The Selecter, a vital part of the ska music revival in the late 1970s, are still keeping the beat alive. Pauline Black, one of the original vocalists in the band, talks with PKM about the original British scene that also included The Specials, The Beat and Madness, her memories of the late Ranking Roger and staying true to her musical roots 40 years later.
Along with such acts as The Specials, The Beat, and Madness, The Selecter helped spearhead a British revival of ska music in the late ’70s and early ’80s. They had one of the more diverse line-ups of the scene, with lead vocalists Pauline Black and Arthur ‘Gaps’ Hendrickson fronting a multiracial group of musicians. The Selecter released their first singles and Too Much Pressure album on 2 Tone, the label set up by Jerry Dammers of The Specials that was closely associated with the scene.
The group actually came into existence because Dammers needed a B-side for the very first 2 Tone Records release – Special AKA’s 1979 single “Gangsters.” Chosen to fill the slot was “The Selecter”, a previously recorded song written by guitarist Neol Davies and Specials drummer John Bradbury. With the success of the single, Davies proceeded to launch the band The Selecter, initially with keyboardist Desmond Brown, bassist Charley Anderson, guitarist Compton Amanor, drummer Charley’ H’ Bembridge and Hendrickson on vocals. Black joined as co-vocalist, and The Selecter went on to have such hit singles as “On My Radio,” “Three Minute Hero” and “Missing Words.”
The Selecter disbanded in 1981, remaining dormant until Black and Davis returned with a new line-up in 1991. Davis left the group a year later, but Black continued to perform and release music with various line-ups of The Selecter. Hendrickson returned in 2010 and remains part of the group. Like the 2 Tone label itself, The Selecter is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2019. They will be commemorating with a career-spanning tour, which starts in September.
We spoke with Pauline Black about her musical journey.
PKM: Could you discuss your background and how you initially became involved with music?
Pauline Black: My involvement with music did not come from being in a band initially. It came from me trying to play guitar and sing songs that I’d either written myself or songs that I particularly liked. Pretty much the only place you could do that when I began in 1977 / 78 was in folk clubs. I mean, folk clubs had a wide remit; anyone who was a so-called singer-songwriter could kind of turn up. You’d get your free time to a do whatever you were going to do, along with a whole load of other people. And it was very convivial. I was pretty much in a minority of one being a young black woman in Coventry, playing guitar at that time.
It was a good training ground. I was still working at that time, so it just kind of gave me the impetus, I suppose, and the confidence to be able to sing. But I always pretty much stuck to the same palette; songs that interested me were by women, usually. Or they were about an opinion of how the social and political landscape was at the time. I was a big fan in those days of Bob Dylan, of Joan Armatrading, and Joni Mitchell, all of those kinds of people. But I always had a very healthy interest in reggae music as well. At that time coming to the country was Bob Marley and the Wailers. I went to one of their first of shows when they became very, very popular and they were recording for Island. It was at a venue not too far from Coventry, which is where I live. And unbeknownst to me, everybody who would end up in The Selecter were actually there that night, listening to this same kind of music. That was just a piece of serendipity. I didn’t know them at that time and had gone there with some other friends. We found out later [that we had all been there].
Pauline Black covering Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry”:
PKM: How did you end up meeting the other members of The Selecter?
Pauline Black: I had a gig. Bert Jansch was the headliner and he was playing at a folk club here in Coventry. And I was asked to do a few songs before him, so I did. And in the audience at that time was a young man who was doing philosophy, politics, and economics at Warwick University. His name was Lawton Brown and he was the only other black person in the audience. Everybody else was white. And at the end, he came and he spoke to me and said, ‘you know, I really like what you’re doing. Do you fancy writing some songs together?’ So that’s what I started doing. He introduced me to music that I hadn’t heard before, most notably the Last Poets. And also other reggae bands, people like Culture and Matumbi, Misty in Roots, the work of Dennis Bovell.
And he said to me, there is this band in town called the Coventry Automatics, which would go on to become The Specials. They were playing at a nightclub, and he said, ‘you know, you should come up and have a listen to them.’ And who was supporting that? Another reggae band called Hard Top 22. And I went up, and I saw both groups. The majority of the people who are in Hard Top 22 that night would then later go on to be in The Selector. So that’s how we all became involved.
PKM: Was it through The Specials that The Selecter came to be on the 2-Tone label?
Pauline Black: By that time, Coventry Automatics had renamed themselves The Specials. And they had released a single called “Gangsters.” On the flip side of that, there was an instrumental, which had been recorded in 1977 by Neol Davies, who was a guitarist, and on drums John Bradbury, who would later go on to be the drummer in The Specials. And a trombone player [Barry Jones] who happened to own the sweet shop just around the corner from where I lived at the time. It sat on the shelf for a very long time. And again, it was another piece of serendipity that Jerry Dammers had run out of money to record a B-side.
So he asked Neol Davies if he could use his instrumental, which was called “The Selecter.” And Neol said, ‘of course,’ not expecting it to do anything at all. He’d tried to kind of hawk it around and get people interested, but people didn’t really see it. It was neither reggae nor uptempo. Nobody had really sort of figured out precisely what ska was in 1977 when he was trying to do this. So, by 1979, the rest of the country kind of caught up to what this new kind of dance phenomenon was. And when the single came out, it started climbing the charts, and Lynval Golding from The Specials turned round to Neol Davies and said, ‘I think you ought to form a band.’ And we were sort of there ready and waiting.
PKM: That initial version of the group only lasted two years. What was it like returning to The Selecter?
Pauline Black: Well, there have been many incarnations of The Selecter, I mean it completely went away between 1982 and 1992. But it’s been active really since 1992, apart from a couple of years when I spent time concentrating on writing my book [Black by Design: A 2-Tone Memoir]. It has been through various guises. Sometimes it has only been myself in it. Sometimes it has been myself and Gaps and a couple of others from the band. This particular version of The Selecter been in existence now for getting on for 10 years now. And it’s been my favorite one.
PKM: You’ve continued to release new material; what is your creative and writing process like these days?
Pauline Black: Well, the process is between three of us these days. It is between myself, Gaps, and Neil Pyzer, who plays tenor sax in the band and also is the musical director. We’ve had a long relationship now, back since 2008. It works really well. So we kind of share the writing and share ideas and Neil has his own studio, so we record there and then take it somewhere else to edit and mix. How it kind of works is each of us individually comes up with an idea, you know, might be a top line, it might be the title, it might be a first verse, all of those kinds of things. And sometimes it’s a finished song.
Usually, everything sort of starts with the rhythm and we don’t stray too far away from the kind of ska offbeat, but we try and mix it with other things. Because that was always the template of 2-Tone was to mix it with a bit of punk, a bit of soul, a bit of reggae and, and things like that. And we probably mixed it more with reggae than any of the other bands did at the time. And that suits us, and so we carry on that kind of style. I mean, we have this idea within the band when we come together and we take somebody’s idea, and we say, yeah, let’s Selecter-ize it. And for us that means something. And once it’s Selecter-ized, it tends to come out sort of, you know, fully formed. Only The Selecter could play this. The Selecter have always been like marmite. People either like it or they don’t like it. That’s where our audience is, obviously the ones who like it. We mix things up in ways that maybe some of the other bands don’t.
PKM: Besides music and writing, you’ve also done acting and broadcast work. Is music currently your focus?
Pauline Black: Music has been the main focus for at least a decade. I like words; I like the manipulation of words. I like what words mean and the musicality of words. And I tried a lot of things. Like acting, that teaches you discipline, and stagecraft. I’m a bit of a sponge, I suppose I kind of absorb all these things. You take eclectically what works best for you to try and get across pretty much what you want to say. But we’ve always stuck to a palette; our songwriting material isn’t heavy on sort of love songs or anything like that.
PKM: What do you currently see influencing and inspiring your songwriting?
Pauline Black: We’re looking at the world around us, and we’re talking about the things that matter to us. At the moment, the political landscape has had a bit of a shift, quite a large shift in recent years. Both here [in England], you know, and across the pond where you are/ It’s beginning now in Europe as well. So there is now plenty to write about. There is plenty to talk about. There is plenty to perform about. There is, just by virtue of the fact that this is a band led by two black vocalists, one male and one female, all of those kinds of gradations in between because of the way we look and our stance, and those kinds of things. We are a racially mixed band, and I feel it’s important to have that these days. I mean that’s what we are. When people see us, that’s what they see. And the music we make, we hope, is more than a nod to the things that concerned us in the past.
The Selecter have always been like marmite. People either like it or they don’t like it.
PKM: You’re doing a 40th Anniversary tour this fall. With an extensive back catalog, what is your approach to putting a live set together and keeping it interesting for both yourselves and fans?
Pauline Black: I like to craft a song set. We’ve just had pretty much five or six months off the road. We’ve retrenched, we’ve relooked at things and have really thought about what we want to do. We’ll cull a lot of songs from various albums that have a through line. We want to take people on a journey from what was the very beginning, that instrumental ‘The Selecter,’ through to how we are now. We’ve got the songs to do that. We’ve got quite an enormous back catalog if we really went into it. And so we’re taking songs, you know, off the first album, and off the Celebrate the Bullet album. We’ve resurrected a great song that fits the time completely, which is “Who Likes Facing Situations.”
We’ve joined Celebrate the Bullet with a song off the Subculture album, “Breakdown.” That is very much about kind of the breakdown of communities that underpin the politics of any country, really. And segueing that into a song like “Celebrate the Bullet,” which is an anti-violence one. That’s always been, strangely enough, very popular in America. I don’t know, maybe they don’t get irony, but it’s an anti-violence song, it’s not, you know, some song that sort of celebrating the NRA or something. So, but I mean, we can do things like that now.
You know, if you want to go out there and you want to be more than sort of, ‘hey, we’re here, we’re celebrating 40 years,’ I like to have something that starts dark, asks the questions and they kind of get resolved as the set goes on. It passes through; you take the audience on an emotional journey. I think that’s the main thing. It’s not just a collection of songs. That’s how I like to do things. And if I learned anything from my acting days, it is that. Acting is about telling a story, and songs are three-minute vignettes, aren’t they? They are three-minute stories. But if you kind of link them together and you believe the through-line of it, which I endeavor to try and do and the band helps in that process, then you can come out with something really good and exciting. People go home feeling as though they’ve experienced something.
We are a racially mixed band, and I feel it’s important to have that these days.
PKM: A lot has changed within the music industry in the past 40 years. How does making an album now compare to the early days of The Selecter?
Pauline Black: Well, it’s easier now because you don’t have some huge piece of hardware in the corner with two-inch tape on it and reels and all that kind of nonsense and splicing and editing and the takes forever. So it’s easier in that respect. But it’s harder in other ways, with disseminating music. It’s not so much making the music. I mean, if you’re a band, that’s what you’re in business to do, isn’t it? Trying to sell your music as it were. Getting people to actually part with money for this music, which would sustain you to make more music is a much, much harder, I think for bands, every band that I know. Some people go down that Pledge Music route. I know that they’re not in business anymore, but that kind of route, trying to get fans jollied along together and offering them all kinds of things. You know, like sitting down for a fish supper with you or something like that.
But we scotched that idea very, very early on. It just seems a bit like just prostituting yourself, really. For what? I don’t know. I don’t care whether people like me or not. That’s not the reason why I make music or have any of the messages that I have. And I feel that’s what social media has done to people. It’s made us all really kind of prostitute ourselves maybe in some ways like, ‘like me, like me,’ you know, I mean, just the ‘like’ thing, the ‘like’ button. You then live in this kind of echo chamber for your ego and I really, really don’t like that aspect at all. So, if we’re making music, we stay pretty much together about what we want to say, what we want to do, how we want to do the rhythmics and sort of texture of that. What we’re going to work with. And, you know, what color is this album. Is it a red album? Is it a blue album? Are we feeling sunny as a yellow album? The Daylight album was a yellow album with all of those kinds of things that only we know about. But it’s there for other people to discover if they sort of look behind those kinds of normalities of putting out an album.
I’m not saying that it’s easy. We record on the same label as a Ranking Roger’s The Beat, certainly up until now anyway. And they were brave enough to put out new music. I think we started the trend of putting out new music back when Made in Britain came out in about 2012. All through the 1990s, consistently we were putting out albums. But it was very, very difficult to do because you didn’t have big budgets for studios and, and all of that kind of thing. But nonetheless the creative spirit was there, so we want to do that. So that’s really pretty much how I see things.
PKM: You mentioned Ranking Roger, who recently passed away. Is there anything you’d like to say about him?
Pauline Black: Well, we miss him totally. We spent about two and a half years, on the road with them doing co-headlining shows all of the UK and into Europe as well. We played some great shows for thousands of people. You don’t take that lightly when someone who you’ve known since he was 16 passes away so suddenly. Because it was very sudden. We knew he was very ill, but we were under the impression that he was going to get better. He passed away in the 40th year, so it’s even more poignant from that point of view. We knew we couldn’t tour together this year, but we had our sights set on 2020, which would have been the anniversary of when our first albums came out. So, unfortunately, that was not to be. I miss him totally. I mean, he was a great presence backstage all the time. And he was just a great person to be around.
And segueing that into a song like “Celebrate the Bullet,” which is an anti-violence one. That’s always been, strangely enough, very popular in America. I don’t know, maybe they don’t get irony, but it’s an anti-violence song…
PKM: Are you currently working on new music?
Pauline Black: We do have some new music in the works. Whether we’ll be showcasing it on this particular tour, I don’t know. Because this is very much about what we’ve been doing for the past 40 years. People can expect to hear songs that they haven’t heard live, probably ever. We’ve listened to what people have said over the years about what they would like to hear. I think that people will like the set that we’ve put together.