On November 14, 1940, the months-long German air raid, better known as the Coventry Blitz, reached its brutal climax, leveling more than 4,000 homes and killing hundreds in the English city. The Luftwaffe struck overnight, using the light of the full moon to aim at their targets and cripple the industrial stronghold. Within hours, a third of Coventry’s factories were flattened. Large chunks of the Daimler factory, birthplace of Britain’s first car, have been reduced to piles of bricks and dust. The once rugged city, the automobile hub of the West Midlands, lay strewn in smoldering heaps in the morning. The German code word for the raid borrowed a name from one of Beethoven’s most famous works: Mondscheinsonateor “Moonlight Sonata”.
After the war, recovery was gradual. Estates emerged on the perimeter of the city and apartment towers rose from their ashes. As car factories were rebuilt, Coventry regained its status as a “British motor city”. Automobile manufacturing boomed, peaking alongside Detroit in the 1950s and 1960s. Shopping malls and multi-level parking lots marked the post-war leisure boom. It was a boxy, cinderblock vision of the future, but a glimpse forward nonetheless.
And then the city was razed to the ground once again, by a much quieter force, devoid of form and purpose. A national recession crept in, depriving Coventry of its main industry; between 1974 and 1982, local manufacturing jobs were cut by almost 50% and the resurrected downtown decayed. Gangs of young people roamed the streets, which were often lined with shuttered storefronts. Coventry’s second decline could not be measured in mounds of rubble. The debris was unseen and ambient – sour but fertile soil that sprouted one of England’s most vibrant music scenes.
Unlike Motown, which coincided with Detroit’s economic boom, the Specials and 2 Tone sprang from Coventry’s crumbling infrastructure. Christened by bandleader and organist Jerry Dammers, the 2 Tone genre was a seething mix of Jamaican ska and sly, stripped-back punk. By the early 1970s, dozens of people had moved from the West Indies to Britain, many settling in the Midlands town. Some Jamaican-born Coventry residents were throwing PA parties, stacking loudspeakers in tall towers and blaring roots and rocksteady into the night. Cross-pollination of effervescent ska beats and disgruntled blue-collar workers was inevitable.
Dammers was the son of an Anglican minister, but he dedicated his life to a different trinity: the Beatles, the Stones and the Kinks. He devoured Motown and Stax records, and started writing songs at the age of 10. As a teenager, Dammers became addicted to radio hits like Desmond Dekker’s”Israelites” and “Liquidatorby the Harry J All Stars. The tinkering of the Specials was a roundabout, multi-year phenomenon. The group was first known as the Automatics, then Coventry Automatics, then Special AKA, before their shorter, more sensible moniker was adopted. The lineup came together in pieces. By age 15, Dammers was playing drums in his first band, Gristle, which included future Specials lead guitarist Roddy Radiation (née Byers). He met bassist Horace Panter while studying art at Lanchester Polytechnic. The two students shared a love of reggae and mischief. “We used to destroy hippie parties, play Prince Buster records,” Panter once said noted of his first antics with Dammers. After college, Dammers played in a cover band, but aspired to record his own music, a pumped-up fusion of Jamaican pop and British grit.