Book Review: 2 Tone – Before, During & After

2 Tone – Before, During & After
Illustration by renowned 2 Tone cartoonist Hunt Emerson

The title of Lee Morris’s book 2 Tone – Before, During & After is quite specific in its meaning. The author is principally concerned with the legendary and influential 2 Tone Records label, as opposed to the looser use of “2 tone” as a generic term for the ska revival subgenre. In stating “Before, During & After,” the book makes explicit the brief lifespan of the label, an extraordinary moment in time circa 1979-1986, and Lee Morris is here to chronicle the details behind the rise and fall of a remarkably unlikely success story.

2 Tone Records was of course the brainchild of mad genius Jerry Dammers, also known as the founder and keyboardist of The Specials. As a former hippie, Dammers followed an idealistic vision to set up his own record label to release his fledgling band’s music and support like-minded new artists. Instead of being locked down in ironclad contracts and signing their rights away, 2 Tone artists were always free to move on to major labels and chart their own course. “The General,” as Lee fondly refers to Dammers, set out to create a musical movement, a British answer to Motown that would change the world – and by gosh, he did it. The small but significant 2 Tone catalog includes albums by The Specials, The Selecter, Rico Rodriguez and The Special AKA; seminal singles by Madness, The (English) Beat and The Bodysnatchers; and tangential links to Bad Manners and Elvis Costello.

The basic outlines of the 2 Tone story are familiar to any serious fan of The Specials, Madness and the related crew. We all know the key touchstones of lore: Jerry Dammers’s fascination with Prince Buster. The creation of the 2 Tone rude boy mascot Walt Jabsco, based on a Peter Tosh photo. The Bernie Rhodes “confiscated guitars” tour fiasco chronicled in “Gangsters.” The signing of Madness for one-off single “The Prince.” The fabled 2 Tone Tour. The explosive personality conflicts that made The Specials prematurely implode. Jerry’s years of obsessive, Brian Wilson-like isolation poured into the In the Studio album’s long gestation. Where Lee’s book excels is filling in all the connective details between the commonplace legends, explaining how these situations in 2 Tone history came about, dispelling myths and misconceptions, and weaving together a vast, coherent narrative.

Given that I’m a Madness specialist running a Madness blog, the chapter on my favorite band doesn’t offer much in the way of surprises. It’s a solid account of their nutty career, but nothing earthquake-erupting for diehard Madheads. On the other hand, the formidable remainder of 2 Tone – Before, During & After serves to make me realize I don’t know as much as I thought I did about the rest of the 2 Tone bands. I especially had fun absorbing Lee’s details about the various acts’ early years. Now I understand how the Special AKA name came about between The Automatics and The Specials, and why it occasionally resurfaced before the In the Studio era. I learned that Dave Wakeling and Andy Cox sowed the seeds of The Beat not in Birmingham, but on the Isle of Wight. And I was a bit chastened to realize I had no idea at all how The Selecter got their start, assembled by longtime Jerry Dammers associate Neol Davies. Likewise, it was illuminating to read up on the history of Rhoda Dakar, beyond knowing that her Bodysnatchers bandmates become the Belle Stars while Rhoda joined The Special AKA.

The book even delves into the most obscure characters in the 2 Tone saga: Swinging Cats, The Higsons, The Apollinares, The Friday Club, JB’s Allstars. Previously these folks were only known to me from the weird songs on The 2 Tone Collection: A Checkered Past compilation. Aside from Swinging Cats (whose “Mantovani” and “Away” are pretty awesome), I’ve never cared much about these 2 Tone also-rans, but here you will find their stories duly told.

2 Tone – Before, During & After is a fun and easy read for any fan of this musical era. Lee Morris writes in an energetic, conversational style that strings thoughts together with abundant comma splices, breathlessly he gallops through fact nuggets jamming in asides and wry personal observations, you got to jump on the Morris train to skaville and strap yourself in my son cause he ain’t slowing down for nobody no! I also want to give him big kudos for his fantastic Facebook page. Whereas most small-press authors who promote their work on Facebook are only there to sell books, Lee runs a smashing page that’s like getting your daily dose of 2 Tone history in your Facebook feed. I think the vast majority of the cool factoids and tidbits he posts aren’t in the book, and he’s not pushing a hard sell at all. So please, whether you’re interested in buying the book or not, go follow 2 Tone – Before, During & After on Facebook. You’ll be glad you did.

The story of 2 Tone is a crazy Coventry Cinderella tale, packed with enough drama, comedy and suspense to fill a Netflix binge series. Consider the ignominious history of bands starting their own record labels: it’s usually a late-career folly, a symptom of too much money and runaway egos, ending in financial ruin and bitter lawsuits. Jerry Dammers had the gumption and the lunacy to start 2 Tone at the beginning of his career, with no money and no grand business plan except to make good music. 2 Tone – Before, During & After does a brilliant job of helping readers appreciate the scope of what The General achieved by overcoming the odds and creating something really special. Pun intended.


2 Tone – Before, During & After is available from Amazon US and direct from UK-based author Lee Morris.

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