‘We were all as mad as hatters’: the long-lost documentary telling the story of 2 Tone

Singer Terry Hall of The Specials in Dance Craze
Singer Terry Hall of The Specials in Dance Craze

Back in the Eighties, Rotters nightclub in Liverpool was never the sort of place to threaten the nearby Cavern Club when it came to cultural significance. While the site of the subterranean Cavern attracted Beatles fans from around the world, Rotters – located above a city centre multi-storey car park – was best known for holding the world record for the largest ever champagne fountain. But on the evening of Tuesday October 14 1980, as ska revival band The Specials launched into a vigorous rendition of their chart-topping single Too Much Too Young, Rotters felt like the centre of the musical universe.

As the late singer Terry Hall and his bandmates bobbed around the small stage, members of the tightly-packed crowd of mainly young men started climbing onto each other’s shoulders. The wall of adoring fans built in height and density until it towered over the musicians, a teetering tsunami wave of raucous humanity that was one surge away from engulfing the Coventry band. “Playing those shows was such a buzz. The sheer adrenaline of the performances was amazing,” recalls Specials bass player Horace Panter. “This was in the days before barriers and health and safety. The audience were right in your face.” As a snapshot of a youthful tribe galvanised in collective exhilaration, the show was hard to beat. Fab Four who?

That Specials song and over twenty other performances by The Selecter, Madness, The Beat, Bad Manners and The Bodysnatchers were filmed for Dance Craze, a pioneering concert documentary that set out to capture the 2 Tone music scene that swept Britain in the early Eighties. Conceived by the American filmmaker who had previously directed rock band Led Zeppelin’s concert film The Song Remains the Same, Dance Craze enjoyed only limited success on its 1981 release.

It was pulled by UK cinema bosses because people kept dancing in the aisles. Aside from briefly appearing on VHS video in 1989, the film has been unavailable commercially for decades. No longer. This lost record of a burgeoning subculture is finally being rereleased on Blu-Ray, DVD and CD. It’s even being shown as a one-off at the vast BFI IMAX cinema in London, whose 530 square metre screen – Britain’s biggest – is probably far larger than the dancefloor in long-closed Rotters was. “Usually watching bands on screen is pretty damn boring. Rarely do you get that feeling that you’re there,” Pauline Black of The Selecter tells me. “We were all as mad as hatters and they were just crazy performances.”

Dance Craze is thrilling to watch for numerous reasons. Firstly, 2 Tone’s hybrid of reggae and ska is played with a punk energy that’s only fortified by the aforementioned disregard for modern health and safety conventions. The performances – captured separately across venues in 1980 – were also filmed using untried techniques from among the musicians on stage, making it a truly immersive experience.

On top of this, the scene was packed with characters, not least Bad Manners’ larger-than-life Buster Bloodvessel, whose eyes popped beneath his shaven head as his ox-sized tongue flicked in and out of his mouth while he marched lustily on the spot, elbows flailing, like 2 Tone’s renegade Drill Sergeant. So unrelenting are the performances that the makers inserted some old Pathé news clips into the film to give audiences a breather (the original idea was for projectionists to pretend that Dance Craze’s intensity had caused the reel to snap).

The film is also a valuable slice of social history. The 2 Tone movement was an antidote to simmering racial tensions in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain (it was so-called because most bands featured black and white musicians). The Selecter’s Pauline Black says many people were “seeing black and white people on stage for the first time” at these shows. “It was just new, you know?” the singer says, adding that the film “evokes a real period of history”.

Females are strongly represented too, particularly in the seven-strong all-women Bodysnatchers. These concerts took place as the country battled recession: inflation was sky-high and unemployment was soaring. Just four days before The Specials’ Rotters show, Thatcher had made her “the lady’s not for turning” speech, signalling her plan to stick to the monetarist economic policies that presaged further hardship for many. It was therefore a scene of hope, diversity and tolerance at a time of growing privation: a heady mix that bonded its largely working class adherents.

'It was just new, you know?': Pauline Black with her Selecter bandmates - Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
'It was just new, you know?': Pauline Black with her Selecter bandmates - Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Director Joe Massot had initially wanted to make a film about Madness but The Specials’ Jerry Dammers convinced him to make it about the whole 2 Tone movement (2 Tone was also a record label run by Dammers). What Massot found was a world away from the long-haired stadium rock of Led Zeppelin: the 2 Tone scene even had its own uniform of trilbies, braces, sharp suits, skinny ties. “It was a big hop, skip and a jump from the golden locks of you-know-who [Led Zep’s Robert Plant] to people who looked at dressed like us,” Black says. But while Massot is credited as director, it was cinematographer Joe Dunton who crafted the film’s atmosphere.

Filming was done on one of the industry’s earliest iterations of a Steadicam. The camera cost the makers $34,000 (£100,000 today) and was mounted on an elaborate harness weighing 25 kilograms into which Dunton strapped himself. A gimbal allowed the camera to pivot as the intrepid filmmaker moved among the performers. “It was like an angle-poised lamp, so the camera actually floated,” explains Dunton. “I became like a musician on stage. When they went forwards, I went backwards. And that’s where you got the movement. It became like instinct.”

The on-stage filming allowed Dunton to avoid his pet hate in concert films – “the third-row shot”. “It’s when they plonk a camera in the third row of the audience and all you end up with is a forward-looking shot of the singer,” he says. Most concert films are fancy spectacles that revel in their scale. Dance Craze does the opposite: it’s the sweat, the bounce and the unhinged proximity that make it epic. It reminds me of Tony Palmer’s 1977 documentary about Northern Soul fans at Wigan Casino. The participants are so committed you forget there’s a world outside.

Bad Manners’ larger-than-life Buster Bloodvesse in Dance Craze
Bad Manners’ larger-than-life Buster Bloodvesse in Dance Craze

Filming on stage came with its logistical challenges. The rolls of 35mm camera film only lasted for five minutes, meaning that Dunton was constantly having to reload. “I had a whole team on the side of the stage. I was like an aeroplane. I’d go in, refuel and come back out,” he says. Dunton and the musicians would weave to avoid each other.

The film ends with the dam bursting: during a Specials performance of Nite Klub (filmed in Leicester) there is a full-on stage invasion by fans. Be-harnessed Dunton found it both “frightening” and “pretty spectacular”. For Panter, these invasions became so regular that they eventually become an irritation. “It was fantastic for an encore. But it was getting to the point where after five songs there’d be 50 of Swansea’s finest clambering up on stage. It wasn’t that they were nasty – they were generally just drunk,” the bass player says. The Specials would withdraw to an extra drum riser at the stage’s rear – “a second line of retreat” ­– while roadies formed a protective line in front of them.

Dance Craze broke technical ground in various other ways. Dunton was something of a sound and vision Willy Wonka with a slew of inventions to his name. He’d built the film industry’s first ever so-called video assist rig for the 1968 musical Oliver!, allowing director Carol Reed and his seven choreographers to watch playbacks of the film’s 400 dancers as soon as the cameras stopped rolling, and he’d been a sound recordist at the first proper Glastonbury Festival in 1971, sitting atop the vast Pyramid Stage hoping that rumours of an imminent lightning strike were false. For Dance Craze, he invented a whole new camera lens format called Super 35.

Put simply, Super 35 converted the square frame of standard 35mm film into widescreen frame by using the side part of the negative that was usually reserved for sound. Dunton then blew up the 35mm film onto high resolution, far-more-expensive 70mm film. The technique, which allowed cinema-standard filming in confined spaces, was quickly picked up by Hollywood on films such as 1984’s Greystoke and 1986’s Top Gun – from Buster Bloodvessel to Tom Cruise in five years.

The fantastic sound in the finished Dance Craze was recorded separately using the Rolling Stones mobile recording rig, among others. The songs were mixed at Abbey Road by in-demand sound engineer Bill Rowe. “He finished doing Star Wars and I went in with Dance Craze,” says Dunton, who went on to receive a Bafta for outstanding contribution to British cinema (presented in 2010 by Terry Gilliam). Such are the rewards for dicing with death with the 2 Tone gang.

Still, Dance Craze wasn’t a success. Film distributor Rank Organisation stopped showing it here due to boisterous crowds while the film became only a cult hit in the US, often forming a late-night double bill with The Rocky Horror Picture Show. (The New York Times called it “sloppy but cheerful” and appeared affronted that The Police weren’t in it).

The seven-strong all-women band The Bodysnatchers in Dance Craze
The seven-strong all-women band The Bodysnatchers in Dance Craze

Panter says by the time it came out in 1981, The Specials were “feuding”. “We were too up our own arses to pay a great deal of attention. That sounds dreadful, doesn’t it?” he says. Madness weren’t happy and their tracks didn’t appear on the soundtrack (they’re on the new one). Dance Craze fizzled and within a few years all the bands featured had either split up or fragmented due to ego clashes or acrimony (all but The Bodysnatchers later reformed to great success). In a poignant coda, Dunton has dedicated the re-release to the memory of Martin Allen, the teenage 2 Tone fan who worked for him and mysteriously disappeared at King’s Cross station in 1979, never to be seen again. “At least his name will stay alive now,” Dunton says.

It’s for another reason, though, that the timing of the re-release is particularly poignant. Hall died last December of pancreatic cancer aged 63. Panter feels “uncomfortable” when I suggest that Dance Craze stands as a fitting tribute to him. “It makes me feel a bit uneasy to use that as a selling point,” he tells me.

Black says that this important film stands for something broader. “It’s not just Terry who’s gone. Ranking Roger, Everett Morton and Lionel Martin [from The Beat] have died. All I can say is we’re losing people. So to have something preserved and to be out there, it means a lot,” says the singer. “Someone took the trouble to make a movie of something which has stood the test of time – both the ethos surrounding 2 Tone and also the bands. Someone might find this in 100 years’ time and think, ‘Wow! What was this?’”

Dance Craze is out on LP and CD on March 24, and Blu-Ray and DVD on March 27