Almost 40 years ago to the day, Ghost Town by The Specials was released. It came at a time when uprisings were tearing through Brixton and other major towns and cities in Britain. At the time, watching the video for the single on TV as it went to Number 1 in the charts, with the lead item on all news bulletins being of fighting between inner city youth and the police with burning cars and buildings as the visual backdrop, Ghost Town seemed prescient and to aurally depict the tension of the streets.
The video, directed by graphic designer Barney Bubbles, was equally chilling. Especially so the shot at the end where the band pointlessly and pointedly throw stones in the river, and between each throw turn to the camera as if to say: “come on then!” As a closing visual metaphor played out to the haunting sound of police sirens echoing through a cityscape, it still sends shivers down my spine to this day. In the moment of its release, Ghost Town felt like something important and meaningful. That this single was The Specials’ swan song, and effectively the full stop to a youth culture that was spawned by the formation of the 2 Tone record label only two years previously, makes the track seem all the more poignant. *
Today, as Coventry, the city that The Specials and fellow 2 Tone band The Selecter hail from, celebrates being the 2021 City of Culture, a light is being shone once again on such an important, but short-lived cultural phenomena. A 2 Tone exhibition in Coventry that coincides with the City of Culture accolade has rightfully been getting attention from both mainstream press and Graphic Design blogs alike.
For me though, the record label and associated bands were not just important to my musical and political development. I can also trace a burgeoning interest in Graphic Design to my poring over the record sleeves of 2 Tone, Stiff and Go Discs releases, these being the three main labels of the acts that formed the ‘ska revival’ of the time. Except for Bad Manners, all started out on 2 Tone, with Madness and The Beat still carrying the flame after respectively moving to Stiff and Go Discs after the release of their first singles.
The album sleeve that best captures that Graphic Design awakening in one place is, for me, Dance Craze, a compilation of live tracks from the film of the same name—a film that attempted to capture the chaos and wonder of all the bands associated with the scene. The sleeve features each acts’ logotype treatments, their mascot icons, and the famous black and white chequer board. Jerry Dammers, founder of both The Specials and 2 Tone, had the concept for both the label name and the black and white squares as symbolising the fact that most of the bands involved were of mixed race. A political statement in itself in late 1970s Britain, as the fascist organisation the National Front marched through town centres and racist comedy on TV was barely challenged.
Dammers also had a hand in many of the individual bands’ visuals, often acting as ‘ideas director’, and ably helped by designers David Storey and ‘Teflon’ Sims, and photographers Chalkie Davies and Carol Starr. The big idea was for the label to be a British equivalent to Motown, and in bringing like-minded acts together, he made a brave attempt at just that. I was always fascinated by how each band had their own identity, yet that these worked collectively under 2 Tone’s umbrella aesthetic. As a result, I was being introduced to successful graphic design and branding long before I knew what either term meant.
I was so into these typographic configurations and character icons that I would endlessly trace them off the album sleeves, which if I dig those same sleeves out today, I would still see the indentation around the edges of the graphics where 12-year-old me had pressed a ball-point pen nib slightly too enthusiastically. As was the trend of the day, my school bag was covered in poorly drawn versions of the Madness ‘M man’ and The Selecter’s spiky letterforms. On the Dance Craze tape I owned, the cleverest thing I thought was that the plastic cassette itself had one-half black case and one-half white case joined together.
On Twitter recently I reminisced about this, with a comment from another designer saying they too were inducted into Graphic Design by record sleeves, albeit for them, those sleeves being The Designers Republic™ artwork for Pop Will Eat Itself. It seems unlikely that today’s generation of future graphic designers will seduced into its world through the minimal artwork that accompanies downloads and streaming. And with the vinyl revival being the preserve of those with a disposable income and out of reach of most teenagers, they are probably not going to experience the luxury of exploring artwork as printed on a 12″ sleeve. As a result, mine and other’s of my generations’ experiences are probably not going to be repeated; and that’s fine, each generation needs their own reference points. Whether these reference points will be so all-encompassing though, as was my collective exposure to graphic design, typography, branding, politics and different cultures through 2 Tone Records was, I am doubtful.
To have been at the right age for this to have such a big impact on my life, I am truly grateful. I am rarely one for nostalgia, but on this 40th anniversary, I will allow myself just a little, given how much this movement gave to me.
* 2 Tone Records would go on the release a compilation of singles, two excellent Rico albums, and a long delayed The Special AKA album after the fracturing of the original line-up, but realistically the ‘movement’ was over the moment the original Specials called it a day.