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Ska story: the sound of angry young England

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"Forget about punk. Forget about the new Mods marching to the beat of 'My Generation.' In the England of 1980, ska is the word." That's how Rolling Stone critic David Fricke began his March 23, 1980, article on ska, the latest music craze to sweep the U.K. A decade later, the record label most responsible for the ska revolution, 2-Tone Records, has commemorated the tenth anniversary of the ska phenomenon with The 2 Tone Story, a double album that highlights the best of the ska movement and leaves you wondering why the hypnotic music never became the word in America.

The ska of the late 70s and early 80s was a revival of and an elaboration on "rude boy" ska, a craze centered in Jamaica in the first half of the 1960s. Jamaica was in the midst of a cultural renaissance as the island nation achieved its independence from Great Britain in 1962, and its quest for an individual identity is quite evident in ska, a fusion of Jamaica's native folk music, known as Mento, with American R & B, which could be heard from New Orleans at night on the radio. The concoction was heavy on nasty jazz-tinged horns bouncing off a skittish calypso beat. The lyrics were mostly playful, but occasionally touched on the promise of home rule, as in the Skatalites' "Independent Anniversary Ska." By the mid-60s this original ska sound was evolving into the more controlled "rock-steady" sound and eventually into reggae.

Before that happened, however, Caribbean immigrants brought ska to England, where it attracted a cult following. The factory town of Coventry in the British Midlands was a hot spot for ska activity, as large numbers of blacks settled there to work in the British auto industry. By the late 70s, Coventry's fortunes mirrored Detroit's, with high unemployment and the attendant unrest. Musically, the good-time sound of ska was being introduced to the lyrical intensity and anger of the punk movement. Driving this movement was the Specials, led by Jerry Dammers, a white record-store clerk, who formed the multiracial band in 1978.

Not surprisingly, the Specials in their various incarnations form the centerpiece of The 2 Tone Story. 2-Tone is Dammers's label, but more important, Dammers's band led the way for the other ska bands throughout the movement.

The main irony of the Specials' songs, and in fact of the entire ska movement, was that lurking just beneath the "happy," infectious dance beat were often chilling stories of the racial divisiveness and economic deprivation that characterized the dawning of the Thatcher era. This is evident on their debut single, "Gangsters," released in July 1979. The steady backbeat of drummer John Bradbury and the bass of Horace Panter combine with Dammers's lilting keyboards to turn rock's traditional 4/4 beat inside out, providing an insistent dance groove. Meanwhile Terry Hall's anguished tenor sings a tale of tongue-in-cheek urban chaos that takes a swipe at the British record industry:

Why must you tape all my phone calls,

Are you planning a bootleg LP?

Said you've been threatened by gangsters,

Now it's you that's threatening me.

Can't fight corruption with conscience

They use nylon to commit crime

I dread to think what the future will bring

Living in a gangster town.

DON'T CALL ME SCARFACE!

A Catch 22 says if I sing the truth

they won't make me an overnight star.

Don't offer a cent for protection

They use nylon to commit crime

I dread to think what the future will bring

when we're living in a real gangster town.

Propelled by the success of "Gangsters" and a spirited cover of Robert Thompson's "Rudi, a Message to You" produced by Elvis Costello, the Specials released their long-playing debut in 1980. With Costello behind the board, The Specials represents ska's most notable achievement and one of the decade's finest pop albums of any kind. It includes the band's first two singles and 13 other songs ranging from the rambling lament of "Blank Expression" to the social satire on teenage pregnancy of "Too Much, Too Young." Both songs are featured on The 2 Tone Story, the latter in a live presentation culled from the 1981 album, Dance Craze. It proves these lads could play. While Hall sings disdainfully about ugly babies and the benefits of contraception, an angry blend of Lynval Golding and Roddy Byers's Stones-like guitars merges with the trademark ska beat provided by Bradbury and Panter. The resulting cascade of sound almost dares the audience to stay in their seats.

Unfortunately, the reign of the Specials as ska kings was short. Their second studio album, More Specials, was released late in 1980 amid rumors of internal strife, which the record confirms, lacking the joy and intensity of their debut. The 2 Tone Story features only one track from this album, the likable but inconsequential "International Jet Set."

Before disintegrating, though, the Specials managed to record perhaps their most noteworthy song. Released in June 1981 as riots raged in Brixton and Liverpool, "Ghost Town," presented in its 12-inch version on The 2 Tone Story, evoked a picture of a racially divided England coming apart at the seams. Driven by the eerie trombone playing of Rico, a Jamaican reggae veteran who played on a number of Specials songs and also recorded instrumental albums for 2-Tone, "Ghost Town" is that rare political song that perfectly captures the mood of the time; it gave the rioting rude boys of all racial and political persuasions reason to pause.

This town is coming like a Ghost Town

All the clubs are being closed down

This place is coming like a Ghost Town

Bands won't play no more,

Too much fighting on the dance floor.

Do you remember the good old days before the Ghost Town

We danced and sang and the music played in our boom town.

This town is coming like a Ghost Town

Why must the youths fight against themselves

Government leaving the youths on the shelf

No jobs to be found in this country

Can't go on no more

People getting angry.

For all intents and purposes, "Ghost Town" marked the end of the Specials. Hall, Golding, and vocalist Neville Staples split off to form the sporadically brilliant Fun Boy Three, then Hall basically went solo in 1985 with the Colourfield. Dammers vanished briefly from the music scene, becoming increasingly involved in antiapartheid politics (the Specials had participated in the Rock Against Racism movement in England of 1981 at Dammers's urging).

After a three-year absence, Dammers released In the Studio under the name of Special AKA with a number of ska veterans and original Specials drummer John Bradbury. While the album lacked the danceability of Specials music, it contained a number of compelling songs, such as the politically correct "War Crimes" and "Racist Friend" and the fiercely inspirational "Free Nelson Mandela," which brought Dammers worldwide acclaim among human rights activists. Produced once again by Costello and featuring him and a cast of other notables on backing vocals, the song immediately became the anthem for millions clamoring for the release of the long-imprisoned ANC leader. As writer Robin Denselow recounts in his outstanding book When the Music's Over: The Story of Political Pop, the song became hugely popular in Mandela's native land: "It must have been extraordinary for a white songwriter from Coventry, in the British Midlands, to turn on the television news and see demonstrators in Soweto singing his song." Extraordinary indeed.

Since the release of In the Studio, Dammers has been musically silent, with the exception of a song contributed to the Absolute Beginners sound track. He has been concentrating on political activities. He cofounded with Paul Weller and Billy Bragg the Red Wedge political movement in England, the banner under which British musicians united for the Labour Party in the 1987 elections. He also was instrumental in creating the pressure group Artists Against Apartheid (AAA) to educate performers about the evils of playing in South Africa. In that role he has wrangled with Paul Simon over his use of South African musicians on his Graceland album and also assisted in the organization of the July 11, 1988, Nelson Mandela 70th-birthday tribute at Wembley Stadium.

After the Specials, the most influential ska band was the Beat, formed in Birmingham. (They are known as the English Beat in the U.S. due to name similarity with an LA band.) The Beat's brilliance has been overshadowed by the commercial achievements of its alumni. Before Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger went on to moderate success as General Public, and before guitarists David Steele and Andy Cox found superstardom with Fine Young Cannibals, the Beat combined hard-edged guitars and power-pop melodies with Wakeling's quirky voice and Ranking Roger's "toasting"--ska's version of rapping--to create a sound unheard before or since. Their contributions to The 2 Tone Story include the stop-go dance number "Ranking Full Stop" and a live version of the dark "Mirror in the Bathroom," featuring the ska legend Saxa on saxophone.

The Beat went on to greater fame on the IRS label, recording three fine albums before their breakup in 1983. On their 1979 long-playing debut, Just Can't Stop It, which included their first two singles, the Beat continued ska's reputation for highly political dance music with songs like "Stand Down Margaret," a derisive ode to the prime minister that unfortunately is still relevant a decade later. (Costello did a version on his 1983 tour and Bragg sang a gruff cover during his 1986-'87 swing through the U.S.)

The Beat did well in the U.S. in the early years of the 80s, moving almost imperceptibly toward the commercial mainstream but without losing sight of their ska origins. Their final and finest album, 1982's Special Beat Service, was more pop than ska; the first tune on each side--"I Confess" and "Save It for Later"--opts for a rather conventional pop sound, the former being driven by dance-hall piano and the latter by straightforward rock guitar (witness Pete Townshend's acoustic cover of it). However, songs such as the organ-driven "Jeanette" and the joyful reggae-tinged "Ackee 1-2-3" betray the Beat's steady devotion to their 2-Tone roots.

The 2 Tone Story also contains some early work by one of Britain's most enjoyable pop exports of the 80s, the London band Madness. While the Specials and the Beat sought to achieve some level of ska authenticity through their multiracial makeup and their use of veterans such as Rico and Saxa, the six white boys who make up Madness have no such pretensions. Instead, they paid homage to the musical style they were appropriating in the selection of their name, which is the title of a hit by 60s ska star Prince Buster, and in the title of their first single, "The Prince," which appears along with a live version of "One Step Beyond" on The 2 Tone Story. Madness's sound on both these songs and on their debut album, One Step Beyond, produced by Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley (who would be involved with most of Madness's recordings and would produce some of Elvis Costello's best-sounding albums, most notably Punch the Clock), is a heady combination of ska with the rough-cut spontaneity of a drunken bar band. The self-described "nuttiness" of Madness has few points of comparison in recent pop history; closest perhaps is the LA ska band Fishbone, whose repertoire includes a version of the theme from the Fat Albert cartoon show.

Sadly, the all-white makeup of Madness attracted the undesirable attention of England's skinheads, racist working-class kids loosely affiliated with the fascist National Front movement. Trouble struck when Madness and the Specials toured together and the skinheads heaped racist epithets on the black members of the Specials. The concert made national headlines, and while Madness went to extremes to disassociate themselves from the skinheads, the event temporarily marred the harmonious feeling of the neo-ska movement and only underscored the incendiary racial situation in Thatcher's England.

Madness went on to score a number of British hits throughout the decade and managed even to liven up the U.S. charts with "Our House," a three-minute essay on British home life. The band became increasingly "serious" while attempting to maintain a shred of their earlier lunacy. Of their later albums, The Rise and Fall and Keep Moving are the most notable.

The rest of The 2 Tone Story contains songs from less influential but not necessarily less interesting bands. The Selecter, ska's prefab band, is featured on four tracks. The instrumental "The Selecter" was the B-side of the Specials' "Gangsters" single, recorded by Specials drummer Bradbury and Joel Davis, a friend of Dammers. After the song became a hit in its own right, Davis was obliged to put a band together and the result was the Selecter, which prominently featured chanteuse Pauline Black. They went on to record a number of catchy hits including "Three Minute Hero" and "Too Much Pressure," both featured on The 2 Tone Story. Also on the album are songs by ska girl group the Bodysnatchers, featuring the alluring vocals of Rhoda Dakar, who later resurfaced on the Special AKA album. The wild sound of Bad Manners, fronted by Buster Bloodvessel, is represented with their live version of "Lip Up, Fatty," a hilarious tribute to obesity driven by a crack three-piece horn section. Bad Manners' live shows were much more indicative of their ska talents than their recorded work, but they always gave Madness a run for the title of ska's silliest band.

The 2 Tone Story isn't a definitive commemoration of the ska movement. Rather, with the exception of the Specials, whose essential recordings are captured here, the album serves mostly as a teaser to get you skanking on down to the record store to check out the collections of the Beat, Madness, et al--a primer on one of the most compelling pop chapters of the last decade. Ska presented a triumphant symbol of integration and harmony to a nation in the throes of an ugly transformation characterized by racial and economic brutality. Whether you listen to it for its politics or purely for its irresistible rhythms, you'll likely be left wondering why America virtually ignored its enticing sound and instead chose the new romantic dreck of bands such as Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet to spearhead the 80s wave of the British invasion.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner, Donald Bromley.

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