Suggs, Madness and the history of 2-Tone
Ahead of this month's gig at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium, Suggs - the famous frontman of the '70s ska band Madness - writes about the glorious history of 2-Tone.
They were pretty dark times at the end of the 1970s in the UK, which helps explains the rise of punk music, and you had this racist stuff going on as well. But all of a sudden this mushroom of hope, 2-Tone, sprouted out of the darkness. You had the second-generation of West Indian Brits coming through. You had Bob Marley appearing on the Old Grey Whistle Test show on TV.
I remember going to the Roxy Club in Covent Garden, which was the punk club where [British/Jamaican] Don Letts was the DJ, but there weren’t enough punk records to play so he would intersperse them with reggae tracks. Then you had The Clash doing a version of [reggae track] "Police and Thieves" and, all of a sudden, what had been completely polarised was bleeding at the edges and we were all starting to share a little bit, musically and stylistically.
Our band was into that kind of music because we liked reggae and ska and other music with black influences, as well as the Rude Boy ethos, but there weren’t many other people around who were into it when The Specials first popped up. They really were the “it” band because they were one of the first to have black and white members. We opened for them at the Hope & Anchor pub in Islington, in front of about 40 people, but the next thing we were on the 2-Tone tour with them, The Selecter and Dexys Midnight Runners and it all was kicking off.
The tour manager kept having to keep finding new venues because there were riots going on with kids wanting to get into the gigs, and we’d have to play at bigger and bigger places in every city we got to. We were all having hits as this happened, so this was a really exciting time.
This whole thing was word-of-mouth, of course. You couldn’t pick up a fashion magazine to see what the latest teenage trend was going to be. It just sprang up organically across the country. You’d go to a town and there would be rockabillies, psychobillies, punks, mods, teds, soul boys, skinheads… You’d get off the train and know that you were somewhere new because the kids were wearing stuff that was very different to what you were wearing and you could only get in that area. I remember in Liverpool they had Stan Smith trainers that no one else had seen before.
In our band, we were getting our clothes from second-hand shops, like old Tonic suits and pork pie hats and all that stuff. But for sure it was all very homemade and every scene had its own little epicentre with all these things evolving at the same time, and we were kind off in the middle of it all.
The whole thing was a fantastic kaleidoscope but we’ve had great times since then. In the ’80s we split up for about eight years, then reformed in 1992 to play Madstock at Finsbury Park, where 75,000 people turned up to see us. That moment was just something else. It actually cause a minor earthquake with all the people jumping up and down!
Then in the past few years we’ve had the Jubilee concert on the roof of Buckingham Palace, and the closing ceremony at the London Olympics, where we felt sort of validated after 35 years. We’ve become something of an institution and it gives you a confidence in what we do.
How did we keep our enthusiasm going for this long? I go back to the fact that we’ve been friends since school. The whole point of the band was that it was a product of our friendship, having a laugh and having a good time. This has resonated with all the work that we have done and we still really thoroughly enjoy it, hence our new album. We called it Can’t Touch Us Now because we went through lots of ups and downs, we were castigated by the press, but things are better than they have ever been. The intelligentsia, the authorities can’t touch us, so it seemed like such a great name for the album. And we recorded it quickly, and we’ve captured the early energy of the band. It sounds great. I know everyone says that about their new record but it’s true with this one.
Madness play the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium. Oct 6. Tickets are available from here