Originally published on Encyclopedia Britannica
In several regional British cities, the distinct late 1970s combination of economic turmoil, unemployment benefits (effectively an arts subsidy), and art school punks resulted in a generation of eccentric talent. In Coventry, the southernmost centre of Britain’s Midlands engineering belt, the outcome was 2-Tone, a mostly white take on ska, the music brought to Britain by Jamaican immigrants in the mid-1960s and favoured by English mods of the period, whose two-tone Tonik suits gave the latter-day movement its name. In 1977 art student Jerry Dammers founded the Specials, a self-consciously multiracial group—both in composition and rhetoric—whose initial hit, “Gangsters” (1979), gave them the clout to demand every punk’s dream, their own record label. The sound of that label, 2-Tone, was thin and sharp, dominated by whiny vocals and the kerchunk-kerchunk of the rhythm guitar. After an impressive run of hits by several seminal groups, 2-Tone folded, but not before the Specials had their second British number one hit with “Ghost Town” (1981), which evocatively addressed racial tension and whose timely release coincided with riots in Liverpool and London.
Among 2-Tone’s alumni, Madness developed into a very English pop group (on the Stiff label), and the Beat (called the English Beat in the United States) split to become General Public and the Fine Young Cannibals. The legacy of 2-Tone would be explored during the American ska revival of the late 1990s. During the heyday of 2-Tone, and a little farther north, in Birmingham, another multiracial group, UB40, laced Midlands diffidence with reggae rhythms and achieved international success over a 15-year period on its own DEP International label, licensed through Virgin.