The big picture: on the road with trailblazing record label 2 Tone

It was October 1979 and the first three bands signed to 2 Tone, the Coventry record label that spawned a hugely popular musical genre, had struck out together on a 40-date UK tour. For the opening show in Brighton, the photographer Chalkie Davies was on hand to document a germinal moment in a British cultural movement that still resonates today, not least for its forward-thinking stance on issues of race, politics and national identity.

Davies had been commissioned to shoot the Specials for the very first issue of the Face, but wanted an image that would represent all three bands. “I thought it’d be a great idea to take a picture of people the next morning [after the show], not realising quite how hungover they might be,” he says, laughing. “If you look at the three of them” – Graham “Suggs” McPherson of Madness, Neville Staple of the Specials and Pauline Black of the Selecter – “they do look a little bit… scraggly.” (Specials lead singer, Terry Hall, was meant to be in the photo instead of Staple but, Davies recalls, “he was late waking up”.)

The exuberance of 2 Tone was on full display in Brighton – most of the musicians had never been on a tour bus before and were having “lots of fun. The amount of energy that came out of those people was astounding. To this day, Pauline just bounces around. She hasn’t stopped.” But there was a serious side to the movement too, says Davies. “You read those lyrics, they’re not always as sweet as they sound. There are messages. It really captured the period of Thatcher and the garbage strikes. Those were tough times.”

The image he took that morning at the back of the tour bus, now part of an exhibition celebrating the 2 Tone label, captures the racial and cultural diversity at the heart of 2 Tone, which united the sounds and fashions of ska and punk. Seeing black and white musicians together on stage, or side-by-side in tour photos, “is normal now but wasn’t so normal then,” says Davies. “It was normal for these kids, but not for the public. And that was very powerful to see.”

2 Tone: Lives & Legacies is at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry from 28 May to 12 September