The Herbert Gallery, Coventry: 2 Tone – Lives and Legacies. A celebration of Coventry’s multicultural ska music

Coventry and it’s old medieval centre is hauntingly beautiful. When I recently visited, there was a Reconciliation event in the old ruins of St Michael’s Cathedral comprising young trees and recorded experiences played through loudspeakers. The old gothic church was bombed in a firestorm on 14th November 1940. Instead of a hatred for the perpetrators a feeling of reconciliation grew from the disaster. The Lord Provost said “as the church died in pain, so it will be resurrected in glory.” The new Coventry Cathedral was consecrated in 1962.

Post War history has been hard for Coventry with the slow dismantling of its traditional industries, and its rebuilding with that characteristic brutal architecture of the sixties & seventies. So I was attracted by the current exhibition at the Herbert Gallery. Whilst not exactly fine art, the gallery platforming of Two Tone music and the Specials is a wonderful recollection of that brief moment when Coventry led the move towards multi-cultualism.

The Herbert Gallery, Coventry.

Jerry Dammers is the focus of the exhibition. . A music loving art student in Nottingham and Coventry, Dammers, was creator of the Two Tone record label in 1979. This label offered the opportunity for the great innovating bands such as The Specials, The Selector and, later, Madness amongst others.

Two Tone Fashions , 1979-1981, Herbert Gallery, Coventry.

The Herbert Gallery display features all manner of memorabilia of the period including the iconic fashions, especially the hats worn famously by Pauline Black of The Selector. There are gold discs, newspaper cuttings, and many black and white photo-montages.

The Selector, Two Tone Ska punk band, 1979, Herbert Gallery Coventry

Words feature prominently in the displays, both written and in video clips, as various musicians and commentators try to explain the Two Tone ideas. Fundamentally at a time of racial tension in the U.K. and a rise in the influence of Nationalism a group of mixed race bands grew up in Coventry and became very successful commercially. The basis of the style was ska, a form of upbeat reggae, imported from the West Indies during the period of immigration in the sixties. Coventry was one of the first cities to receive West Indian immigrants as part of the post war revival of the British economy.

Much of the exhibition concentrates on a collection of Jerry Dammers material with some very interesting archive works. I found the notebook containing the early lyric composing of Ghost Town most illuminating. Ghost Town by the Specials , realeased in 1981, was the most successful Two Tone single achieving gold disc status. 

Jerry Dammers, note book entry for composition of Ghost Town by The Specials, 1981, Herbert Gallery, Coventry.

As already stated this exhibition is not for the fine art connoisseur, and as Dammers said, “It should be illegal for musicians to display their (early) art”, but there are some of his student pieces hung at the beginning of the exhibition. However, it is a highly valuable curation and reflection of the political situation in the U.K. in the late seventies and a group of young musicians reaction to it. 

Nelson Mandela is the focus of the final room and Jerry Dammers contributions to the “Free Nelson Mandela” single and the Wembley concerts campaigning for Mandela’s release from jail and later Wembley celebrations.

Record Sleeve for Free Nelson Mandela single,1984, written by Jerry Dammers for The Special AKA, Remix 1988, The Herbert Gallery, Coventry.

2 Tone -Lives and Legacies is at the Herbert Gallery, Coventry until 12th September and I would thoroughly recommend a visit. The Gallery also holds very interesting collections on the theme of Reconciliation, Natural History and, of course, Lady Godiva.

Jerry Dammers, sketch for stage outfits, Specials Style drawing, Herbert Gallery, Coventry.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Susie says:

    Fascinating collection of local Two Tone ideals and artic acts of that era

    Liked by 1 person

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