Celebrated 2 Tone legends The Selecter, up there at the forefront of the late ‘70s UK ska revival, are going down a storm in Europe right now, their 40th anniversary tour drawing closer to home.
Led by Pauline Black and fellow co-founder Arthur ‘Gaps’ Hendrickson, the entourage this time includes another 2 Tone leading light, Rhoda Dakar, of The Bodysnatchers and The Special AKA fame, their tour covering seven countries before 20 UK and Irish dates. And Pauline, in Vienna when I called, is loving it.
“It’s been great. We’ve been to Mexico and America, and we’re in Europe at the moment, and can’t wait to get back to the UK. We’ve honed the set really well and it’s just going to be amazing – 40 years is a long time, but it still feels really fresh.”
Always a crucial figure in that late-’70s movement, Pauline is also a respected style icon, broadcaster, writer, anti-racism and anti-sexism campaigner, and actress. But right now her focus is all about the band with whom she made her name.
Witness The Selecter live and you’ll see that the passion that fuelled their shows during the original 2 Tone era remains. What’s more, they’re writing some of their best songs, long after breakthrough hits ‘Three Minute Hero’, ‘Too Much Pressure’ and ‘On My Radio’.
Their 2017 LP, Daylight, proved that, a state-of-the-nation address covering themes Pauline has witnessed first-hand and mulled over during her more recent travels, the band having lost none of their original edge and adamant that a multi-racial, multi-cultural scene started in Coventry by Specials founder Jerry Dammers is as relevant today as it was in 1979.
It’s been two years since our last interview, when Daylight had just come out. And it remains oh so topical. I loved it then and listening again the morning we spoke, I found it just as fresh and arguably even more relevant with the way politics has gone since.
“Absolutely, and sometimes all the things being said on it were not necessarily being said at the time, but you could see it was all coming, like the homelessness. It kind of missed its slot. It would have been better coming out two years later.”
There’s a good example in the track, ‘Taking Back Control’, perhaps even more pertinent now so much of what Brexit was really about is more out in the open. But despite the song’s ‘make a false promise and then you run away’ line, it seems that those they were putting the spotlight then – not least the man who would become PM – slid right back in again.
And yet despite the issues raised, these are songs of empowerment, as was often the case with The Selecter. Amid all the doom and gloom, there’s always a positive message.
“I suppose so. Despondency and doom and gloom at what’s going on isn’t the thing. And I’m certainly not despondent or gloomy about it. I think there are plenty of people organising something completely different – they don’t want their NHS sold off, for example. There are all kinds of things we are going to not benefit from, and a lot of people are waking up to that now. And that was the whole point of Daylight, to shine some daylight on all this, looking at all that in its entirety.”
I get that, but don’t always share that optimism. I’m surrounded on social media by lots of people thinking similarly to me, so I’m in a bubble of my own making at times. And there are others in another bubble, thinking all this – not least Brexit – might somehow be a good idea, however extreme the consequences. And that’s frightening.
“This is it. That’s what social media does. It re-enforces your own bubble, whatever bubble you’re living in, and you don’t always see the thorny problem outside that. But that’s the good thing about The Selecter – it tours internationally, it goes everywhere and going to America and getting the perspective now, having seen the rise of Mr Trump, now seeing what it’s like under his presidency, following that and seeing how Britain is following suit, which is quite scary. But then you come to Europe, and we did a show the other day in Milan, where everybody was on message, seeing what you’re saying and what you’re doing.”
Another line that jumped out at me from that LP the morning I called was that challenge to ‘Make sure you use your voice’.
“Yes, and I do think that’s beginning to filter through from what I can see. It’s always good to come to another country and see through their eyes and from their perspective and what they can see. What gets reported at home isn’t necessarily what’s reported elsewhere. But it’s amazing in America how many people know about Brexit – the B-word has travelled!”
Last time The Selecter played Manchester’s Ritz – the nearest date to my North West patch on this tour – was with The Beat. But in March we lost Pauline’s good friend Roger Charlery, better known as Ranking Roger, aged just 56.
“Yes, and if things had gone as planned and tragedy hadn’t intervened, we could have again, celebrating our 40 years of knowing each other and being together, and knowing each other over that period. But we have our own tribute to pay, and we hope the audience sings along with us.
“It just wakes you up to how life is a gift really, it’s given to us and should be respected in that way.”
Pauline and Roger first met back in 1979 on The Specials and 2 Tone founder Jerry Dammers’ doorstep in her home city, Coventry.
“He was just a young boy. I think he was 15, and we were both just standing there, looking at each other, thinking ‘Wow, this is Jerry Dammers’ house!’, completely not knowing what this was going to be the start of. And the first time I saw Roger on the stage … whatever the X-factor was, he had it. He was such a wonderful person to be around and out on the road with and performing with, for sure.”
I’m guessing you’re at least thankful now for those final opportunities you had to tour together, in America and elsewhere.
“Oh gosh, yeah. That was a big thing. I think what it taught us was that you don’t know what the future holds, so if you are able to be out on the road and in full health to tour on that scale, that’s absolutely great. Enjoy it.”
I saw Neville Staple and his band at the same Manchester venue supporting The Undertones back in May, with both the former Specials star and the headliners celebrating their own 40th anniversaries. There was a great vibe too, and having a legendary punk band on the bill with a legendary 2 Tone performer really seemed to work. But I guess those two worlds always did gel, from Don Letts playing reggae at the Roxy in 1977 through to The Specials supporting The Clash, with The Selecter a key part of that whole movement.
What I didn’t know at the time I interviewed Neville though was that he was visiting Roger daily in hospital at that stage, this scribe largely unaware of his illness and just how close they were. Neville sounded a little downcast early on, although trying to put a brave face on things, but I put that down – understandably – to him grieving for the 21-year-old grandson he lost a few months before.
“I’m not sure that I knew anything about that either.”
Again though, Neville has that positive spirit and philosophy of making the most out of everything. It seems to have been something a few of you who came out of that 2 Tone ska revival movement have in common, and the punk movement that preceded that, inspiring so many of you to get out there for yourselves.
“I think the whole punk ethic was that you could make music. If you know three chords, and can put bass, drums, keyboards and guitar together, you can get out there and do it. I think it was that ‘doing it’ aspect that made it a level playing field for everybody. You could get out there and be taken on your merits … or not. That was always exciting, and I think 2 Tone very much fell into that post-punk thing. It certainly brought in the whole idea of what The Clash were doing, mixing rock and reggae and all those things. We just went back a bit earlier and mixed it up with ska, a much more upbeat music … and much more danceable.”
Remind me where you fitted into all that. Were you travelling down from Coventry to the Roxy and clubs like that in 1977, or were you too young?
“It wasn’t a question of being too young, I had a job – ha! I worked for the NHS. Some of us had to work. None of this hanging around the Roxy! I was into music at that time, but Coventry-centric in that way, although we were aware of all that.”
There was certainly something stirring in the Midlands and thereabouts, and for me – whether it was bands from Birmingham like The Beat, Steel Pulse and UB40, those of you from Coventry, or wherever – it was almost interchangeable among those groups. It was a whole movement.
“Erm, I wouldn’t say it was interchangeable, I think all the bands were very well defined in what they were and occupied areas of that spectrum … monochrome, as it were. You’ve got to remember The Selecter had six black members and one white member. That made us very different right from the beginning. The Specials had two black members and five white. That in those days made a huge difference, in how you were perceived and also in what your relationship to the original music was too.”
I touched on this in our last interview, but on that occasion it involved an email Q&A, as you were travelling across America at the time (The Selecter were touring with US punk bands Rancid and The Dropkick Murphys, and were set to return there again in 2018 with Ranking Roger, but illness prevented him from accompanying them, with Rhoda Dakar stepping up instead). So I’ll ask again, did your ever dream in the early days that you’d still be out there all these years on, sharing stages with Gaps?
“I never dreamed. I mean, look what happened to the last guy who had a dream. I never dream. I hope, and hope is good enough and has got us through 40 years. And I hope we see our 50th anniversary. I’m not sure about that, but certainly the next 10 years will be … ha! Gaps is looking at me at the moment, as if to say, ‘Of course we’ll make our 50th’!”
Touching on this version of The Selecter (at one stage fellow co-founder Neol Davies was performing elsewhere with his own version of the band, but they broke up in 2010) I get the impression that your bandmate and Daylight‘s producer Neil Pyzer-Skeete is integral to this line-up.
“Absolutely. As far as I’m concerned the recording Selecter is very much myself, Gaps and Neil, who produces and takes our ideas and fashions them into wonderful pieces of music. And that’s music that hangs together and says something, having a message even after all these years, very much in keeping with 2 Tone.”
I used the word interchangeable, and that wasn’t quite right, but there was clearly a strong camaraderie with other bands over the years from the 2 Tone stable. And this time you have Rhoda Dakar appearing with you, initially with The Bodysnatchers and later The Special AKA.
“Rhoda Dakar is somebody who everybody who was in The Selecter at the beginning had a great deal of respect for, and we had a great deal of respect for The Bodysnatchers. They later became The Belle Stars and we kind of lost track, as it were, but we were there at the early gigs – myself, Jerry Dammers, and Gaps – and it was fairly obvious that Rhoda Dakar was a really great performer, delivering a great message in her songs. And she went on to do great things with The Special AKA as well.
“And in your 40th year, you’ve got to try and celebrate everything. it’s quite male-centric a lot of the time. If you go to a Specials gig it’s very much that the ladies who are there are the girlfriends dragged along so the men can dance along and lose all the money out of their pockets, because their jeans are too tight now. I feel The Selecter audience is a little more select. We still get ladies coming along, but in their own right, because they like the music!
“So it was a natural fit that Rhoda would come along with us, and she’s DJ-ing and comes on and performs with us in our encore. Also, we have a young lady called Emily Capell coming along, supporting us, doing an acoustic set. And the closer we get to London – because that’s where she lives – she’ll be with her band as well. And that just shows, generationally I feel, how it works and is very much in keeping with the feeling of the time – there’s a lot of women around, but not a lot of women on stage, yet the two planks of 2 Tone were always anti-racism and anti-sexist. I see a lot of the anti-racism but I don’t see a lot of anti-sexism, so we’re here for balance!”
I must admit that until recently Emily Capell wasn’t even on my radar.
“Ah, she’s great!”
Yes, and now I see that link back to The Clash and more (she says her influences range from Dolly Parton to The Clash, and has previously supported Rhoda Dakar and former Specials guitarist Roddy ‘Radiation’ Byers, with her newly-released debut LP called Combat Frock, with more details here). Bearing in mind what we were saying earlier, perhaps things are coming full circle.
“Yes, absolutely, and I just feel it’s difficult for young women to be heard these days if they’ve got something original to say. It’s difficult for all bands to be heard, but especially for women. You can put yourself all over social media but if you put a record out and don’t have marketing and money behind it, it’s very difficult. So if we can give a platform to a young woman who wants to come and sing with us, then great. And 2 Tone was always anti-racist, anti-sexist.”
I was going to ask you about recent wide-reaching publicity about the #MeToo campaign, but feel I don’t really need to. Everything you’ve ever achieved has been based around crying out against all of that, using those platforms wisely. You’re hardly someone suddenly coming to terms with that. You’ve been socially aware and outspoken on such issues since the start.
“I just feel women should have a stake. It‘s like anything – people have to fight to be heard. It’s never given to you … ever … and women have to fight doubly hard. To my mind, during those 40 years, that was always what 2 Tone stood for. Or certainly that’s what 2 Tone should have stood for, even if certain members of 2 Tone didn’t think like that at the time. But Rhoda and I were here to inform them!”
I best wrap up soon, but not without asking if the Queen of Ska has got a new book on the go?
“Ah, that would be telling, wouldn’t it! There’s always one there.”
It’s finding the gaps in the diary sometimes, I guess. And last time you told me The Selecter was a full-time career as things stood.
“It is, and has been, and I didn’t realise how much of a full-time thing it would become. As you get older, you really don’t know how your health is going to go, so you make shorter-term plans. But now we’re making slightly longer-term plans! We will see. I’m never bored, put it that way!”
For this website’s 2017 feature/interview with Pauline Black, head here. You can also catch up via the following links to feature/interviews with The Beat’s Dave Wakeling, from April 2018, and former members of The Specials, Neville Staple, from March 2019, and Roddy ‘Radiation’ Byers, from January 2018.
The Selecter 40TH anniversary UK/Irish dates, with DJ and guest appearances from Rhoda Dakar and support from Emily Capell: October 17th – Nottingham Rock City; October 18th – Leeds Stylus; October 19th – Glasgow QMU; October 20th – Newcastle Boiler Shop; October 22nd – Northampton Roadmender; October 23rd – Cardiff Tramshed; October 24th – Bristol Academy; October 25th – Manchester Ritz; October 26th – Birmingham Institute; November 1st – Belfast The Limelight; November 2nd – Dublin Academy; November 14th – Guildford G Live; November 15th – Bury St Edmunds The Apex; November 16th – Margate Hall by the Sea; November 17th – Lincoln Engine Shed; November 19th – Cheltenham Town Hall; November 20th – Falmouth Princess Pavilion; November 21st – Bexhill De La Warr Pavilion; November 22nd – Bournemouth Academy; November 23rd – London Shepherd’s Bush Empire. For full details head to www.theselecter.net