Pauline Black’s music in her re-formed band is still highly relevant, writes Tim Hughes
Riven by racism, strife and unemployment, the England of the late ’70s and early ’80s was a very different place to now. Or, at least, we like to think it was.
Growing up in Coventry, a once-proud manufacturing centre poleaxed by industrial decline, the young Pauline Black was shocked by those divisions and was stirred into action — giving her voice to a movement which aimed to bring people together through a shared love of music.
Fusing ska, rocksteady, reggae with new wave and punk rock, the city’s 2 Tone scene, centred on the record label of the same name, was a blending of Jamaican and British sounds, represented by its black and white chequerboard motif. And at the vanguard of that mission were the Specials, The Beat and Pauline’s band, The Selecter.
Taking their oddly-spelt name from the Jamaican term for a DJ, The Selecter gave voice to disaffected youth with a life-affirming sound based on an infectious ska rhythm.
Now, 35 years after the release of their seminal album Too Much Pressure, Pauline is back on the road with her reformed band to play the record in its entirety.
And, just as Pauline has stayed close to her Coventry roots, so her music remains as relevant as ever.
“Obviously we are very tied to our past,” she says, talking from her home — an end-of-terrace house in the city’s Chapelfields district. “How can we not be when people are still interested in what we were doing back then? The whole point of what we were doing was to highlight what we saw around us. And in many ways things haven’t changed between 1979 and 2014. Racism and sexism both seem to be alive and well.”
She adds: “It’s good to share the message of 2 Tone, which is about the ideal of harmony among people and burying any racial differences between us. And I’ll fight for that ‘til my dying breath.
“It has always been more about being in a band than earning money. I stand on stage and sing about what I believe in — rather than churning out love songs. We were not politicians but wanted a way to educate people at the time — and they have passed that onto their kids. A lot of young people come and see us.”
Formed in 1977, by songwriter Noel Davies and John Bradbury, The Selecter’s eponymous debut single was released as the B-side of The Special AKA’s Gangsters, which reached number six in the charts. The line-up expanded into a seven-piece, with Pauline being signed up in 1979.
Their breakthrough came with the single On My Radio, followed by Three Minute Hero and Missing Words, which featured on their top five debut album, recorded in 1979, released the following year, and which is currently being performed in full.
The band’s line-up continued to shift, with Pauline leaving after the release of their second album Celebrate the Bullet in 1981, to pursue a career as a film and television actor. The group broke up shortly after. It took 10 years for the band to reform, with Pauline at the helm. Davies initially joined her, but left after a year. The band continued to release new songs until 2006, when she again quit — this time to write a book of her experiences, called Black By Design, and to record solo material.
When Davies attempted to launch his own version of The Selecter, five years later, the two former bandmates were pitched into a dispute, only settled when Pauline, and original lead singer Arthur ‘Gaps’ Hendrickson, won the right to use the name. Pauline and Gaps have led the line-up since, resulting in the current tour, which reaches Oxford on Sunday.
“The best woman won,” she laughs. “Neol gave it up two years ago; I wish him well in all he does. The Selecter has always had a torturous path through life - but so have lots of bands. We are a huge band and everyone has equal input.”
And, she insists, it is a happy band. “We are enjoying it more than ever,” she says. “We feel musically and business-wise more in control of what we are doing, and it’s an actual joy.
“We are longer in the tooth, but wiser.
“Because it’s the 35th anniversary we’ve been doing the whole album and bringing it up to date,” she says. “Of course, we should have done this five years ago, but being The Selecter we do everything back to front. We thought then it would be a good idea to do new material. Now we also want to show people what we’ve been doing for the past few years.
“We are enjoying bringing our message of multiculturalism from across four decades to venues up and down the land.
“What 2 Tone represents is a chance for people to get together to celebrate their differences. We are all human beings and should treat people with respect regardless of colour and creed.”
Despite fame, she has resisted any temptation to leave her home town. “I’m keeping it real,” she smiles. “I like to live in a place that feels like home. Most people on my street are immigrants, but everyone knows who we are. Coventry is like a little Motown. And even though all the factories are gone, lots of people in bands have their roots here and we know each other. It’s good to stay grounded and rooted in your community.”
She adds: “Coventry is the city of peace and reconciliation, and that whole thing still burns quite brightly here.”
And what differences has she seen over the past 35 years?
“I think personally things are more harmonious these days and people do see through the jaded attitudes of right-wing people trying to stir up racial hatred.
“All you can do, though, is educate people through song.”
What is she most proud of? “Still being able to do what I want to do,” she says.
“As you get older it gets more difficult to keep up that energy, but we are at a good time now with all these other pop stars getting older — look at Mick Jagger!
“Women especially get into their 40s and disappear into the woodwork, and I think ‘why does that happen?’ I certainly don’t intend to let that happen to me.”