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Pauline Black: Queen of Ska and The Selecter

Pauline Black Dean Chalkley The Selecter
PHOTOS BY DEAN CHALKLEY

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Pauline Black: Queen of Ska and The Selecter

Try as some may, to make it otherwise, women cannot be written out of history. Pauline Black is a name many will link to the Rude Girl image she cultivated in the late ’70s as lead singer of The Selecter.

A two-tone ska band from Coventry, The Selecter — alongside bands like The Specials and Madness — worked their way into the music scene at the edge of the ’70s. Two-tone was a fresh take on ska; a take aimed at dissolving the racial tensions of Thatcher-era Britain. Hence its name: two-tone.

You might not know a lot about the race riots or Thatcherism, and maybe one day, I’ll tell you all about it from the view of a kid that grew up in the disparaged north of the early-’90s. For now, we’ll say it was hell for many, and it was not, same as it is now, the government that was taking the brunt of it.

Two-tone fused ska with the ethics of punk. Kids and young adults, angry at the state of the country and their world that could use music as an energetic, positive way to vent their feelings. Except the Pistols were kaput and sometimes, art suffers rather than thrives.

In a world — sadly, I have to say, reminiscent of today — where neo-nazis shaved their heads and idolised the wrong people and tensions were wrought over how much money somebody had or, worse, the colour of their skin, the time for a fusion of Jamaican and English music was right.

Pauline Black started off playing folk songs with her guitar around Coventry. She was studying to be in the medical world, training to be a radiographer. It was a by day/by night, superhero kind of a gig. One day, she received an invitation to a rehearsal by Neol Davies (The Selecter’s founder) and the rest, they say, is herstory.

Pauline Black also began as a stage name to hide from her Clark Kentian employers. Black borne of the fact her adopted family had referred to her as coloured. Pauline wasn’t, nor isn’t, the type to take any shit lying down or standing. Black she was because black was what she’d always been. It was a statement

Since The Selecter first split, Pauline has done everything from TV to writing; she’s presented and co-presented documentaries on the BBC, and won awards for her portrayal of Billie Holiday in the play All or Nothing at All.

The Selecter have reformed on and off over the years. For a brief time, Pauline released music under their name and managed herself. This year, the band came back with their energetic, enigmatic new album Daylight, embarked on a world tour, and I had the pleasure of asking The Pauline Black some questions.

 

“I have faith in the human race. No matter how bad things get, people always manage to see some daylight at the end of the tunnel.”

 

You’ve been in the music industry for a hell of a long time. You’ve played music through the cassette years, the CD years, the MP3 and now the streaming years. There’s been less money going to the record companies but the money, for artists, is now in playing shows. How has the act of making the music changed?

The music business has changed extensively during the past 38 years that I have been involved in it. However, the live performance aspect has changed very little.

As an artist in a band such as The Selecter, we have been able to maintain an audience worldwide, which has stuck with us through thick, thin and passing trends, because they know that we can deliver an excellent live show, which continues to be fuelled with the same kind of passion that we had at the beginning.

We are not reliant on technical trickery or choreographed extravaganza, we just set up our instruments and play.

On the business side, it is obviously more difficult for any band these days to make a living from the sales of recorded music, particularly now that streaming is so prevalent, but we enjoy bringing new music into the 2-tone/ska arena, because the same issues that occupied our thoughts nearly 40 years ago are just as relevant today, if not worse in the present worldwide political climate.

The new record — Daylight — maintains the classic two-tone sound while bringing fresh and new things to the table, which is incredibly exciting at a time where music is one of the things we have in the world that isn’t falling apart. Is your songwriting process any different now to how it was in the ’70s?

I prefer a collaborative approach. I always did. I like to come to the studio with a verse and chorus idea, with some words and a vocal melody already worked out and then let others develop that initial idea in a collaborative way, so that the song builds over a period of months and usually that process is very exciting.

Both Arthur Gaps Hendrickson and Neil Pyzer enter that collaborative process and also initiate whole song ideas themselves. Neil’s wife and daughter, Beverly Skeete and Marizia, provide song ideas and backing vocals too.

Once the song is arranged, we open it out to the other musicians in the band to bring their perspective to the song with their particular instrument. It’s a tried and tested process and we all enjoy working this way.

It’s kinda crazy looking at now and seeing history repeating itself with racism and bigotry and all these things that, ten years ago, a lot of us thought were getting better. I mean, I’m from the North East, so I’ve grown up surrounded by all the shit that Thatcher pulled and legitimately never thought we’d be back there. How did the current political climate inspire the production of Daylight?

I completely agree that it is difficult to understand how we’ve managed to turn back the clock on the issues of racism and bigotry in such a short space of time, considering all the effort that has been put into eradicating them, but human beings are frail creatures and do not seem to readily understand that we are better when we work together to improve everybody’s lot than just lining the pockets of an elitist few.

We have always promoted that message in our songs.

But, I have faith in the human race. No matter how bad things get, people always manage to see some daylight at the end of the tunnel.

 

“The same issues that occupied our thoughts nearly 40 years ago are just as relevant today, if not worse in the present worldwide political climate.”

 

Two Tone was founded on the idea that it didn’t matter what color your skin was or where you were from, you could come together and enjoy something. It combined ska with the punk rock ethos and you were one of the only women in a male-dominated scene. You also fucking own those suits. What were your style influences? Did you dress like that before The Selecter formed as well?

Thank you, I’ve always tried to own the image. There were no fore-runners, so I just made up my own fashion sense that went with the ideology of The Selecter and the energetic musical style.

I was searching for a no-nonsense, smart, intelligent but playful way to describe what a rude girl should wear about town.

You can’t beat a neat suit, loafers, check shirt and a dove-grey trilby for a fashion that doesn’t date, but is worn like ‘warrior’s armor’ onstage.

I’ve always thought of Notting Hill as being the place rich people live — as Northerners tend to — but I’ve had the pleasant opportunity to crash at a friend’s place a few times just yards from All Saints Road. The community around Portobello Road and Ladbroke Grove is, to this day, honorable to its Caribbean roots. My friend told me how influential it was to music and, man, it really, really was. When I close my eyes now, I just see people of every background sitting on their steps saying hello to you as you walk by.

Did you spend any time in that area? The Selecter — and two-tone — was founded in Coventry, but with the history being what it is in that part of West London (and the Don Letts documentary you appeared in) and coming from a working-class background yourself, how important would you say it is that areas like this are protected and not gentrified and that working class people are given the same opportunities as everyone else?

I’ve always enjoyed certain parts of Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove. It’s not an area that I’ve ever lived in, but I’ve visited many a time and had some good Caribbean food at people’s houses over the years.

Carnival was a magnet for me in the mid ’70s before The Selecter arrived on the scene. It was more manageable back then and like you say, it brought people together in an exciting, communal way so that everybody could let loose with the multicultural ideal, even before we all knew what multiculturalism was.

Pauline Black Dean Chalkley The Selecter

Speaking of growing up, you were raised by a white couple who avidly avoided using the word black. You wrote a lot about this in your book, Black By Design and took it on as your stage name as a way of confronting people like your mother and totally embracing your identity. (I identify as queer for similar reasons) Why is taking words back so powerful? Why, to you, is it important that we embrace them?

I’ve always thought that words matter – particularly those that we use to describe our very being.

It was important for me to define myself as ‘black’ when I reached my teen years. By the time I did this, James Brown had, rather usefully ‘named a nation’. His use of the word ‘black’ was very potent for a little ‘coloured’ girl living in Romford, Essex in the sixties.

I changed my surname by deed poll for a number of reasons, but primarily I wanted to define and have common cause with those who were held back in society purely because of the color of their skin.

You look like such a natural up on stage. You’ve got what the kids today, call “swagger” – it’s admirable and fascinating to watch. When you’re up there, do you lose yourself to the music? Are you a natural showman?

I am a natural show-woman 😉

I wouldn’t call it ‘swagger’, I would call it ‘presence’. When I’m on stage in front of an audience, I am always fully myself, and fully present in the moment. I don’t know how to ‘phone a performance in’.

I put it down to my Nigerian heritage on my birth father’s side. Apparently, according to one of my cousins, he was a rather theatrical and no-nonsense man.

Sometimes it’s good to show the warrior side – it gets things done!

“Never be afraid to do the right thing, even if everybody else tells you it’s the wrong decision.”

You mentioned in an interview that you went to see Blondie and the two of you sized each other up and came away with a mutual respect. What other women in the industry have you had good experiences with? Who would you love to write or work with?

There is a famous photo on the cover of the NME from 1981, in which I am posed with Polystyrene, Debbie Harry, Viv Albertine, Chrissie Hynde and Siouxsie Sioux. I have immense respect for all those women.

If I was going to write with somebody else, I would choose somebody like Bjork, who has a unique voice but a questing spirit. Perhaps the crossover would elicit some interesting music. I have always been a big fan of Bjork since about 1990.

Do you still manage The Selecter and take care of all the business-related stuff? Why did you decide to take on those tasks when you did?

Currently, I do not manage the band. The day to day running of a band that performs internationally became too much for me to handle as the workload increased. But I make sure I keep an eye on the details, and it’s important for me to feel involved with coming up with new ideas to spread the vision of The Selecter.

I nursed the band back to health from 2010 – 2016. It was an intense period, but I’m a great believer in learning from your mistakes. Never be afraid to do the right thing, even if everybody else tells you it’s the wrong decision. Always have a good balance between head and heart. And always decide on an annual goal – even if you don’t fulfill it, it will be fun trying.

 

“Life often just seems like a series of battles, but human beings most often sort things for the better even if it takes a long time.”

 

There are barely any women in the higher rankings of the music industry, with an article in The Guardian reporting that only 30% of the “bigwigs” are female, despite a huge percentage of lower tiers being female. How can we change that, do you think?

Such figures are disappointing, but there are more women involved in the music industry than when I was coming up in the ranks.

It’s important to differentiate between the business side of the music industry and the artistic side of the music industry. Few women successfully straddle that divide.

I’m definitely encouraged by the many women I work closely within the music industry. They are like me, take no nonsense from anybody and get on with the job.

Now on the new album, Daylight, I’m obsessed with Frontline and ever since I first heard it it’s been going around and around in my head. I’m seconds away from breaking out the brogues. What’s the track on the album that you want people to hear the most? What’s its message?

Frontline was written in the aftermath of the infamous UK Brexit vote.

British people were told lies and promised much to deliver that result. Much of that discussion took place on social media, which became a powerful tool in the polarization of our current society.

We saw a similar phenomenon take place just a few months later in the USA when President Trump was elected.

This polarization, fuelled by lies, greed, unsecured credit and insular jingoistic attitudes has led to a new Frontline – social media, where people go to fight out these issues in the public arena.

Obviously, these issues were too broad to depict in a single video, so we made our video for Frontline about one young man’s personal journey towards an unreal dream with inevitable disastrous consequences.

 

“Know yourself and the rest will follow.”

 

I also saw that you love Jeremy Corbyn (Jezza as I like to call him). What feelings were you left with after this year’s surprise election where the Tories were damn near certain they were going to win and didn’t?

Jubilation.

Next time he’ll thrash the Tories.

I enjoy watching the Blairites in the Labour Party eat their mealy-mouthed, pseudo Conservative, hypocritical wordy gibberish in the aftermath of Jeremy Corbyn’s current successful tenure as Party Leader.

What would you like to say to girls and women today, old or young, who want to follow their dreams but maybe don’t know the first step to take. What would your advice be for them?

I would have liked some advice but didn’t get any. My decision to join a band was initially met with quite a lot of resistance. So I made it up as I went along. Didn’t turn out too shabby either. The only piece of advice I would give any young woman is, “Know yourself and the rest will follow.”

Do you think we’re on the edge of something? With everything that’s going on now — murders and wars and the rise of the right — and things just keep on seeming to get worse; what goes through your mind when you think about it?

Life often just seems like a series of battles, but human beings most often sort things for the better even if it takes a long time. I put my faith in that happening this time too.

How long do you want to continue playing music for?

Till I fall off my perch. There are many ways to play music. One day I shall need a comfortable stool! 😉

And lastly, what’s next for Pauline Black/The Selecter?

2018 will see us performing in USA, Australia, New Zealand, Scandinavia, Germany, France, Holland, and the UK.

We are intent on spreading some Daylight everywhere.

SEE THE SELECTER IN A CITY NEAR YOU

The Selecter Tour Dates

PAULINE BLACK / THE SELECTER ONLINE:

WEBSITE | TWITTER | FACEBOOK

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Em is a queer, freelance music writer based in the North of England. The things that matter to her (other than David Bowie & her Telecaster) are either money, success, fame, glamour or freedom, beauty, truth and love, depending on the day and whether or not she's bought any incense. When she's not dancing around with a guitar, she can be found dancing around in glitter. Her motto: Don't be a drag, just be a queen.

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