As regular readers of this website know, Guildford and I go way back, and it was as a 13-year-old that I saw my first band at the Civic Hall, catching The Undertones on the Positive Touch tour, a mile and a half from my birthplace.
That was in June 1981, two decades after this London Road venue opened for business, with many more visits following – from The Stranglers in January 1982 (as ’Golden Brown’ climbed the charts) through to Squeeze in September 1995 (just before Ridiculous, the last great LP of their second coming).
The old building was gone nine years later, just over 40 years after the Rolling Stones played there (having that week dented the UK top-20 for the first time with ’I Wanna Be Your Man’, pop pickers), by which time I’d been in Lancashire a decade, my first return as an outsider perhaps my favourite Civic moment, fellow Surrey boy Paul Weller headlining between his Wild Wood and Stanley Road LPs in early ’94.
But amid at least 16 visits, the list of bands I missed out on in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s was also impressive, and records suggest The Selecter first visited 40 years ago this month, on an amazing bill topped by The Specials and also including Dexy’s Midnight Runners (tour replacements for Madness, who’d just signed to Stiff Records). And they returned as headliners in early March 1980, barely a week after the release of seminal debut album, Too Much Pressure.
Where the Civic once stood, we now have G Live, opened in 2011, and two years ago The Selecter shared a bill there with Ranking Roger’s version of The Beat. I missed out then, a victim of geography as ever, but finally got along last week, helping celebrate the 40th anniversary of this iconic Coventry ska outfit, with a supporting DJ set and guest spot for fellow 2 Tone survivor Rhoda Dakar – whose band The Bodysnatchers supported The Selecter in Guildford in 1980 – and much-touted young Londoner, Emily Capell.
The latter was with her band, plugging her debut album, the wonderfully-titled Combat Frock. But that’s a sore point. I only managed to get away from Leyland at half two, rolling into town four and a half hours later, arriving at the venue after a swift stroll from my host Alan’s place to hear the final chords of her set. Sorry, Emily. Next time.
Actually, scouring the ‘net, I see The Selecter played the Boileroom – even closer to Al’s – seven years ago, and after my latest visit to that Stoke Fields venue to see The Wedding Present two nights later (yep, review to follow), I’m intrigued as to how a seven-piece outfit had room to skank the night away on that small stage. But they certainly had plenty of room this time, off to a flying start with their finely-honed take on the theme tune of The Avengers, the years melting away as evergreen Arthur ‘Gaps’ Hendrickson led the charge out front with Pauline Black.
From there they barely paused for breath, old hits like a perennially-supreme ‘Three Minute Hero’ perfect alongside more recent wonders like ‘Frontline’, this band just as relevant, socially aware and every bit as much of a draw all these years on. And if anything, Pauline’s voice is as strong as ever, the band tighter than we were faced with the thought of buying three more bitters at the bar for eighteen bastard quid (the venue laughing all the way to the bank).
Throughout, the main act had the crowd on their side, proving masters of the ‘la-along’ on Justin Hinds & the Dominoes’ ‘Carry Go Bring Come’, Winston Marche leading from the rear on drums, a human dynamo from the off.
On ‘Murder’, Gaps defied his advancing years, fellow first LP numbers like ‘Everyday’ and ‘Danger’ also shining. If you’re unsure what you’ll get at a Selecter gig all these years on, I can vouch for a quality night out, audience members seeming to know far more tracks than they realised. By all means, do your homework and listen back through the catalogue, but either way you’ll fully appreciate a band with extra live kudos.
A big screen at the back of the stage displayed images matching the songs, from early shots of the band to that of a certain blond moptop PM with Pinocchio nose and problems telling the truth, and classic shots depicting the good old days of the ska revival, Pauline later asking if anyone among an audience of all ages recognised themselves in the photos. And as it was, I did, having recently read Stone Foundation bass player and friend of this site Neil Sheasby’s splendid Boys Dreaming Soul memoir and spotting his late pal, Hammy captured outside Tiffany’s in Coventry at the age I was on first visiting the Civic, in a celebrated Toni Tye image that seems to have gained a life of its own.
With such a shit-hot band – Gaps and Pauline backed by John Robertson (guitar), Andrew Pearson (bass), Lee Horsley (keyboards), co-producer Neil Pyzer-Skeete (sax) and afore-mentioned Winston, I reckon they’re better in places than on the early records, and here’s a confession to go with that. For me, of those great first LP singles ‘Missing Words’ never really resonated. But I can confirm that track sounds better than ever for these ears now.
Of course, it’s easy to compare this outfit with illustrious city neighbours and labelmates The Specials, but The Selecter were never some mere ska tribute band making up the numbers. They always offered much more, Pauline and Gaps’ continued stagecraft and work in the studio continuing to show that.
There’s a great example in the most recent LP’s ‘Remember Me’, Gaps with a little Gregory Isaacs-like Lovers’ Rock, while The Skatalites’ classic ‘Train to Skaville’ remains in safe hands with this ever-happening combo, and we stayed on a ‘60s footing for a little Monty Norman, all ska-d up, ‘James Bond’ just one of their many engaging B-sides.
The place was certainly moving for the delightful ‘On My Radio’, old Top of the Pops performances brought to mind and smiles on faces all around, and soon we had Rhoda giving the front two a breather, leading on both sides of her Bodysnatchers debut 7”, her ‘Ruder Than You’ then flipped over for ‘Let’s Do Rock Steady’, her voice also as good as ever, her enthusiasm proving contagious, an extra serving of class added to the mix.
And the shared vocals were spot on for a cracking medley of ‘Too Much Pressure’ and Toots & the Maytals’ ‘Pressure Drop’, Rhoda – who also saw service with The Specials and The Special AKA – sticking around for the old 2 Tone finale, Prince Buster’s ‘Madness’ given an expanded Selecter treatment.
But as I suspected, that wasn’t the end, an emotional finale following in a heartfelt tribute to a close pal, The Beat legend Ranking Roger, Andy Williams’ ‘Can’t Get Used To Losing You’ providing a poignant moment to close the proceedings, an image of this cherished performer – eight months after a far too early departure – looking down on old friends in the band and out among us.
For this site’s October 2019 feature/interview with The Selecter’s Pauline Black, head here.
The Selecter’s final show of their 40th anniversary tour takes place tonight (Saturday, November 23rd) at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, with late ticket details via this Facebook link or via www.theselecter.net