Class of 2019: ‘I turned my love of ska into the only music museum in the midlands’

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Attracting thousands of visitors since 2013, Coventry Music Museum is no Ghost Town. In the latest of our Class of 2019 series, which highlights some of the best writing by De Montfort University journalism graduates, Beccy Rider investigates the museum’s success and why 2 Tone was so important for Coventry.

Every music fan has some sort of memorabilia collection. A few boxes here and there of records, magazines and perhaps the odd setlist or drumstick. Pete Chambers, curator of the Coventry Music Museum and 2 Tone fanatic, has a collection that will no longer fit in a few cardboard boxes. Instead he keeps it in glass cabinets for everyone to see.

“I want everyone to know how important and special 2 Tone was, and still is, to a lot of people,” says Pete. “I think that’s clear when you look around and see how much I’ve collected and how much people have been willing to donate to me.”

Opening in 2013, the Coventry Music Museum is the only dedicated music museum in the Midlands. With a focus on the 2 Tone genre which originated from Coventry in the 1960s, it attracts a niche audience to the 2 Tone Village, which consists of the museum, a café and a variety of shops that celebrate the culture that surrounds 2 Tone. Despite being a small, relatively unknown attraction on the outskirts of the city, 40,000 visitors from 86 different countries have descended on the museum. But it took five years, £40,000 and a huge amount of dedication to gain its success.

Pete Chambers

“I started out as a market stall that just sold old bits of merchandise and then that expanded into an exhibit student union at Coventry University called 2 Tone Central,” explains Pete. “Although that closed after a year, we were lucky enough to have built a network of volunteers who were really passionate about keeping the exhibit alive.”

Although there are a variety of artists explored in the museum, it is the dedication to the 2 Tone genre and record label that really makes the collection unique. Celebrated for its diversity, bands such as The Specials, The Selecter, Madness and The Beat merged influences of ska and reggae with punk and new wave. Peaking in the 1980s, after The Specials hit number one with their track Ghost Town, other bands became increasingly influenced by the 2 Tone genre.

“It was a genre that was so important for me to have as a teen because it put Coventry on the music map,” says Pete. “It was so infectious, you could dance and celebrate with it, or just sit and take in the message of the song. As a teen I definitely became a bit obsessed.”

The result of that obsession is a small but well-formed museum that outlines the history of popular music in Coventry. From Frank Ifield and Delia Derbyshire, who wrote the Doctor Who soundtrack, to The Primitives and The Enemy, history seeps from every corner of the room and, as Pete claims, “glorifies music culture.”

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Detailed information boards summarise the story of the popular, and not so popular, bands to come out of Coventry, along with interactive exhibitions such as a listening booth and karaoke machine. Various artists have willingly donated everything from first pressings of albums to the costumes previously worn on tour. The most impressive part of the museum though, is the recent additions brought in to celebrate the 40th anniversary of 2 Tone.

“I was so lucky to get my hands on the two exhibits I’ve always wanted at the end of last year,” explains Pete. “Jerry Dammers (keyboardist of The Specials) lent us the keyboard he wrote Ghost Town on and we restored the car used in the song’s music video from scrap. It’s a huge achievement for our little museum.”

The Ghost Town car is particularly impressive. After intense research. Pete and the volunteers at the museum successfully unearthed all of the original components of the car from scrapyards and resorted the car to its original state. With visitors now being able to sit in ad take photos of the car that became so iconic for fans of 2 Tone, the museum is even more worthy of its multiple awards.

But, as with the music itself, there is an important message behind the museum and its celebration of 2 Tone music. “2 Tone was a movement of integrity,” says Pete. “It was honest and promoted a unity between black and white. We often say that Coventry was multicultural before we knew what multicultural meant.”

Arguing that grime is now the only genre that has something to say, Pete wants to use his museum to further emphasise the message that 2 Tone brought along with it. With an exhibit that names the ‘Coventry Band of the Month’, Pete is using his platform to promote the small grass root bands that have something to say.

While it is these bands that allow the museum to exist, there is no doubt that Pete is at the heart of it. Clearly passionate about what he has created, he welcomes visitors to the museum as if they were visiting his home, with personalised tours around the museum being the norm.

His passion also has not gone unnoticed by the bands that he celebrates. Member of The Specials consider him a friend, with Pete being the first to receive a copy of their new album Encore, which was released in February. “In their new album they’re angry old men instead of angry young men,” laughs Pete. “For me, it’s a concept album that has the same integrity and grit as their old stuff. It raises issues such as Black Lives Matter and symbolises that it’s the perfect time for 2 Tone to make a comeback”.

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The Specials in Chicago, 2013. Photograph by Robman94 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

The Specials and 2 Tone might well be on the rise again and, along with Coventry becoming the city of culture in 2021, it could be the perfect opportunity for the city and the Midlands to start a revolution the music industry could thrive from. Of course, Pete and the Coventry Music Museum will be there to document it all.

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