In the heady days of the 60’s beat boom a city was judged more on its roster of artists, rather than individual acts. Take Liverpool and it’s Mersey Beat, and Birmingham and it’s Brum Beat. These ‘local beat scenes’ not only captured the imagination of the record buying public, but also of record label bosses all on the lookout for the next big local scene.
By 1964, manager Larry Page had set up in Coventry’s Orchid Ballroom, determined to create a ‘Coventry Sound’ from his roster of artists. Although Larry managed to get at least four of them recording contracts (The Pickwicks, Shel Naylor, Johnny B. Great and The Orchids). The music they produced did little to suggest that there was a cohesive Coventry Sound. Larry would go on to find success with The Troggs and The Kinks, but Coventry would have to wait some fifteen years before it could enjoy a defining sound, although unknown to Larry Page, the mechanics that would produce that sound, were being created at that very moment in time, but he didn’t know it!
I have little doubt that Coventry’s Big Bang could have happened anywhere in the United Kingdom, though I suspect that it wouldn’t have had anyway near the impact as it did in the heart of the Midlands. Coventry being right in the centre of the country took its influences from all corners of the land, effectively becoming a huge melting pot of ideas and styles. Coventry was a massive manufacturing city, and those people who had travelled from the Caribbean in the 1960’s and earlier, had created communities with their own customs and more importantly their own style of music. Pre-1960’s this music had pretty much gone unnoticed outside the Caribbean community. With the advent of popular youth based music though, ska artists like Millie Small (My Boy Lollipop) and Prince Buster (Al Capone) were crossing over and mainstreaming in the British charts. By the late 70’s, Cov’s Big Bang had mixed all the elements together, and with Jerry Dammers vision Coventry was about to steak its claim on the music map big time.
Could have 2-Tone happened anywhere else? Maybe if Jerry Dammers had passed his entry interview to Leeds Uni, it would have happened in a completely different way with completely different musicians. I can’t see it myself though, and despite the fact the Beat were doing a similar thing in Birmingham and Madness in London, it was Dammers and Coventry culture and its fellow travellers who would become The Specials and The Selecter that provided the elements of the Big Bang. Yes it could have happened in Leeds or anywhere else, but I suspect the reason it became so successful was because it ticked all the boxes, and doing so would eventually provide the launch that those bands like Madness and The Beat obviously needed to see them become successful.
When The Specials hit, they hit big, and no one could resist to infectious ska rhythm’s, with that oh so subtle blend of subliminal punk giving this dance music its ‘edge’. It hit all the rights spots. It was undoubtedly music for your head and for your feet, post punk had developed a conscious, and the old banners of ‘anarchy’ and ‘destroy’ were laid waste to the reality of a Britain under Thatcherite law, and the realisation that anger of plastic posturing alone was not going to change anything.
The soundtrack to 1979 was unmistakably ska, and Coventry bands like The Specials and the Selecter, along with Brummies The Beat and Londoners Madness, got white and black youths dancing together like never before. The new kids were happy to play homage to the older kids, and Ska legends like Rico Rodriguez, Dandy Livingstone and Prince Buster were well displayed as major influences. It was an exciting time for Coventry, it seemed that everyone wanted a piece of us, A&R men took regular trips up from the cosy London offices, and the whole world and his mutt came to Horizon studios to get that ‘Coventry Sound. For at last Cov’s sound had been defined as a four- four ska rhythm, more obvious with the 2-Tone acts, less so with the likes of arty natty rockers Gods Toys or the Relutant Sterotypes. Both bands saw some success, but would never scale the high’s of the Specials or The Selecter.
2-Tone was a mediamans dream, great songs, with socially aware messages at a time of urban decay and global recession, all wrapped up in eye-catching black and white check. 2-Tone worked on many levels, the black and white dream of unity, the punk and ska fusion of the music and the glaringly obvious black and white imaginary. How could it fail, it couldn’t, even when the boys of the right wing tried to highjack it, this only helped to highlight just how off the mark they were with the ethos of the whole movement. On the down side, the songs were all so easy to place at the feet of the bands home town, and despite Coventry being at its most artistic and inventive in the early 80’s, the press just loved to label us Ghost Town or Concrete Jungle. By 1981 the Fun Boy three had become a reality and the Specials as we knew them were no more, and the Selecter had long left the 2-Tone stable.
Fast forward some 27 years, and the landscape looks alarmingly familiar, with recession and racism still evident, enter the Specials once more. In their absence the ska and 2-Tone scene had been making its own fun while their mentors were away doing other things. Enter the Allskas and their homage to these ska heroes, taking us back to a time when wearing a crombie was the norm and black and white check was not just hat decoration for the local constabulary.
It’s been 30 years we should have all learnt something by now, but the music remains infectious, and the feeling still feels right and life is always better when enjoyed in black and white.
2-Tone @ 30
Celebrating 2-Tone in Coventry