I am always aware that music tastes are very personal. They can often be associated with memories, upbringing, and the choices of our peers. In some cases, they are regionally biased, and in others can depend on an urban, or rural background.
For those of you who have never heard of Ska music, or are too young to remember it, or the 2-Tone revival many years later, I suspect it will be a case of immediate love or hate. I write this as a personal memory, although I also suggest some tracks to listen to, and perhaps enjoy. Do not confuse this with Reggae music, which is another genre altogether; and despite possible similarities, one I do not actually like.
Originating in the West Indies, specifically Jamaica, during the late 1950’s, Ska got its name from the pulsing, shuffle-sounding beat that is the basis of every song of this type. These songs began to arrive in the UK in the early 1960’s, when I was just a teenager. Many were cover versions of well-known, or earlier recorded songs, with the tempo adapted to the Ska rhythm. One of the problems in trying to discuss this music, is the constant debate about whether a song is really a Ska song, or if it is rather in a Reggae, Rude Boy, or Blues Club style. As with any intensely followed style, artist, or subject, this will always be open to interpretation. For the purposes of this article, I will state that I regard my suggestions as either Ska, or 2-Tone, and will be prepared to argue the point, if necessary. Although the Ska beat was often slowed down, when it became known as Rock Steady, it is notable that in the 2-Tone revival, the original, almost frenetic speed was re-introduced by the young groups who formed this new movement. Some of the earliest hits were instrumental, and the use of a brass section, later adopted by bands like Madness, was common. Once you heard a real Ska record, you could always recognise the style, and feel the beat. Later tributes, by bands such as Madness, Bad Manners, and The Specials, might have introduced listeners to the names of Prince Buster, Desmond Dekker,The Skatalites, and the Ethiopians, but added little to the raw excitement of the original recordings.
As with any musical trend, it was accompanied by special club events, some difficulties obtaining the more obscure singles, and a fashion style, later parodied or copied by the 2-Tone groups. Shiny suits, slim-cut, with short jackets, narrow ties, and the ubiquitous pork-pie hat, were de-rigueur for aficionados, many of whom also habitually wore sunglasses. Despite the popularity of the music with the English Mods, Ska fans would never be seen wearing parkas, or riding scooters; they were much too cool for that. It also brought a welcome inter-racial togetherness, at a time when tensions in this area were high. Young black fans danced side by side with the emerging white audience for the music, and there were rarely any of the problems experienced elsewhere at the time. It was a relatively short-lived musical trend, arguably consumed by Reggae, and the popularity of Bob Marley, and other Reggae groups favouring the slower beat of that music. But to me, it remains part of my youth, something that stays with me into retirement, and that I enjoy as much today, as I did almost fifty years ago.
Without listing every Ska artist and record for your consideration, I am forced to make choices, based on the most popular artists, and the best-selling records. To get a feel of the music, it is best to listen to some of the most famous instrumentals, as well as the best known vocalists. If you choose to do so, it may dawn on you that you have heard them before, perhaps in their second incarnation as a 2-Tone cover version, or maybe covered by non 2-Tone bands, like the English pseudo-Reggae group, UB40. Often, the origins of the songs can be most surprising; for example, a well-known song, ‘Red Red Wine’. This was actually written by Neil Diamond, the famous American entertainer. I first heard it and liked it, as recorded by Tony Tribe, who released a Rock Steady version in 1969. The Reggae themed version by UB40 was a huge hit, topping the UK charts in 1983.
As early as 1963, Prince Buster, the first Ska performer to really come to my attention, was having success with records such as ‘Madness’ (this is where the UK group got their name from, and covered the song also), ‘One Step Beyond’ (also later covered by madness) and ‘Al Capone’. These three records are some of my first memories of Ska arriving in the UK, and through the later cover versions, are still well-known today.
In 1967, The Skatalites even adapted the popular theme to the hit film ‘Guns of Navarone’ into a Ska instrumental, again later covered during the 2-Tone revival. This was a strange concept, adding the frantic Ska beat to such a well-known theme, but it worked.
At around the same time, The Ethiopians released the almost definitive Ska song, ‘Train to Skaville’. The falsetto vocal, together with repetitive horns and shuffling guitar beat, absolutely typifies the slower Rock Steady side of Ska, and was again covered during the 2-Tone tears, by The Selecter.
I do not intend to just keep listing tracks and links. I think I have established that the roots of many later hits and acknowledged classics can actually be found in the Ska of the early 1960’s; if not in the actual songs, then in the beat and rhythms, and the overall construction. Other artists must be mentioned though. Desmond Dekker, often wrongly called a Reggae artist, enjoyed great success here with songs such as ‘Israelites’, ‘It Mek’, and 007 (Shanty Town), a Rude Boy smash in Jamaica. He performed for many years, right up to his death, in 2006. In the late 1960’s, Dandy Livingstone had a minor hit with the song ‘Rudy, a message to you’. This was later covered by the Specials, and became for many, the signature song of the 2-Tone movement.
In the late 1970’s, Jerry Dammers was the keyboard player for Midlands group The Specials. He is credited with coining the name 2 Tone, for a new type of music, that was actually not so new. Taking the basics of Ska, sometimes speeding it up, and adding some elements of Punk into the mix, The Specials, and other bands, succeeded in reviving Ska, and introducing it to a new audience. Along with The Specials, were The Beat, The Selecter, Bad Manners, and Madness. All these bands took elements from Ska and Rock Steady, and in some cases, directly covered previous hits. Madness had hits with covers of Prince Buster songs, and The Specials and The Selecter also issued cover versions of Ska classics. This was a relatively short-lived revival, and soon faded. However, some of the groups involved, notably Madness, and The Specials, went on to great fame and fortune, adapting their songs and music to suit the times, enduring personnel changes in some cases, and for The Specials, even name changes. They were originally known as The Special AKA, and some founder members later became Fun Boy Three, before the other band members returned to being known as The Special AKA once more. During the time they were together, they released the two classics of 2 Tone, ‘Free Nelson Mandela’, and ‘Too Much Too Young’. Neither of these were cover versions, and took the style of music to the next level, giving 2 Tone its own identity.
Fashion was still a feature of this movement. Pork pie hats were still in evidence, as were slim-fit suits, ties and waistcoats. However, elements had crept in from other trends. Braces and button-down shirts, favoured by Skinheads, as well as short Crombie overcoats, a staple garment of the Suedehead, and later Mods. These were also mainstream pop records now, with high chart placings, frequent appearances on TV, and all very much a part of the regular music scene. This was especially true of Madness. The North London group, often jokingly referred to as ‘The Nutty Boys’, had started their career with covers of Ska classics. Very soon, they were performing their own songs, alongside other covers of non-Ska records, most notably Labi Siffre’s ‘It Must Be Love’. With the increasing popularity of the pop video, Madness found their true talent as performers, taking their videos to new levels of craziness. They later became even more mainstream, and very English in style, releasing massive hits like ‘Our House’, ‘Baggy Trousers’, ‘House of Fun’, and ‘Embarrassment’. They are still performing occasionally today, and have become the most enduring of all the Ska revival bands, an English institution.
I sometimes wonder where it all went, and how it might have sounded, had it remained popular, and was still being performed today. The closest I can get to it, is from 1985. After The Beat split, two of the band joined a talented vocalist, Roland Gift. Calling themselves The Fine Young Cannibals, they released an album, with a track on it that is probably the closest to what might have been modern Ska. (Despite a cover version of ‘Suspicious Minds’…) It contained this classic song, that is as good as forgotten by everyone. The driving beat, plaintive vocal, even the jerky performances and mod-inspired clothing on the video, all scream Ska for the 1980’s. ‘Johnny Come Home’; it doesn’t get much better than this.
Well, I hope that you might have found something you like. If not, it has been a nice trip down memory lane for me.