This Aren’t Two Tone
Although 2 Tone was initially closely identified with Ska, opportunities existed to broaden the label’s musical output. Two bands that almost made it onto the label with their debut singles were UB40 and Dexy’s Midnight Runners, both from the English midland city of Birmingham and both playing a cultural mix of music.
Dexy’s took their inspiration from the 60s soul of Stax and Motown, while UB40 played a unique style of old school reggae. Both bands were widely expected to sign with 2 Tone but depending on who you’re talking to; they either turned down the offer flat, or the label simply missed the opportunity of signing them.
Dexy’s Midnight Runners
Formed in 1978, Dexy’s took their name from the commercially available amphetamine Dexedrine. Dexedrine was one of the favoured drugs of 60s mods and soul boys and was an essential part of any night out. It enabled users to stay awake and kept energy levels at a maximum for ‘All Nighters’, hence the name Dexy’s Midnight Runners.
One of the main instigators behind the band was Kevin Rowland who had previously been vocalist with original punk outfit The Killjoys. He set about recruiting like minded musicians who took inspiration from the sounds of James Brown and Sam and Dave. The band played various pubs and clubs in their native Birmingham and soon came to the attention of the music press. By know 2 Tone-mania was taking a grip of the nation and Dexy’s with their brass driven dance sound were widely rumoured to be the labels next signing. They managed to pick up a slot on the first 2 Tone Tour, replacing Madness who had to leave the tour due to other commitments. According to reports at the time they “kept themselves to themselves” on the tour and rarely mixed with any members of the other bands.
Their sound and indeed image was not a million miles away from the traditional fair and certainly would have made a welcome variation to the labels portfolio, but Kevin Rowland was having none of it, and refused to be part of what he called “anyone else’s movement”. Having turned down 2 Tone the band released their debut single, Dance Stance, on the small Odd Ball label, which was owned by a certain Bernie Rhodes… Although Dance Stance failed to make a major impression on the charts, it did get favourable reviews in the music press mostly via the bands’ association with 2 Tone. Smash Hits in a rather strange review hailed the arrival of “a single by ska’s horniest band”.
Following a few line up changes (including the addition of future member of the Style Council, Mick Talbot) the band continued to release soul-based singles and managed a UK number one with the single Geno, their tribute to soul legend Geno Washington. The song contained the line ‘my bombers, my dexys, my high’ Bombers being a reference to yet another amphetamine pill with the street name Black Bombers. The band also recorded a critically acclaimed album, Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, which contained a small snippet of Rat Race by The Specials, but were soon to adopt an ever changing musical style and image. The band would go from dungarees and banjos to an image that was once described as “the look of a double glazing sales man” with various degrees of success.
Named after an unemployment benefit card UB40 were formed in 1978 in their native Birmingham. They were not exactly competent musicians at the time, in fact some of the members of the band couldn’t play any instruments at all, but a few months of practice in a cellar of all places soon brought everyone up to scratch. The majority of the band were unemployed at the time so there was plenty of time to practice, so aided by a supply of electricity which they ‘borrowed’ from the premises above the rehearsal room they were soon able to knock out covers of various reggae classics.
The band soon felt confident enough to play small local venues, their first gig was in February 1979 at the ‘Horse & Hounds’ in nearby Kings Heath, and they even managed a session for a local radio station. As luck would have it a certain Mr John Peel heard the broadcast and before the band knew it they were recording a session for national radio, which was broadcast in January 1980. It was during this period that the band picked up support slots for local band The Beat and generated media interest via their loose association with 2 Tone. Although the band played a laid back style of reggae rather than the frenetic ska of 2 Tone, the multicultural make up of the band placed them under the media spotlight.
Shortly before their first recording session, the band were joined by Astro, whose role initially was to encourage the audience to dance, but soon became compere and Toasted over some of the extended tracks, this role in fact was similarly filled by Neville, Roger & Chas in The Specials, The Beat & Madness respectively. UB40 turned to local producer Bob Lamb to supervise their demo recordings.
The band were keen to release a single and signed a deal with local independent label, Graduate. Graduate was run by David & Susan Virr from their record shop in Dudley, and the deal was the the band & label would share royalties 50-50. Why the band didn’t sign with 2 Tone has never been fully explained, all Dammers has said on the matter is “that we missed out signing UB40”, but UB40 subsequently claimed that they were anxious not to be associated with the potentially short lived ska phenomenon.
The debut release was a double A side of King/Food for Thought, with airplay concentrating on the less obviously political Food For Thought, the record met with the public’s approval and reached a very respectable number 4 in the national charts and went on to sell half a million copies. This placing was no doubt aided by the fact that Chrissie Hynde had offered the band a support slot on The Pretenders UK tour which coincided exactly with the singles release.
The band’s follow-up single ‘My Way Of Thinking/I Think It’s Going To Rain Today’, moved away from politics and inevitably led to “sell-out” accusations from some quarters, however it was the groups policy, at least in the early years to alternate between ‘pop’ and ‘message’ songs. The third single ‘The Earth Dies Screaming/Dream A Lie’ was to be their last for Graduate (and oddly includes the inscription DEP! on the run-out grooves), and neither track appeared on their aptly named debut LP, ‘Signing Off’. The album became the biggest selling UK Independent LP to date, reaching No.2 and spending a total of 71 weeks in the charts.
The band severed their relationship with Graduate after the label allegedly tried to omit the anit-apartheid anthem ‘Burden Of Shame’ from the South African release of ‘Singing Off’.
The band left their producer too, and set up their own label DEP International and vowed to release a dub version of their next long player which was ‘Present Arms’. The album was promoted by two singles ‘Don’t Slow Down’ & ‘One In Ten’ which became their only single besides King/Food for Thought not to have a 12″ format release. For many this record marked the end of UB40’s ‘message’ singles, before moving in a lighter pop direction.