Classic Pops essential guide to the best of 2 Tone

2 Tone Records was the DIY indie label whose roster of bands not only raised questions regarding social ills but offered solutions. Bursting out of the deprived city streets of Coventry, The Specials and The Selecter were joined by Birmingham’s The Beat and London’s Madness to lead a post-punk ska revival that reflected a nation’s anxieties in 80s Britain.

Here we list our Top 20 2 Tone tracks… alongside a further 10 related releases that surfaced on other labels:

20. Skinhead Symphony (Live) – The Special A.K.A. Featuring Rico

Lifted from 1980’s chart-topping Too Much Too Young Live (EP), this marvellous medley of Long Shot Kick De Bucket (originally by The Pioneers), The Liquidator (Harry J Allstars) and Skinhead Moonstomp (based on Derrick Morgan’s Moon Hop) is an absolute riot. Recorded at Tiffany’s in Coventry, which now acts as the city library, this sweet selection will get you stomping, skanking, and singing in your living room.

19. Too Much Pressure – The Selecter

The title track from The Selecter’s 1980 daring debut LP opens with Compton Amanor’s ripping guitar before Arthur “Gaps” Hendrickson leads the call and response chant of “Too Much Pressure!” “It was a snapshot of my life,” admitted band founder Neol Davies in the notes to the excellent 2021 deluxe edition. “The car had failed its MOT; my wife and I were struggling; I was angry and frustrated. I sat at my work desk fuming: ‘this, it’s too much fuckin’ pressure…’”

18. Enjoy Yourself – The Specials

First published in 1949, with music written by Carl Sigman and lyrics by Herb Magidson, Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think) bookends the band’s sophomore album More Specials. The opener to Side A is an upbeat statement of intent signalled by a sardonic “Hello, I’m Terry, and I’m going to enjoy myself first…” from singer Terry Hall, while the reprise, which closes the album, is slower and features Belinda Carlisle, Charlotte Caffey and Jane Wiedlin of The Go-Go’s.

17. The Boiler – Rhoda Dakar with The Special A.K.A.

Originally written by The Bodysnatchers before the group disbanded, this harrowing tale didn’t emerge until 1982. Produced by Jerry Dammers and released under the name of “Rhoda with the Special A.K.A.”, the hard-hitting track describes a rape in stark detail from the victim’s perspective. While the track received limited radio-play because of its subject, it still reached No.35 and was ranked among the Top 10 “Tracks of the Year” for 1982 by the NME.

16. Ranking Full Stop – The Beat

The Beat borrow heavily from Laurel Atken’s Pussy Price from 1969 for this B-side to their only 2 Tone release, Tears Of A Clown. The “Ranking” moniker is short for top-ranking and was a titular boast common among reggae MCs. Top toaster, Ranking Roger, is in fine form in this prime example of the Birmingham collective’s irresistible energy. There’s no doubt, judging by the footage of his performance at 1983’s US Music Festival in San Bernardino, that “the English Beat” influenced Operation Ivy and the wave of Californian ska-punk bands who followed later.

15. Monkey Man – The Specials

“This one’s for the bouncers – big, big monkey man…” introduces party starter Neville Staple following an enthusiastic crowd chant of “Rude Buoy!, Rude Buoy!, Rude Buoy!” during this opener to Side B on The Specials eponymous debut LP. A chaotic cover of Toots & The Maytals first international hit, this is a raucous affair perfectly reflecting The Specials’ live show. The Coventry collective are among many acts to have covered it including Kylie, who tackled it with the Wiggles in 2009 to raise funds for UNICEF.

14. Missing Words – The Selecter

In contrast to the band’s previous singles, On My Radio and Three Minute Hero, this is a downbeat track about heartbreak. Released in 1980, it reached No.23 on the UK charts during its eight-week stay. Talking about the song in the notes for the 2021 deluxe edition of Too Much Pressure, Neol said: “Elvis Costello was a massive influence. It had an A minor to F major chord change which was the main theme in Watching The Detectives.”

13. Rat Race – The Specials

Written by guitarist Roddy Radiation and released in May 1980 as a double A-side single with Rude Buoys Outa Jail, this iconic track wasn’t included on the UK edition of More Specials. The music video, featuring the band dressed up as stereotypical teachers, was shot in the main hall of the Lanchester Polytechnic (now Coventry University), where Dammers and Horace Panter had studied. In his book, Ska’d For Life: A Personal Journey With The Specials, Panter said it was a critique on privileged students who “would spend three years pissing it up in college, knowing full well that Daddy would get them a good job when they left no matter what.”

12. Three Minute Hero – The Selecter

“It’s 5pm and you’re on your way home, just another day with that endless grey drone…” with ambitious dreams of escaping the humdrum monotony of a 9-to-5 existence, The Selecter wonderfully encapsulate the hopelessness of working the repetitive rat race. Clocking in at three minutes, this Too Much Pressure album opener was released as a single and reached No.16 on the UK charts. “I wanted to write songs that people could identify with,” said Neol in the 2021 reissue notes.

11. Friday Night, Saturday Morning – The Specials

Coupled with guitarist Lynval Golding’s plea for racial tolerance on Why? as the B-side to 1981’s swansong Ghost Town, Terry Hall’s Friday Night, Saturday Morning is arguably the singer’s most significant lyrical contribution to The Specials. His sombre working-class wit shines on what Hall would describe as, “a mundane song about a mundane lifestyle”. Talking to Classic Pop Golding said: “I believe I’m blessed to have worked with both the best lyricist in the world in Terry and with one of the very best arrangers in Jerry. It’s a real pity it didn’t work out with The Specials because they had such amazing creative visions.”

10. Let’s Do Rock Steady – The Bodysnatchers

Rhoda Dakar and her all-girl Bodysnatchers reached No.22 on the UK singles chart in April 1980 with this cover of the rocksteady special by Dandy Livingstone, which had first appeared in October 1967 as the flip side to his single We Are Still Rude. While some of the band as well as Jerry Dammers wanted to release The Boiler as their debut single, 2 Tone’s parent company Chrysalis pressured the band into releasing this more commercial cut. Despite enjoying moderate success, the group only released one further single, the double-A Easy Life/Too Experienced, before splitting up.

9. Too Much Too Young (Live) – The Special A.K.A. Featuring Rico

One of the few in-concert singles to top the UK Chart, this raucous footage was captured at The Lyceum in London. Based on the 1969 song Birth Control by Lloyd Charmers, the track perfectly combines social commentary with high energy danceability. Reflecting in 2019, while performing with the reformed Specials, Lynval Golding told Classic Pop: ““It’s incredible, all these youngsters singing along to Too Much Too Young, when those kids weren’t even born when it was written. It shows there’s a longevity to what was created, they get it, there’s no gimmick and it was great music.” With its references to teenage pregnancies and contraception, the track is a timeless classic which has lost none of its immediacy or potency.

8. A Message To You Rudy – The Specials

For this take on another rocksteady classic by Dandy Livingstone, originally titled Rudy A Message To You, The Specials drafted trombonist Rico Rodriguez who had played on the original cut. Born in Havana, Cuba, but raised in Jamaica, Rodriguez moved to the UK in 1961 and his sound adds a vital authenticity to this faithful version on the original. The band’s second single, and first to be lifted from their debut album, A Message To You Rudy climbed to No.10 in the UK charts in November 1979 and the group would perform the track on the legendary “2 Tone takeover of Top Of The Pops” alongside The Selecter and Madness.

7. The Selecter – The Selecter

You cannot underestimate the importance of this instrumental. Talking with Classic Pop in 2021, Neol Davies explained how Jerry Dammers had approached him to put a ska rhythm guitar on a piece of music he had written called The Kingston Affair for use on the B-side of Gangsters. He said: “Jerry asked if he could use it on the flipside of a single that he was releasing. I couldn’t believe my luck… John Peel had a hugely influential two-hour radio show around this time and Jerry sent him a copy of our record. We tuned in hoping he’d play Gangsters and I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard him play The Selecter.” Gangsters Vs The Selecter hit the Top 10 and 2 Tone had arrived. Knowing the name The Selecter had been established, Neol swiftly set about forming his own group.

6. Nelson Mandela – The Special AKA

Written by Jerry Dammers as a protest against the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela by the apartheid South African government, this joyous anthem was a crowning jewel in 2 Tone’s monochrome pork pie hat.

Following the break-up of the original Specials line-up, Dammers formed the Special AKA with drummer John Bradbury and vocalists Rhoda Dakar and Stan Campbell to release the album, In The Studio. While it was not as commercially successful as their previous two LPs, Nelson Mandela would reach No.9 on the UK chart and, more importantly, soundtracked the downfall of apartheid.

Dammers told Classic Pop in 2019: “While I think Ghost Town is better musically, Nelson Mandela had a lot more effect than any other 2 Tone song, and it also led to me being asked to organise Artists Against Apartheid, which included putting together a concert with a quarter of a million people protesting apartheid. That led to the two Wembley Stadium Mandela Concerts broadcast to millions around the world.”

5. The Prince – Madness

Talking to Classic Pop in 2019, Jerry Dammers said: “2 Tone didn’t just happen in Coventry, Madness had completely independently come up with a similar idea of playing ska in London before they ever saw The Specials…” Hailing from Camden Town, Madness formed as the North London Invaders in 1976, but changed name when Graham McPherson (aka Suggs) took over the lead vocals. Written by saxophonist Lee Thompson, The Prince is a tribute to Jamaican ska singer Prince Buster whose song Madness was covered for the flipside and also inspired the band’s name. A surprise hit, peaking in the UK music charts at No.16, Madness toured with fellow 2 Tone bands the Specials and the Selecter, before recording their debut studio album for Stiff Records.

4. The Tears Of A Clown – The Beat

The origins of The Beat began on the Isle Of Wight, where singer Dave Wakeling and guitarist Andy Cox met building solar panels. They decided to form a band and, on moving back to their hometown Birmingham, recruited the rhythm section of David Steele and Everett Morton. Joined by the amiable Ranking Roger and Jamaican saxophonist Saxa – who had played with Prince Buster, Laurel Aitken, and Desmond Dekker in the first wave of ska – The Beat recorded this remake of Smokey Robinson’s Tears Of A Clown for 2 Tone.

“The Beat happened to be in the right place at the right time,” Roger told Classic Pop before his passing in 2019. “Jerry saw us and asked if we’d like to put out a record and tour with The Selecter. It was phenomenal, I was fresh out of school and within months I was on Top Of The Pops performing Tears Of A Clown.”

The single reached No.6 on the UK chart but didn’t appear on the debut studio album, I Just Can’t Stop It, which surfaced on Go-Feet Records.

3. On My Radio – The Selecter

Written by Neol Davies in 1978 while he was in the Coventry outfit Transposed Men, On My Radio is a track which predates The Selecter. Following the surprise success of Gangsters Vs The Selecter, Davies built a band.

“I don’t think, when The Selecter formed, we thought anything was actually going to come of it,” remembered Pauline Black with Classic Pop in 2021. “We really were just flying by the seats of our pants during those early gigs. Gaps [Hendrickson] and I would tape lyrics to the front of the stage and race around trying to read the words, people used to say: ‘Well, aren’t they energetic.’ But we all performed with such energy, it was just the natural thing to do. I was still working as a hospital radiographer when Jerry did a deal with Chrysalis enabling 2 Tone to release records by The Specials and any other bands that took his fancy.”

Released through the label in October 1979, The Selecter’s debut peaked at No.8 on the UK Singles Chart and would be their most successful single.

2 Gangsters – The Special A.K.A.

The brainchild of Jerry Dammers, The Specials initially featured vocalist Tim Strickland, guitarist Lynval Golding, drummer Silverton Hutchinson and bassist Horace Panter. Starting out as The Automatics, Strickland was soon replaced by Terry Hall and guitarist Roddy Radiation joined in March 1978 ahead of a recording session of demos. Changing their name to The Special A.K.A., the Coventry collective hit the road supporting The Clash.

“The Clash liked us, so we got the whole tour, 30 quid a night,” Dammers told Classic Pop in 2019. “Neville Staple, who was one of our roadies, jumped on stage and added a lot of energy with his dancing and toasting interjections.” Following The Clash tour, Silverton quit the band and Dammers approached John ‘Brad’ Bradbury. Dammers wrote Gangsters on Joe Strummer’s guitar in the dressing room on The Clash tour, later adding a musical quotation from the 1964 track Al Capone by Prince Buster, swapping ‘Al Capone’s Guns Don’t Argue’ to ‘Bernie Rhodes Knows Don’t Argue’, a jibe towards The Clash’s manager who had attempted to take the band under his wing.

A bombastic statement of intent, Gangsters Vs The Selecter climbed the charts, peaking at No.6, and Dammers received several offers to sign away what he had created with his fledgling 2 Tone label. However, he held out for a deal that would allow 2 Tone to keep its identity. Dammers said: “When we signed the label to Chrysalis, we retained artistic control. I just wanted to give like-minded bands a break and thought if we worked together instead of competing, we could build a ska movement to support each other.”

1. Ghost Town – The Specials

Punk predicted no future, but 2 Tone asked what we could do about it, addressing racism, sexism and class division… But, in the summer of 1981, with urban decay, deindustrialisation, unemployment and violence raging in Britain’s inner cities, the future looked beyond bleak for many.

The tour for The Specials’ second album in late 1980 had been a fraught experience and as they travelled, Jerry Dammers and co witnessed sights that reflected the depressed mood of a country gripped by recession. Talking with Classic Pop in 2019, Lynval Golding said: “People think that Ghost Town was about Coventry, but it was about all the cities we visited.”  While Dammers offered: “The events in my songs didn’t all happen in Coventry, Glasgow was the initial inspiration for Ghost Town, but it’s irrelevant really, I wanted my songs to be as universal as possible, with a sort of ‘Anywhere, Anystreet, Anytown’ address on them.”

Released on 12 June 1981, shortly after the Brixton riots in London and just prior to the unrest witnessed in Toxteth (in Liverpool), Handsworth (Birmingham), Chapeltown (Leeds), and Moss Side (Manchester), Ghost Town was a biting inditement on Thatcher’s Conservative Britain which topped the UK chart for three weeks. A haunting track with an iconic video, it remains one of the most evocative songs of the era. Still resonating today, Duran Duran released a cover version of the song on their 2023 Halloween-themed album Danse Macabre.

Continue Reading: Here we present a further 10 related releases that surfaced on other labels:

10. Our Lips Are Sealed – Fun Boy Three

“That song came about because Terry Hall and I had a little bit of a tour romance,” Jane Wiedlin of The Go-Go’s told Classic Pop in 2022. “When I returned to California, we continued to write each other letters. He would send me lyrics and said, ‘Someday I’m going to have my own band and it’s going to be great.’ I was really drawn to Our Lips Are Sealed and came up with the music and wrote some more words. It became part of The Go-Go’s repertoire and we released it as our debut single. When Terry formed Fun Boy Three he recorded his version which was a huge smash in the UK. It’s funny, I think most people over there thought that their version was the original!”

9. Peace, Love and Understanding – Rhoda Dakar

Originally written and recorded by Nick Lowe, like most people Rhoda Dakar was introduced to the song by Elvis Costello’s version. Closing her 2023 album Version Girl (Sunday Best Recordings), Dakar said: “I can hear his [Costello’s] influence on my delivery. However, I think the lyrics get more of a chance to shine on our more chilled-out version. We aim to leave you with a smile and a glimmer of hope!”

8. Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Us Around – The Specials

This cover of the freedom spiritual song featured on 2021’s Protest Songs 1924–2012 (Island/Universal Records), the second Specials album led by the trio of Lynval Golding, Terry Hall and Horace Panter. The album entered at No.2 on the UK Albums Chart and would be the final release before the premature passing of singer Hall.

7. Tenderness – General Public

Released as a single in May 1984, from their debut studio album All The Rage through I.R.S. Records, General Public was initially formed by Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger of the Beat, with Mick Jones (of The Clash), Horace Panter (The Specials), Mickey Billingham and Stoker (Dexys Midnight Runners). The song performed well in the States (reaching No.27) and appeared in the films Sixteen Candles (1984) and Weird Science (1985).

6. Celebrate The Bullet – The Selecter

Signing with parent label Chrysalis, bad timing consistently plagued The Selecter’s second album Celebrate The Bullet. Released as a single on 6 February 1981, the title track was swiftly banned by BBC Radio 1 due to the murder of John Lennon. The LP’s release was blighted further following an attempted assassination on US President Ronald Reagan. Pauline Black told Classic Pop in 2019 that it was her favourite 2 Tone track: “Even if it is one of ours, it remains prevalent. Look at the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s a sophisticated song and an absolute joy to play live.”

5. Mirror In The Bathroom – The Beat

Lifted from their debut studio album, I Just Can’t Stop It, and released through their own label, Go-Feet Records as a single in April 1980, Mirror In The Bathroom reached No.4 in the UK singles chart. The song was also ranked at No.3 among the Top 10  Tracks of the Year for 1980 by the NME. Jerry Dammers told Classic Pop in 2019: “I love Mirror In The Bathroom, to get a song about the mental illness of narcissism into the Top 10, was an amazing achievement.”


4. The Lunatics (Have Taken Over the Asylum) – Fun Boy Three

Terry Hall, Neville Staple and Lynval Golding released this UK Top 20 through Chrysalis following their split from The Specials as Fun Boy Three. “We were convinced the natural follow-up to Ghost Town should’ve been The Lunatics,” Golding told Classic Pop in 2022. When the guitarist joined Hall and Horace Panter to record The Specials’ splendid 2019 album Encore, the band decided to revisit the track.

3. Lip Up Fatty – Bad Manners

Fronted by Buster Bloodvessel, Bad Manners released Lip Up Fatty through Magnet Records and in June 1980 reached No.15 in the chart. The single was taken from the album Ska’n’B, which also included the hits Ne-Ne Na-Na Na-Na Nu-Nu (No.28) and Special Brew (No.3).

2. One Step Beyond – Madness

“Hey you, don’t watch that, watch this! This is the heavy heavy monster sound, the nuttiest sound around…” Released through Stiff Records in October 1979, this Prince Buster cover reached No.7 on the UK chart. Straying from the ska influence, the group would go on to rack up the hits with singles such as Baggy Trousers, My Girl, It Must Be Love, Our House, and the UK No.1 House Of Fun.

1. Stand Down Margaret – The Beat

Stand Down Margaret was first released on I Just Can’t Stop It in May 1980 as part of a mash with the Prince Buster 1968 classic Whine & Grine. This remixed dub version surfaced in August 1980, alongside Best Friend, where the proceeds from the single’s sales went to the Anti-Nuclear Campaign and the CND. Just prior to his passing in 2019, Ranking Roger told Classic Pop: “There was a lot of disillusioned people that didn’t understand different cultures. Our music was a melting pot designed to unite. We spoke about world politics, people politics, personal politics… 2 Tone helped change a generation willing to open their minds and every generation has a shining light: a Bob Marley or John Lennon… we had Jerry Dammers.”

Visit Coventry Music Museum for the lowdown on 2 Tone, The Specials, Selecter, Primitives and more – details here

In the mood for more? Find out the story behind 2 Tone art with David Storey