Hard-to-find

Cheque One Two

Late 1970’s Britain was grimy and unpleasant, the era of strikes, dead bodies unburied, rat-infested rubbish collections and mass unemployment. Not for me though. I was happily oblivious in the suburbs of Ayrshire, whizzing everywhere on my bike, cardboard clattering the back spokes, playing in fields where houses and hotels now stand. But when you see footage of the era on the telly, it’s as if everything’s in black and white, a monochrome world where everything and everyone was kept in their place by Margaret Thatcher.

Driven by righteous fury and social discontent, the 2 Tone movement blew in like some sort of multicultural whirlwind, an era-defining mash of black and white houndstooth, Weejun loafers, button-down collars, Harringtons and Crombies. The label dropped off a perfect discography of 7″ singles and just as suddenly disappeared again.

At the label’s peak, between ’79 and ’81, just 17 singles were released. They went on releasing right up until 1985 with diminishing returns (The Specials finished what they’d started with Sock It To ‘Em, JB , the 32nd and final release) but it’s those 17 tracks released during 2 Tone’s golden spell that really endure. Many of those tracks are indelibly inked on the brain; Gangsters, The Prince, Do Nothing, Tears Of A Clown, Too Much Too Young, On My Radio, Nelson Mandela, Ghost Town….. classics one and all.

I had loads of them. Now and again on a Saturday morning I was given £1 and it always went on a 99p single. A few years later I gave them all away to a ‘Feed The World’ jumble sale, regretting it even as I handed them over. Geldof might never have said, “Give us yer fuckin’ money,” but I’m pretty sure he did say, “Give us yer fuckin’ Specials’ singles!” A selfless act but stupid too. I still rake around in the darker corners of record shops, hoping I’ll discover one of my old records, identifiable by my initials on the inside of the cover. I’d seen my dad do this with his records, so I just thought that’s what you did. Anyway, I’ve yet to turn up a Baggy Trousers or Stand & Deliver that has my pre-teen scrawl on it, but one day I might.

I do have a wee collection of 2 Tone singles though, bought for not much more than I’d originally paid for them, waaaay back when records were far from the trend they currently are. They’re great. Identifiable by the generic Walt Jabsco sleeve, they’re a portal to something special (no pun intended). Owning them, you’re part of a club, a tribe. Play them and you’re transported back to the time, the grimness of the era swatted away in 2 and a half minutes of punkish, skankalong ska. Flip them over to the b-side and you’ll often find a gem the equal (or even greater than) the better-known a-side.

Stereotype was The Specials‘ 5th single. By now dabbling in exotica and playing the sort of instruments you might find employed on an Andy Williams record, Stereotype mixed skirling bullfighter trumpets with flamenco guitars and some rudimentary primitive drum machine. The reverb-heavy backing vocals were the blueprint for what would appear on their Ghost Town single, Hammer House of Horror by way of Coventry.

The Specials International Jet Set

Stick on the other side though and you’ll find International Jet Set, a fantastic slice of wonky ska, descending basslines, eerie vocals and Rico and Dammers playing what sounds like an extremely drunk call and response of The Sun Has Got His Hat On on slide trombone and keys. Rico aside, the band were all in their early/mid 20s at the time, which, given the fact that they conceived this tune out of mid air is, to coin a phrase, really sayin’ something, bop bop shoobedoo-wop. It’s extremely well-produced, and, I say this knowing full well how wanky this will appear, it sounds really terrrific on vinyl.

The SelecterThe Selecter

The first 2 Tone release was The SpecialsGangster on one side with The Selecter‘s self-titled instrumental on the other. With more time spent on the a-side than anticipated, the b-side was flung together when John Bradbury, The Specials’ drummer suggested an old instrumental that he used to jam with an old band. Hastily reworked, more slipping and sliding trombone is offset by the offbeat rhythm guitar and filling-loosening bass. There’s spaghetti western guitar, sk-sk-sk hi-hat action and enough groove to fool you into thinking this was a tune played by a band who’d been playing it for years. Indeed, The Selecter appeared really before the band of the same name. As would appear to be the norm with 2 Tone, this is another rich production. When it plays, you feel as if you’re right in the room with the band. The mark of a great record.

Those 2 Tone sleeves were designed by Jerry Dammers after seeing a picture of Peter Tosh (above, right) on the cover of The WailersWailing Wailers‘ LP. Liking his ‘defiant and Jamaican and hard‘ image, Dammers created the ubiquitous Walt Jabsco. But you knew that already. Pop art for disenfranchised youth. And wee boys like me who rode the Sillar’s Meadow speedway with all the fearlesness of Evil Knievel.

Double Nugget, Gone but not forgotten

Too Much, Too Young

2 Tone Records was the brainchild of Jerry Dammers, a reggae and ska fan from Coventry. More a culture mash than a culture clash, the label took the ideology and DIY aesthetics of punk, welded it to the Jamaican dance music that was prevalent in the multi-cultural Midlands and created the most exciting musical sound this writer had ever heard in his 10 short years on the planet.

It was almost too much for someone so young. That it happened to be the edgiest, most fashionable music of the era, with the razor-sharp creases on their Sta-Prest as razor-sharp as the attitudes of the folk wearing them, was neither here nor there. For me, 2 Tone was plain and simply exciting pop music, no different to Dog Eat Dog or Kids In America or Status Quo’s ‘Down Down‘.


2 Tone was initially conceived as a vehicle for Dammers to release his own Special AKA singles, but quickly became a collective that put out some of the most vital, insistent and exciting records of the era.


To keep the costs down, 2 Tone’s first release was a split release – ‘Gangsters‘ by The Special AKA on the one side (catalogue number TT1), with The Selecter’s eponymously-titled instrumental (catalogue number TT2) on the other.

The Special AKA. – Gangsters

The SelecterThe Selecter


The Special AKA’s track was the one favoured by DJs and went Top 10. The ‘flip’, not many realised, was actually a track without a band. John Bradbury, The Specials’ drummer played backing to a couple of local musicians who’d written the lilting instrumental based on the original ska records they heard around the city. When ‘Gangsters‘ became a hit, Dammers realised the need for an actual Selecter and, just as the pop impresarios of the previous decade had done, a Selecter was quickly formed.


With a strong emphasis on black and white, both in clothing and personnel, the bands on 2 Tone were coiled springs of energy, bobbing left, right and centre on their numerous Top of their Pops appearances. Suedeheads, pork pie hats and loafers became desirable items of want.

The suedehead was easy enough (though too severe for my mum’s liking (and mine, if truth be told) – I had a pre-Stone Roses bowl cut instead), Burtons sold tassled loafers and skinny black ties – next to the white shirts and sober suits in the ‘funeral’ section, believe it or not, but where in Irvine could you buy a pork pie hat?

Easier to get a hold of were the most important things – the records. Every Sauturday I’d run down to Walker’s at the Cross with my £1 pocket money and part with 99p of it in exchange for the latest 2 Tone 7″.

The Prince. Tears Of A Clown. Do Nothing. Stereotype. On My Radio. I had them all.

Then I gave them all away to a jumble sale that was raising money for Band Aid.

Regretted it ever since. I spent the early 90s sifting through boxes of singles at record fairs (remember them?) in the hope I’d turn up an old friend. Some I now own once again, but many still elude me, going for daft prices online. You live and learn, eh?

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Hard-to-find

You Are Night Club People, Ain’tcha?

A double whammy of night club tracks…

dancers

Iggy Pop‘s Nightclubbing is a fantastic product of its environment. It was written by Iggy and Bowie during a particularly decadent period in time, when they hung with Lou Reed in the off-beaten spots of Berlin and and took all manner of pills, powders and potions just to keep themselves alive and creative. It pulses with a creeping electro throb, a jack-booted mechanical goose-step that never changes tempo, never changes rhythm but always sounds menacing. It’s louche, sleazy and vaguely sinister and to this day is just about my favourite Iggy track.

Iggy PopNightclubbing

bowie iggy lou

It was written after one of their many Berlin benders, when Bowie suggested the ‘We walk like a ghost‘ lyric. The Thin White Duke pounds out the skewed honky tonk blues on the upright piano while Iggy half-sings, half-narrates the tale of an average night out in Berlin for the three of them. You can see them, can’t you, a trio of messed up, pale-faced druggy rockstars stalking the city like a gang of up-to-no-good alleycats seeking their next kick.

Nightclubbing, we’re nightclubbing……we’re what’s happening…….we meet people, brand new people….

The SpecialsNite Klub (the spelling is important) on the other hand is as far removed from Iggy et al as Venus is from Mars. A frantic punky, jerky and ska-based, exotica-tinged knee-trembler round the back of The Ritz, one eye over your shoulder on the lookout for a bouncer or her pals or her actual boyfriend or something, it tells the tale of Friday/Saturday in N.E. Town in late 70s/early 80s provincial Britain.

The SpecialsNite Klub

The-Specials

Most nite klubs in those days were big and cavernous and left-over relics from a bygone age when times were simpler and people had more disposable income. The local Scala or Locarno or Roxy or Palais or whatever had seen better days and bigger crowds as a dancehall and might’ve by now been doubling up as a bingo hall. It may well have been on its way to becoming  a cinema. The Specials sing of a club fraught with tension and the notion that at any time soon, you might get your head kicked in, either by a local who doesn’t like the fact that you went to a different school/grew up on a different estate/looked funny at him or by one of the bow tied neanderthal bouncers employed to keep (cough) order in the place.

I won’t dance in a club like this,’ bemoans Terry Hall. ‘All the girls are slags and the beer tastes just like piss.’

We’ve all been to those places. Some of the best nights of my life were in them. And some of the worst.