“Checkered Past” Was A Tidy Look At The 2-Tone Label [part 2]

A shot of The Swinging Cats rehearsing © Mark Osborne from his This Is Then website of Coventry bands

[…continued from last post]

By the time that 2-Tone moved forward into 1980, the label’s acts began to sprawl from the focused retro Ska style into exotic new syntheses that found less favor on the British charts. The radical sophomore album of The Specials was “More Specials,” which found Jerry Dammers blending Ska elements with Muzak to a fascinating effect. The huge clue on the cover of the UK album was a sticker that covered up the “e” in “More” making the cover say “MOR Specials.” or “Middle-Of-the-Road” Specials. These later singles were tailing out of the “imperial phase” of 2-Tone where each release seemed to have a lock with the UK Top ten.

Two-Tone Records | UK | LP | 1980 | CHR TT 5003

“Stereotype” was a ghostly mix Ska rhythms and retro-lounge elements like rhythm-boxes and mariachi horns from a Herb Alpert record. Through it all vocalist Terry Hall played it like a shrinking violet. Barely singing the song in the strange sonic environment whirling around him. The AA-side to the single was “International Jet Set,” and was a bit more commercial sounding. The Ska rhythms were again minimized and the gentle watery keyboards, prefiguring the sound to come on early Antena records. The eerie backing vocals were almost the only ones here in this near-instrumental. They previewed the BVs in the upcoming “Ghost Town” single for the next year. When Terry Hall began singing in the middle eight, it really sounded strongly redolent of the similar vibe that Antena were aiming for two years down the road.

The Swinging Cats was the first record that stiffed on 2-Tone, with “Away” still having a sturdy Ska beat happening, but the juxtapositions in the songs were definitely out of the Post-Punk Pop with only the verses having remote links to the Ska mothership. Their B-side, “Mantovani” was a lively instrumental that paid tribute to the artist perhaps having the biggest influence on producer Dammers at this time, though the melody there perhaps pointed to “Telstar” as a progenitor.

Various Artists: The 2-Tone Collection – A Checkered Past – US – 2xCD [1993]

Disc Two

  1. The Specials: Ghost Town
  2. Rhoda With The Special A.K.A.: The Boiler
  3. Rico And The Special A.K.A.: Jungle Music
  4. The Apollinaires: The Feeling’s Gone
  5. The Higsons: Tear The Whole Thing Down
  6. The Higsons: Ylang Ylang
  7. The Apollinaires: Envy The Love
  8. The Special A.K.A.: War Crimes [The Crime Remains The Same]
  9. The Higsons: Run Me Down
  10. The Special A.K.A.: Racist Friend
  11. The Special A.K.A.: Bright Lights
  12. The Special A.K.A.: Nelson Mandela
  13. The Special A.K.A.: Break Down The Door
  14. The Special A.K.A.: What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend
  15. The Friday Club: Window Shopping
  16. JB’s Allstars: The Alphabet Army
  17. The Specials: Racquel
  18. Roddy Radiation And The Specials: Braggin’ And Tryin’ Not To Lie
  19. Neville Staples a.k.a Judge Roughneck: Rude Boys Outa Jail

“Ghost Town” was the eerie single that captured the desolate zeitgeist of 1981 Britain like few others. But we’ve discussed this peerless classic before. It simply can’t wear out the ears with its eerie mixture of cinematic dread, shot through with brashness for it’s ironically jolly middle eight.

I’d read a review of “The Boiler” in the pages of Trouser Press when it was released, and nothing can really prepare you for a record that make you a witness to a depiction of rape. As Jerry Dammers stated, this was a record made to be heard only once.

Specials trombonist Rico got to record a sweet hybrid of laidback reggae that mutates wildly into peppy salsa for its instrumental verse structure. Elsewhere, the singles by The Apollinaires included here showed the influence of the incipient Salsa/Funk trend of 1981 on even 2-Tone. “The Feeling’s Gone” and “Envy The Love” had the spidery rhythm guitar and congas that Haircut 100 had won the charts with the previous year with “Favourite Shirts [Boy Meets Girl].”

Elsewhere, The Higsons also dipped their toes into horn driven funk that was everywhere in ’82/’82 and ended up closer to the Post-Punk variety that Scotland’s APB were proffering. They ended up plowing a similar furrow to The Apollinaires and yet, their execution came a lot closer to my comfort zone and as with The Selecter, I should be investigating full CDs by The Higsons. I see that Cherry Red released a 3xCD of their debut album “The Complete Curse of the Higsons” that might have my name on it.

Late period the Special A.K.A. featuring the post-’81 split band Dammers was fronting were well represented here. The glorious “Nelson Mandela” was another career high point, but its B-side, “Break Down the Door” showed a penchant for funky R+B [with synths!] not a million miles removed from what Terrence Trent-Darby would be selling a few years down the line. Dammers himself sang the falsetto lead for one and only one time on the minor key lover’s rock of the single “What I Like About You Is Your Girlfriend.”

What we ended up with at the end of this set was music that had strayed far from the auspices of the Ska Revival, taking in the other commercial styles prevalent in the UK charts in the subsequent years, but usually finding room to have those horn players still active in the arrangements. Even if the bluebeat had been replaced by other rhythms.

This US-only set was a useful thing for me to have since I had no CDs by The Specials or The Selecter. The 1993 discs seem to be a subset of a UK 4xCD box that came out in the UK the same year.

Two Tone | UK | 4xCD | 1993 | 7243 8 27721 25

That set is now scraping three figures and featured more of the B-sides than this set, but as an early Vinny Vero project, all of the album/non-album A-sides were here, with B-sides included if the source was just a single with no album component. This 2xCD was a sturdy placeholder for the Specials and Selecter CDs that I really should have in the Record Cell. More than anything, I think I am really enjoying hearing The Selecter and lo and behold, they’ve just released a SDLX box of that title a fortnight ago!

Two Tone | UK | 3xCD | 2021 | CDL TTX5002

At the very least I need that original album as well as the first two Specials discs. I think half of “The Special A.K.A. In The Studio” is on this set, so I’m probably good for that one. As far as Ska goes, I enjoyed the 2nd wave as evidenced here in this release more than the largely American 3rd Wave Of Ska. While The Toasters were enjoyable, there was a lot of Punk/Metal crossover in the American 3rd Wave in the 90s that rubbed me the wrong way, as recently my friend Dan reminded me of storming out of a Mustard Plug show in an angry snit. None of the music here would provoke such a negative reaction!


About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | remastering vinyl • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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7 Responses to “Checkered Past” Was A Tidy Look At The 2-Tone Label [part 2]

  1. JT says:

    Saw The Selector at Riot Fest in Chicago in 2013. Wasn’t expecting much, but they put on a great show, tight and energetic. Also saw Blondie, X, Public Enemy, and Violent Femmes (playing the whole first album) that day, making it one of the only festival experiences worth fighting the crowds for!


    • postpunkmonk says:

      JT – Sounds like a dream festival [well, except for X…] and it’s nice to know that Pauline Black takes her legacy seriously. Then again, she always came off as very smart.


  2. Picked up this collection when it was first released. I had many of the “major” albums by the “major” bands but still a lot to discover. I’ve always loved this genre and there are some great new bands as well. This collection, however, is like the ultimate “starter pack” because it provides a solid foundation to move forward from and it isn’t so far removed from the origins that it’s difficult to look back on where the genre came from.


  3. David Simpson says:

    There’s a two-disc compilation of both Specials LPs at https://www.discogs.com/sell/list?master_id=631550&ev=mb&currency=USD and the three-CD singles collection Stereo-Typical (A’s, B’s & Rarities) has pretty much everything singles-wise from both Specials and Specials AKA.

    Great to see APB mentioned. They came from my home town of Ellon, and I interviewed them for a fanzine many decades ago. They were more popular on the NYC club scene than they were in their own land.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      David Simpson – Good info and I need to write about APB eventually! I have the US compilation LP that I want to get the even bigger CD of, but I think the 2xCD DLX RM is already getting difficult to source. I seem to recall first hearing APB when their video for “Shoot You Down” got played in my local club, very far from NYC!


  4. slur says:

    No New Wave / Post Punk collection should be without the first two Specials, the first two Selecter and the first two Madness LP’s imho. Essential listening them all.
    I also like a lot of their newer releases but I won’t elaborate on them all now to keep this short.
    As mentioned before the “Stereotypical” Set is a the best addition to capture all the extras of The Specials and the first Two Tone Compilation “This Are Two Tone” is imho the best Compilation to show the label’s intentions as label..

    Btw Pauline Black’s Memoir ‘Black By Design’ and Neville Staples’ autobio are great reads to get a feeling for the 2 Tone spirit and more insight into this era at all.

    Liked by 1 person

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