyal to the present. And it would be remiss of me not to mention that I co-authored the biography of Neville Staple, front man in The Specials, titled Original Rude Boy.
Neville Staple is still touring with The Neville Staple Band and I filmed this gig on my iPhone in Chelsea a while back. He puts on a great performance as you can see. Neville is not playing with The Specials anymore but treats you to all the classic songs. I worked with Mr Staple on his biography Original Rude Boyback in 2009.
It was a brave pop band that went to Northern Ireland at the start of the 1980s and loudly advocated a non-sectarian message – but that’s what The Specials and The Beat did in 1981.
On the UK mainland, 2tone bands had made racial unity central to their musical message. When it came to the violence torn province, unity of Catholic and Protestant youth was their plea. I write about this tour in my biography of Neville Staple – Original Rude Boy. And below is a press clipping from my archives.
That may not be how many would wish to remember the year but at the time, it was hard to ignore skinheads. Much maligned or did they get the criticism they deserved? Putting it crudely, there were skinheads who were bad and skinheads who were broadly good.
Bad skins supported the National Front, caused trouble on football terraces and if you saw a group walking down the road towards you – it was best to think of an exit strategy. Skinhead punk bands featured prominently as cheerleaders for fascist politics and one group undoubtedly played a major role in provoking the 1981 Southall Riot – though they whined to the NME afterwards that it was all a terrible mistake.
Good skins weren’t necessarily helping little old ladies across the road but they were more likely to be adopting a style they knew was associated with Jamaican music. I knew skinheads on the far left of British politics and of course, the skinhead look was already being adopted by the gay scene – though some within the gay scene were heavily critical of the look.
Here’s how the Observer in 1980 reported on the year of the skinhead.
Walk down Oxford Street today and it’s impossible to avoid glimpsing the ever present influence of 2Tone whether it’s the black and white check patterns, porkpie hats, tonic suits, etc, etc. The style pioneered by The Specials, The Selecter and The Beat has proved to be timeless. Don’t believe me – look at these images from 1980/81. Still achingly cool.