The Top Ten 2-Tone and Ska songs

22 June 2020, 17:59

The Selecter in 1980
The Selecter in 1980. Picture: Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

The label embraced the classic ska music of the 60s and gave it a new lease of life in the aftermath of punk. But what were Two Tone's best tunes?

2-Tone was a label that was designed to carry the best music from the West Midlands in the late 70s. The movement was inspired by the community of Caribbean immigrants who moved to the United Kingdom between the 1940s and 1970s at the invitation of the government to help rebuild the country. Many of them settled in cities like Coventry, meaning the young people were raised on a diet of ska, reggae and rocksteady - all music of Caribbean origin that was given a new spark of life by a generation that was raised on punk and new wave.

Unlike the punks, the 2-Tone crowd dressed sharply and created an energetic sound that immediately appealed to single buyers around the country. Founded in 1979 with support from major label Chrysalis and under the influence of The Specials' Jerry Dammers, 2-Tone became a way of life.

Part of 2-Tone's appeal was that they launch bands into the mainstream as Dammers allowed the groups to leave and join other labels. Here are 10 of the best tracks from 2-Tone and beyond.

  1. The Special AKA - Gangsters

    Jerry Dammers masterminded the Coventry-based collective, kick-starting the ska revival and some of the key single releases of 1978 to 1980. Gangsters was a tale of The Specials touring with punk royalty The Clash and was the very first 2-Tone release in May 1979. Enough people were into it to send the single to Number 6 in the charts in the UK, where it sat proudly with records by Earth Wind & Fire and Cliff Richard.

  2. Madness - The Prince

    Madness were The Nutty Boys - a hyperactive seven-piece outfit from Camden that launched their recording career with tribute to Jamaican ska legend Prince Buster. It was one of Buster's own songs that gave Madness their band name. The Prince stuck on the charts for a respectable 11 weeks, peaking at Number 11.

  3. The Selecter - On My Radio

    Fellow Coventry band The Selecter appeared on the other side of The Specials' Gangsters, but the third 2-Tone single was theirs alone. Fronted by Romford-born singer Pauline Black, the single peaked at Number 8 in the autumn of 1979. Black later became an actress, but still fronts a version of The Selecter today,

  4. The Beat - Tears Of A Clown

    A super-charged cover of the old Smokey Robinson Motown hit, The Beat were fronted by the white Dave Wakeling and the black Ranking Roger, adding yet another multi-cultural line-up to the 2-Tone roster. Saxophonist Saxa was considerably older than the rest of the band, but brought an authentic Jamaican vibe to The Beat's take on ska.

  5. The Special AKA - Too Much Too Young

    Already recorded for the band's self-titled debut album, this honest slice of life was recorded live at a Specials show in London in late 1979 and released as part of a live EP in January 1980. It became the band's first Number 1.

  6. The Bodysnatchers - Let's Do Rock Steady

    An all-female group in the relatively laddish world of ska, The Bodysnatchers were fronted by the excellent Rhoda Dakar and toured with The Specials, The Selecter and Madness. Some members later formed The Belle Stars, who enjoyed a brief chart run in the mid 80s.

  7. The Beat - Mirror In The Bathroom

    The Birmingham band left 2-Tone after one single and signed to the Go-Feet label, which was able to find distribution in the US via the Sire imprint. However, there was another band in the States called The Beat, so Ranking Roger and co became known as The English Beat, which is a bit rubbish. The group continued in its original form until 1983 and has regrouped in different line-ups into the 21st Century.

  8. Bad Manners - Lip Up Fatty

    Fronted by the unforgettable figure of Buster Bloodvessel (aka Douglas Trendle), this London-based collective of ska fanatics appeared in the 2-Tone documentary Dance Craze, but didn't actually sign to the label. They went on to have a number of hits, most notably their novelty take on the Can Can, but this, their second single, is closer to their ska roots. The band celebrated their 40th anniversary in 2016.

  9. Madness - Night Boat To Cairo

    After releasing their debut single on 2-Tone, the Camden Nutty Boys found a permanent home at Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera's Stiff Records. The label saw the band make their way beyond their ska roots and into one of Britain's greatest pop bands. Night Boat To Cairo was the lead track on the Work Rest And Play EP in March 1980 and gave the unwary a glimpse into the formidable Madness live show.

  10. The Special AKA - Nelson Mandela

    Following the departure of Terry Hall, Lynval Golding and Neville Staple to form Fun Boy Three, Jerry Dammers kept The Specials aka The Special AKA going with an ever-changing line-up. Dammers' finest moment in this period was Free Nelson Mandela, a protest song about the imprisonment of Mandela by the South African government. Making the UK Top 10 in 1984, the song brought Mandela's name and the apartheid policies of South Africa to a wider audience. Mandela was freed from prison in 1990.