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How I killed 2 Tone

Thirty years on, Michael Hodges remembers one of Britain’s best-loved and boldest record labels

Three or four times a year, when the spirit – or more likely the spirits move me, I dig out an old 45rpm single from the back of the cupboard, take the record out of the sleeve and hold it up to the light. On the label at the centre is a monochrome chequerboard pattern and a name, 2 Tone. Stacked above and below is the band’s name, Friday Club, the song title, “Window Shopping”, the year, 1985, and finally the bit that still thrills me, the two songwriters lumped together around a forward slash: Brooks/Hodges.

I’m not Brooks, I’m Hodges, but like Brooks, whatever else I do in life, I have the still-shining plastic evidence that proves my participation in that rare thing, a pop movement of genuine cultural importance. I am also, I suspect, one of the people who ended that movement.

But the beginning first. The 2 Tone label was founded in 1979 by the Specials, a group of black and white Coventry-based musicians led by the eccentric, gap-toothed songwriter Jerry Dammers, a ska and bluebeat enthusiast. It is a pop cliché that 2 Tone took the music of West Indian immigrants – the chugging proto-reggae that had come from Jamaica in the 1960s – and attached to it the angry energy of punk. Nonetheless it is true, and in doing so 2 Tone caught the mood of a country – or that part of it aged under 25 and living outside of the Home Counties – experiencing the malign transformations imposed by Thatcherism. The music was politically and socially profound; it talked of teenage pregnancy, unemployment, fighting and racism. And you could dance to it.

Gathering other bands on the way, it rapidly became a national phenomenon that reached its apogee in 1981 when the Specials’ spectral lament “Ghost Town” reached number one at the exact moment that English cities gave themselves over to riot and mayhem.

We weren’t from Coventry, but from much further north. And a decaying seaside resort, rather than an inner city. Scarborough in the early 1980s was a moribund mix of unemployment, grim nightclubs, street violence and, to be fair, splendid sea views. Geography dictated that it was northern soul rather than ska that was our inspiration, but our approach was essentially the 2 Tone approach, and so there was only one path we could take.

We found Dammers in a squat in Stockwell, and bombarded him with demo tapes until he came to a gig in Brixton. There were nine of us on stage playing to a barman, Dammers and a friend he had brought along. Afterwards he told Andy, the Brooks in Brooks/Hodges, that he had “never heard a band so out of tune” in his life and he laughed. We left despondently. The next day Dammers rang to say he wanted to release “Window Shopping” on 2 Tone. More than that, he would be producing the single.

I spent the recording ­sessions half in fear and half in wonder.

Although Dammers’s technique amounted in large part to smoking unending cannabis roll-ups and turning my voice down, he was an inspiration. A man who could appear distracted and slightly daft away from the studio became, once installed behind the mixing console, animated and utterly taken by the project.

Perhaps the dope took the edge off reality for him. We were infatuated by the possibilities of releasing a single on 2 Tone, but even as Dammers worked the faders on the desk he knew that the movement’s influence was waning. He had parted company with key members of the original Specials a couple of years earlier, and 2 Tone was no longer independent, but owned by Chrysalis. The corporation was content with the kudos of having the man who had written “Free Nelson Mandela” on its books, but was well aware of the new times: the unruly provinces had had their moment and now London, peddling the sparkly inanities of 1980s pop and the teenage squeaks of the Stock, Aitken and Waterman stable, was reimposing itself on popular culture.

In two weeks we produced, between us, seven inches of black plastic that you will never have heard, but which an obscure American website recently declared a “pop classic”. Then, with Dammers’s help, we got the support slot on a national tour with Madness – the ex-2 Tone band that had gone on to dominate the charts – coinciding with the autumn release date of “Window Shopping”. The tour had a double edge for me. My father was dying of cancer but he was just well enough to make the gig at Newcastle City Hall, the venue to which he had taken my mother on their first proper date, to see Ella Fitzgerald.

Thankfully the gig went well – but then they all did. We were confident, cocky even. Simon Bates had started giving “Window Shopping” airplay on Radio 1, and if I have a single abiding memory of the tour it is of tuning in on an East Anglian B-road in the hope of hearing a man known as the Hairy Cornflake deliver our dreams. But wider airplay never came. Bates played the single a few times, it edged into the Top 100, then he went on holiday. His replacement lacked his enthusiasm and we skulked out of the Top 100. On such quirks careers are made and lost.

Our single was dead and within a year so was 2 Tone. Properly dead: Chrysalis shut the label down. “Window Shopping” had failed to reinvigorate a brand that was, in the era of Kylie Minogue and Rick Astley, irrelevant. Did the Friday Club shut 2 Tone? If we did, it gives us a sort of negative parity with Jerry Dammers, the man who started it all. We didn’t seem to bring luck to anyone: the miners, despite our relentless gigging on their behalf, lost their strike, and in the 1987 election Labour, despite all those Red Wedge concerts we played, failed again to shift Margaret Thatcher. In the same year, as if in celebration of that defeat, house music arrived, in an alliance between working-class youngsters and middle-class stoners that exchanged the fight for employment and against racism for the right to listen to repetitive beats in a field.

Although the Friday Club continued for a while, I left for a life as a toilet cleaner, until college rescued me from Domestos and rubber gloves. I didn’t see any of my fellow bandmates for more than 20 years, until last month when I called Andy, whom I’d first met at school. We laughed at Dammers’s recent description of the Friday Club as a gang that “looked like they were dressed to play bowls” and “Window Shopping” as “a nice song about being skint”. Dammers is right, I suppose, to play down our moment. Despite our pride, it is, in retrospect, no more or less important than any other failed single. The legacy that matters is Dammers’s own, 2 Tone. And, at its heart, the Specials.

Yet, 30 years after 2 Tone emerged, that legacy has apparently ruptured. The Specials are reuniting for a series of gigs this summer but their founding intelligence will not be on stage with them. A dispute has rumbled on the web and through the letters page of the Guardian over whose fault this is, but I suspect that at heart Dammers has little interest in playing the old songs for the festival crowd. He is naturally innovative, awkward even, as anyone who has seen his Spatial AKA Orchestra play recently will attest. There is a danger that the Specials gigs will be another 1980s revival package, more bulging tummies tucked into inappropriate trousers – a dispiriting coda to what happened back then and, in all likelihood, can never happen again.

Pop culture has fractured and diversified since the 1980s, no one chart holds full public attention any more, and Top of the Pops, the programme on which a startled British public first watched “Ghost Town”, is long gone. Any sense of rebellion in contemporary pop music is conjured in the PR office, a marketing device for record companies that promote bands such as the Enemy (posturing, cardboard proletarians who are, with a biting irony, from Coventry). Record companies attempting to manufacture the real thing miss the point: the real thing comes from the people, it isn’t given to them. If there is another 2 Tone, it lies elsewhere. As hidden from view as that single at the back of my cupboard.

The re-formed Specials (without Jerry Dammers) are on tour this summer. Details:

Michael Hodges writes the Class Monitor column for the New Statesman. He was named columnist of the year at the 2008 Magazine Design and Journalism Awards for his contributions to Time Out.