It’s the artist’s image, rather than the record label’s identity, that dominates design in the music industry. It has always been so, except in rare cases. Blue Note Records was one, with its punchy, Swiss-influenced cover art by Reid Miles. In the 1970s, EG Records packaged the output of most of its more avant-garde artists in minimalist sleeves with standardised all-caps Helvetica, and the jazz and experimental label, ECM, chose a similarly studious vein.
And then there was 2 Tone. From its first single in 1979, Gangsters by The Specials, the Coventry-based label established a high-contrast, black-and-white, agit-prop aesthetic that represented more than the ska-meets-punk style of music shared by its stable of artists. It was the look of a movement and a set of values. If the lyrics – especially of The Specials and The Selecter – about racial disharmony, boredom, apathy and social decay in inner-city Britain, were sometimes bleak, the music never was. For young people around the UK, 2 Tone replaced the nihilistic flailing of punk with something positive, channelled and danceable.
2 Tone’s look, as much as its lyrics and sound, gave it the feeling of a real youth movement, with harmony, unity and equality at its heart. It was the creation of 2 Tone’s founder, The Specials’ Jerry Dammers. John ‘Teflon’ Sims was an art director at Chrysalis Records, which distributed 2 Tone, and worked closely with Dammers in turning his visual ideas down into artwork. “Jerry had tunnel vision of the band and the label concept,” says Sims.
“He had an art college background and wanted everything to look right about the band and the 2 Tone label.”
Sims, a former ‘rude boy’ himself, worked up sketches by Dammers and his band-mate, Horace Panter, into artwork that would adorn every 2 Tone release. The pair had been working on the image of The Specials and the label since the band’s earliest days. “They’d sit around after rehearsals,” says Sims, “and come up with ideas, names and sketches. ‘Satik’ and ‘Underworld’ were names in the running but 2 Tone was the one that stood out. It was Horace that created the large ‘2′ above the ‘Tone’ logo style (in Helvetica Inserat). Jerry took the black and white check from an old mod pop-art motif.”
At his first meeting with the pair in the Chrysalis A&R Department, Sims was given a stylised sketch by Dammers based on a picture of reggae musician Peter Tosh on the cover of The Wailing Wailers LP. Dammers had dubbed the figure ‘Walt Jabsco’ – the name on a bowling shirt he’d bought in a second-hand shop. Sims turned the sketch into the sharp-suited, hands-in-pocket character that became a talisman for all 2 Tone followers, and one that they would replicate on school exercise books and satchels up and down the country.
Having established the visual style, Dammers kept tight control of it. David Storey, now an artist and occasional album sleeve designer, worked alongside Sims on hundreds of 2 Tone sleeves, posters, ads, badges and other items. “Jerry used to describe how he wanted a particular design to look,” Storey recalls. “John and I would produce several layouts based on his brief and then we’d slowly nudge the designs forwards with Jerry looking over our shoulders. He was notorious for making lots of minute changes, lines of type would routinely need to move 1mm, for instance.”
By 1982, The Specials had split, Madness and The Beat had departed for other labels and 2 Tone’s glory days were over. But it had broken new ground for independent record labels in communicating urgent social and political messages through a look as well as a sound.
“2 Tone had an integrity and honesty that you don’t normally associate with the music industry,” says Storey. “We were acutely aware that we were participating in something very special.”
Michael Evamy is the author of Logo and Logotype. See evamy.co.uk, @michaelevamy. John Sims’ book on the 2 Tone look, This ART 2 Tone, will be published in Autumn 2015 by The Music Sales Group (more details at musicsales.com). David Storey’s paintings can be seen at david-storey.co.uk, while an extensive history of the 2 Tone label, its artists and releases is available at 2-tone.info