Interviewed a couple of years ago, the lead singer of the Specials, Terry Hall, was asked what he remembered most fondly about the two-tone era, when the band’s home city of Coventry hosted the most innovative music scene in Britain. “We were doing something that wasn’t in London,” responded Mr Hall who, rather shockingly, is now in his 60s. “It was a sense of pride in where we were.”
Fittingly then, one of the most inspiring periods in postwar youth culture is to be given pride of place during Coventry’s forthcoming city of culture 2021 celebrations. Covid has delayed festivities until May. But when they do begin, it was revealed this month that the programme of events will include the first major exhibition on the lives and legacies of the two-tone era. There will also be a three-day music event curated by Mr Hall.
An enjoyable nostalgia fest is thus in prospect for music lovers of a certain age. Songs like Ghost Town can still summon up the mood and feel of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. But this brief revival also seems peculiarly well-timed. Forty years after mixed-race Coventry bands such as the Specials and the Selecter blazed a pioneering trail, issues of race, culture and national identity are once again polarising politics. Named after the record label to which the groups belonged, the two-tone movement took on similar questions in its own unique style. Against the grim backdrop of National Front marches and mass unemployment, it embodied a vision that was quintessentially British, proudly multicultural and wide open to the world.
Ska rhythms on Specials tracks such as Gangsters and Too Much Too Young had first been popularised in Britain by the musicians who arrived on the Empire Windrush in 1948. The “rude boy” look – sharp suits, trilby or pork pie hats and a black and white colour scheme – was part-Jamaican and part-English mod. Each week, this multiracial melange of styles and sounds was channelled straight into the cultural bloodstream via Top of the Pops. In 1979, three two-tone bands featured in a single edition of the programme. At a time when casual racism was still pervasive in the popular culture and ever-present in sitcoms such as Mind Your Language and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, two-tone was opening up new possibilities of a different kind of Britain to a new generation.
As Britain attempts to “bounce back better” after a year-long shutdown in traumatic circumstances, Coventry’s proud city of culture status seems serendipitous. Few places have reinvented themselves as daringly in the face of adversity. Luftwaffe bombs in the second world war and deindustrialisation exacted a heavy toll. But, from the sensitive reconstruction of the city’s cathedral, which preserves the ruins of the old church destroyed in the blitz, to the modernist architecture that heritage campaigners are battling to preserve, Coventry has shown an ability to adapt to difficult times with imagination and an impressive degree of resilience. In the depths of the economic recession in the 1980s, the city’s finest musical hour exemplified the same qualities of defiance and creativity. Prefiguring a genuinely diverse, multicultural vision of Britain, two-tone was way ahead of its time. All the more reason then to seize the moment, dust off old records and start listening again.
• This article was amended on 12 February 2021. An earlier version misspelled the Selecter as the Selector.