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Staring At The Rudeboys
By Phil Thornton
The summer of 79 finds me at Pontins Prestatyn. I’m thirteen years old and have just discovered punk two years too late. Before going for our annual Clwydian retreat I’ve been up to the local fashion emporium and had two stencilled t-shirts prepared; one is the Jam logo and the other is three letters; PIL. At ten pence per letter, it’s far more cost-effective to be a fan of Public Image Limited than say, Alberto Y Los Trios Paranoias. The first night at the infamous Pontins disco sees various youth cults represented; the punks, the soulies, the disco freaks and some strange cats in suits and skinny ties, who me and my new punk mates from Skem christen ‘the smoothies.’ They don’t seem to dance to anything however. They look out of place and their smart attire marks them out as different to the usual tribes.
Later in the week we’re in one of the Skem lads’ chalets watching Top Of The Pops. Sham 69 are on performing Hersham Boys, who, so Jimmy Pursey would have us believe, are known as ‘The Cockney Cowboys.’ Then another group come on stage and our jaws drop; they are dressed in smart suits like the smoothies and they wear pork pie hats and they bounce about to a jittery Jamaican beat and two of them are black are the singer just stands there and sulkily mimes along to some shit about ‘Gangsters’ and it’s utterly amazing and unlike almost anything I’d ever heard or seen and then one of the oh-so-progressively minded punks says :
‘Who are these nigger punks?’
These ‘nigger punks’ are The Specials mate and for the next two or three years they are the most important and the best band in the world. The 2Tone revolution was upon us and back home, the likes of X-tremes are swapping punk clobber for rude boy chic. The same year The Who’s Quadrophenia film is released and the punks are selling their Pistols, Clash, UK Subs and 999 singles to make way for Secret Affair, The Lambrettas, The Purple Hearts and 2Tone 7 inches. I stick with punk yet watch as the revivalist mod/ska scene takes off with a kind of bemused mixture of sneering contempt and secret admiration. The mod end of it, I can live without, the clothes and the music being an even bigger cultural cul-de-sac than punk.
The music my two t-shirt bands are making provides a neat example of post-punk confusion. The Jam, always too tight and neat for punk, have become spearleaders for Neo-Mod and are making exactly the kind of amphetamine charged blue eyed R&B of Weller’s heroes, The Who and The Small Faces. Meanwhile Rotten has become Lydon and asserts his own corporate and personal independence from the restrictive confines of punk ‘rock’ (it’s that second bit that’s more important) by fusing his love of Kraut ‘rock’ with heavy dub. To my ears PIL are making truly modern music, even if I don’t really like most of it whereas The Jam are simply rehashing old formulas and striking clichéd poses.
The New ‘Modernists’ saw no irony in recreating a scene from the mid-60s and, even though 2Tone was itself a revivalist music and aped the fashions of 60s Kingston, the energy, aggression and politics of punk was as important to its success as the reproduction of old ska anthems. Along with Madness, The Beat, The Selector and assorted bandwagon jumpers, the ska sound took over the youth clubs of Britain and where once there was Pretty Vacant, now there was Too Much Too Young; one a juvenile display of petty nihilism, the other a polemical morality lesson. The Specials encapsulated late seventies/early eighties Britain better than a thousand second division punk bands and their message (to you Rudy) was one of optimism, collectivism and anger, a more focused and righteous anger than the vague anti-everything posturing of most punk. Jerry Dammers especially seemed to have thought this through and for a while, before band personalities began to divide the band, his blueprint for a black and white future, made sense.
Not that the message struck home with most of the rude boys and skinheads where I lived. I can still vividly recall the night at the local disco when fifty of so crombied up skins were moonstomping along to Concrete Jungle. It was a great sight and the wooden floor was literally bouncing under their feet forcing even non-skins like me to join in with this joyous celebration of music and dance. Then, suddenly one of them, a gangly escapee from a detention centre with a Jerry Dammers style toothless grin and a swastika tattooed on his forehead began chanting ‘Seig heil’ whilst doing nazi salutes as his moronic mates followed suit. Obviously the spirit of multi-racial tolerance and respect had failed to filter down to some fans of the band.
This was the biggest failure of 2Tone; Madness had also attracted a right-wing audience totally at odds to the black inspired music they were peddling, all be it with Cockney music-hall flourishes. The whole Mod/2Tone scene was really a white British exercise in nostalgia and whilst it had positive effects, both politically and musically (making northern soul acceptable again for instance), at its heart it was as anachronistic and self-defeating as punk had been. Hip hop was quickly making its first forays across the Atlantic at the time and suddenly 2Tone and indeed almost every other music seemed old (pork pie) hat and dull by comparison. Not only that, but it brought together black and white kids far more effectively without any political manifesto, no matter how well-meaning.
By reforming in the first place and especially without Dammers at the helm, The Specials AKA are only indulging in yet another risible trip down memory lane and whilst it’s always great to watch those old clips of the Specials doing Skinhead Moonstomp on stage surrounded by hundreds of young and happy rudeboys, that was 30 years ago, it’s the past, it’s gone, it’s over. The world’s moved on!
‘Who were those nigger punks?’
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