New exhibition 2 Tone: Lives & Legacies features incredible photos of fans of the Coventry music phenomenon
In early 1980, The Specials were still basking in the glory of putting Too Much Too Young, and the sound of their 2 Tone label, at No. 1. Along with other ska-revival bands The Beat, The Bodysnatchers, The Selecter, Bad Manners and Madness, they capitalised on the moment by embarking on a frenetic schedule of gigs.
There to capture performances from Portsmouth to Sunderland for his film Dance Craze (1981) was American director Joe Massot, along with British cinematographer Joe Dunton, and Sussex photographer Toni Tye, whose photographs feature in a new exhibition at Coventry’s Herbert Art Gallery and Museum looking at the history and significance of the label.
Massot had directed the psychedelic, George Harrison-soundtracked Wonderwall (1968) and the Led Zeppelin concert film The Song Remains The Same (1976), but such kaleidoscopic imagery and rhinestoned rock bombast were far removed from what he encountered in Britain’s post-industrial cities, places as monochrome as 2 Tone’s logo and in the grip of both a resurgence of the far-right and early Thatcherite social and economic upheaval.
But Massot’s film and Tye’s photographs captured a scene of incredible energy and vibrance, the electrifying gigs defying social and racial division through music and dance. Dunton rejected detachedly filming from the stalls to instead get on stage and into the thick of the action, breaking down the barrier between audience and performer in the same way the bands did – audience interaction and frequent stage invasions were a large part of the scene.
Tye’s stills, which appear in the exhibition alongside ephemera including the iconic 2 Tone suit and Specials guitarist Roddy Radiation’s pork pie hat, are similarly democratic. They feature the fans as much as the musicians, and her photograph of Desmond Brown of The Selecter and Lynval Golding of The Specials larking about with some thoroughly hyped-up 2 Tone kids captures the camaraderie between artists and fans in a single image.
But Tye’s collection also shows that this was a scene that was diverse not just in terms of race, as was 2 Tone’s explicit intention, but age and sex. This was a true youth movement. Tye’s images of two baby-faced friends, one in pork pie hat and with the trifecta of Coventry ska bands on his badges, and of a bomber-jacketed kid whose Selecter LP and can of Coke look over-sized against his small frame, are evidence that some of the audience were not quite into adolescence.
And the pictures further reveal that what could be a deeply masculine scene at its skinhead end was in fact also staked a claim to by girls. Among the large group at the Friars Club gig in Aylesbury, girls confidently embrace styles from a tomboyishness to a retro femininity, while the bespectacled, parka-wearing girl on the steps in Coventry holds a self-assuredly steady gaze amid the boyish tomfoolery around her.
These images are documents not only of a moment in music but in British social history.
2 Tone: Lives & Legacies, runs until September 12 at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry.
SENT TO COVENTRY
The home of 2 Tone began its year as European city of culture on May 15. Here are five highlights to look out for…
Coventry Moves (June 5) An all-day programme of events across the city, featuring, among many others, Selecter singer Pauline Black, musician Navin Kundra and 14 modern-day Lady Godivas
Terry Hall presents Home Sessions (July 2021) A three-day music and arts festival in the city centre, curated by the Specials’ lead singer.
The Walk (27 October) A 3.5-metre-tall puppet of a young refugee called Little Amal ends its 8,000km journey from the Syria/Turkey border, across Europe and into the UK.
Turner Prize Show (October 2021-January 2022) New work from the four shortlisted artists, at the Herbert Gallery.
Street Art (ongoing) A series of dazzling projects, including Matt Chu’s 27sq metre mural ‘At One with Cofa’s Tree’ on shopping street Pepper Lane and work by Carrie Reichardt and Zoe Power at the Pool Meadow bus station.