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25 April 2024

Beyond the Bassline: Two-tone

The Specials live in Montreux
The Specials live in Montreux 1980 © Adrian Boot /

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Two-tone merged the sounds of Jamaican and UK popular music, most importantly Jamaican ska and punk rock. The genre’s name and history is directly linked to the 2 Tone label.

2 Tone Records was formed in Coventry in 1979 by the Specials’ Jerry Dammers as an independent imprint of Chrysalis Records. Dammers struck a deal with the label that allowed him to not only release the Specials’ own work but also sign other bands and artists who would become major representatives of the two-tone genre. Bands like the Beat and Madness left the label after the release of just one single.

The label’s visual identity is carried by monochrome designs. Its logo is instantly recognisable with its black and white checkboard element and iconic rude boy figure Walt Jabsco. Dressed in a black suit and tie with pork pie hat and loafers, he was inspired by a photograph of Peter Tosh and the Wailers, used on early reissues of their Studio One debut album The Wailing Wailers.

The Beat had their own icon, the so-called ‘Beat Girl’, which was based on an iconic photograph of transwoman Brigitte Bond, who was a ska singer and cabaret performer.

Jamaican ska was not only a major musical influence on the genre, it also provided a repertoire of songs that was frequently covered by two-tone artists. Cuban-Jamaican ska pioneer Rico Rodriguez released two albums on 2 Tone and collaborated with bands such as the Specials, most famously on their cover of Dandy Livingstone’s ‘Rudy A Message To You’.

The 2 Tone label was relatively short-lived and had a strong focus on the release of singles. It officially stopped operating in 1986. Reissues and compilations continue to be released under the label.


Records as displayed in the exhibition, from top left to bottom right:

1 Various, Dance Craze, 2 Tone Records, 1981, 1LP0013542.

2 Various, This Are Two Tone, 2 Tone Records, 1983, 1LP0131516.

3 Bad Manners, Ska 'N' B, Magnet, 1980, 1LP0096772.

4 Bad Manners, Lip Up Fatty, Magnet, 1980, 1SE0034458.

5 The Special AKA, Nelson Mandela, 2 Tone Records, 1984, 1SE0008537.

6 The Apollinaires, The Feeling's Gone, 2 Tone Records, 1982, 1SE0050502.

7 Rico, Jama Rico, 2 Tone Records, 1982, 2LP0066925.

8 The Specials, The Specials, 2 Tone Records, 1979, 1LP0131511.

9 Rico, That Man Is Forward, 2 Tone Records, 1981, 1LP0261583.

10 The Special A.K.A. Featuring Rico, Too Much Too Young, 2 Tone Records, 1980, 2SE0038681.

11 The Beat, I Just Can't Stop It, Arista, 1980, 1LP0086612.

12 Akrylykz, J.D., Polydor, 1980, 2SE0018287.

13 The Beat, Mirror In The Bathroom, Go-Feet Records, 1980, 2SE0043877.

14 The Selecter, Too Much Pressure, 2 Tone Records, 1980, 2LP0084393.

15 The Bodysnatchers, Easy Life, 2 Tone Records/Chrysalis, 1980, 1SE0110512.

16 The Specials, Do Nothing, 2 Tone Records, 1980, 2SE0027890.

17 Rhoda with The Special A.K.A., The Boiler, 2 Tone Records, 1982, 2SE0027891.

18 Madness, Embarrassment, Stiff Records, 1980, 2SE0012491.

19 The Beat, Tears of a Clown, 2 Tone Records/Chrysalis, 1979, 1SE0110526.

20 The Specials, Ghost Town, 2 Tone Records, 1981, 1SE0110541.

21 The Specials, Rat Race, 2 Tone Records/Chrysalis, 1980, 1SE0110514.

22 The Bodysnatchers, Let’s Do Rock Steady, 2 Tone Records, 1980, 2SE0027888.

23 The Special A.K.A, Gangsters, 2 Tone Records, 1979, 2SE0038686.

24 The Selecter, On My Radio, 2 Tone Records/Chrysalis, 1979, 1SE0110515.

25 The Specials Featuring Rico, A Message To You Rudy, 2 Tone Records, 1979, 2SE0038680.

26 Dandy, Rudy A Message To You, Ska Beat, 1967, 1SE0110538.

27 Prince Buster, Madness, Blue Beat, 1963, 1SE0110502.

28 Madness, The Prince, 2 Tone Records, 1979, 1SE0110545.


Beyond the Bassline: Roots reggae

Aswad on the street in Brixton 1981
Aswad in Brixton 1981 © Adrian Boot /

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Ska and reggae groups started to emerge within the UK in the late 1960s, not long after reggae surfaced in Jamaica. Bands such as Symarip, the Cimarons and Greyhound were signed to labels like Trojan Records. Eddy Grant and Lambert Briscoe’s short-lived Torpedo is an early example of a UK label focusing on the release of British reggae artists in 1970.

With the rise of roots reggae and its popularity in the UK, the 1970s saw a surge of British reggae groups and artists. The genre struck a note with young Brits from various ethnic backgrounds, who were fed-up with corrupt policies, racial discrimination and social issues effecting the working-class population. Roots reggae was at its height during the second half of the 1970s and British bands like Steel Pulse, Aswad and Misty in Roots gained wider recognition. The next decade saw British reggae develop in various directions and gain frequent chart successes, particularly with a more pop-influenced reggae. Aswad’s 1988 number one hit ‘Don’t Turn Around’ was a milestone for the band. Stylistically, it had little in common with their roots reggae beginnings.

UK reggae labels such as Greensleeves and Fashion Records or Mad Professor’s Ariwa and Count Shelly’s Third World were significant for the production and distribution of British reggae and often directly connected to sound system operators. Dub labels like those of Jah Shaka were instrumental for the development of a UK specific dub sound, which would come to influence later Black British genres such as jungle.


Records as displayed in the exhibition, from top left to bottom right:

1 Black Roots, Black Roots, Kick, 1983, 1LP0092808.

2 Undivided Roots, Ultimate Experience, Entente/Ruff Cutt Music, 1987, 1LP0007150.

3 Natural Ites And The Realistics, Picture On The Wall, CSA Records, 1985, 1LP0016476.

4 Pato Banton, Mad Professor Captures Pato Banton, Ariwa, 1985, 1LP0056314.

5 Tippa Irie, Hello Darling, UK Bubblers, 1986, 1TH0028691.

6 Simaryp, Skinhead Moonstomp, Trojan Records, 1980, 1LP0130627.

7 Aswad, Aswad, Island Records, 2013 [1976], 1LP0226454.

8 Aisha, High Priestess, Ariwa, 1987, 2LP0002844.

9 UB40, Labour of Love II, DEP International, 1989, 2LP0005794.

10 Creation Rebel, Close Encounters, Hitrun, 1978, 1LP0260998.

11 Misty in Roots, Live at the Counter Eurovision, People Unite, 1979, 1LP0111405.

12 Greyhound, Black And White, Trojan Records, 1971, 1LP0214102.

13 The Cimarons, In Time, Trojan Records, 1974, 1LP0130536.

14 Smiley Culture, Police Officer, Fashion Records, 1984, 1TH0028263.

15 Maxi Priest & Caution, You're Safe, 10 Records, 1985, 2LP0066628.

16 Delroy Washington, I-Sus, Virgin, 1976, 1LP0136471.

17 Matumbi, Point of View, EMI, 1979, 1LP0097563.

18 Saxon Studio International, Coughing Up Fire, UK Bubblers, 1984, 1LP0001945.

19 Macka B, Sign of the Times, Ariwa, 1986, 1LP0056316.

20 Musical Youth, Pass the Dutchie, MCA Records, 1982, 2TH0018644.

21 Pablo Gad, Trafalgar Square, Burning Sounds, 1979, 1LP0261076.

22 Dread And Fred, Warriors Stance, Jah Shaka Music, 1989, 1TH0081870.

23 Capital Letters, Smoking My Ganja, Greensleeves Records, 1978, 1TH0081859.

24 Vivian Jones, Good Morning, Third World, 1980, 1TH0081869.

25 Steel Pulse, Nyah Luv, Anchor, 1977, 1SE0110536.

26 The Hot Rod All-Stars, Pussy Got Nine Life, Torpedo, 1970, 1SE0109719.

27 Black Slate, Sticks Man, Slate, 1976, 1SE0042498.

28 Aswad, Don't Turn Around, Mango/Island Records, 1988, 2


Beyond the Bassline: Lovers’ rock

Image of Janet Kay singing into a microphone
Janet Kay © Tim Barrow /

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Following the tradition of Jamaican genres like roots reggae, lovers’ rock was introduced to its audiences by UK sound systems. Its mix of reggae sounds with elements of pop and Black music genres from across the Atlantic, such as soul and R&B, was inspired by audience demand.

The first distinct lovers’ rock releases surfaced in London in 1975. Louisa Mark’s ‘Caught You in a Lie’, produced by sound system operator Lloyd Coxsone and released on his Safari Records, is seen as a crucial moment for the genre’s recording industry. Mark, only fifteen at the time, was somebody the young and predominantly Black British female audience could strongly identify with.

The Lover’s Rock label, founded by Dennis Harris in 1977, gave the genre its name. Dennis Bovell was a key producer and became a crucial influence of the lovers’ rock sound. From the late 70s a trend for so-called reggae disco mixes started, which led to a spike in the production of 12’ singles by labels such as Santic Records or Dennis Brown’s DEB Music. Mad Professor and his Ariwa label played a big role in the production and release of the genre from the mid-1980s.

Lovers’ rock was mostly sold off the high street, by stores whose numbers did not contribute to the official UK charts. Although singles of the new British genre frequently topped the UK Reggae charts, only a small number made it onto the official UK singles chart, most notably Janet Kay’s number 2 hit ‘Silly Games’ in 1979.

Contrary to roots reggae, lovers’ rock was dominated by female voices. The genre also enabled male artists to portray themselves in a softer light, challenging perceptions of masculinity.


Records as displayed in the exhibition, from top left to bottom right:

1 Peter Hunnigale & The Night Flight Band, In This Time, Street Vibes, 1987, 1LP0004833.

2 Marie Pierre, Love Affair, Trojan Records, 1979, 1LP0130617.

3 Kofi, Black…With Sugar, Ariwa, 1989, 1LP0011138.

4 Sandra Cross, Country Life, Ariwa, 1985, 2LP0042560.

5 Carroll Thompson, Hopelessly In Love, Carib Gems, 1981, 1LP0258130.

6 Deborahe Glasgow, Deborahe Glasgow, Greensleeves Records, 1989, 1LP0012797.

7 Sylvia Tella, Spell, Sarge, 1981, 1LP0260999.

8 Louisa "Markswoman" Mark, Breakout, Soulgramma/Bushranger, 1981, 2LP0044577.

9 Toyin, Love 'N' Leather, Criminal Records, 1989, 1LP0261077.

10 Mike Anthony, Short A Nothing, Gussie P Records, 1992, 1LP0261079.

11 15. 16. 17., Black Skin Boys, DEB Music, 1978, 1TH0081635.

12 Tradition, Alternative Routes, RCA, 1978, 1LP0190280.

13 Beshara, Men Cry Too, Mass Media Music, about 1981, 1TH0081867.

14 Jean Adebambo, Paradise, Santic Records, 1981, 1TH0081932.

15 Donna Rhoden, It’s True, Santic Records, 1981, 1TH0081933.

16 Lorna Gee, Gotta Find A Way, Ariwa, 1985, 1TH0025482.

17 Investigators featuring Michael Gordon and Lorenzo Hall, Investigators Greatest Hits - The Rare Grooves, Sweet Freedom Records, 1991, 1LP0261078.

18 The Instigators, Let’s Make Love, Love Birds, about 1980, 1TH0081866.

19 Cassandra, If You Are Not Back In Love By Monday, Lover’s Rock, 1977, 1SE0110507.

20 Victor Romero Evans, At the Club, Epic, 1981, 1SE0110504.

21 Carolyn Catlin, Peaceful Woman, Lover’s Rock, 1977, 1SE0110511.

22 Simplicity, Feeling is a feeling/Been In Love, Music Force/Student, about 1977, 1TH0081930.

23 Janet Kay, Silly Games, Scope/Atlantic, 1979, 1SE0110508.

24 John McLean, If I Give My Heart To You, Ariwa, 1987, 1TH0002969.

25 Ginger Williams, I Can't Resist Your Tenderness, Paradise, 1975, 1SE0110510.

26 Louisa Mark, Caught You in a Lie, Safari Records, 1975, 1SE0110503.

27 Brown Sugar, I'm in love with a dreadlocks, Lover’s Rock, 1977, 1SE0110506.

28 Black Harmony, Don't Let It Go To Your Head, Laser, 1979, 1SE0083165.