You could say there are three categories in which non-musicians can write about music: music journalism, music criticism, and music essays. Something I’ve learned in my years as a consumer and producer of music writing is that its level of value depends largely on who the reader is. In general, journalism and criticism are most useful to neophytes unfamiliar with the given musical subject, who are just getting into a band or wondering if a new release is worth a listen. Articles and reviews serve as invaluable touchstones for all of us to become fans – but once you’re a seasoned devotee of whatever artist or genre, you reach a point where you know just as much or probably more than the average music hack. You can nitpick their ignorant misstatements about a band’s lineup and discography, or rail against their clueless ★½ rating of a brilliant album. At this stage, a matured fan can largely cast aside journalism and criticism like old training wheels.
On the other hand, personal music essays have the exact inverse relationship with the audience. If you want to write about what a given performer’s music means to you and detail your experiences as a fan, you pretty much need to assume your readers share in that fandom. Stories about that band’s first concert you saw, or fond high-school summer memories from when that big song was popular, or hunting down that elusive import 12” holy grail may make delightful reading for those who can relate, but they’re more likely boring and self-indulgent in the eyes of the uninitiated. And sure, music essays can be just bad, period. But when they’re good, they’re a marvelous way to partly capture the ineffable joys of music in written words, to connect new insights and moments of recognition among your far-flung brothers and sisters of similar dispositions.
In his new book, The Duff Guide to 2 Tone, Stephen Shafer deftly does all three kinds of music writing: journalism, criticism and essays, all swirled together to a brisk skanking rhythm. The book largely consists of reviews and articles culled from Steve’s popular blog, The Duff Guide to Ska, which has covered ska and ska-related music since 2008. Being from New York, Steve shares a mission in common with us at Stateside Madness: appreciating music of Jamaican and British origins from an American point of view. The Duff Guide has been something of a role model for me in developing the SSM blog, so it’s been an honor for Steve to find us and give us a number of kind shoutouts in our first year on the scene.
The Duff Guide to 2 Tone is organized into sections covering the primary acts with singles and/or albums released on Jerry Dammers’ legendary 2 Tone Records: The Specials, Madness, The Selecter, The (English) Beat, Rico Rodriguez, The Bodysnatchers and Bad Manners, and a few choice “2 Tone adjacent” artists at the end. The result is one of those nice, sumptuous compendiums that you can flip through and read swatches of interest in whatever order you like. That’s an experience you can’t replicate by clicking links in a blog, giving me flashbacks to hours spent with my beloved Trouser Press Record Guide – only here in an all-ska all-stars edition.
The Madness section covers the band’s output from 2009 to 2019 quite comprehensively, including the Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra, “Bullingdon Boys” and the Before We Was We book. Steve gives a fine accounting of what Madness has been up to over the past decade, but like I said before, I really don’t need someone to tell me how good they think Oui Oui Si Si Ja Ja Da Da and Can’t Touch Us Now are. What I like reading most is Steve’s personal asides.
Though it may seem anathema for someone with my obvious bias, I found myself especially enchanted with Steve’s confession that he was never the hugest fan of Madness. In his ranking of the top 2 Tone acts back in the day, Madness came in at number four, with The Specials/The Special AKA being his big favorite. He explains that he was drawn to the strong political views expressed by the Dammers crew from Coventry (as well as The Beat and The Selecter), moreso than the comparatively sunny pop sensibilities of the Nutty Boys. That’s fair enough, an opinion shared by many of my friends who have showed appreciation for British ska. Americans tend to deem The Specials the “coolest” band in the genre, I know. But when The Liberty of Norton Folgate came along in 2009, Steve had to reconsider his former assessment.
“When it seemed like their 2 Tone peers had run out of things to say,” he writes, “Madness were delivering the songs of great meaning that I had wanted from them in my youth – a concept album that promotes multiculturalism as the only path to real freedom, and the notion that the history of a place and its people has an extraordinary impact on making this possible.” This he follows with a thorough unpacking of “We Are London” and the epic title track, dissecting them with rigorous wonder. It’s some of the finest Madness analysis I’ve ever read.
The Duff Guide to 2 Tone is chock full of personal fan nuggets that elevate it above a mere collection of record reviews. I relish Steve’s finding of the exceptionally rare Rico Jama LP. I envy him for seeing Pauline Black and Rhoda Dakar play together in New York City in 2019. I admire his heartfelt reflections on the occasion of Ranking Roger’s passing. I relate to his interview with Roddy “Radiation” Byers, whom I myself had the pleasure of chatting with at length before a North Carolina gig a couple of years ago. I love that Steve mentions his favorite album by The Beat is Wha’ppen? No way, I think he and I must be the only two fans who share that oddball opinion! And indeed, his reviews have a thing or two to teach a crotchety old know-it-all like me – for instance, I had vaguely heard of The Specials’ Live at the Moonlight Club but never bought it. After reading Steve’s reverential praise for the 1979 bootleg-turned-legit release, I had to go grab it. I’m sure glad I did. Thanks, buddy.
If I had to criticize one thing about The Duff Guide to 2 Tone, it would be the editorial presentation. The professional copy editor in me wishes I could have taken a pass at assembling the manuscript in a more orderly fashion. The reviews are largely in reverse chronological order for whatever reason, with miscellaneous essay and interview pieces coming at the end of each section. I would have arranged things more strictly from oldest to newest. I also would like to see a brief intro at the start of each new section profiling the given artist by listing their 2 Tone bona fides and outlining their career up to the point in 2008 when The Duff Guide blog began, just as orientation for newbies. Doing so wouldn’t require a lot of new writing. Prime example, the first review in The Bodysnatchers section starts with about three pages on their background, making a really excellent capsule recap of Rhoda Dakar’s body of work. You could just lift it out and have a nice Bodysnatchers preamble ready to go.
But I’m probably just being too finicky and pedantic in my publishing ethos. A book as niche as The Duff Guide to 2 Tone is best aimed at full-fledged fans, those who already know their Price Buster from their Buster Bloodvessel – and any interested novice worth their salt will accept a good challenge above their reading level. No doubt, Steve Shafer scores high marks as a music journalist, critic and essayist. I’m more focused in my own ambitions here at Stateside Madness, favoring the “let me tell you my story” essay end of the spectrum, and in that capacity I’m proud to have Steve as a virtual mentor of sorts and comrade-at-arms. Here’s to hoping we can meet up for a super-nerdy fanboy conversation at a ska concert some fine day.
The Duff Guide to 2 Tone is available from Amazon and other fine booksellers.