This review concerns a new book by Heather Augustyn on the role of women in 2 Tone and Ska music, released on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2023. Reggae, rocksteady, and punk are some of the subgenres of ska, the urban-pop music genre that has its roots in Jamaica post-1950.
This book has been thoroughly researched and is a great read for anyone interested in music from this time. It’s strange that I remember that Bow-Wow-Wow album cover for “Welcome to the Jungle” and saw it as an interesting piece of album art. I had absolutely no idea at the time that Annabella Lwin was 14 at the time, and the abuse from Malcolm McLaren toward all the band members was shocking. Remember, these performers were in a pre-internet era, and you simply didn’t have information on bands at your fingertips. Therefore, the wealth of detail on these acts is really interesting, and with cases such as Annabella, it is almost like entering a different world where the values and attitudes are of a wholly different nature. I found the last chapter of Bow-Wow-Wow both repellant and compelling at the same time. It made me remember just how much I’d forgotten (the Adam and the Ants connection, for example). It was a powerful closing chapter.
To enjoy the book, you do need a love of the bands and the music; it almost goes without saying that the best chapters connect to the acts you personally followed or knew. There is a broad touch on other female artists of the era, such as Kim Wilde and Cyndi Lauper, but each of the main chapters is self-contained, and you can dip in and read a specific chapter of a band you love and skim or avoid those acts you don’t know as well.
As the title suggests, the book is all about what women have done for music. It shows how the press was unfair to bands like The Bodysnatchers and takes you back to a time when music was changing. One of the big plus points in the book is the access the writer has had to the acts; she includes first-hand thoughts from the performers as they look back at the time. Rude Girls: Women in 2 Tone and One Step Beyond features interviews with members of The Selecter, The Specials and the Special AKA, the Bodysnatchers, the Beat, the Go-Go’s, the Belle Stars, Bow Wow Wow, Amazulu, Dexys Midnight Runners, Fun Boy Three, and numerous others.
There is, for instance, a thought from Nicky Summers (bass player with The Bodysnatchers) about the sanctity of the dressing room and the way female performers in the Ska era saw dress and clothing.
“A dressing room was important to women, especially women in The Bodysnatchers, many of whom came from an art and fashion background. Fashion, it goes without saying, was a large part of the 2 Tone era and of ska as a whole. For women, it was an opportunity for self expression and empowerment. “The thing about those times,” reflects Nicky, “was there was a different take on feminine style, i.e., you could wear a bin bag or have spiky hair. There was a different take on ‘femininity’ and appearance, and image. You were not dressing for men. It was always about creativity and expression, and what ideas were going on… (Augustyn, 2023, p. 84, citing Nicky Summers).
It’s possible that women in ska were more free to dress however they wanted in the 1980s, but many female acts today seem to think that taking off as much clothing as possible is the best way to get noticed. Nevertheless, girl groups were rare in this era, and The Bodysnatchers suffered at the hands of journalists such as Gary Bushell (of Sounds) and general male press misogyny that would turn on the girls’ musical abilities and looks.
The book is an important social commentary, and it never ducks an issue. For example, it does not duck the “violent racism” that accompanied the T Tone movement, involving nasty incidents with the National Front and skinhead movements. These were often anarchic times, with the bands witnessing violence around the shows.
There is honestly so much packed into this book that it is impossible to do it justice in the confines of a short (ish) review. But if you retain a love for Fun Boy Three, The Specials, Dexys Midnight Runners, and the groups who so defined a musical era, then you can’t really miss out on this book. At heart, it is readable and shows great empathy and love for the musicians it is writing about. It has a number of illustrative photos and documents the times when Ska and T-Tone ruled.
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By Lorraine Foley.