INTERVIEW: The Selecter's Pauline Black talks to Gigslutz

INTERVIEW: The Selecter’s Pauline Black talks to Gigslutz

Chrysalis Records continue their celebration of 2 Tone Records with… The Selecter  ‘Too Much Pressure’. 3 CD box set featuring remastered album, non-album singles  and b-sides, John Peel session, previously unreleased rarities, and a 24-page book with sleeve notes by author Daniel Rachel

Also available on black or limited edition clear vinyl, special half-speed master with bonus 7” of ‘On My Radio’. Lead singer Pauline Black sat down with Gigslutz to delve into her memory banks regarding signing to 2 Tone, going on tour with The Specials plus what she’s up to now:

Hi Pauline, what was the first music you can remember listening to?

Probably the first music I was seriously conscious of was Stevie Wonder, when he was known as Little Stevie Wonder, singing ‘Uptight (Everything Is Alright’.  I was around 12 and he was around 15 then.  It caught my attention because he was the first successful black artist I’d seen, who was near me in age, performing so brilliantly. He was such an uninhibited performer and just shone with pure joy and delight when he sang.  He made a big impression on me at that time.

What was the first serious music you can remember getting into?

Probably Bob Dylan during his more folky days, but I always had a passion for Tamla Motown, both the music and the artists’ fashion sense.

What/who inspired you to start singing?

That would have to be Mick Jagger. I loved the physicality & passion of his performance. I still do too.

Were you in any bands before The Selecter?

No. The Selecter is my first and will be my last band.

How did The Selecter form?

In March/April 1979 I was rehearsing with some friends in the back room of a pub on the Foleshill Rd in Coventry.  I was trying to form a reggae band with Lawton Brown (rhythm guitar), Charles ‘H’ Bembridge (bass) , Silverton Hutchinson (former drummer of Coventry Automatics/The Specials) , Desmond Brown (keyboards) & another guitarist, whose name I can’t remember.

Towards the end of rehearsal Lynval Golding from The Specials arrived to listen to us.  At the end of the rehearsal, he suggested that myself, Desmond & ‘H’ might like to link up with a friend of his, Neol Davies, at Charley Anderson’s house. We all arrived at the appointed hour and introduced ourselves.  Charley and Neol and the others already knew each other from a reggae band that they played in ‘Hardtop 22’.  Neol had played with them once and jammed with them on a few other occasions.  I had only seen Hardtop 22 play once, supporting Coventry Automatics at Mr.George’s Nightclub in Coventry Precinct. We listened to Neol’s 7” record Gangsters v The Selecter, the B side of which he had recorded two years previously .The Specials A side was rapidly climbing the charts, so he wanted to put a band together to capitalise on the success of The Selecter starting to get some airplay on the John Peel radio show.

We agreed to rehearse at the Binley Oak in Hillfields, Coventry.  At that initial rehearsal we worked on a song that I had co-written with Lawton Brown, ‘They Make Me Mad’. It went okay and all of us become The Selecter.

Within a few months we were supporting The Specials at gigs up and down England, and in October 1979 we were invited on to the 2-Tone Tour, which was a 40 date UK tour showcasing three bands The Specials, Madness and The Selecter, all under the umbrella of the 2-tone movement. Collectively, we brought the message of 2-Tone, an anti-racist, anti-sexist ethos to this country.

How did the songs form within the band?

The band worked on any song ideas that each member brought to rehearsal.  Collectively these ideas would be developed and arranged into finished songs. Often the songs would be fully formed already, but everything can be improved on, and that’s where the band came in.

I’ve always found it difficult to come up with initial song ideas collectively.  Inspiration normally comes to an individual in private moments, although there are exceptions to that rule, sometimes somebody wants help with a riff that they wish to expand into something more meaningful, so help can be given, but lyrics usually developed from one person’s ideas, not the collective.

The main songwriter in the band was Neol Davies, who penned all five of our hits, but Desmond Brown & I contributed album tracks to ‘Too Much Pressure’.

How did you become signed to 2 Tone?

Jerry Dammers, founder and keyboardist of The Specials, owned the 2-Tone label and had a recording deal with Chrysalis record company to promote and distribute the music it produced.  He also had the facility to give a recording contract & budget to new bands that took his fancy.  These bands could then go into the studio and make a single for the label.  The Selecter was given £1000 to record three tracks at Horizon Studios in Coventry. Initially, we recorded On My Radio, Too Much Pressure and Street Feeling in August/September 1979. On My Radio and Too Much Pressure were chosen for the eventual double A side single, which was released in October 1979.

The 2 Tone, Punk, Mod revival movement of the late 70’s / 80’s early was a very powerful and influential movement for many, why do you think this was so?

The 2-tone movement embraced many different youth tribes – skinheads, mods, punks, rude boys & rude girls, who all enjoyed a love of ska music.  In 1979, the more conscious elements of those movements came together to fight racism, sexism, economic inequality & homophobia, all of which were rife in society at that time.

How did Too Much Pressure as an album formulate? 

All the songs that we had been playing live on stage, we recorded in the studio. That took about 3 weeks.  Then we picked the best songs for the album.  It was recorded at Horizon Studios in Coventry.  The building where the studio was housed was demolished to make room for a shopping park development. The producer was Errol Ross.

Was it a relatively quick process from being signed to then releasing singles and then an album?

We began recording the album within about 6 months of forming the band.  We signed directly to Chrysalis records after the 2-Tone tour and began work on the Too Much Pressure album. By that time the songs were well-honed from gigging incessantly. We had a very steep learning curve.

It’s worth noting that Too Much Pressure is the only other album to be released on the 2-Tone label, which isn’t by The Specials.

The artwork is a thing of wonder too.  I love the photo of a young man leaning against the wall in despair, seemingly hemmed in on all sides by the pressures of everyday living.  The black and white check surround evokes a sense of authority and the racist tension in society, all conspiring to limit his space and future.

Three Minute Hero, what was the meaning behind this song?

In 1979, pop singles, with a few exceptions were a prescribed length of 3 minutes when played on the radio.  If the song went on any longer, the wretched DJ’s talked over the outros of the records.  So The Selecter, wanting to be sticklers for accuracy, recorded a song that was exactly 3 minutes long, so that it would catch the DJ out & leave them floundering for something to say, because there was no lengthy ending.  It worked a treat.

The song lyric represented the ‘impossible dream’ for working class kids at that time.  In our minds, the three minute hero was the pop star who had a 7 inch vinyl record with their name on it.

The James Bond Theme, why was this recorded for the album?

The band thought it was a wonderful showcase for the twangy lead guitar of Neol Davies and the brilliant  ‘toasting’ talents of fellow lead vocalist, Arthur ‘Gaps’ Hendrickson. Plus we were all fans of John Barry’s songwriting skills.

You went out on tour at the time to promote the album, do you have any enjoyable memories you can share with us from this time on the road?

We took out two other bands as support.  So our bus included all-girl, The Bodysnatchers and Holly and The Italians.  It was great to have some other women around on the bus after being the only female on the 2-Tone tour.  It was a lot of fun.

During that tour, The Selecter were invited to support Blondie at the Hammersmith Odeon, now the Eventim Apollo.  That was a real high point for us.  There is a lovely photo of Debbie Harry, Holly Vincent and me backstage in Debbie’s dressing room.  We all look very happy and young and obviously enjoying ourselves.

It was fantastic to have such a phenomenal reception everywhere we played.  Audiences loved the fire and passion that we brought to the stage.  We were a great band, where else would you have seen a band with six black guys, one of whom was a strikingly handsome, tonic suited Rastaman, a no holds barred black woman and one suave white male guitar-slinger on stage, causing maximum musical mayhem and producing fantastic music?  Only in The Selecter!

What do you think the legacy of the album is?  

It is the only album released on the 2 tone label that isn’t by The Specials.  For us to have a collection of songs on the 2-tone label and not just one single, as all the other initial artists who recorded for the label have, is very important to me.  We believed in the 2-tone ethos, and that passion is reflected in the recordings. To me, as a black British woman, it was a way of life, not just a stepping stone to a future pop career like some of our contemporaries.

I would hope the main legacy is that this album shows how black and white youth can come together, forget their differences and make a new kind of hybrid music, using their knowledge and musical strengths to show how collaboration,  celebration & diversity is the only alternative to outmoded racist and sexist ideas that pervade the societies we live in.

Do you think it still stands as a great album 40 odd years later?

 The main surprise, on hearing the re-mastered vinyl, was how wonderful it sounded and how fresh the songs feel, even after an elapse of 40 years.  The author Daniel Rachel, a fan of 2-tone himself, provided some brilliant sleeve notes & had a hand in wading through our archive of recorded material to choose this final edit for the package. Huge thanks must go to him for his enthusiasm and diligence, plus he’s just a really nice guy!

The re-release of the album certainly looks spectacular, was it fun looking back on the album? 

The record company has done The Selecter proud with this release. There are many extras, apart from the original re-mastered Too Much Pressure album on CD and Black & Limited Edition clear Vinyl. The most important of which is the final release of a live Selecter show from the 2-Tone tour, which was recorded in 1979 at Tiffany’s in Coventry in front of a home crowd.  It is amazingly reproduced, and showcases the passion and energy of the original band.  There are a few surprises in the set too, songs that haven’t been heard for over 40 years.  I’m immensely proud to have been in that original line-up and still in the band today, touring all over the world until 2020.

What are you up to these days? Apart from being asked to sell one of your old on stage hats on Antiques Roadshow? 

Antiques Roadshow was a funny experience.  It was supposed to coincide with it being filmed near Coventry and to big up the fact that Coventry is City of Culture 2021. 2-tone is a big part of Coventry’s cultural legacy, so I was asked to appear on the show, with an artefact that I held dear.  I didn’t realise that they were going to value it.  It was somewhat embarrassing to have an old sweat stained Trilby evaluated on screen and given a price of £600 if it ever came to auction. Hilarious!

Currently The Selecter is preparing for the Summer 2021 festival season, Covid19 willing of course, and we have begun writing songs for a new album due for early 2022 release. Working title of the new album is ‘Human Algebra’.

Finally, what’s on your turntable at present? 

Trojan 40 original reggae Tighten Up Hits.  Everybody needs a little reggae in their lives during the difficult times we are currently living in.

Too Much Pressure can be purchased via the following link