Pauline Black and Gaps Hendrickson in conversation, Holmfirth Picturedrome,
Friday October 12th 2012.

The Selecter were an important band in the musical firmament of late 1970s/early 1980s Britain. A very important band.

A bit of context: the seismic explosion of punk had happened. But you could argue that punk was over by 1979. The bands that survived the initial blast were generally finding new ways of musical expression. But, if the DIY ethic of punk had blown the music scene wide open, Britain itself was still a mess. Politically and personally speaking, punk had been short on answers. Johnny sang “No Future”. But, while this nihilism was refreshing and gave a generation the empowerment to shout “NO!” the youth of the late 70s still needed to find a future.

The Two-Tone movement was the first (and I’m really struggling to think of any since) musical force to stick its head over the parapet and say, “Here is an answer.” Their message was one of unity. The racism, sexism and any number of other –isms in our society had had their day. The powers that be (and let’s not forget who those powers were from 1979 onwards) had got it wrong. They were driving a further wedge between people in terms of affluence and poverty and any disenfranchised member of society could go to hell in a handcart (sound familiar?). Two-Tone was for solidarity. We’re all in it together and we need to look out for one another. It’s almost comically simple, but it was revolutionary at the time.

When people talk of Two-Tone, four bands’ names generally spring to mind (rightly or wrongly) as the chief protagonists: The Specials, The Selecter, Madness and The Beat. The Specials were the flagship band, led by the singular vision of Jerry Dammers. This dictatorship, we now realise, was not universally accepted by the Specials themselves which led to no small amount of bad feeling and their eventual demise. Both Madness and the Beat managed one single apiece on Two-Tone before moving on to pastures new. Neither band was keen to stay small fish in the Two-Tone pool. This is what makes the Selecter special (if you’ll excuse the pun). Without them, Two-Tone would have been the Specials and a few also-ran bands. The Selecter were in the charts with a great run of singles, two acclaimed albums (especially their classic debut “Too Much Pressure”) and were relentlessly touring under the Two-Tone banner. They most definitely walked it like they talked it and can claim responsibility in no small measure for helping Two-Tone have the clout that it had.

There is an added poignancy to this in that it is the Selecter who, with different line-ups over the years, have operated on and off ever since then and have continued to talk the talk even when, demonstrably, nobody has been listening.

The current incarnation of the Selecter began when original vocalists Pauline Black and Gaps Hendrickson reconvened in 2010 to mark the 30th anniversary of the release of the “Too Much Pressure Album”. The current line-up made a new album, released in September 2011 called “Made In Britain”. Universally acclaimed, it stands with their finest work and has been mentioned in the same breath by the likes of MOJO as “Too Much Pressure” itself.

I interview the band prior to a gig at the Picturedrome in Holmfirth; a sleepy, picturesque west Yorkshire village, famous as the setting for “Last Of The Summer Wine”. Despite the quiet surroundings, what I find inside the gig is no gentle old pals act.

I was surprised to learn from Pauline’s autobiography that, as an adopted child into a white family, she came to ska not long before the Selecter started.

She smiles. “It’s like shuffling one’s foot into an old comfy slipper.”

I am struck by Pauline’s cut-glass enunciation. According to her book this is a result of a very early method of combating people’s preconceptions that because she’s black, she would talk in a way white people would not understand. She explains her slipper analogy:

“My father, my Nigerian father- who I didn’t know at that time- the very first record I was given by one of his wives was the ten commandments of women, a Prince Buster song, which he’d bought in Nigeria. So, he must’ve liked that music, so it was quite natural that I like that music I guess.”

Does she feel it’s innate?

“I like to think so”.

The track “Fuck Art Let’s Dance” on the new album however seems quite upbeat about the old days. Does she look back fondly on those times?

“Well you’ve got to look back on it fondly. I mean, we’re thirty three years later now. To look back on it with anything other than fondness would kind of make a mockery of doing any of the songs of that time. You actually have to look at the fact that people went out and bought that album. They don’t want some miserable old bag going on about “ooh, I had a terrible time back then” do they? I didn’t have a terrible time. It was great. I mean, just to have been in a band that sold any records at all outside your home town was a feat, let alone going on telly. And being able to not go back to your day job for the rest of your life, kind of thing. So I consider myself very, very lucky and I’m very pleased that when people revisit that stuff they feel very positive about it.”

“Not just because it was the Selecter, but because I think that it was actually part of a movement, the Two Tone movement. To my mind the Two-Tone movement is of more interest than the individual bands that made it up. Together, we were a force and that’s what people remember. Together we stood for something in an age when bands didn’t really stand for things, you know? I mean, punk music, yes, it stands for a kind of anarchistic, anti-establishment kind of thing. But we specifically grabbed on to the fact that racism was rife in our society, sexism was rife in our society and damn it, we felt very strongly about that and we wanted to demonstrate both in what we were saying in our bands and the make-up of the bands that we were absolutely and positively against it.”

“And also the fact that it didn’t matter, I mean Madness were from London, Specials and us, we were from Coventry, The Beat were from Birmingham and there were also all the peripheral bands that were around that kind of music, like Dexy’s Midnight Runners who were on the Two-Tone tour and also UB40 I suppose were loosely associated with it. That whole thing just came up very suddenly, all of a sudden, out of…”

She stops herself,

“But I mean, it looks like it came out of nowhere but really those seeds were sown in the time of punk, and particularly during the time of the Clash. And particularly with Johnny Lydon coming along and doing the Peel Show when Peel wasn’t doing it and playing loads of reggae music and all that kind of stuff, you know? So that crossover thing was beginning between white kids and black kids and Two-Tone kind of sprang fully formed out of that.”

Was the two tone thing, by its nature, more positive than punk?

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I think as well that in the very early days of it Jerry Dammers, and all of us really, had the idea of taking out a review show like Tamla Motown used to do, or a soul sort of thing. Because all of those guys had come out of soul bands in Coventry. That’s what they’d been doing. So that vibe, that kind of ethos was there. Because of course the punk thing came along and you could subvert it. And that was the thing. The subversion of the whole damn thing”.

It must have been great that this tour hit your town and there were three or four bands…

“…that you could see for three quid!”

At this stage we are joined by co-vocalist and original Selecter member Gaps Hendrickson. I mention the current fad for late 70s and 80s bands going out now on package tours. Far from the Two-Tone review shows of 30 years ago, these are anodyne chicken-in-a-basket affairs. Do the band see themselves outside of that circuit due to still having a message they want to put across rather than purely playing the nostalgia ticket?

Pauline: “Yeah, you’re right. There is the chicken-in-a-basket kind of circuit, but, you know, we’d probably be more like soup-in-the-basket, knowing us! But when Gaps and I got back together again and we started forming the band and looking at the history of the band, what we’d done before, we thought, well the one thing that none of those bands really are doing, with the exception of Madness, say, is making new music. And I don’t really see the point, at our age, of being together unless…I mean the one beauty of being older is you can say what the fuck you like!”

She has a point. The Selecter, even at times when they were way out of vogue, continued to release new material.

“Yeah, yeah, ever since really, since, what was it, 1979. Gaps and I have sort of dipped the toe into the water, every now and again and made…I think the one we’re making at the moment, is probably about the tenth or eleventh studio album that’s around. But, the others are to be discovered after we shuffle off this mortal coil…”

The world seems to have found itself politically and musically at a place with more than a passing similarity to that of thirty years ago. Do they feel that?

Gaps: “Well, yeah, I do. ‘Cos, like the recession and at the time when we started there was that around as well. Going back to the point you made earlier about late 70s early bands, I think back then we used to listen to people like Rod Stewart and all the mainstream thing. But in the late 70s, early 80s, it was a lot of indie bands. It was all kind of music that you could listen to, all kinds of diverse music and that’s what probably made us last this long, if you like. There were lots of indie bands. It was around that time that indie music was invented, if you like.”

Pauline: “But the thing is, you could be alternative then, and you could have indie music. But also you had indie labels that were prepared to put out music and also invest money in marketing and stuff like that. Like Factory, for instance. The Two-Tone label pretty much had that kind of ethic about it as well, whereas now everyone can make music in their bedroom with Pro-tools and all that kind of stuff and they can stick it out there and everyone’ll download it and everyone downloads for free. But at the end of the day you’ve still got the same problem, you’ve still got to market yourself and unfortunately the marketeers are now Simon Cowell and a few others aren’t they? And it’s really awful.”

“I think the difference as well between now and 1979 is, it’s a global recession now, therefore it’s a different kind of ball game. We were very much looking at racism within Britain at the time. It began in America, as everyone knows, but that was being fought through. So when we went to visit America, it was like ten years after the civil rights movement had actually taken place which was nothing when you actually think about it in the grand scheme of things. I mean ten years after that, it was amazing that Two-Tone could have gone to America and done anything there, or even got an audience. So I wouldn’t say that they were particularly open to the message”.

I mention a passage in Pauline’s biography which describes the band’s early visit to Southfork Ranch, during which they are nearly attacked on account of the presence of the black members of the band.

Pauline is matter-of –fact; “Yeah. They still call a spade a spade there, mate.”

Well, quite.

Black By Design doesn’t cover the career of the Selecter after the mid-1990s, at which stage Pauline seemed to be feeling disconnected from her audience. Her musical foil at the time, Nick Welsh, even bemoaning the fact that she only wrote songs about “dead black men”. Does it feel different now?

“He did say that. And he was right. But no, because we still kept on and we did Three Men and Black and stuff with Jake Burns and Jean Jacques Burnel and we took a Two-Tone version of three men and Black out. It just seemed easier to do that kind of music in that setting, more than it did on a stage. It just went on for too long really, I felt. But you don’t realise it at the time because you’re still putting out albums and you’re still saying what you want to say. ‘Cos there’s nobody telling you that you can’t say that. So we said pretty much what we wanted to say. But I felt that it was time to stop that and to regroup and to actually take some time.”

“Writing the book was the time that I took to actually think about what I wanted to do and and who I wanted to do it with. And if they were agreeable to do it, for one thing. You know, I didn’t know that Gaps would be into it after all that time had passed.”

You two had been apart quite a time by then?

“Well, all through the 90s we’d sort of come back together and done a couple of albums together and things and then sort of drifted apart again and stuff. You’ve got to remember it was a hard road to hoe during the 90s, anything to do with ska in this country. Everyone had discovered Es and they really weren’t that interested in the drug du jour of our day. Everything had kind of gone into clubs, the whole scene was completely different. So you could go to America and do stuff, but they’d got their third wave of ska which was all kind of punk orientated, you know, ska-punk, that kind of thing. So it was quite hard to remain true to what we used to do. But we’ve found a way, I think now, of doing it”.

What do they think of America’s take on the genre?

“Well, you know..it’s…America. They never understood what Two-Tone was about. Ever.”

Really?

“No, no.”

Gaps: “Because it was just a lot of college kids, wasn’t it?”

Pauline: “Yeah, who’d been to Berkeley or wherever! Or been in some marching band somewhere and all the horn sections had got together and they’d just kind of changed the beat round and done an off-beat instead of an on and- “hey! We’re ska-punk, let’s play it really fast”. But great bands came out of that- Mighty Mighty Bosstones, even Greenday vaguely sort of had their moments. So yeah, it was OK. And music has to change, doesn’t it? Otherwise it becomes a bit ossified really, doesn’t it?”

“And I’m really not into kind of that whole thing there is around at the moment that, you go to some gigs, I won’t mention who, but sometimes they’re a little bit like follow-the-bouncing-ball. Bands of a certain age. I mean, I can understand why people want to revisit their youth and want to do that. And you know, we do that. You know that you can’t go onstage without doing what you’re known for. But I think you’ve got to mix it up a bit, otherwise, as a musician I can’t see that you’ll be very fulfilled.”

With that in mind, we move on to discuss the Selecter’s most recent album, “Made in Britain”. I suggest that the feel of it is different to some of their work in the 90s where a clean production, typical of the era, holds sway. To me Made in Britain sounds a bit looser.

Pauline: “Yeah, it was definitely to get the feel to it, more than anything. It was easy to write.”

Gaps: “Yeah, we certainly feel that it’s some of the best work that we’ve done for years and we’re quite proud of it too”

It’s been well received, hasn’t it?

Pauline: “Yeah, it has. Very well received, and compared very much to the Too Much Pressure album, which is nice. But I think the album that we’re doing at the moment, which will be out in March, is probably the best we’ve done.”

Is it important that, as an artist, you always feel that the next thing is your best?

Pauline: “Well, yeah, you’ve got to. I mean that’s the main motivator. Just to feel motivated, at our age, I kind of think, wow! I didn’t think that was going to happen again.”

The opening track “Big In The Body, Small In The Mind” reworks the Woody Guthrie song “You Fascists Bound to Lose”. How did that come about?

“It had always been kind of floating around. A lot of what motivated last year was the whole idea I suppose of multiculturism, that our great Prime Minister had decided was dead, I believe, in about February 2011. He had decided that it was dead and that was the day the EDL marched in Luton. And now he’s falling over himself to embrace it, isn’t he, after the Olympics? It’s like he invented the word mulitculturism, which I just found extraordinary.”

“And I just felt that, if Two-Tone was an anti-racist stance, then really, if you’re going to leap forward those amount of years, then it’s a really good idea maybe to really look at that whole Two-Tone thing but think of it, you know, life has moved forward. It doesn’t really parallel back then. It is actually multicultural now, in a way where people have had to assimilate, have had to grow together, have had to grow together as communities for better or for worse. You know what I mean? It’s here to stay, whether anyone likes it or not. And I feel that, for Two-Tone to go forward, it should go forward with that message, rather than any other.”

“We’re past racism now. People know there’s institutionalised racism. When we were around doing Two-Tone in 1979, institutionalised racism- it didn’t exist. It wasn’t even something you were supposed to talk about. But it took the death of Stephen Lawrence and a whole load of people to die before they even got to that point. So the conversation now is a different conversation. But at the root it still has the same ideas.”

The track “Bangin’ On A Big Drum” seems to be both extol the virtues of the protest song and yet acknowledge that sometimes the message falls on deaf ears.

Pauline: “Two-Tone is a legacy of what we did, but it’s not like we’ve got some super-duper huge legacy of number one hits behind us or whatever. But we do have an integrity. And I think you can’t really buy integrity, if you know what I mean. You either believe something and you believe it and you carry on doing it or you don’t. And sometimes it does feel a little bit like “oh blimey!”

Banging your head against a brick wall?

“Not really banging your head against a brick wall. I don’t care about that. Like I say, the one good thing about getting older is that you can pretty much say what the hell you like. Some people will listen and some people won’t- which is “Think About That”, isn’t it?” ( referring to another track on the album). “Which to a certain extent has the same message, you know, “some will, some won’t”. But we’re only interested really in the people that do. And if they do, they do. There’s no way I’m gonna persuade anybody who’s in the EDL not to be in the EDL”.

No, but I’m sure you’ve been an influence over the years. Surprised at Pauline’s last statement I tell them that I consider myself to have been informed by a lot of the music I have listened to, particularly in my formative years. The Selecter, I tell them, were very definitely part of that.

They accept the point, but Gaps still seems self-deprecating at the thought of their influence on peoples’ thinking: “That’s great to hear”.

I was very interested to hear on the track “My England” from the new album that the word England is very definitely pronounced “En-ger-land”, which I thought was a great way to reclaim the word from…

Pauline jumps in: “…football terraces? Yeah, it is, it is. A lot goes on on football forums that people, unless they’re in football forums, don’t know about. And a lot that would upset greatly people like me and Gaps goes on in football forums. And there’s a lot of flirting with that by some people who would say that they were into Two-Tone these days.”

That’s a lot of confused people.

“But it always has caused confusion. You know, skinheads used to come along, Seig Heil at the stage and be dancing the next minute with the music. Explain that one. They’d be half killing any punks or mods who were there. But that’s tribal, isn’t it? That’s young people and that’s tribal wars. But it’s like those tribal wars of the youth have now moved into football forums. And I think that behind that lie some very dodgy people if you troll around the internet and have a look at some of the far right stuff that’s both on Facebook and out there. So that’s the reason behind “En-ger-land”. It is a reclaiming. The “Made In Britain” is a reclaiming as well because all the people who played on that record, we were all made in Britain. We are the make-up of Britain.”

The very phrase “made in Britain” also has far right connotations.

“Yeah, so it was very much a dragging it back and reclaiming the whole thing and saying, “No- we’re here, it’s my England too.”

The album has a re-recorded version of “They Make Me Mad” which was written prior to the Selecter and which was included on the debut Selecter album. How did the inclusion on the new album come about?

Pauline: “That was conscious to a certain extent. It was like, dragging that all the way forward. And in a way, it’s more angsty. And if you actually check the words it’s…in a way still as potent today, the words, as it was back then in terms of what it has to say. So it kind links the two albums together somehow, or that’s the bridge that took you, if you like, to some of the other stuff that’s on there, like to “My England”.

And musically, as well, it stands up.

“It does, yeah. And I didn’t really feel that it had kind of been paid the attention the first time around that we were able to pay it the second time around.”

It’s quite a brave move to include a track from Too Much Pressure.

“Well, it was my song. So I kind felt that I could do with it what the hell I liked.”

I am keen to get their take, as seasoned established musicians on how the music industry works these days and how they work within it. Things have changed that much that when I go into HMV these days they only seem to sell Tshirts and DVDs.

A knowing smile spreads across Pauline’s face.  “Hm! They won’t be doing that for much longer, either…”

What about the Selecter? How has their relationship with the industry changed?

Pauline: “Well, we’re in the good position at the moment where myself and Gaps, we work directly with Neil Pyzer, he used to be in Spear Of Destiny, he’s produced the albums, he has his own record company that he’s set up, a label called Vocaphone and all the records are released on that. He’s also got his own studio so we can take our time, take as much time as we want really. So it’s given us that freedom really, to experiment, to just do a lot of recording then choose the best out of it. And when you’re working with record companies and you’re stuck in a recording studio for three weeks and “you will write that record”, I think that was never a very good environment for us.”

It seems to be a whole different model.

“Well it is, and I think when you’re free and you’re not worried about “god, are we going to get an advance from the record company? Are they gonna like this?” It would be absolutely horrendous to be in thrall to somebody like Simon Cowell- not that he would ever take any notice of us, we’d be really like the shit on his shoe, I shouldn’t imagine, in terms of what he might think- but you understand what I mean. We’re not in thrall to anyone. We can do what we like and put out records or not put out records as we feel.”

Which must be freeing?

“Yeah, it’s freeing in one way. But I think the other thing as well is that we wanted to come back together and do what bands used to do. Which is make a record, go out and tour it. And tour off the back of albums, be they live albums or studio albums. And also push it outside of this country and look at Australia, where we’re going in November and December, and America, where we’re going next year. And just push that because- why not?”

For them, then- is the demise of the album is overstated?

Pauline: “There’s no way of making money from albums anymore. Not unless you’re, I don’t know, Mariah Carey or somebody who just sell shed loads of the damn things. We’re never gonna sell shed loads of them. But what we can do is directly sell to people, i.e. do gigs, get a good amount of people in, sell them directly to them, and we like to be there at the merchandise stall, you know, signing and talking to people.”

The lyrics on the final track on the album, Second Skin, allude to having a second skin which is tougher than the first. Is Pauline Black, singer of the Selecter, a different person to the Pauline outside the band?

Pauline: “I think all people are amalgams of their experience, aren’t they? I mean, who they are…it takes a particular type of person who wants to get onstage and front a band. Y’know, you’re not going to be a shrinking violet- but you might be a shrinking violet in real life. But when you’re in performance mode, one’s different.”

She turns to Gaps: “You are!”

Gaps: “Am I?”

“Yeah- you’re the leanest man in ska!” (a reference to Andrew Peart’s description of Gaps from his LTW review of their Oxford Gig).

Gaps laughs it off, “Yeah, like Pauline says, you know- it’s showtime. And thirty years have elapsed, or more, and you just bring together your experience that you’ve gathered all over the years and put it together when it comes. And obviously, when you’re amongst friends, I’m just…Gaps.”

Pauline: “But what brings all that on to stage? I mean there’s no way… you can’t park it somewhere and pretend that’s… do you know what I mean? You bring it all with you. But it’s like super-reality as opposed to just reality, as it were.”

And so life is busy and happy in the Selecter camp. The gig itself is a blinder, the band rapturously received. They play with an assuredness that thirty years playing will bring, but also with a zip and enthusiasm that bands half their age could scarcely dream of. I learn later that the following night’s gig in Manchester ends up sold out with still more on the street wanting to get in.

Reflecting on our conversation I am struck by how much the whole thing seems to mean to Pauline and Gaps, even after all these years. And not just as a job of work. They are indeed light-years away from the cash-in, chicken-in-a-basket brigade that we had spoken about. It speaks volumes that every time Two-Tone is mentioned, especially when discussing what it stands for, it is mentioned in the present tense. The mixture of the message and the music is clearly still vitally important to them both.

Madness now occupy national treasure status, last seen on the Queen’s roof. The Specials are seemingly wondering now what to do without Jerry Dammers. The members of the Beat occupy separate sides of the Atlantic. And yet the Selecter are still here, still packing out gigs with sweaty, dancing people, still putting across the message both with the old stuff and, crucially, with excellent new material. Could it be that they have turned out to be the true long-term torch bearers for what we saw in Two-Tone in the first instance? It’s probably not my place to say. But it looks a decent shout from where I’m stood.

The Selecter: still a very important band.

1 COMMENT

  1. this is a nice story/interview. thanks. the only thing i wished you’d touched (a bit more) is the irony that virtually all of the “two tone” bands have succumbed to factionalism (the opposite of unity). of course, this applies to the dammers-less specials, 2 versions o the beat (ranking roger led/dave wakeling led, w/ cox/steele wanting nothing to do w/ either). even the selecter, whose onetime lead songwriter/guitarist neol davis is leading his own version of the selecter. as a long time listener of all of the bands mentioned above, i find this very frustrating and disappointing. of course, life goes on. i just wish everyone could just get along… thanks for the piece again… all the best!

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