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.
The Beat recorded the song ‘Stand Down Margaret’, which caused quite a stir at the time – a spirited call on prime minister Maggie Thatcher to go. Below is vocalist Ranking Roger on the front cover of the long defunct Record Mirror. I interviewed him for the biography of Neville Staple – Original Rude Boy – published by Aurum Press. He was great fun to spend an afternoon with and some amazing stories from the late 70s and early 80s.
In 2010, the hardback version of Neville Staple’s biography was published by Aurum Press – co-written with yours truly. The publishers ran several front cover ideas past me and Nev and of course, only one could be chosen. Below was one of the ideas that didn’t make it – but I think was very evocative. I’d almost be tempted to blow it up and hang on my bedroom wall as a ska/2Tone poster.
The start of the 1980s was dominated by the sound of 2Tone – a new take on the Jamaican ska sound of the 1950s and 1960s. It had a broad appeal across Britain with ordinary youth, both black and white. As a sound, it was just easy to like – a fun beat and sardonic lyrics. Trouble was – it was all over by 1981. Well, some bands lingered but The Specials split acrimoniously and two members of The Beat became General Public while the other two formed Fine Young Cannibals.
The United States had started to open up to 2Tone and then it was gone. So when Ranking Roger discovered that the seed planted in the US in the early 80s had grown into a mighty musical oak by the mid-80s, he got some ex-Specials together with him and formed Special Beat.
When I was writing Neville Staple’s biography – ‘Original Rude Boy’ – I was given a hold-all full of photos of The Specials and all kinds of memorabilia. This included a load of backstage passes from Specials gigs and other events Neville had attended around 1979 to 1981. Some of this stuff made it into the book but others didn’t. They all got scanned or photographed by me so take a look at this.
The summer of 1981 was rocked by riots against the government with cities across Britain experiencing massive upheavals. Coventry had been something of a tinderbox for years with skinheads clashing with black and Asian youth throughout the 1970s – something I write about in my biography of Neville Staple, “Original Rude Boy”. But things escalated in 1981 when an Asian youth was murdered in broad daylight in the shopping centre – enough was definitely enough.
The National Front had swaggered round town intimidating law abiding people and now the 2Tone bands born of Coventry organised a gig to take the streets back. It was a festival of racial unity. Though that didn’t stop the NF threatening to come down to the venue and cause disruption. At the same time as the gig, riots broke out round Coventry bus station.
Here is Melody Maker’s report on the gig from my archives!