The Selecter pioneered the ska revival movement alongside label mates, The Specials & Madness, and were responsible for some of the scene’s classic hits, including ‘On My Radio’, ‘Three Minute Hero’ & Too Much Pressure.
The Selecter’s iconic front woman Pauline Black is reverently referred to as the Queen of Ska – and with good reason, with Rolling Stone Magazine declaring, “Hands down, Pauline Black possessed the best voice that ever graced a 2-Tone release” and Gwen Stefani citing her as one of her formative influences.
In 2010, Black reunited with the band’s co-singer, the brilliantly charismatic Gaps Hendrickson known for his incisive toasting on the mic, to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of their classic Too Much Pressure. Since then, this refreshed and revitalised line-up have been the recipients of a wave of critical and popular acclaim for their brilliant 2011 album, Made In Britain.
As a thank you to their fans, both old and new, in October 2012, they embarked on a brand new 11 date tour in support of their new album ‘Live In Britain’, which showcases the best of their incendiary ‘live’ set recorded on their near sell-out ‘Made In Britain’ tour in March 2012.
Made In Britain successfully explored the multicultural landscape of today’s Britain & beyond. Mixing ska, pop and reggae in their inimitable style, it reflected the social and political issues confronting Britain’s new multicultural society. Just as they gave a voice to disaffected youth across the racial divide in Thatcher’s recessionary Britain thirty years ago, The Selecter have returned to a 21st Century British landscape with an unnerving number of parallels to those dark times.
The 2-tone legacy continues because the idea of multiculturalism began when black and white youth, who had grown up in Britain decided to get together and make music that reflected their particular world. The Selecter seeks to continue that conversation and carry their “Multiculturalism rules!” message forward to a new generation & with an upcoming first ever tour of Australia in November 2012 and America in 2013, spread that message to the rest of the world.
Mark Dean recently had the opportunity to chat to frontwoman Pauline Black for GiggingNI.com ahead of the band’s Belfast show next month at the annual Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, promoting the anniversary of their seminal debut release.
This is the bands 35th anniversary of your debut release,how do you explain the bands longevity in ever changing musical times?
Pauline: “All I can explain it by is that you must be doing something right in the first place [laughs]. I think that people were interested in what we were trying to do .There will be a new album next year with the loose working title of”A Different Culture”
On this tour you will be playing the whole of “Too Much Pressure.” Does it feel strange to be playing some of those older songs,which maybe had not been played before?
“Yes it does, well it doesn’t feel so strange now that we have played several dates. When we first started doing it, it was quite strange revisiting the songs after 35 years to play a song like “Black and Blue” and reinvesting in it the experience that you have got now. That was quite odd but it is the audiences. We have sold out most of the gigs that we have done on this tour, which is just finished. They would be absolutely just baying for more and really loved it. They also love the fact that in the middle of the set that we move things on and say now we have done this. It’s kind of in two halves, if you know what I mean. We do most of the album up to “Carry Go, Bring Come” and then we go into some of the newer material that we did. We do some material from “Celebrate the Bullet” album then of course we do “On My Radio”and “Too Much Pressure” in the set – we encore with two new songs, which just go down brilliantly.”
In the existence of the band you promoted racial harmony by having a racially diverse lineup.Is modern society more tolerant now than it was in 1979?
“Oh it is definitely more tolerant now than it was when we first set out – goodness me, I can remember being on tour with The Specials and Madness and we came to Ireland. Going in a pub on a Sunday – which was quite difficult to find a pub which was open on a Sunday in those days in 1979 – I wont say what was said but it was a strange reception when we walked in. Our racially diverse lineup, put it that way.You wouldn’t get that these days and we don’t get that here. I think that largely people have embraced the notion of multi-culturalism whether they agree with it or not. They don’t have much choice these days and to my mind its good for them.”
That little anecdote leads me on nicely to my next question. Most of your peers Madness,The Specials and Bad Manners are still touring.How would you feel about a revisiting of the tour package that you did then with those bands?
“Oh goodness me that is talked about on a weekly basis. Not by us necessarily. I think that what people forget is that when they watch “Dance Craze” they are watching a movie. What they are watching are performances that were put together to be made into a film. That lineup never existed in reality. The Madness, Specials and The Selecter toured together, that was the Two-tone tour. I think they get it muddled up but we never toured with Bad Manners or the Bodysnatchers – that whole line up, we may have had variations. We went out with the Bodysnatchers and the Swinging Cats at one time. We also played a show with Bad Manners on several occasions. That whole movie did not happen in real time.So yes, wouldn’t it be great if everybody could all get together. You know as well as I do that is quite a difficult task – for the man or woman that can pulls that off I would take my hat off to.”
The Selecter have also made new albums in recent years do you feel that your subject matters and lyrical content has changed with those releases?
“I think we still talk about the same things, I mean we talk about life. Life may not be exactly the same as it was back in 1979 but hopefully we map the changes that are going on socially and in some ways politically for people. We definitely keep to that whole kind of theme of an anti racist and anti sexist stance which is what Two Tone was about in the first place. Also the social aspects of peoples lives.”
The bands touring in recent years has allowed you to visit many countries some for the first time. Any particular stand out highlights from those trips for the band?
“Oh yeah, for sure. I never ever thought that we would visit Australia and to play Sydney to a sold out show was just absolutely magic. To find that people knew all the words to”Too Much Pressure”, “On My Radio”and “Missing Words” was quite phenomenal really. We are going back there at the end of the year and on to New Zealand this time so that would be good.
“It was absolutely splendid to do Coachella Festival last year, for the mere fact that we were asked to do it was amazing. I don’t know if you know about it, but it happens out in Palm Springs in the desert in California. It is a very well organised festival and happens over two weekends – so you get two bites of the cherry sort of thing. We played different sets for each one. To be on the same bill as people like Janelle Monae and people like that who I am a great fan of was really great for us. It was also a good launching pad for us to reintroduce ourselves to America. We went out to America last year three times.”
Looking back over the 35 years with the band any particular standout highs and lows?
“Well I did an autobiography in 2011 called”Black by Design” so that really gave me a chance to look back at everything that I have done either related to The Selecter or to the peripheral things that I have done around The Selecter I guess. That was great, it was like I suppose nothing really beats when we first came on the scene and we got the opportunity to tour with The Specials and Madness back in those days. Everything really has grown from there. The Two Tone tour was exactly as it says on the can as it were, it was just a really brilliant tour. For the first time we put it in front of the United Kingdom as it were the idea of racial harmony being something that was good and ought to be strived for.”
I do recall growing up with that whole music/fashion Two Tone period which really seemed to be a dominant and particularly vibrant scene at the time.
“Yes, reggae was underground at that time ,there was only a small black population here. White folks didn’t really want to listen to that, they wanted to listen to David Bowie and all that kind of stuff didn’t they? It was platform shoes and mad hair styles. Then along came Bob Marley and that began changing things. It was music as entertainment up to then largely. I think that Bob Marley came along and started singing about a different agenda. Obviously that opened everything up and mixed stuff up.
“A lot of people embraced reggae and tried using it with some rock rhythms and stuff like that. Really I think that Two Tone came out of people like The Clash maybe embracing some of that kind of things and also some Lydon with the Sex Pistols and later with P.I.L. Looking at those kind of rhythms and liking that kind of music and gave it the seal of approval for other young white kids to actually get into it. It was a huge crossover potential at that time and we have been mixing it up ever since then.
“It was the making up of a culture as you went along. It was neither reggae nor was it rock so you could take the bits of it that interested you. I think that the Two Tone sound fashioned a new sound which was a mix up of white rock, some soul, punk obviously which was around at that time and we had grown up with and that whole genre of the sixties. So yes it was a great time ”
Obviously the music business has changed dramatically since those days,what are the best and worst aspects of today’s music business.Is it more difficult to sustain a living?
Pauline: “The music business is something that doesn’t actually interest me in terms of record companies and stuff like that. Not these days and to be perfectly honest it never really did. It is easier basically in the respect of we can do what we like now within certain limits. We can decide to tour, we can put out our own albums. You can upload them straight to iTunes and all those kind of things. Of course you run the risk of people ripping your material and sticking it on some download site that you don’t know anything about. I know of all those problems.
“The one thing that we can do when you are a band like us which I believe is called a “heritage band” although I don’t really like that label particularly is that you make money from touring. That is possible now. People have, I think, become less enchanted with the whole MTV lifestyle now and prefer to go out to a gig. Getting down and dirty in a live hot sweaty room and actually watching a band that they enjoy. Largely on maybe what they did before, so some of this is kind of nostalgia.
“I find that with a lot of those people if you actually put new stuff in front of them and its any good,do actually want to hear it.Its not like there is actually a ball and chain on you in that way that you have got to do the old stuff. I think that you can be adventurous and I think that some of our contemporaries could be more adventurous.”
You mentioned earlier about a previous trip to Ireland and you are returning to play Belfast for the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival on 10th May. Any recent trips over here?
Pauline: “The last visit was probably about three years ago. It hadnt been promoted very well, so we were a little disenchanted with that. That was a reason that we had not returned. We have been doing really well and hopefully people will have read the reviews and seen what we do. We will be along at the festival – it’s the same line up from the last four years. The drummer has played in various versions since the nineties and Gaps Hendrickson has been singing with me on and off throughout the 35 years.The unit that we have is a stable unit,and that is The Selecter.”