The design legacy of 2 Tone

A major new exhibition at the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum in Coventry looks at the history of 2 Tone, the record label behind seminal bands including The Specials, The Selecter, Madness, The Beat and The Bodysnatchers

The exhibition offers a deep dive into the legacy of 2 Tone, and its significance as both a musical and political force in the late 70s and early 80s. What’s also evident throughout is the coherence of 2 Tone’s design, from its logos to its distinctive black-and-white chequered branding to the clothing worn by both the bands and their fans.

The show makes clear the creative force of Jerry Dammers, who was founder of The Specials in 1977 and went on to found 2 Tone Records in 1979 as part of a deal with Chrysalis. The exhibition traces Dammers’ early artistic endeavours and features a veritable goldmine of memorabilia and pop culture iconography from his collection.

This includes the original hand-written lyrics for songs including The Specials’ Ghost Town and early sketches for the band’s logo. In addition, there is the suit Dammers wore on the very first cover of The Face and countless other items that demonstrate Dammers’ vision for 2 Tone.

Top and above: Installation shots of 2 Tone: Lives & Legacies at Herbert Art Gallery & Museum. All installation photos ©garryjonesphotography
Photography by Toni Tye
Original 2 Tone band T-shirts

There is also an examination of the political and social context in the UK that 2 Tone sprang from. “One of the things that informed 2 Tone is it came partly through the punk movement and obviously punk rose out of the disaffection that a lot of young people felt at that time in Britain in the 1970s,” says Martin Roberts, one of the show’s curators. “There was a lot of unemployment, lots of jobs being lost, there were racist attacks on the street … it was quite a grim time in lots of ways and that was one of the things that led to the emergence of punk and then subsequently 2 Tone.

“We tried to look at the musical roots of 2 Tone as well,” Roberts continues. “As well as punk feeding into it, the other key influence was Jamaican ska. We tried to cover that story – of how Jamaican ska was brought to this country by migrants from the Caribbean, who moved here in the 1950s and 60s.” The combination of punk and ska defined the 2 Tone sound, while the social climate gave the bands a strong political and anti-racist attitude.

According to Ali Wells, another curator on the show, the city of Coventry, where The Specials and many other bands in the 2 Tone scene emerged, was vital to its development. “It was very much a Coventry movement,” Wells explains. “Jerry says it could have happened wherever he was but for us it had to happen somewhere you’ve got the heavy industry that Coventry had which meant the Windrush generation were coming, bringing their reggae music … it’s that mix where you have the communities [that] both clashed and came together in different ways. It was that driver, particularly for Jerry, making that anti-racist stance. That was the main message of 2 Tone.”

Installation at the museum showing Jerry Dammers’ suit jacket, worn on the cover of the first issue of The Face
The Body Snatchers, photographed by Toni Tye
2 Tone badges

The Specials and other 2 Tone bands addressed issues of racism and other social issues in their songs, but Dammers intended to “almost sneak the message in”, according to Wells, ensuring that the songs were primarily “catchy”, and had good tunes.

Alongside the political messaging in the songs, band members on the 2 Tone label would also address racism head on with the members of the National Front that would occasionally turn up at gigs – “they spent quite a lot of time talking anti-racism to white kids,” says Wells.

As well as Dammers’ memorabilia from 2 Tone, the exhibition features black-and-white photographs of live gigs and fans by Mark Osborne, Toni Tye and John Coles, as well as a series of iconic promotional images shot by Chalkie Davies. There are also items of vintage clothing, including Fred Perry shirts and the original pork pie hats worn by Neville Staple and Pauline Black. Fans will no doubt also be excited to see the original, and now quite raggedy, bowling shirt owned by Dammers which provided the inspiration for the name of the Walt Jabsco character in the 2 Tone logo.

Fred Perry shirts on show at the 2 Tone exhibition
Selector gig, photographed by Toni Tye
Jerry Dammers at the 2 Tone exhibition, holding the original lyrics he wrote for The Specials’ hit Ghost Town

Plus there’s a whole range of items contributed by fans, including fan mail and artworks sent to 2 Tone that Dammers has kept over the years. “Jerry was really keen for us to celebrate the fans,” says Wells. “Quite a lot here came from his material.”

This is an absorbing exhibition that demonstrates the force of 2 Tone’s message, both politically and musically, as well as in terms of branding and design. While there has long been recognition of the design work of other UK labels, in particular Factory Records, 2 Tone’s contribution to music design history has perhaps been somewhat under-recognised in comparison – an oversight that this show seems likely to reverse.

2 Tone: Lives & Legacies is on show at Herbert Art Gallery & Museum in Coventry until September 12;