The Coventry Music Museum

Coventry is the famous birthplace of 2-Tone sounds and styles that sought to transcend racial tensions in a divided Thatcher’s Britain by uniting youth in 1979 for the future. 2-Tone sounds fused Jamaican ska and reggae beats with punk and new-wave overtones. This fusion provided the soundtrack for Black and White youth to express themselves through their shared subcultural style of slick suits, pork pie hats and checkerboard imagery. This cultural movement was the vision of The Specials’ Jerry Dammers who founded 2 Tone Records in Coventry, 1979. Other notable bands such as The Selector, Madness and The Beat were also involved in this musical awakening that was in direct conversation with the politics and popular culture of late twentieth-century Britain.

Situated on the outskirts of the multicultural city of Coventry, The Coventry Music Museum is home to an astonishing array of music memorabilia that is not only dedicated to 2-Tone but spans the city’s impressive sonic heritage from nineteenth century comedy entertainment, 1950s rock’n’roll, 1960s early electronica and Beat scene, 1970s punk, 1980s new-wave and 1990s and 2000s Bhangra, pop and indie. This inclusion of a variety of divergent genres of Coventry-born music successfully and respectfully opens up the museum to a broad demographic of music fanatics. With so much to see at the museum, I have chosen to focus specifically on exhibits dedicated to 2-Tone due to the subcultural movement accounting for over half of the museum’s intrigues as well as its immense but under-appreciated cultural significance.

The Coventry Music Museum is an independent specialist space founded by local Coventry historian and journalist Pete Chambers and his wife Julie in 2013. The museum previously received a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund but otherwise operates entirely on donations and volunteers’ labour of love. As I explored the museum, this small-scale and close-knit ethic was tangible; creating a calm and comfortable atmosphere to inspect the busy exhibition cabinets at ease and with due attention to detail.

Heritage Lottery Fund and other 2-Tone inspired artwork featured on a wall in the 2-Tone Village courtyard.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Megan Sweeney

With new social distancing measures in place to manage the flow of visitors in the era of Covid-19, the first cabinet visitors are guided to contains the world’s largest collection of 2 Tone Records vinyl. On loan from a private collector, this collection boasts numerous 7” singles, 12” LPs, picture disks, master cassette tapes and the rarest 2 Tone single in existence: the one-off, mis-stamped, hand-stamped first 2-Tone 7” split single with The Special A.K.A. (later The Specials) – ‘Gangsters’ / The Selecter – ‘The Selecter’. This remarkable display of late twentieth century 2-Tone records is a wondrous welcome and solidly sets the precedent for the remainder of the museum.

Adjacent to this exclusive collection, the visitor is invited to interact with the museum through the ‘Too Much Too Young’ touch screen. Through this feature, I was able to explore snippets of life history by pressing the faces of the youth famously featured on the cover of The Special A.K.A. single. Did these youth do too much too young or did they enjoy their youth in 2-Tone style? By exploring this thought through a variety individual experiences accessible through this exhibit, I was reminded of the fact that music culture is not confined to a single historical time period, biological age nor medium of cultural communication – whether that be vinyl, cassette, CD, digital download or interactive touch screen in The Coventry Music Museum. To complete this interactive corner of the museum, the real car from The Specials – ‘Ghost Town’ music video is not only present but is also open for visitors to sit in and recreate the infamous journey through ghostly 1980s Coventry. A volunteer interestingly informed me that the vehicle had been fully renovated after being traced to a deserted scrap yard in Wales.

‘Too Much Too Young’ cover
PHOTOGRAPH BY Megan Sweeney
The Ghost Town car in front of the Saxa and The Beat display.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Megan Sweeney

Meandering across the 2-Tone themed checkerboard flooring leads the visitor to my personal favourite aspect of the museum. The Rude Boy bedroom is an exact reconstruction of a typical 2-Tone fan’s bedroom circa 1981 – think Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’ meets chaotic young man’s hangover lair. Bentley’s Yorkshire Bitter cans, empty Smith’s crisps packets and cigarette butts lay strewn across a dishevelled shoebox bedroom with walls covered in music posters, Coventry City F.C. merchandise and a collection of badges, beer mats and gig ticket stubs. A box television complete with a satellite aerial and copious 2-Tone vinyl records ready to be played on the fan’s record player are telling of the pre-digital period. The curator’s attention to detail is truly astounding. This snapshot of a time begone contextualises the other objects in the museum to remind the visitor that behind every successful musical artist is their devoted fan community.

The 2-Tone checkerboard flooring and other 2-Tone ephemera.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Megan Sweeney

Other exhibitions are dedicated to Saxa the Jamaican saxophonist of The Beat, the Rock Against Racism social movement, Pauline Black of The Selecter’s coat and a recreation of a late twentieth century listening booth amongst an overwhelming array of other 2-Tone ephemera. There is so much to see in this music utopia that proudly pays homage to Coventry and its musical heritage. I left the museum feeling both educated and entertained in equal measure.

Recreation of a 1980s listening booth.
PHOTOGRAPH BY Megan Sweeney

The Coventry Music Museum is found in the 2-Tone Village courtyard that hosts a café, Caribbean restaurant, vintage 2-Tone shop and modern 2-Tone shop as well as the Coventry Wall of Fame and a live music venue space. It is supported by Coventry music legends and honorary patrons Frank Ifield, Hazel O’Connor, Pete Waterman and Neville Staple. With extremely fair admission fees, accessible opening times, disabled access on request and a fantastic team of informed volunteers, The Coventry Music Museum is a wonderful day trip for any individual interested in twentieth century music culture.

Visitor information

Adults £3

Concessions (Students and Senior Citizens) £2

Children (aged 5-15) £1

Thursday – Saturday

10.00 – 16:00

Sunday and Bank Holiday Mondays

10:00 – 15:00

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Megan Sweeney

Megan Sweeney is from the Peak District and is currently living in Brighton, UK. She is a graduate from the University of Sussex with degrees in Anthropology and History BA and Contemporary History MA. Megan’s academic interests align with her personal interests and centre around the experience of music, style and popular culture. Twitter @MegFSween.