From the sampled screeches of Al Capone’s getaway cars to the Salute of Solidarity to Britain’s beleaguered teachers, the 2 Tone label has featured fifteen artists with a host of others making guest appearances throughout the label’s catalogue.
Fifteen of course, if we include Elvis Costello. Who, while having a record pressed, never actually released anything on the label, but even outside his withdrawn 45, he featured prominently on the label as producer, taking the reigns on both The Specials debut LP and the Nelson Mandela single 1984.
The label was of course the brainchild of Jerry Dammers, who’s intention was to create a British equivalent of Tamla or Stax, a label with it’s own identity, with it’s own sound. The identity was dominated by Dammers’ black & white chequered label design and the sound (at least up to the start of 1981) was Ska. It would have been interesting to see how the identity of the label might have altered had 2 Tone signed and released records by Elvis, UB40, Dexy’s Midnight Runners & Bad Manners, all act’s rumoured at one time to having been offered or seeking a deal.
So The Specials & The Selecter were the labels mainstays, with Madness & The Beat signing for one-off singles only, to launch them on their way to Stiff & Go-Feet (through Arista) respectively. The Beat’s deal mirroring The Specials deal with Chrysalis, giving them their own label to sign other acts as they wished. Go-Feet went on to release records by Cedric Myton & The Congos, and The Mood Elevators as well as The Beat themselves.
The Bodysnatchers released 2 45’s on the label, but by the time of their second release, Ska had had its day as far as the British Charts were concerned. All the above bands represented the most successful period in the label’s catalogue, with the first 10 singles all hitting the UK top twenty. Bad Manners finally appeared on the label by way of their appearance on the Joe Massot film Dance Craze.
All of the above also played Ska (to generalise a little), although The Specials were moving away from the raw punky-ska that made them, to a more polished and muzak influenced sound on their 2nd long player. This new direction may owe a little credit to The Swinging Cats who juxtaposed bossa nova, jazz, ska and more into an odd mixed bag, and granted them a single release in 1980 with the label.
By the end of 1980, only The Specials & Rico were visibly on the label, with The Selecter having signed directly to Chrysalis, and after The Specials split the label really cut it’s ties with ska. Rico released two reggae albums and a couple of singles and with The Specials moving more towards a slower tempo on their last couple of outings, for a while it looked as though the label could become an outlet through which reggae artists could release their music to Britain, albeit with a lower profile than it’s first dozen releases. But the new signings were drawn from a more ‘indie funk’ sound, with acts like The Higsons, The Apollinaires, and The Friday Club.
Dammers reverted to The Special AKA moniker after The Specials split, with a fairly elastic line-up, and a darker jazzy sound, with John Bradbury & Rhoda Dakar being ever present in the line-up. Both of whom released singles in their own right on the label, Rhoda’s ‘The Boiler’ followed up ‘Ghost Town’ & JB’s Allstars ‘The Alphabet Army’ closed the singles catalogue after 29 releases.