Various Artists: The 2-Tone Collection – A Checkered Past – US – 2xCD 
- The Special A.K.A.: Gangsters
- The Selecter: The Selecter
- Madness: The Prince
- The Selecter: On My Radio
- The Specials featuring Rico: A Message To You Rudy
- The Specials featuring Rico: Nite Klub
- The Beat: Tears Of A Clown
- The Beat: Ranking Full Stop
- The Special A.K.A.: Too Much Too Young
- The Special A.K.A.:Guns Of Navarone
- The Selecter: Three Minute Hero
- The Bodysnatchers: Let’s Do Rock Steady
- The Bodysnatchers: Ruder Than You
- The Selecter: Missing Words
- The Specials: Rat Race
- The Specials: Rude Boys Outa Jail
- The Bodysnatchers: Easy Life
- The Bodysnatchers: Too Experienced
- The Specials: Stereotype
- The Specials: International Jet Set
- The Swinging Cats: Away
- The Swinging Cats: Mantovani
- Rico: Sea Cruise
- The Specials featuring Rico with the Ice Rink String Sounds: Do Nothing
- The Specials: Maggie’s Farm
This was a collection that I discovered in the used bins in 2013 and it really filled a missing gap in my Record Cell. I was always light on Ska. I think it came down to the fact that in 1979 it really was a nearly 20 year old retro sound and nothing very up to date at a time when I was hearing startling, new styles of pop music that were like little that had come earlier. As an American, it was not a part of my country’s musical nostalgia. And the few tracks I had heard by The Specials sounded really thin and cheaply produced to my ears. Plus I was into synthesizers. This was the furthest thing from that sort of sound I gravitated to.
It remained until I finally heard The [English] Beat’s miraculous cover of the already fantastic Smokey Robinson + The Miracles song “Tears of A Clown,” that I could wrap my head around Ska. But in the last 40 years that has only meant that I had all three of the Beat albums in the Record Cell, and little more. So seeing this package that had every A-side from the 2-Tone label was a no-brainer to buy. My spouse brought it out to play this weekend while doing housework and it’s not left my car since.
The first 2-Tone single set the, uh, tone, for the label’s first, incredibly successful year. The traditional Jamaican Ska sound of 1962 revisited by musicians who had just been put through the Punk Rock experience of the prior two years. The mid-tempo groove had vocalist Terry Hall bouncing around the tune in a cocoon of reverb and thin organ chords, pinned down by the rock steady rhythm section. The Specials sound less weirdly exotic to my ears 42 years later. That was not the case for me in 1979.
Having first encountered them at the beginning, Madness always will feel like a Ska band to me even though they quickly passed through that trend to embody their ultimately Ray Davies-like songwriting aim to become a quintessentially British pop band. Of the sort that had one hit in America, and then went on with their chart-topping lives in the UK to become a beloved pop band. But “The Prince” was an homage to Ska prime mover Prince Buster that threw the Ska gauntlet for the band admirably well.
While I really can enjoy The Specials now, I think that the next band I need to get full albums of for the neglected Ska zone in the Record Cell are The Selecter. I can remember seeing the video for “On My Radio” on “Rockworld” back when it was new and listening to the singing voice of Pauline Black comes across with crackling electricity there. The Jamaican accent she sang with made her vocal less melodic than was the norm for vocals. Her delivery was wedded strongly to the bouncy Ska rhythm and the juxtaposition with the unresolved, open minor chords of the song’s chorus was exciting and unexpected.
“A Message To You Rudy” was the first song here that was an actual vintage Ska cover, but they all fit together in the same retro space well enough. Rico’s trombone skills got the deserved spotlight and when the only other other model for trombones in rock and pop are the stuffy antics of Chicago®, it was most welcome to have Ska available to show another way forward for horn players not interested in following the Vegas path. The laid back vibe here was probably as close as the band could get to replicating the original from 1967.
If “A Message To You Rudy” was a bucolic throwback to the island of Jamaica, then The Beat proffered a frantically upbeat, urban Ska energy with their cover of “Tears Of A Clown.” Instead of covering a vintage Ska hit from the 60s like “Rudy, A Message To You,” The Beat instead injected Ska energy into this Motown classic and insured that this was a song that no longer just made you nod your head, but instead, all but demanded that you dance to it. It fairly burst with energy and wrapped up in a dizzying 2:42.
Rhoda Dakar and The Bodysnatchers were an all female band who formed in the wake of the excitement and energy of seeing an early Spcials gig and wanting to do that on their own. In true D.I.Y. spirit they didn’t let the idea that not all of them knew how to play an instrument stop them. All four sides of The Bodysnatchers recorded output were gathered here and given their instrumental abilities, found that the faster tempos of Ska eluded them, so they opted for a slower Rocksteady beat. They covered “Let’s Do Rocksteady” as their first single and the band’s self-written songs meshed well with the covers on their A/B sides. They wrote their next single, “Easy Life,” and it prefigured some of the pop gloss that the band’s next incarnation would have as The Belle Stars.
Next: …One Step Beyond… Ska!!!