WITHIN a year or so, I’d find myself making shapes to The Message and Klacto Vee Sedstein on this very same sticky parquet dancefloor, but tonight it was all about the punky reggae party that was the 2Tone ska revival.
I was tagging along with my cousin Nicky and a load of his mates on a trip to the cavernous Top Rank in Sheffield to see the Beat on their first headlining tour, around the time their debut album I Just Can’t Stop It was released in 1980.
Before the gig started, I bought a couple of big A2 posters, a really nice pink and black one based on the album cover and a crappy cheap-looking black and white photomontage of the band.
I ended up getting them signed by Ranking Roger, who was sitting around in the upstairs bar – which was just extraordinary in itself – chatting to a couple of girls. He barely looked at me as he quickly scribbled his moniker on both posters. I don’t know what I would have said to him if I’d got the chance but I remember feeling a bit disappointed that he was more interested in talking to attractive young girls than me.
I had a lot to learn about rock‘n’roll. I had a lot to learn about everything.
I’d almost certainly be wearing a black Harrington, my granddad’s old braces, my trusty White Riot T-shirt and jeans which were rolled up to reveal the full height of my new shiny-black 18-hole Dr Marten’s.
I learned years later that the support bands were the Akrylyx, a punky ska band from Hull led by one Roland Gift (I remember him being very arsey with the audience: “When you’ve finished ..” he announced imperiously, waiting for the between song chatter to abate), and the synthy Vice Versa, who were essentially a proto ABC, fronted by Martin Fry.
If only we’d known. Eighties pop heaven!
Disappointingly, the rest of the gig remains a blur. Most likely, I got very excitable after drinking two pints of the Top Rank’s cheap, gassy, pissy lager. The Beat probably played songs from the album and their debut single Mirror In The Bathroom. I do remember them doing Stand Down Margaret because everyone sang along with the chorus. I might have fallen over. We probably went for some chips before we got the bus back.
You’ll have to forgive me if this is a bit light on the detail. It all happened a very long time ago. I was young and I was drunk.
The whole 2Tone thing had been a big deal for me ever since my supercool music-obsessive uncle played me Gangsters and The Selecter, the two tracks on the label‘s first single.
The sound of Caribbean good times dance music colliding with provincial British white working class protest music, added to 2Tone’s distinct pop sensibility and unapologetic political agenda, had a profound impact on me and thousands more kids of my generation – way beyond that of the pretend Mod revival which preceded it, that’s for sure.
The 2Tone phenomena probably couldn’t have happened anywhere else in the world – but then again, there was nowhere that needed 2Tone as much as Britain did at the arse-end of the Seventies, so we maybe shouldn‘t congratulate ourselves too much.
I became an avid collector of the label’s distinctive black and white singles, as well as all manner of similarly monochrome daft badges. I was a little too young to appreciate the first wave of punk in 1977 so this was the first time I’d been in on something at the beginning and actually felt a kind of music ‘belonged’ to me.
It was also the time when I first began to go to gigs regularly.
One unforgettable Saturday afternoon, me, my mate Andy and our school’s very own blonde bombshell, Sally, who lived just down the road from me, went to see the Selecter play an all-ages matinee at the Limit in Sheffield.
Sally wasn’t remotely interested in me, in fact I think I actually got on her nerves most of the time, but a boy can dream – and I did dream, all the way through school. I’m not ashamed to admit that seeing this fantastically well-developed sex siren dance to the fast and furious rhythms of the Selecter was worth the price of admission alone.
We saw the Specials for free at an open-air concert in Rotherham at the same time as Ghost Town was number one in the charts. There were sporadic outbreaks of seig-heiling between songs and then it all kicked off between the Sheffield, Rotherham and Doncaster skins. I remember one crazed denim-clad ginger-haired rocker taking off his bullet belt and whipping it around his head like he wanted to kill somebody.
Appropriately enough, that very evening, after the gig, the band went down to London to make the video for Ghost Town.
One edition of Top Of The Pops had both the Specials and the Beat appearing – and they swapped bass players! Horace Panter played for the Beat and David Steele played for the Specials. Ker-Razy! I ended up having an argument with my dad who told me I must have imagined the swap because such dangerous anarchist nonsense would simply never get past the people in charge at the BBC. But I knew different.
My uncle will have bought I Just Can’t Stop It as soon as it came out and I eventually got it myself but I’ve no idea where or when. I’m getting a mental image of me listening to it as I sit on the electric storage heater in my freezing room, so it might have been bought with Christmas gift vouchers, possibly from Boots or WHSmiths.
As an album, it was big on proper harmonies and infectious, hooky choruses, with Saxa’s jazzy sax lines meandering all over the shop. Joyful, melodic and energised, I Just Can’t Stop It was the smiley happy-face counterpoint to the not-exactly-a-laugh-a-minute debuts by the Specials and the Selecter.
Their second album Wha’ppen was another big favourite of mine and I even got a fantastic 12-inch dub mix of the lead single Doors Of Your Heart. All of which have disappeared over the years in circumstances I can’t, in all honesty, even begin to speculate about. I’ve no idea where they ended up.
I used to play the dubs of Drowning and Doors Of Your Heart on my rambling, incoherent Sunday morning ‘Get Up Come Down / Come Up Get Down’ shows on Dream FM in the mid Nineties – but the albums are precisely the kind of record I would’ve flogged when I was skint at the end of the Eighties, thinking that they’d be easy enough to track down once I had money again. And I had a bit of a downer on guitar music in general at the time.
Would you be surprised if I told you they’re not particularly easy to track down now that I have the time, money and inclination to get into all this shit?
But I got there in the end. A couple of months ago, I bought I Just Can’t Stop It from Vinyl Revival in town. Three quid, thank you very much. Bargain.
As soon as the needle hit the record, I found myself singing along to every line of every song, despite not hearing them for at least a couple of decades. I’m not sure I’d be able to dance to them like I once did though.
Bob Sargeant’s trebly, jangly production has aged every bit as gracefully as the album’s stylish and distinctive cover design. The Beat girl still looks like the best girlfriend ever. Mirror In The Bathroom still sounds as paranoid, Twist And Crawl as moody, their cover of Andy Williams’ Can’t Get Used To Losing You as inspired.
It’s just a wonderful album – and it throws the increasingly annoying whiney-shite of latterday ska-shysters like Jack Penis into sharp perspective.
I’ll let you know when I find the other stuff.
Dave Wakeling is still gigging in the States, while Roger has toured with former Specials as the Special Beat. A couple of years ago, Wakeling crossed the Atlantic to join up with Roger, Saxa and drummer Everton Moreton – but not David Steele and Andy Cox – to play at the Royal Festival Hall.
You can get more details on what they’re up to now via the official website. It’s worth a visit for the old original promo vids archive alone.