As the Seventies turned into the Eighties and the violent but brief flame of Punk had all but burned out, the coolest sounds morphing into the pop charts from the underground stemmed from the contemporaneous revivals of Mod and Ska. Nowadays, these records tend to be lumped together (especially in Father’s Day compilations) but they were really two very different movements who did not always see eye to eye.
This is a story of just such a difference of opinions.
Let’s start with “just who is Walt Jabsco?”
You’ll know him as the 2-Tone Man who appeared on the sleeve and label of all early 2 Tone record releases. The design came from Jerry Dammers himself with help from Specials bass player, Horace Panter, and designers John Sims & David Storey and you know it now from the sharp suit, the shades and the pork pie hat but it was actually based on a photo of Peter Tosh from an old album called “The Wailing Wailers” – that’s him on the right; aloof and super cool, dwarfing Mr Marley in the middle.
The first release on Two Tone was of course, the definitive “Gangsters” by the Special AKA, which is still one of the most feverishly exciting debut singles ever made. It borrows from Prince Buster’s seminal ska classic “Al Capone” and twists it to a more personal theme.
The band had been on tour in France and were held accountable for damage in a hotel for which another band (allegedly The Damned) had actually been responsible. Their guitars were confiscated, the police were called and a terrific hit single was born that told their story.
The intro about “Bernie Rhodes knows. Don’t argue” was a reference to their then manager the legendary Bernie Rhodes who also looked after The Clash and was apparently a king-size spouter of bullshit.
The record was originally released in May 1979 in a limited run of 5000 which were stamped by the band themselves and then distributed by Rough Trade. Not many have lasted the course of time. I’m happy to say that mine has.
In the summer it gained its full release, having been made record of the week by David Jensen – later it would justifiably become NME’s Record of the Year in a year of tremendous competition – 1979 saw “London Calling”, “Brass In Pocket” and “Good Times” to name but three. We then witnessed one of the most iconic and photogenic gatherings on Top Of The Pops as the sharp-suited, multi-racial, full-on yet slightly detached Special AKA burst into our collective conscience, all bounce and menace, propelled by Roddy Radiation’s spitting guitar.
The B-side was credited to The Selecter but this was not the band we know but a recording from a sideline of drummer John Bradbury’s together with Neol Davis. The remnants of this recording unit would form the actual Selecter when they brought in the fabulous Pauline Black as vocalist. In the meantime, this version of The Selecter left us with the kind of eerie and brooding please of instrumental exotica that would so later fascinate Jerry Dammers as his Two Tone vision moved away from just being about the Ska Revival.
Dammers was very much the mastermind of 2 Tone and used its startling imagery as a mark of quality. Throughout the end of 1979 until the summer of 1981 and the Specials’ dissolution as “Ghost Town” reached number one, the sound of 2 Tone ruled the airwaves and Walt Jabsco’s appearance on a sleeve – or the paper labels that all singles were given for their first run (it will come as little surprise to my fellow anoraks that I naturally have a full set in this rarer format) – signified a recording of interest, vitality and a downright good time.
Madness and The Beat famously launched their careers here and collectors now hunt down the Bodysnatchers, the Swinging Cats and of course The Selecter to hear the full gamut. Dammers guarded the legacy of 2 Tone preciously and this caused problems with many of the label’s charges and, indeed, his own band – for whom he remains the only dissenting member of the now-reformed group. His changes of direction brought new bands such as The Higsons and The Friday Club onto the roster but failure loomed (which makes these really quite hard to get hold of now) and by 1984, only really the Special AKA now without their former frontmen were gaining any traction and that was running out.
However this forthright adherence to his vision brought him into conflict much earlier on. This time Mod band, The Lambrettas were his target.
The Mod revival had also cropped up around 78-79, largely on the back of the release of the excellent “Quadrophenia” which had been an accurate depiction of Mod Culture in the mid-60s as brought to life by The Who’s album of the same name. This revival had really ended up being the catalyst for the success of The Jam and to a lesser extent Secret Affair and The Truth – again it felt an antidote to the bloated nature of 70s Rock but also, to be honest, the grubbiness of punk, with its smart fashion and cool outlook. It was a fairly Southern based movement (like the original) but coincided with the Midland-based Ska breakout (Madness notwithstanding).
Of course, there was overlap but Mods were not Skinheads and whilst the twain would meet – it wasn’t often.
Now, at this juncture, I think it’s fair to say that most of us believe that cover versions can be better than the originals – Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” exhibit A – but you might be surprised that one of my favorites to fall into this category is the swinging ska-like “Poison Ivy” by Mod cash-ins The Lambrettas.
It’s a record that can still get a floor bouncing and had more energy than most of its predecessors and I include a version by the Stones – so I must be serious.
Now, to be fair, the band came from the hallowed Mod ground of Brighton and would go on to deliver a surprisingly accomplished album, “Beat Boys In The Jet Age” – all of which was even more surprising when you consider they were released on Rocket Records, Elton John’s label.
The band and label though it would be a fun idea to release a version of their chart-bound hit under the monicker of “Two-Stroke Records” which was a nod to the Mod obsession with scooters. They also featured a cut-out stenciled Mod to mimic 2 Tone’s Mr Jabsco, complete with checkerboard banded motif.
The irascible and protective Dammers apparently blew a gasket and a vehemently worded ‘cease and desist’ instruction was swiftly sent out to all parties concerned.
And thus, yet another collector’s rarity was born.