The Guardian view on two-tone nostalgia: the pride of Coventry | Editorial

Britain’s city of culture for 2021 is rightly celebrating a musical movement that still carries a potent message

Interviewed a couple of years ago, the lead singer of the Specials, Terry Hall, was asked what he remembered most fondly about the two-tone era, when the band’s home city of Coventry hosted the most innovative music scene in Britain. “We were doing something that wasn’t in London,” responded Mr Hall who, rather shockingly, is now in his 60s. “It was a sense of pride in where we were.”

Fittingly then, one of the most inspiring periods in postwar youth culture is to be given pride of place during Coventry’s forthcoming city of culture 2021 celebrations. Covid has delayed festivities until May. But when they do begin, it was revealed this month that the programme of events will include the first major exhibition on the lives and legacies of the two-tone era. There will also be a three-day music event curated by Mr Hall.

An enjoyable nostalgia fest is thus in prospect for music lovers of a certain age. Songs like Ghost Town can still summon up the mood and feel of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. But this brief revival also seems peculiarly well-timed. Forty years after mixed-race Coventry bands such as the Specials and the Selecter blazed a pioneering trail, issues of race, culture and national identity are once again polarising politics. Named after the record label to which the groups belonged, the two-tone movement took on similar questions in its own unique style. Against the grim backdrop of National Front marches and mass unemployment, it embodied a vision that was quintessentially British, proudly multicultural and wide open to the world.

Ska rhythms on Specials tracks such as Gangsters and Too Much Too Young had first been popularised in Britain by the musicians who arrived on the Empire Windrush in 1948. The “rude boy” look – sharp suits, trilby or pork pie hats and a black and white colour scheme – was part-Jamaican and part-English mod. Each week, this multiracial melange of styles and sounds was channelled straight into the cultural bloodstream via Top of the Pops. In 1979, three two-tone bands featured in a single edition of the programme. At a time when casual racism was still pervasive in the popular culture and ever-present in sitcoms such as Mind Your Language and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, two-tone was opening up new possibilities of a different kind of Britain to a new generation.

As Britain attempts to “bounce back better” after a year-long shutdown in traumatic circumstances, Coventry’s proud city of culture status seems serendipitous. Few places have reinvented themselves as daringly in the face of adversity. Luftwaffe bombs in the second world war and deindustrialisation exacted a heavy toll. But, from the sensitive reconstruction of the city’s cathedral, which preserves the ruins of the old church destroyed in the blitz, to the modernist architecture that heritage campaigners are battling to preserve, Coventry has shown an ability to adapt to difficult times with imagination and an impressive degree of resilience. In the depths of the economic recession in the 1980s, the city’s finest musical hour exemplified the same qualities of defiance and creativity. Prefiguring a genuinely diverse, multicultural vision of Britain, two-tone was way ahead of its time. All the more reason then to seize the moment, dust off old records and start listening again.

• This article was amended on 12 February 2021. An earlier version misspelled the Selecter as the Selector.



The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Pork pie hats and politics: Coventry pays tribute to 2 Tone legacy
Major exhibition charts rise of record label that spawned musical and cultural movement in late 1970s

Jessica Murray Midlands correspondent

26, May, 2021 @1:45 PM

Article image
Rude boys: from Shanty Town to Savile Row

The rude boy has come a long way from his origins in Jamaican subculture, writes Sean O'Hagan on the eve of a photography exhibition celebrating the movement's distinctive style

Sean O'Hagan

24, May, 2014 @2:55 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on fashion in politics: how to rewrite the style guide | Editorial
Editorial: Black America ransacked the old wardrobe of America’s elite with strangely profound results


23, Dec, 2021 @6:25 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on commemorative art: remember differently | Editorial
Editorial: Better to own up to Britain’s murderous history than hide it, but sensitive curation is everything


07, Aug, 2022 @5:25 PM

Article image
Terry Hall united black and white just as Stormzy does now. Music needs their ‘better vision’ | Pauline Black
We are still fighting the same fight for equality he championed back then, says Pauline Black, author and lead singer of the 2-Tone band The Selector

Pauline Black

20, Dec, 2022 @7:00 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on botanical gardens: inextricably linked to empire | Editorial
Editorial: Kew Gardens is right to confront its role in the history of British colonialism and racism


02, Apr, 2021 @1:25 PM

Article image
Ranking Roger obituary
Singer and frontman for the ska revival band the Beat

Peter Mason

27, Mar, 2019 @11:07 AM

Article image
The Guardian view on Bangladesh: when charity goes wrong | Editorial
Editorial: Globalised business networks make well-meaning shoppers complicit in the exploitation of workers they are trying to help


21, Jan, 2019 @6:46 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on Middlemarch: a book for grownups | Editorial
Editorial: George Eliot’s wise, empathetic book speaks to us eloquently of our own times


18, Mar, 2022 @6:25 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on blue plaques: time to redress the balance | Editorial
Editorial: There is more to blue plaques than dead white men – and English Heritage knows it


06, Oct, 2021 @6:06 PM