Back When An Election Meant Only A Day Off School
The newspapers here have understandably been making great play of it being 25 years this week since Margaret Thatcher was elected as Prime Minister. Perhaps not surprisingly my own memories of that fateful day are to do with music. I remember vividly buying the Special AKA’s 'Gangsters' 7” in the HMV shop along Oxford Street. I had heard it on the John Peel show that week, and it completely blew me away. I had never heard anything like it. And that may seem odd when the whole Two-Tone thing is so familiar now.

But 'Gangsters' sounded so strange blaring out of the radio late one night in 1979. I have heard several touching tributes to the great Coxsone Dodd this week, with radio programmes here in London airing beautiful Studio One classics, but I doubt that would have happened back then. Bluebeat and ska were not part of the musical landscape in the late ‘70s, despite clues dropped by The Clash and The Jam.

So, 'Gangsters' married the primitive bounce of bluebeat with the urgency and antagonism of punk, and we would soon be catching up by rummaging through relations record collections, and lapping up all those Trojan Tighten Up sets, and getting hold of Prince Buster collections and disparate ska compilations. But let’s not forget it was Dave McCullough in Sounds who was there first, feverishly writing up the possibilities presented by this Coventry collective.

As that first Two-Tone 7” got played to death at the start of that memorable summer, we would sing “Bernie Rhodes’ nose don’t hargue …” and perform strange moonstomps around our living rooms. So let’s not forget either Bernie the mad genius, so much responsible for The Clash’s development. The young mod who grew up on the free jazzers, the man who also picked up on Vic Godard and Subway Sect, the Specials, and Dexys Midnight Runners in The Clash’s wake. Mad he may have been, but that’s some record.

And 'Gangsters' was some record, back in those BC days. That’s before Chrysalis or before Costello got their hands on the raw material. The timing coincidentally was immaculate. A month before its release the new underground mod generation came alive, with a memorable NME special, juxtaposing an incredible Penny Reel piece with a feature on the new groups like the Purple Hearts and The Chords. And there were loads of secondhand copies around of Generation X, describing how the original mods would be out in Soho dancing to bluebeat.

Of course the Specials became genuine pop stars, and produced some of the greatest and strangest hits ever. 'Ghost Town' and 'Do Nothing' are absolute classics, naturally, and are seen as documentary evidence of the effect that May ’79 election day had on our nation’s psyche. And the Specials seemed to know what they could be up against even before they started. “Catch 22 says if I sing the truth they will make me an overnight star,” they sang on 'Gangsters'. And that group faced so many trials and tribulations with skinhead camp followers flirting with fascism, and I am sure the group members struggle to this day with the irony of what they went through during a very intense brush with fame.

I view the Specials’ Jerry Dammers and Terry Hall with tremendous affection, and would argue they never really let us down. Terry of late has turned me onto Dory Previn, and he had me howling with laughter when he guested on Sean Rowley’s radio show a while back, playing some of his guilty pleasures, and describing how he stalked Brian Prothero through the West End, reciting the lyrics to his Pinball opus. Priceless!

What I can’t summon up much enthusiasm for is the whole Two-Tone thing per se, except for perhaps The Beat. I had a phase a while back when I could not stop playing their criminally overlooked 'Doors Of My Heart', which is a song of astonishing beauty and incredibly addictive. It also features the very great Cedric Myton on vocal support, and this reminds me that it was The Beat that made Myton’s Congos’ Heart Of … classic set available here first. Which is pretty much what it’s all about. You have a hit or two, make a few bob, and put something back into the musical community.

The Beat were great pop stars too, and I recall Julie Burchill in The Face eulogising over Dave Wakeling and comrades being the second or third best pop group ever, marrying Russian cossack hats, socialism, ska, highlife guitars and an ultra-pop sensibility. Not to mention a superb bendy legs gyrating routine, which I can still do a remarkable approximation of should anyone be interested in a private demonstration. I say private because we are all frightfully earnest and humourless aren’t we dears, and we don’t want to shatter the delusions of our readers do we?

© 2004 John Carney