Top 10 Two-Tone Songs
So What Is Two Tone?
- An English music genre from the late 1970s and early 1980s which is one of the best 'fusion' style music genres around.
- Takes the best of reggae, ska, new wave, punk and rocksteady and merges them into a coffee-coloured musical style full of energy and interest.
- The perfect combination of the English and Caribbean cultures coming together to create great music together.
- Didn't only become a successful music genre in the United Kingdom, it has strong cross over appeal mainly because it was so energetic and fun - everybody wanted a piece of that party vibe.
- Became popular in the USA, Canada but especially in Australia where it enjoyed a long, successful reign as one of the most popular music styles of the 1980s.
So without further ado, here are my Top 10 Two Tone Songs.
10. Let's Do Rock Steady - The Bodysnatchers
The Bodysnatchers were one of the early Two-Tone bands to emerge, having a hit single with 'Let's Do Rock Steady' in 1980.
The song had a catchy chorus and the usual ska stylings with saxaphone, bass and reggae guitar all prevalent in its arrangement.
The Bodysnatchers also had a really good vocalist, Rhoda Dakar who had lots of energy and chutzpah. She went on to front Specials AKA.
The Bodysnatchers gigged in London in the late 70s when Two-Tone was still in its infancy and supported bands like The Specials, The Go-Go's and an earlier version of The Pogues called The Nips. The Go-Go's were another all-girl band who went on to have enormous success in the USA and Japan and were also a band created from the embers of punk rock, though they were not a Two-Tone band.
The Specials are featured later in this Top 10.
The Bodysnatchers only lasted 2 years before spiltting up and 'Do Rock Steady' only reached #22 in the UK chart but it was one of the first Two-Tone songs to make a radio breakthrough and as such, deserves its place in this Top 10.
9. The Beat - Mirror In The Bathroom
The Beat became The English Beat when they crossed the Atlantic where they still have a dedicated following and The British Beat in Australia, where, again, they have kept many, many fans.
Still gigging in 2003 with more or less the original line up, they split into 2 groups afterwards.
Dave Wakeling, the lead vocalist is now the frontman for the U.S. version of the band and still gigs in the US and sold out a gig in the UK in 2011.
The other band members last performed live together in 2003 and recorded an album, which remains unreleased.
This song 'Mirror In The Bathroom' I have chosen because it was an original two tone song. The Beat often recorded cover versions, one of which is mentioned further up this list.
Always full of energy on stage, they were very well respected as a live two tone band.
8. The Specials - Rat Race
Terry Hall was the lead vocalist of the Specials. He was famous for being rather po-faced on stage and quite funny offstage, with a very dry sense of humour. He wrote some of the band's lyrics but the band's real heartbeat was provided by Jerry Dammers, a man who understood how to meld the best of late-punk, ska and reggae and wite some the best two tone songs.
Dammers was the band's keyboard player and was a human rights activist, regularly fighting for the release of Nelson Mandela, eventually writing a song all about it, which has become a kind of anthem for Mandela stories since his release.
The Specials were a 'special' band born out of kids from council estates in Coventry, England with working-class sensibilities and political views they were not afraid to share. A multi-ethnic band, they had influences from the Caribbean and English mod sensibilities, a winning two tone combination.
They appear a number of times in this list.
7. The Selecter - On My Radio
The Selecter were one of the first Two Tone bands to break through in the UK, largely thanks to some fantastically melodic songs by songwriter, Noel Davies and an amazing, original vocalist, Pauline Black who sang (and dressed) in the style of a reggae 'rude boy'.
Pauline Black never stopped moving on stage and this is what, for a short while (until Madness), set The Selecter apart from other similar bands.
Pauline Black still tours as The Selecter even today and is still able to make a good living at it, in spite of The Selecter having only 2 or 3 chart hits.
6. The Beat-Tears of A Clown
The Beat return in my list with this, the best of their cover versions. A fabulous Two-Tone version of the Smokey Robinson 'Tears of A Clown' - Motown Meets Two-Tone...and it works!
The Beat - 25 Years of Great Live Performances
This video was recorded in 2006 some 25 years after The Beat formed and you would never know it! The band still have all of the energy and desire to create great beats even all those years later. The Beat were one of the outstanding live Two Tone bands, this video shows you why.
5. The Selecter - Three Minute Hero
Pauline Black shares vocals here with the band's other vocalist, Rankin' Roger.
Roger went on to form his own band and regularly appeared in support of The Specials.
Pauline Black is once again in rude boy garb but even by the time this song came out, Two Tone was moving off into other directions.
4. The Specials - Ghost Town
By the time Ghost Town was released in 1981, the Specials had already had 6 top 10 hits and a number 1 single with Too Much Too Young.
Ghost Town was, surprisingly, not an album track. It was released only as a single, although it appears on later Greatest Hits albums.
Ghost Town would mark the end of the Specials success with that line up. Shortly afterwards, Terry Hall, Neville Staple and Lynval Golding left the band to form Fun Boy Three.
Jerry Dammers took the band in a different direction after 1981 and their only other top 10 hot would be 'Free Nelson Mandela' in 1984. They were no longer the energetic Two Tone band of the past. Terry Hall was a real miss at the front of the stage.
Ghost Town has stood the test of time and is still played on UK radio today. It is very different in style from their other songs and perhaps shows that Dammers was changing the vibe of the band.
They became much more political in style and this did not resonate with Hall, Staple or Golding who in creating Fun Boy Three stuck to the happier and more reggae inspired parts of Two Tone.
3. Madness - One Step Beyond
Lovingly labelled The Nutty Boys, Madness are still touring in 2011 and are still a huge sell out.
What is Madness' secret? They've stayed pretty true to their roots, which was about making great pop songs but also about having a bit of fun and getting audiences really involved in their music.
Truly, I could have picked any of their early songs to be included in this list but 2 of the top 3 are Madness at their Two Tone best.
Watch this video and see real energy....go on...wake up your senses!
2. The Specials - Too Much Too Young
This was The Specials first number one single and is still considered one of their best songs.
It is a typical Jerry Dammers song, rich is musicality but also lyrically political. Too Much, Too Young is about teenage pregnancy and the results of it on a young person's life.
The Specials' other number one single, Ghost Town was, in essence, about unemployment as the UK was struggling through the early Thatcher years, when unemployment was at its highest for decades.
What better way to get your political agenda heard than through a song?
The Specials were maybe the most political Two Tone band, ultimately that is what split them up.
1. Madness - The Prince
One of Madness' earliest forays into Two Tone is still held up as possibly the pinnacle of all that was good and great about Two-Tone.
A homage to Prince Buster, a Jamaican reggae star written by the band's saxaphone player, Lee Thompson. The song was played on Top of The Pops to great acclaim and the rest is history, Madness went from strength to strength.
I think The Prince was recognised for its musicality but also showed that Madness were dug into their reggae sensibilities whilst also keen to let their early ska and punk roots find a place in their sound.
Madness are all about energy and fun and The Prince was a huge part of this.
The video I have included is really nice because it shows the boys in the band talking to a guy in one of the shops in their area of Camden Town, London. It shows that they had strong roots in their community and that they were just a bunch of ordinary guys who had fun with their music and made good.
Two-Tone's Second and Third Wave
Two Tone was popular in many parts of the world but had a particularly good following in the USA where it spawned bands like The Toasters and No Doubt, whose vocalist, Gwen Stefani has gone on to bigger and better success as a solo artist. The Toasters, from Manhattan, continue to tour to this day. They had a hit in the UK with Two Tone Army in 1981.
Two-Tone returned for the most part to its ska and reggae roots as punk and new wave both fell away in the US, UK and elsewhere.
The Caribbean, of course, remains the heartland for reggae and ska and I do not have space here to play tribute to the amazing music to come out of this part of the world.
It is important though to remember that in the UK, it was immigration from the Caribbean to the UK which had previously all-white neighbourhoods' residents having their ears flooded with reggae, ska and calypso - thank you Jamaica!
Check out another great hub here:
What is ska music? The origins of Ska and Two-Tone Music by FavouritePerfume.