Pauline Black of the Selecter Talks Riot Fest, 2 Tone Legacy, New Album ‘String Theory’ + More
With 2 Tone, as the name suggests, virtually everything was black and white. The bands were multiracial — white kids and second-generation West Indians rallying around vintage Jamaican music — and the clothes were a monochromatic mix of mod and rude-boy gear.
Similarly, the single and album sleeves were stark and colorless, and whether onstage or on record, the artists associated with the legendary British ska label — a cultural phenomenon for a few years in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s — espoused a binary anti-fascist, anti-racist message: You’re either part of the new inclusive England, or you’re against us.
And yet within the 2 Tone roster, there were shades of color. The Specials, whose keyboardist, Jerry Dammers, founded the imprint in 1979, were pissy and punky, the most pessimistic of the lot. Madness, the self-styled “nutty boys,” brought humor to their tales of working-yob London life. The English Beat were a terrific soul-pop outfit destined for mainstream success.
And then there was the Selecter, who could be as edgy as the Specials and as poppy as Madness or the Beat. Their defining characteristic was the ratchet-sharp soulfulness of singer Pauline Black, who joins original co-vocalist Arthur “Gaps” Hendrickson in a reconstituted version of the group heading to America in September for a handful of dates.
In advance of the tour, Black hopped on Skype and chatted with Diffuser.fm about 2 Tone’s early days and how the songs on the Selecter’s excellent new album, ‘String Theory,’ compare to her early hits. She also touched on her strained relationship with Selecter founder Neol Davies — who briefly led a competing version of the group — and offered a preview of her forthcoming debut novel, yet another thoughtful examination of race and gender from this perennial rude girl.
One of the shows you’re playing on this upcoming tour is the Riot Fest in Chicago. Any bands on that bill you’re looking forward to seeing?
When we come out it’s difficult for us to get to see other bands. That’s the main problem with all of it. We saw Sublime With Rome a few months ago when we came out to do the Ink-N-Iron festival. I definitely would watch them. And Blondie, but I don’t think they’re on the same day, and we’ll be gone. Those would be my picks.
All of the major 2 Tone acts are back in action. Have you had a chance to catch the modern-day versions of the other bands?
I sang with Dave Wakeling’s version of the Beat. I came out in 2006 and did a short tour with them. [Specials guitarist] Lynval Golding was also doing rhythm guitar for him for a while. Both of us were on that tour, and I came out and did the greatest hits things in the middle of their set. I’ve known Dave for a long time. It was an opportunity to dip my toes into the water, but without the rest of the band. It was when we had a hiatus between 2006 and 2010, before we decided — myself and Gaps Hendrickson decided — how we’re going to do something here and work with people we feel can add to the story if the Selecter want to move things on.
Is there any competition between the 2 Tone groups?
I don’t think there’s any sense of competition. Once you get over 50, what is the point of competing? It’s not like we’re hot heads and in our 20s any more, or one of us is racing up the charts and the other isn’t. All those kind of rivalries are dead and gone. We’re in completely new terrain here. It’s great. I think it’s wonderful what the Specials are doing. They’ve brought people, and hoards of them, back into the mainstream of looking at ska music as a worthy genre. For years and years, if you looked down in iTunes’ genres of music, ska would not be there. You’d have reggae but not ska.
The Selecter, like Madness, are still making new music — something the Beat and Specials haven’t really done — and you’re still tackling issues like gender equality and racism. From a songwriting point of view, how do you think your tone has changed? 2 Tone music was always socially conscious, but it wasn’t hippie-dippy, “Everything’s gonna be great.” A song like ‘Ghost Town’ by The Specials was hard and pessimistic but also driving for change.
It’s like [the Selecter's] ‘Too Much Pressure.’ All of the songs have a sting in their tale, I suppose. It’s that thing that drags it back from that hippie-dippy “love will conquer all” notion. We never really did any love songs back in the day, apart from if you count ‘Missing Words.’ So that’s one thing that marked us out. I think another thing that marked us out was a male-female duo out in front. Whoever was writing for the band then had two voice to be able to think about. Two perspectives to come from. I was very much the angry rude girl, and Gaps was very stylish — do a bit of toasting, do a bit of singing. He had a very easy grace to him. We had this wider sound remit, I feel. It’s something you can grow old with more comfortably than that rocky energy, verging occasionally on the misogynistic, that the Specials had.
People have criticized them for that over the years.
It’s more difficult for them to do songs like ‘Little Bitch,’ that kind of thing, these days. I’m not sure women want to hear that.
Yeah, there’s some real venom in their ‘Hey Little Rich Girl.’ With your music, do you find you’re more optimistic these days?
I’ve always been optimistic. The whole ethos of 2 Tone is optimistic. It’s interesting that our 2 Tone contemporaries don’t really talk too much these days about 2 Tone. They talk about themselves but not too much about 2 Tone. I want to talk about 2 Tone. 2 Tone, to me, was a movement. It was more than just the individual bands. It was about what everyone brought to the table that made it what it was. Its first 12 singles went to Top 20. Therefore, it not only had that danceable thing, it also had a political edge to it and something to say and something to stand up for. Rather than just preaching to people, it just said, “Look, here we are. We’re all getting along with each other. You can do the same.” I think that’s quite unique among any of the other genres around at the time.
Punk was very nihilist, anarchist. We came with this thing of, “Yeah, we know we’re all different, but let’s celebrate our differences rather than try to point them out and say, ‘You’re only going to do this kind of thing, and we’re only going to do this kind of thing.’” That’s really what we’ve tried to drag into the 21st century.
‘String Theory’ is political, but it’s not heavy-handed. There are lighter moments. You open with a cover of the ‘Avengers Theme.’
That’s what we are: We’re avengers! [laughs]
In one review I read, the critic questions whether the song ‘Doors Ever Open’ is about Selecter founder Neol Davis. Any truth to that?
What did they say? I’m intrigued.
Just that it didn’t seem like a sentiment strictly suited for a love song. It could be about the band and all the drama with the competing versions.
There really isn’t a competing version anymore. That’s scratches that. Neol was out there for a while doing it. We were out there for a while doing it. I very much thought that audiences will sort out what they want to hear, and they kind of did that. It didn’t need any pushing from us, if you know what I mean. There isn’t too much I can say about that. People tend to vote with their feet either one way or the other. In relation to that song, I guess that, yes, I can see how people might see it that way. But I think every song should have more than one layer to it.
In 2011, you released the memoir ‘Black By Design.’ Did that change the way you look at songs, or the way you talk about yourself in songs?
It certainly freed up a load of things. I took space out between 2006 and 2009 because I wanted to write the memoir, and I knew it was going to take a while. I think you need time to take stock. It wasn’t like I stopped writing; we’ve been going throughout the ’90s with various visits out to the States. We’ve played with some good bands when we were over there. Gwen Stefani’s band, No Doubt, being one of them. I felt that it was time to maybe just look at the world afresh and look at my world afresh. You tend to stop with yourself, I guess, don’t you? I thought, “Let’s go back and look.”
That’s one of the advantages of getting older: You’ve got more to go back and look at. It grew out of that … But I didn’t really realize the kind of resonance it was going to have with people. I’ve gone around and done a lot of book talks here, and it’s really touched a nerve with a lot of people who are a lot like me, who are mixed race and who were adopted in the ’50s and through to the ’70s, really. Who felt that kind of alienation from the society that they lived in. There’s never really been a large black population here, only in certain urban areas. So if you go into the countryside, a black face is much more rare to see.
Unless you lived in those urban areas then you tended to feel very much isolated in that way. So I just wanted to really touch base with those people, I thought they might understand what I was talking about.
Was 2 Tone unique to its time and place, or could something like it happen today?
The thing is, it happened when it happened. I believe that most of those things are still relevant. For heaven’s sake, look at the murder of Trayvon Martin and the outcome of that. It’s not like as a black person, or any person of color, that you feel like they’re safe on the streets late at night in urban areas, even now. Racism underpins a lot of the troubles in this world, globally. It’s not just an issue confined to one country.
It’s fascism I’m talking about, really. That whole kind of racist ethos is on the rise across Europe at the moment. I would say the need for 2 Tone these days and new bands coming forward with a message very much like that is probably needed more than ever. And it’s not just racism. Sexism is out there; violence towards women is probably greater now than it has been for a long long time. You just have to look at the social-networking sites and the things that are being posted on there about women who stick their heads above the parapet on some issue or another. I would bring into that, the whole lesbian-gay theme of marriage equality you have going on over there at the moment.
All of those stands — I feel we’re talking about what people’s rights are. People ought to be able to live their life, whatever they do or chose, as long as it’s within the law, and feel safe. Safe on the streets and in their own homes.
Can you talk about your debut novel?
It has a working title. Whether it’s going to be the title or not, I really don’t know. It’s called ‘The Last Supper.’ It is about a woman who … in the ’50s and ’60s, there were quite a lot of forward-thinking women who embraced other cultures and produced children like me. This is the story about a very particular women who has a relationship with a Nigerian guy and goes back to Nigeria and has twins, because in the Yoruba tribe and Yoruba culture as well, twins are, one, highly prized and, two, more prevalent than any other group of people in the entire world.
So she has twins, and one is born black, and the other is born white. She keeps the white one because of family pressures, and she leaves Nigeria. She gives the black one to an orphanage. As she’s getting older, she finds that she’s getting Alzheimer’s, and she wants to put this right. She wants to put those children back together again. That’s really what the story is about, these women are now 40 years old and don’t know each other, and it’s the story of how that happens.
Sounds like it would make a great movie.
I’ve always enjoyed reading books. I’m very visual. Dickens was very visual. Every single book he ever wrote, you feel as though it could be a movie. Sometimes you feel as though you’re reading a script in that way, because it is so visual, and the characters are so visual. So, yeah. I think it would make a good movie.
If there’s a movie, the Selecter should do the soundtrack. It could be a whole concept album.
Wouldn’t that be good.