Stepping back into Daylight – the Pauline Black interview

You need only take a couple of listens to the new album by influential ska favourites The Selecter to be convinced this is not a band content to sit back on past endeavours.

What’s more, vocalist Pauline Black doesn’t do things half-heartedly, and latest offering Daylight – out this Friday, November 6th – suggests there’s still plenty of life yet in an outfit that formed an integral part of that initial late ‘70s 2 Tone explosion.

Reunited around the nucleus of Pauline, fellow original Arthur ‘Gaps’ Hendrickson, and producer-writer-arranger Neil Pyzer (formerly with Howard Devoto and Spear of Destiny), The Selecter are firing on all cylinders, and you can believe the hype when you hear they’re offering ‘their most urgent, politically engaged and purely uplifting music’ since their early ’80s long-playing statements of intent, Too Much Pressure and Celebrate the Bullet.

The new album was recorded in London against a familiar backdrop of political foment, anger at austerity policies and the emergence of a revitalised left wing vying for Government, the time seemingly ripe for the return of a band led by one of the first British female pop stars to shake up gender and racial stereotypes. As their latest press release has it, ‘Cropped and cool, Pauline was the girl who looked and moved like the sharpest rude boy. She flipped the Tonic suit and porkpie hat into a feminist statement.’

Many faces have moved through the line-up since The Selecter’s emergence in Coventry in 1979, the current mix of ‘four white and four black’ deemed ‘very 2 Tone’. And when I got in touch, the band were amid a successful Stateside tour with US punk bands Rancid and The Dropkick Murphys, with Pauline ‘fulfilling a bit of a dream’ at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, California, the band playing to a sell-out crowd, their best-known member on a high in a ‘fantastic outdoor amphitheatre with a marvellous acoustic’.

That was the band’s 14th date of an American visit taking in various West Coast venues, going on to complete 19 shows in 21 days. Time constraints and other deadlines meant that I didn’t get chance to share her response – you’ll probably suss from some of the responses that this is a rare example of a writewyattuk email questionnaire rather than a face-to-face or at least a phone-to-phone encounter – straight away. But hopefully it all still makes sense (with the help of a handful of post-dated tweaks).

And now they’re all set to start again this side of the Atlantic, their ‘co-headline tour with our labelmates and good friends The Beat’ opening on the day of the LP’s launch at a sold-out London Roundhouse. So are their fellow 2 Tone veterans good company on the road? I guess Pauline (and Gaps) go back with them a fair bit.

“I first met Ranking Roger on the doorstep of Jerry Dammers’ house in 1979.  I think he was about 15 then. So yes, you could say that we go back a long way.”

Ska Walker: Pauline Black, out with The Selecter again (Photo: Dean Chalkley)

Could you have imagined all those years ago, first getting the band together, that there would still be such a big appetite for The Selecter around the world?

“In 1979, we didn’t even imagine that we would have a hit single and appear on Top of the Pops. When you’re young, you don’t spend most of your time imagining what you will be doing in 40 years’ time. But it’s an absolute honour that so many people worldwide still find the message of 2 Tone worthwhile, particularly in these troubled and divided times.”

The UK tour starts in style with that sell-out show at The Roundhouse in Chalk Farm, London. Ever play there back in the day?

“The Selecter have never played The Roundhouse before, but we did shoot a video for our single Celebrate The Bullet in the tunnels underneath the building in 1981.”

You’ll also be visiting Manchester Ritz (October 13) and finish at Liverpool Olympia (Dec 23), my excuse for speaking to you. Have you got good memories of past visits to the North West of England?

“We love the North West and have a lot of fans in Manchester and Liverpool.”

Where’s home when you’re not on the road these days? Do you get back to Coventry often? And what were you missing most about home while in America?

“Gaps Hendrickson, my fellow lead singer and I both still live in Coventry, the home of 2 Tone. And after a few weeks on a tour bus, albeit a very comfortable one, I probably missed my bed the most!”

Have you still got a pristine copy of the Gangsters vs The Selecter on 7” tucked away somewhere safe?

“No. I’m not a desperate completist. I feel no nostalgia for what is past. The future always beckons more brightly.”

The band may have dropped the tempo a couple of notches, but judging by the latest live reviews, you remain a sight to see, and the audiences haven’t slowed down much either, have they?

“You haven’t been to a show recently then, if you think we’ve dropped the tempo a couple of notches! Live shows are our natural habitat.”

When did you first meet ‘Gaps’, and could you have ever imagined you’d still be out there playing live with him all these years on?

“I met Gaps in 1979. We have never had a cross word with each other and each of us thoroughly respects the unique artistic capabilities of the other.”

Has the current line-up given you fresh momentum then? And do the younger members of the band tend to keep the rest of you on your toes, or does it work the other way around?

“We all keep each other on our toes. Everybody in the band loves the music we perform and more importantly like each other. That is often a rare combination in bands. And our mainstay is our producer/tenor saxophonist/MD Neil Pyzer, whose musical expertise in the studio makes everything possible.”

Have you kept in touch with many of your original bandmates … and members of The Specials?

“Funny you should ask that, as Lynval Golding from The Specials joined us on stage at the Greek Theatre for a rendition of Too Much Pressure.”

Are you still in touch with The Selecter co-founder Neol Davies (who has had his own version of The Selecter out there since 2011, having served in the first two spells for the band) after the issues over the use of the band name?

“There were no ‘issues’.”

While you’ll still get old favourites like Too Much Pressure and their biggest hits, On My Radio, Three Minute Hero and Missing Words, The Selecter are no ‘heritage act’, their message as key today as it was in ‘79, in this similarly turbulent era. And with the way things have gone these last few years, it seems that they have as many issues to write about now as in the early years.

After just a couple of listens, I was already loving Daylight. Both Frontline and the title track deserve to be hits, and there’s plenty more to love, not least The Big Badoof and Mayhem, among the other tracks that jump straight out. As a whole, I’d say it’s a politically-engaged statement of intent, but one carrying an upbeat message of hope for a brighter future, preaching positivity and empowerment. Am I right, Pauline?

“Of course you are right! The Selecter has shone daylight on to the thorny subjects of racism and sexism for nearly four decades, but still so many choose to remain in the dark, perpetuating the same old hoary aphorisms and tropes. The Frontline is now the internet. It’s where people interact for good or ill.”

In America, the band dedicated a live rendition of Frontline to Heather Heyer, after the 32-year-old civil rights activist was killed while protesting at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. We live in scary times. I put it to Pauline, taking on the LP’s uplifting vibe – not least with the few months we’ve had with Trump in the White House – that I hope she was still seeing cause for optimism and ‘daylight’, both there and back in the UK.

“We were spreading our Daylight message wherever we went in the USA, and many fans and newcomers to our music were responding very positively. Heather Heyer paid the ultimate price for raising awareness of the emboldened fascist threat which is taking to our streets. She was brave enough to stand wholeheartedly on the Frontline, which is what many people continue to do on a daily basis all over the world, in order to keep some semblance of humanity among us all.”

The Selecter’s initial spell was explosively short, lasting barely a couple of years. After a decade doing their own thing, what had changed by 1991 to bring about the band’s re-emergence?

“The third wave ska movement in the early ‘90s in the USA gave some much needed impetus to 2 Tone music, and we decided to jump back into the fray.”

Then, 15 years on, you stepped away again, this time chiefly to write your Black by Design autobiography. Did that prove a cathartic experience?

“I’ve always performed in multiple ways, either TV, radio presentation, writing or theatre acting. I like to practise a lot of different disciplines when it comes to performance. Each then complements and helps develop the others. That way I’ve managed to constantly move forward and not get stuck in a rut.

“Writing Black By Design was a defining moment in my life and took me 18 months to complete. I’m very proud of the story I told and I hope that some of my insights might help other adopted people who had to come to terms with the inherent racism in our society. And if all goes as planned, it looks as though a film about 2 Tone based on my book will soon go into production with Molifilms.”

In 2001, Pauline got together with fellow writewyattuk interviewee Jean-Jacques Burnel (The Stranglers), Jake Burns (Stuff Little Fingers) and Nicky Welsh (with The Selecter from 1991-2006 and also Bad Manners) to create 3 Men & Black, doing acoustic versions of various songs they were famous for, and talking a little about how they came to write those tracks. The line-up changed now and again, at times involving another writewyattuk regular, Bruce Foxton (The Jam, Stiff Little Fingers, and these days From the Jam), Eric Faulkner (Bay City Rollers) and Dave Wakeling (The Beat). An album, 3 Men + Black, Acoustic, featuring Black, Burnel, Burns, Foxton and Welsh followed in 2004. So, any plans to tour again with a version of that combo, Pauline?

“No, although I did very much enjoy working and recording with Jake Burns and JJ Burnel.”

Are the TV and acting offers still coming your way? Or do you plan to keep this all going a while longer?

“I have no other interests other than The Selecter at the moment. It’s a full-time job.”

If you could name just one highlight from your time with the band, what might that be?

“Our first performance on Top Of The Pops with our first single On My Radio is always a defining moment in my mind.”

Bands like yourself and The Specials had the finger on the pulse from the start, politically and culturally. Are you seeing any evidence of a new breed of bands following your example?

“Many young bands are starting to talk about what’s going on in the world, both socially and politically.  The only problem is that most of them don’t make the playlists on the radio stations. That is a pity, but I fully expect that to change given time.”

Finally, you’re seen as one of the first British female stars to shake up gender and racial stereotypes. And the 2 Tone movement as a whole seemed to carry that torch, extolling the values and virtues of multiculturalism and equality. That’s something to be proud of, isn’t it, as far as the band’s, the label’s and your own legacy go?

“If my contribution to the 2 Tone movement has done anything to improve perceptions of race and gender equality, then of course I am proud of that. And it always feels very rewarding when I meet young women at the merch stand after a performance. who tell me that our music was an empowering influence on their lives.”

For tickets for the tour, contact the venues or head to The Selecter’s Facebook page, where you can also find out more about getting hold of new album Daylight.

Team Selecter: Pauline Black and Gaps Hendrickson, coming to a town near you (Photo: Dean Chalkley)

UK dates for The Selecter and The Beat: Friday, October 6th – London Roundhouse; Saturday, October 7th – Leamington Spa The Assembly; Sunday, October 8th – Southend Cliffs Pavilion; Friday, October 13th – Manchester 02 Ritz; Saturday, October 14th – Tunbridge Wells Assembly Hall Theatre; Thursday, October 19th – Bury St Edmunds The Apex; Friday, October 20th – Worthing Pavilion Theatre; Saturday, October 21st – Lincoln The Engine Shed; Friday, November 10th – Leicester De Montfort Hall; Saturday, November 11th – Exeter Great Hall; Thursday, November 16th – Inverness The Ironworks; Friday, November 17th – Glasgow 02 ABC; Saturday, November 18th – Newcastle 02 Academy; Friday, November 24th – Bournemouth 02; Saturday, November 25th – Wrexham William Aston Hall; Friday, December 22nd – Guildford G Live; Saturday, December 23rd – Liverpool Olympia.

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About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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