Two-Tone: adj. Coloured in two colours or two shades of one colour.
noun. a genre of British music that fuses traditional ska with musical elements of punk rock.
Noun. 2 Tone Records was an English record label that mostly released ska- and reggae-influenced music with a punk rock and pop music overtone.
A mixture, like many good things are; mainly ska and reggae, with splashes of punk rock and rocksteady. A mix which only really happens when dramatically different cultures rub shoulders- often uncomfortably.
Children and grandchildren of the Windrush generation were living in working-class communities around the UK. Even in themselves, there was cultural tension. They were a very clear minority, with family who saw Britain as a second home even though for them it was their only. Many of these young people were proud of both Jamaican and British cultures, despite the aggression they very often had to face because of their ethnicity.
By the 60s, Caribbean people had inadvertently introduced English people to music from the West Indies- hosting huge parties playing ska and reggae and Black British teens feverishly chasing down what are now classic records.
Many English youths fell in love too. Eventually, British reggae was born from these people growing older and creating their own. [We love an appreciative fan but readers please note that British reggae was seen as friendlier and more ‘palatable’ than its original counterpart. We don’t love that.]
Music is malleable and it didn’t take long for the Jamaican export to start being tinkered with- with ska and punk rock colliding. This is where 2Tone was born- specifically by young experimental musicians from Coventry in the Midlands.
As this unique sound grew more mainstream, popular bands such as The Selector and Madness found fame. In 1979 2 Tone records was founded, the origin of the name of the genre, named in the spirit of racial unity.
Two-tone was about both contradiction and blending.
Many Two-tone bands had both black and white members (many were all white too).
The style was black and white. The fans were too.
Rudeboys were a big part of the Two-tone culture with fans often being referred to as rudies. Smart dress was the uniform, with these Jamaican youths sporting suit and ties and even trilbies. Early skinheads, with their shaved heads and Doc Marten boots danced along to Two-tone too. And many of the Mod revivalists- pill-popping, scooter driving fashionistas called themselves fans. The diversity of the genre’s fans is one of the most interesting things about the genre.
Decades passed and though dedicated fans still held Two-tone close to their hearts, the mainstream music world moved on.
However, sparked by the 1981 documentary Dance Craze, American fans watched and were inspired. Interest grew and it influenced the next wave of American Ska music in the 90s. It even spawned music from bands like No Doubt.
It’s amazing to watch music styles jump from continent to continent, with each stop picking up cultural, stylistic and political influences. It’s always new but at its heart, we’re still dancing to the same beats.
If you’re ever in Coventry, go visit 2Tone Village. There’s a museum, a shop and a cafe celebrating the genre.