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

Scrawled on the back of an Embassy cigarette packet are Jerry Dammers’ first attempts to define the 2 Tone “rude boys” after a question from the press in the late 1970s. They like “bluebeat and ska … reggae and soul” and wear “trilbys, bowler and pork pie hats … pinstripe suits, button-down shirts and checked scarves”.

Dammers, who founded the 2 Tone record label in Coventry in 1979, little knew how the description he jotted down would become the image of a hugely popular musical and cultural movement.

His note is part of the first major exhibition devoted solely to 2 Tone, one of the first events on the Coventry city of culture calendar, which started officially in May after a four-month delay due to Covid.

With never-before-seen artefacts and exclusive interviews with band members, it charts the formation of the record label that spawned the 2 Tone movement, focusing particularly on The Specials, The Selecter and other ska-influenced bands including Madness, The Beat and The Bodysnatchers.

“After 40 years, someone has collected everything up, put it in one place and allowed people to see the narrative we were putting out into the world, and how that is impacting all the things that are going on now, like Black Lives Matter,” said Pauline Black, the lead singer of the Selecter, a 2 Tone ska revival band formed in Coventry in 1979.

Inside 2 Tone: Lives & Legacies at the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum until September.
Inside 2 Tone: Lives & Legacies at the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum until September. Photograph: Garry Jones

The 2 Tone genre, which fused traditional Jamaican ska music with punk, was created against a backdrop of high unemployment, deindustrialisation, strikes and a rising far-right movement, and sought to promote a message against the racism and sexism so prevalent at the time.

“We did it through music, and through our style of dress, and black people and white people playing in a band just demonstrated that it was possible for people to get on and find common goals politically and socially,” said Black. “I want young people to come here and see the history that we lived through and how that still resonates today. This conversation is not finished.”

She donated a number of items to the exhibition, including her trilby hat and a 1980s Selecter T-shirt from the US, an example of how 2 Tone gained worldwide popularity.

They sit alongside Dammers’ original handwritten lyrics for the Specials’ single Ghost Town, the No 1 hit tackling themes of urban decay and inner-city violence, and his original sketches of the 2 Tone man, which became one of the movement’s most recognisable images.

“Dammers’ collection in particular was a real coup for us, that’s never been shown before,” said Martin Roberts, the exhibition’s curator. “He’s a perfectionist and there was quite a bit of negotiation to persuade him that this was a project he wanted to be involved in. So some of this stuff is going to be amazing for fans, I think it will blow them away.”

Pauline Black performing in 2010. She donated a number of items to the exhibition, including her trilby hat.
Pauline Black performing in 2010. She donated a number of items to the exhibition, including her trilby hat. Photograph: Steve Thorne/Redferns

For Black, it’s also an important reminder of Coventry’s importance in the history of the British music scene.

“This didn’t come out of London, it came out of the provinces and that’s an extraordinary thing,” she said. “To get successful bands all occupying space in the pop charts at the time and in the minds of young people in this country, it is a great feat.”

2 Tone: Lives & Legacies runs from 28 May to 12 September at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry


Jessica Murray Midlands correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Coventry, from Ghost Town to City of Culture
As it starts its reign as UK City of Culture, two new exhibitions celebrate the groundbreaking multicultural music born in the Midlands that became the soundtrack for a generation

Gavin McOwan

28, May, 2021 @1:10 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on two-tone nostalgia: the pride of Coventry | Editorial
Editorial: Britain’s city of culture for 2021 is rightly celebrating a musical movement that still carries a potent message


11, Feb, 2021 @6:38 PM

Article image
Terry Hall: lead singer of the Specials dies aged 63
Having survived a tough childhood in Coventry, Hall became one of pop’s defining voices at the turn of the 80s, chronicling British decline and disfranchised youth with the 2 Tone band

Laura Snapes

19, Dec, 2022 @10:41 PM

Article image
‘A long-form pilgrimage’: Coventry hosts 24-hour interfaith celebration
The RSC and City of Culture’s free events include promenade performances and an installation by Tower of London poppy artist

Harriet Sherwood

30, Jul, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Coventry to host Turner prize in city of culture year in 2021
City’s bid is ‘glimmer of hope’ for UK arts sector amid coronavirus crisis, say organisers

Lanre Bakare Arts and culture correspondent

21, Oct, 2020 @12:47 PM

Article image
Recalling Coventry’s great cultural heyday | Letters
Letters: John Green remembers growing up in Coventry after the war when world-famous artists and architects flocked to the city. And Ian Joyce wonders why a replica of Frank Whittle’s first jet aircraft adorns a Lutterworth traffic island


10, Dec, 2017 @6:50 PM

Article image
Coventry: from Ghost Town to city of culture
A lot has changed in the 40 years since the Specials reached No 1 with their song about the city’s demise

Alexandra Topping and Jamie Grierson

08, Dec, 2017 @6:38 PM

Article image
Cars, bicycles … and 14 Lady Godivas: Coventry kicks off year of culture
‘We are a city built on ashes, this is our chance to rebuild again,’ say organisers as celebrations get under way

Jessica Murray Midlands correspondent

06, Jun, 2021 @7:45 AM

Article image
Coventry really rocked when the Who dunnit | Letters
Letters: It’s going to be UK city of culture in 2021, but Stephen Battersby has happy memories of the Lanchester arts festival in the 1960s


13, Dec, 2017 @7:09 PM

Article image
Label of love: 2 Tone Records

Owen Adams: With the Specials and Madness, the Coventry label launched a musical movement that soundtracked a summer of riots with reggae and ska-influenced pop

Owen Adams

30, Mar, 2009 @4:57 PM