When I first started reading Dave Thompson‘s Wheels Out of Gear: 2-Tone, The Specials and a World In Flame, I was terribly afraid that Thompson would merely be offering a re-tread of George Martin’s The Two Tone Story. While that 1997 book is long out-of-print, it still stands as the defining history of the early ’80s ska label that made such an impact.
Nothing could be further from the case. While Martin’s book focused exclusively on the story of the label, Thompson takes a wider scope, using the tale of the storied 2-Tone label as the framework for a history of the era immediately preceding and followihng the British punk explosion. While the Sex Pistols and the Clash make an appearance, Wheels Out of Gear is the story of those who followed in their wake, taking the ethos of punk and applying it to a disparate sense of styles.
The political aspects play a stronger role in this tale of 2-Tone and their musical contemporaries than other histories. Thompson isn’t merely content to analyze the lyrics of the acts involved and how they relate to the rampant unemployment and attendant racial conflict. The author also traces how the bands’ fans would coalesce and cause issues. It’s an interwoven story of skins, bovver boys, racism, anti-racism, and music.
Does Thompson take a side? Yes. He can certainly be faulted for falling a little too heavily on the side of those who fought the police, and doesn’t provide much of a counterpoint to his belief that anti-police actions constituted “battles” in a “war.” While by no means would I ever suggest that outrage is an inappropriate response to the police beating of an innocent man, one might think that attacking those same officers with petrol bombs and bricks could constitute an overly-violent reaction.
However, while there’s a certain amount of pointed proselytizing in Thompson’s book, Wheels Out of Gear is an excellent history that tells the tale of not only the Specials and their attendant 2-Tone label-mates, but those acts around them like the Ruts, Sham 69, Cockney Rejects, 4-Skins, et al, who also carried the musical torch which shone a light on the injustices imparted on Britain’s lower classes. Considering the politically-charged nature of much of the music released at the time – songs like “Man At C&A,” “Babylon’s Burning, and “Ku Klux Klan” – Thompson can’t be faulted overmuch with falling to one side a bit, especially considering the book is an astonishingly addictive read.
Honestly, Wheels Out of Gear is the sort of book that ska and punk fans – as well as anyone with any desire in knowing more about the response to the rise of Thatcherism – will find spellbinding. Thompson ably jumps from band to band, using the context of political and historical events to imbue all the musical aspects of the book with deeper meaning.
Dave Thompson’s Wheels Out of Gear is due out October 1 from Soundcheck Books.