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 âNo Futureâ. But, while this nihilism was refreshing and gave a generation the empowerment to shout âNO!â the youth of the late 70s still needed to find a future.
The Two-Tone movement was the first (and Iâm really struggling to think of any since) musical force to stick its head over the parapet and say, âHere is an answer.â Their message was one of unity. The racism, sexism and any number of other âisms in our society had had their day. The powers that be (and letâs 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. Weâre all in it together and we need to look out for one another. Itâs almost comically simple, but it was revolutionary at the time.
When people talk of Two-Tone, four bandsâ 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 youâll 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 âToo Much Pressureâ) 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 âToo Much Pressure Albumâ. The current line-up made a new album, released in September 2011 called âMade In Britainâ. Universally acclaimed, it stands with their finest work and has been mentioned in the same breath by the likes of MOJO as âToo Much Pressureâ 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 âLast Of The Summer Wineâ. Despite the quiet surroundings, what I find inside the gig is no gentle old pals act.
I was surprised to learn from Paulineâs autobiography that, as an adopted child into a white family, she came to ska not long before the Selecter started.
She smiles. âItâs like shuffling oneâs foot into an old comfy slipper.â
I am struck by Paulineâs cut-glass enunciation. According to her book this is a result of a very early method of combating peopleâs preconceptions that because sheâs black, she would talk in a way white people would not understand. She explains her slipper analogy:
âMy father, my Nigerian father- who I didnât 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 heâd bought in Nigeria. So, he mustâve liked that music, so it was quite natural that I like that music I guess.â
Does she feel itâs innate?
âI like to think soâ.
The track âFuck Art Letâs Danceâ on the new album however seems quite upbeat about the old days. Does she look back fondly on those times?
âWell youâve got to look back on it fondly. I mean, weâre 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 donât want some miserable old bag going on about âooh, I had a terrible time back thenâ do they? I didnât 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 Iâm very pleased that when people revisit that stuff they feel very positive about it.â
âNot 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 thatâs what people remember. Together we stood for something in an age when bands didnât 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.â
âAnd also the fact that it didnât 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 Dexyâs 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…â
She stops herself,
âBut 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 wasnât 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.â
Was the two tone thing, by its nature, more positive than punk?
âYeah, 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. Thatâs what theyâd 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 thingâ.
It must have been great that this tour hit your town and there were three or four bands…
â…that you could see for three quid!â
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: âYeah, youâre right. There is the chicken-in-a-basket kind of circuit, but, you know, weâd 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 weâd 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 donât 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!â
She has a point. The Selecter, even at times when they were way out of vogue, continued to release new material.
âYeah, 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 weâre making at the moment, is probably about the tenth or eleventh studio album thatâs around. But, the others are to be discovered after we shuffle off this mortal coil…â
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: âWell, yeah, I do. âCos, 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 thatâs 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.â
Pauline: âBut 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 everyoneâll download it and everyone downloads for free. But at the end of the day youâve still got the same problem, youâve still got to market yourself and unfortunately the marketeers are now Simon Cowell and a few others arenât they? And itâs really awful.â
âI think the difference as well between now and 1979 is, itâs a global recession now, therefore itâs 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 wouldnât say that they were particularly open to the messageâ.
I mention a passage in Paulineâs biography which describes the bandâs 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 âfact; âYeah. They still call a spade a spade there, mate.â
Black By Design doesnât 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 âdead black menâ. Does it feel different now?
âHe 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 donât realise it at the time because youâre still putting out albums and youâre still saying what you want to say. âCos thereâs nobody telling you that you canât 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.â
âWriting 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 didnât know that Gaps would be into it after all that time had passed.â
You two had been apart quite a time by then?
âWell, all through the 90s weâd sort of come back together and done a couple of albums together and things and then sort of drifted apart again and stuff. Youâve 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 werenât 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 theyâd 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 weâve found a way, I think now, of doing itâ.
What do they think of Americaâs take on the genre?
âWell, you know..itâs…America. They never understood what Two-Tone was about. Ever.â
Gaps: âBecause it was just a lot of college kids, wasnât it?â
Pauline: âYeah, whoâd been to Berkeley or wherever! Or been in some marching band somewhere and all the horn sections had got together and theyâd just kind of changed the beat round and done an off-beat instead of an on and- âhey! Weâre ska-punk, letâs play it really fastâ. 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, doesnât it? Otherwise it becomes a bit ossified really, doesnât it?â
âAnd Iâm really not into kind of that whole thing there is around at the moment that, you go to some gigs, I wonât mention who, but sometimes theyâre 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 canât go onstage without doing what youâre known for. But I think youâve got to mix it up a bit, otherwise, as a musician I canât see that youâll be very fulfilled.â
With that in mind, we move on to discuss the Selecterâs most recent album, âMade in Britainâ. 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: âYeah, it was definitely to get the feel to it, more than anything. It was easy to write.â
Gaps: âYeah, we certainly feel that itâs some of the best work that weâve done for years and weâre quite proud of it tooâ
Itâs been well received, hasnât it?
Pauline: âYeah, it has. Very well received, and compared very much to the Too Much Pressure album, which is nice. But I think the album that weâre doing at the moment, which will be out in March, is probably the best weâve done.â
Is it important that, as an artist, you always feel that the next thing is your best?
Pauline: âWell, yeah, youâve got to. I mean thatâs the main motivator. Just to feel motivated, at our age, I kind of think, wow! I didnât think that was going to happen again.â
The opening track âBig In The Body, Small In The Mindâ reworks the Woody Guthrie song âYou Fascists Bound to Loseâ. How did that come about?
âIt 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 heâs falling over himself to embrace it, isnât he, after the Olympics? Itâs like he invented the word mulitculturism, which I just found extraordinary.â
âAnd I just felt that, if Two-Tone was an anti-racist stance, then really, if youâre going to leap forward those amount of years, then itâs 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 doesnât 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? Itâs 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.â
âWeâre past racism now. People know thereâs institutionalised racism. When we were around doing Two-Tone in 1979, institutionalised racism- it didnât exist. It wasnât 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.â
The track âBanginâ On A Big Drumâ seems to be both extol the virtues of the protest song and yet acknowledge that sometimes the message falls on deaf ears.
Pauline: âTwo-Tone is a legacy of what we did, but itâs not like weâve got some super-duper huge legacy of number one hits behind us or whatever. But we do have an integrity. And I think you canât 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 donât. And sometimes it does feel a little bit like âoh blimey!â
Banging your head against a brick wall?
âNot really banging your head against a brick wall. I donât 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 wonât- which is âThink About Thatâ, isnât it?â ( referring to another track on the album). âWhich to a certain extent has the same message, you know, âsome will, some wonâtâ. But weâre only interested really in the people that do. And if they do, they do. Thereâs no way Iâm gonna persuade anybody whoâs in the EDL not to be in the EDLâ.
No, but Iâm sure youâve been an influence over the years. Surprised at Paulineâs 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 peoplesâ thinking: âThatâs great to hearâ.
I was very interested to hear on the track âMy Englandâ from the new album that the word England is very definitely pronounced âEn-ger-landâ, which I thought was a great way to reclaim the word from…
Pauline jumps in: â…football terraces? Yeah, it is, it is. A lot goes on on football forums that people, unless theyâre in football forums, donât know about. And a lot that would upset greatly people like me and Gaps goes on in football forums. And thereâs a lot of flirting with that by some people who would say that they were into Two-Tone these days.â
Thatâs a lot of confused people.
âBut 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. Theyâd be half killing any punks or mods who were there. But thatâs tribal, isnât it? Thatâs young people and thatâs tribal wars. But itâs 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 thatâs both on Facebook and out there. So thatâs the reason behind âEn-ger-landâ. It is a reclaiming. The âMade In Britainâ 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.â
The very phrase âmade in Britainâ also has far right connotations.
âYeah, so it was very much a dragging it back and reclaiming the whole thing and saying, âNo- weâre here, itâs my England too.â
The album has a re-recorded version of âThey Make Me Madâ 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: âThat was conscious to a certain extent. It was like, dragging that all the way forward. And in a way, itâs more angsty. And if you actually check the words itâs…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 thatâs the bridge that took you, if you like, to some of the other stuff thatâs on there, like to âMy Englandâ.
And musically, as well, it stands up.
âIt does, yeah. And I didnât 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.â
Itâs quite a brave move to include a track from Too Much Pressure.
âWell, it was my song. So I kind felt that I could do with it what the hell I liked.â
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 Paulineâs face. Â âHm! They wonât be doing that for much longer, either…â
What about the Selecter? How has their relationship with the industry changed?
Pauline: âWell, weâre 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, heâs produced the albums, he has his own record company that heâs set up, a label called Vocaphone and all the records are released on that. Heâs also got his own studio so we can take our time, take as much time as we want really. So itâs given us that freedom really, to experiment, to just do a lot of recording then choose the best out of it. And when youâre working with record companies and youâre stuck in a recording studio for three weeks and âyou will write that recordâ, I think that was never a very good environment for us.â
It seems to be a whole different model.
âWell it is, and I think when youâre free and youâre not worried about âgod, are we going to get an advance from the record company? Are they gonna like this?â It would be absolutely horrendous to be in thrall to somebody like Simon Cowell- not that he would ever take any notice of us, weâd be really like the shit on his shoe, I shouldnât imagine, in terms of what he might think- but you understand what I mean. Weâre not in thrall to anyone. We can do what we like and put out records or not put out records as we feel.â
Which must be freeing?
âYeah, itâs 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 weâre going in November and December, and America, where weâre going next year. And just push that because- why not?â
For them, then- is the demise of the album is overstated?
Pauline: âThereâs no way of making money from albums anymore. Not unless youâre, I donât know, Mariah Carey or somebody who just sell shed loads of the damn things. Weâre 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.â
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: âI think all people are amalgams of their experience, arenât they? I mean, who they are…it takes a particular type of person who wants to get onstage and front a band. Yâknow, youâre not going to be a shrinking violet- but you might be a shrinking violet in real life. But when youâre in performance mode, oneâs different.â
She turns to Gaps: âYou are!â
Gaps: âAm I?â
âYeah- youâre the leanest man in ska!â (a reference to Andrew Peartâs description of Gaps from his LTW review of their Oxford Gig).
Gaps laughs it off, âYeah, like Pauline says, you know- itâs showtime. And thirty years have elapsed, or more, and you just bring together your experience that youâve gathered all over the years and put it together when it comes. And obviously, when youâre amongst friends, Iâm just…Gaps.â
Pauline: âBut what brings all that on to stage? I mean thereâs no way… you canât park it somewhere and pretend thatâs… do you know what I mean? You bring it all with you. But itâs like super-reality as opposed to just reality, as it were.â
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 nightâs 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 Queenâs 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? Itâs probably not my place to say. But it looks a decent shout from where Iâm stood.