The magnificent Pauline Black belts out Missing Words – my fave track from The Selecter. Great video starting with the queen of ska in a public phone box…aaaah, an era before mobiles!
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.
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.
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.
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.