40 years on, Mark Perryman celebrates the release of the debut single from The Specials
On the 3rd May 1979, Margaret Thatcher leads the Tories to a crushing General Election defeat of Labour. The next morning I pop into the small independent record shop tucked away by the platforms at Hull railway station to pick up the eagerly awaited debut single by The Specials, a double A-side with label mates The Selecter on the reverse. What an antidote!
For the preceding couple of years the National Front had threatened both a street-fighting and electoral breakthrough. The Anti-Nazi League (ANL) mobilised in opposition everywhere and appeared to challenge the fascists’ ability to organise. The investigative magazine Searchlight exposed via fearless intelligence-gathering the Neo-Nazi origins of the NF’s leadership and key organisers. And most imaginatively of all, Rock against Racism, via a mix of huge carnivals and local gigs, had spread the message that the NF stood for ‘No Fun, No Freedom, No Future’, in order to drive a wedge between the nihilistic appeal of punk, and the NF. Punk’s flirtation with the faux-shock value of the swastika and Nazi chic had until this kind of intervention the potential to provide a useful base of support for the NF.
A fortnight before polling day the ANL had organised a massive protest outside an NF election rally which was provocatively sited in multicultural Southall, and was to be addressed by their wannabe Führer-in-Waiting, John Tyndall. The counter-demo was brutally policed by the notorious Special Patrol Group, so brutal that their actions resulted in the death of one demonstrator, Blair Peach. The late 1970s were dangerous times.
When the ’79 General Election votes were counted, the NF had been humiliated at the ballot box. Despite standing in seats from Accrington to York and most places in between, they barely topped 1% of the vote in these contests nationwide. Their best single result still only a measly 7.6% for Tyndall in Hackney South and Shoreditch. But the NF’s setback, however welcome, was less due to the defeat of their racism than its embrace by the more mainstream Tories.
In January 1978 Thatcher had said during a World in Action TV interview of immigration:
By the end of the century there would be four million people of the new Commonwealth or Pakistan here. Now, that is an awful lot and I think it means that people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture and, you know, the British character has done so much for democracy, for law and done so much throughout the world that if there is any fear that it might be swamped people are going to react and be rather hostile to those coming in.
Despite her qualifying these remarks elsewhere in the televised conversation, the message was perfectly clear – vote Conservative, stop the ‘swamping’ of ‘our’ culture, you don’t need to vote NF because the Tories will do their job.
The Specials stood for an entirely different version of ‘this country’ to Thatcher’s. A 2 Tone nation celebrated their music via riotous gigs and frantic dancing, mixing up the anarchic energy of post-punk with the original sound of Jamaica’s Prince Buster, Desmond Dekker, Harry J. Allstars and others. Dressed up to the nines in tonic suits, loafers, button-down collar shirts, it was a musical movement rooted in the hugely contradictory sub-culture of skinheads. Rocking against racism was no longer just a prescription, more the natural consequence of the sounds we loved. Ska was being reinvented in the multicultural spaces of Birmingham, Coventry and North London, by the bands we followed up and down the motorways, north, south, east and west.
Hull was as affected by all this as anywhere else. The SWP had a bookshop on Spring Bank that had become pretty much the hub for a thriving local Rock Against Racism scene. The Wellington Club, affectionately known as ‘The Welly’ to all who frequented it, was a hotbed of punk, indy and post-punk. Both helped pull together a mainly young crowd, who would fill coaches to stop the NF and British Movement wherever they threatened to march. One memorable excursion of this sort to protest against the Far Right’s favourite racist landlord, Robert Relf, then languishing in Winchester prison, left Hull past midnight so the music crowd could also see Howard Devoto’s Magazine gig at the local FE College.
There was an uglier side to this mix though. There were pubs to avoid because they were well-known NF hangouts, places where a visit to the toilets was likely to end in a bloody confrontation. They firebombed the SWP bookshop, too. However, ska helped mould the activism and the music into some sort of movement. The coolest kid in these parts was Roland, a diehard Clash fan, mixed-race with a blonde rinse. His nickname, before any of us knew any better, was ‘Guinness’. His mum ran a second-hand clothes shop, if we wanted the sixties ska look on the cheap, that was the place to find a vintage bargain. And when Roland formed a ska band, The Akrilykz, it was the Communist Party who provided the lead guitar and drummer. Now that’s what I call a Popular Front! And Roland was mesmerising on lead vocals, despite his moniker, personifying everything we believed in. His quietly understated voice soared with the breathless melodies that a few years later he, Roland Lee Gift, would bring to the Fine Young Cannibals.
2 Tone and its offshoots rapidly became this kind of movement everywhere. Not in the conventional political sense, nor like the gloriously disorganised effectiveness of RAR’s self-styled Militant Entertainment either. When the first 2 Tone Tour reached Sheffield, I joined it on a minibus from Hull. The dancehall was heaving, on the cusp of some kind of musical rebellion, threatening yet joyful at the same time. The notorious South Yorkshire police however suspected something untoward was afoot and tried to close the gig down. I’ll never forget the response of Terry Hall, the Specials’ lead singer. He bounded on stage, asked us all to sit down on the dance floor and then to the senior police officer’s face led the entire audience in chorus after chorus of the ‘Harry Roberts Song’. Grudgingly, and knowing the alternative was likely to be a seriously wrecked venue, the police didn’t have much choice than allow the gig to proceed. 1-0 to 2 Tone.
Another unforgettable ’79 night was spent at the tiny Dingwalls nightclub in Camden. It was the evening of the first performance of Madness on Top of the Pops, and to reward their loyal fans the band were playing live straight afterwards. I was one of the lucky few crammed in, packed shoulder to shoulder with British Movement skinheads. This was genuinely scary because although my hair was short enough to pass muster, my politics certainly was not.
It was one of the contradictions of 2 Tone, and the original ska numbers too, that a sound imported from Jamaica and reinvented by inner-city England was embraced and danced to by some young people who were avowedly racist. But mostly not, of course. Messy, even violent on occasion, the irresistible beat of 2 Tone belonged mostly to a predominantly working-class fan base who fancied a good time, while having the common sense to leave any racism they might be bringing along to the show at the door.
In this way music, like most aspects of popular culture, is a staging post towards social change, rather than the vehicle for it. We ignore the politically progressive potential of the former at our peril, but try to enforce it into becoming the latter and we starve the music of its originality and dynamism.
That’s not to say the bands weren’t political. The Specials topped the charts in ’81 with their epic Ghost Town and headlined the Leeds Rock against Racism carnival, which ended up being the last UK live performance of the original line-up. While label mates The Beat’s Stand Down Margaret was the definitive anti-Tory dance number for a generation.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s the breakthrough of 2 Tone didn’t exist in a vacuum. Thatcher’s elevation of a racist discourse around ‘swamping’ was followed by the raw nationalist-populism of the Falkands War and an increasingly punitive law and order agenda. The street-fighting fascist Right remained an ever-present threat. The mix was toxic but ska, and The Specials most of all, did at least provide the national anthems for a 2 Tone nation in the making.
In the era of Thatcherism this seemed like another country. But no, it was ours, and despite their worst efforts that other lot could never take it from us.
All illustrations are by graphic designer Hugh Tisdale co-founder of Philosophy Football and available as T-shirts from the company here.
Mark Perryman is the author of The Corbyn Effect , his new book Corbynism from Below is published in September by Lawrence & Wishart.