January 8, 2012 by Dan Swinhoe
In its foreword, Wheels Out Of Gear proclaims it’s ‘not a biography of any one band, nor even of one movement.’ An odd statement for a book about the Specials to make, yet it’s true. It’s a book on Thatcherism, Police abuse, racism, and British culture.
In his new book, Wheels Out of Gear: 2 Tone, The Specials and A World In Flame, Dave Thompson has made less of a biography, and more of a literary snapshot from the streets where bands like the Specials were playing. Beginning at the birth of punk and ending in the mid-eighties, it chronicles Coventry boy Jerry Dammers and his formation of The Specials from their formation to the formation of their 2-Tone label and their eventual demise.
Through the opposing marches and riots between the National Front and the Anti Nazi League, and punk gaining its conscience with Rock Against Racism, along the way we’re given brief insights into the label’s roster, and the bands that made up the scene. Madness, The Selecter, The Bodysnatchers,The Beat, Sham 69, and Cockney Rejects are all given mentions. Documenting the big concerts and the troubles that often followed, usually with petrol bombs, it’s a great insight into one of most British of music cultures.
At various points within the book’s 200 pages the music takes a backseat to the politics, almost to the point it’s as good a study into Thatcherism as Skinheads. But to really understand what the music was about it’s a necessity. Ska took the fire that Punk put back into music and focused it; Racism, Unemployment, Police brutality and negligence were all issues constantly in the forefront of the musician’s minds and had a direct influence. The lyrics they sang, the concerts they played, the groups they were associated with were all a reflection of who they were and what they stood for.
It’s scary reading some of the statistics that defined the era; high unemployment, useless government, racist movements spouting shite, riots and protests in the streets. While we may have improved things on the racial tension, things don’t seem much different today. The only difference today is we don’t have a musical movement to call our own and no one is shouting ‘Milk Snatcher’ at David Cameron. Many of the issues are still relevant today, and makes it an even more captivating read.
Thompson’s writing is excellent. He’s written dozens of books and is one of the most acclaimed music biographers around. He leads the reader thorough the journey, weaving in and out of riots into gigs seamlessly. It matters little that he clearly sides with the rioters, it’s not a history book after all, but a window into British culture from the view of the lower classes and how their life was translated into music. It’s addicting and shows that the influence, impact and meaning of music can be much more than the sum of its parts.
This is the second edition, the original published in 2004 by Helter Skelter Publishing, and like the rest of the Soundcheck Book’s publishing, the ‘where are they now’ section gives a detailed account of the fortunes of the various players (musically, no politicians) from the breakup of the Specials to today, and gives a nice and detailed discography for all you vinyl geeks. If you haven’t read this, buy it now.
This isn’t just a book for people who want to know about skanking, or the history of Ska/2-tone. This is a book that goes to great lengths to document the everyday life that people were facing and where bands like the Specials both fitted into that life and how they tapped into the zeitgeist of the people in the street.