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(Credit: Far Out / The Specials / Press / Ben Allan / Stuart Frisby)

Travel

Coventry: Walking in the footsteps of the two-tone explosion

@SamWKemp

“It just came out of nowhere!” – that’s how Neville Staple of The Specials once described the two-tone explosion. Indeed, Coventry, the ancestral homeland of that unique blend of ska and punk that soundtracked the socially turbulent 1970s, was very nearly bombed into non-existence during the Second World War. So how, then, did this crumbling ‘ghost town’ filled with the spectres of conflict become the breeding ground for one of the most socially aware, joyous, and eccentric genres to emerge from the British isles?

We begin our journey around Coventry on a cold night in November 1940. Above the North Sea, scores of Luftwaffe pilots housed in snarling Messerschmitts are pulsing through the freezing air, bearing down on the sleeping residents of the city below. In the streets, night-walkers and insomniacs begin to notice countless white trails in the sky. There’s a moment of calm, and then the sirens start. Soon, shrapnel is landing on all sides, the whine of falling shells combining with the screams of children to create a terrifying phantasmic orchestra, the central motif of which is the incessant pounding of bombs and the deep-throated fanfare of anti-aircraft guns.

The firestorm that consumed Coventry devastated most of the city, including its once-glorious medieval town centre. Following the raids, the city was little more than a husk. Ruined buildings teetered on wobbly legs, surrounded by deep craters where shells had buried their noses in the dirt, altering the face of the city beyond recognition. It was this shattered landscape that greeted the Caribbean and Asian migrants who arrived in the city in 1948, guided by the promise of gainful employment but met with the harsh reality of a city that couldn’t house them and racist culture that didn’t accept them. Walking around Coventry today, there are numerous landmarks that remind us of this turbulent period of integration, such as the mosque on Eagle street – one of Britain’s first, in fact. But it is in the second-hand record stores that you will sense the greatest influence of the Windrush generation because, with those Caribbean migrants who arrived in the post-war years, came a rich musical culture that would go on to inspire a generation of young music lovers.

In the 1970s, the children of those first migrants came of age. At the same time, across the UK, a combination of economic turmoil, the ubiquity of unemployment benefits, and the rise of punk music spawned an explorative attitude amongst young people, many of whom sought to use music as a way of bringing meaning and joy to their fractured nation. In Coventry, one of the outlets was two-tone, a white take on ska music, which had been bought over by post-war Jamaican immigrants in the 1960s and was loved by the city’s mods, whose two-tone black and white suits gave the movement its name. But why here, why Coventry? It wasn’t just Coventry that suffered from economic and social turmoil in the 1970s, after all. Well, a look at the city practical post-war architecture gives us a clue. The ‘social housing’ projects that, today, define Coventry’s urban landscape bought migrants and prior-residents together, making them neighbours. And, while this often exasperated the already-simmering racial tensions in the city, it also meant that young people of all ethnicities formed friendships, traded records, and started bands in a way that perhaps wouldn’t have been possible before.

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In 1977, for example, Jerry Dammers, a young art student, founded The Specials, a group that actively celebrated the racial multiplicity of their lineup, both in their hybrid compositions and in the rhetoric of their lyrics. Riding off the back of the success of their first single, ‘Gangster,’ Dammers set up his own record label, 2-Tone, which acted as a focal point for the stunning array of bands who, like The Specials, were playing music characterised by off-beat guitar stabs, socially-conscious lyrics and danceable rhythms. Madness, Selecter, (fronted by the incredible Pauline Black) and The Beat were all signed to 2-Tone and became more than mere dance bands; they were dissidents. As Black once said in an interview in the late 1970s, “We’ve got things to say”.

All of these groups emerged at a time when racial, political and economic tensions were at an all-time high. Thatcher’s Britain was a gloomy place, characterised by the unavoidable presence of the National League, urban decay, and civil unrest. All of the bands on the 2-Tone label emerged at a time when Coventry had the highest unemployment rate in the country. The combination of unemployment, the disintegration of the UK’s industrial centres and the presence of recent migrants made it a very difficult time to be anything other than White. The Prime Minister herself had an astoundingly ignorant understanding of race relations, effectively revealing herself to be a supporter of the anti-immigrant sentiment that was pulsing through places like Coventry. As she said in an interview in 1978: “By the end of the century there would be four million people of the new Commonwealth or Pakistan here. Now, that is an awful lot and I think it means that people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture.”

With that kind of government, it is no surprise that bands like The Specials and Selector took matters into their own hands. Today, it’s enough for an artist to state that they are anti-racists, but back in the late 1970s and ’80s, anti-racism was something you did; it meant actively fighting against fascists. By taking this fight to music venues like The Heath Hotel – where The Specials played their infamous first gig – and by forming multiracial bands whose lyrics were intentionally designed to start a conversation, these groups envisioned a better, more accepting society. As Pauline Black describes in the BBC documentary 2 Tone: The Sound Of Coventry: “There was no blueprint for these things. The people who are looking at Selector see a Black man and a Black woman up the front of a band, telling them how they think things are”.

2-Tone records was surprisingly short-lived. Despite its early successes, by 1985, it was defunct. And yet, the influence of the label and the bands it represented continues to be felt today. If you go to Coventry this year, you will find it has been made the UK City Of Culture 2021. There are an array of cultural happenings organised for the rest of the year, the crowning jewel of which was the Herbert Gallery & Museums exhibition From Ghost Town to Host Town, “The first-ever major exhibition in the UK devoted to the 2 Tone music sensation”. And while ‘Ghost Town’ wasn’t written specifically about Coventry, it’s clear that the city was an essential influence on the music that exploded from its red-bricked housing complexes all those years ago.

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