Sound and vision blog

Sound and moving images from the British Library

25 April 2024

Beyond the Bassline: Two-tone

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

(Scroll for exhibition record list)

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.