Far more than mere nostalgia: stepping forward with The Selecter – back in touch with Pauline Black

I was briefly reminded of 1969 European sightseeing comedy If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium when I spoke to Pauline Black, OBE, this week.

On this occasion, en route to a date at Het Depot, Leuven after a big night at Amsterdam’s Paradiso, she was only an hour ahead, but after 40-plus years touring with The Selecter she’s proved she’s often streets and years ahead of the opposition.

While 43 years have passed since the release of her band’s seminal debut LP, Too Much Pressure, it still inspires and resonates today. But Pauline and her bandmates have never been about standing still, The Selecters’s 16th studio album, Human Algebra proving that fire’s still burning, as current as it is reflective.

Released last weekend, Human Algebra is deemed to be ‘a word from the wise’, subject material including its questioning of ‘fake news’ (‘Big Little Lies’), pointing the finger at keyboard warriors (‘Armchair Guevara’), and the scourge of knife crime (the title track). And there’s also a touching tribute to good friend and former touring partner Ranking Roger, of The Beat (‘Parade the Crown’). 

Co-fronted by Arthur ‘Gaps’ Hendrickson, The Selecter have another member of their original line-up involved this time around, drummer Charley ‘Aitch’ Bembridge, with the new LP produced (like the last few) by Neil Pyzer-Skeete, on board since 2010 and contributing sax, guitar and keyboards, the band these days completed by John Robertson (guitar), Lee Horsley (organ) and Andy Pearson (bass). 

I’d seen some lovely photos from the Paradiso’s full house before calling Pauline, and judging by the audience response in Amsterdam and prior to that at Elysee Montmartre, Paris, this iconic outfit can still wow crowds with an incendiary live show on a nightly basis, wherever they play, as I suggested to my interviewee.

“Yeah, Paris as well. It was brilliant in Paris, and it’s great to come to Europe after the lockdown and all those years, and to get a reception like that. Absolutely wonderful.”

I last saw the band in my old hometown, Guildford, Surrey, playing a belting show at G Live in November 2019 on The Selecter’s 40th anniversary tour (with my review here), not long before the shutters came down with the coronavirus pandemic, as it transpired. And three and half years on, they continue to pack venues out.

“Well, yes, and even more. We’ve got this new album out but also needed to satisfy people because we had to unfortunately cancel our tour when the Celebrate the Bullet album re-release came out last November, due to an illness in the band. So we’re taking people on a big journey at the moment, through a lot of tracks we haven’t done off that album and new tracks off the new one.

“And it’s a journey, really, through the ages, and seems to be working out really well. People are really loving it. The Selecter has always been different, I think, from other bands, in terms of how people are very keen to listen to our music and think about it. It’s not the usual sort of knees-up crowd and funny party hats that some of the ska bands attract. And yet it’s ever so much more fun.”

At this point I mention friend of this website, Ajay Saggar, production manager at the Paradiso, who told me he was made up by Pauline’s shout-out from the stage that previous night.

“Ah, you know Ajay! Oh, I got to meet him yesterday. What a lovely man! He came to me during the day with a magazine featuring photos of us from 1980 at The Paradiso. Fantastic! I’d never seen those photos, and just to think that you’re back there 43 years later and can still fill it! And there were so many stories of shows he’d seen over the years. A great guy.”

An accomplished musical artist himself, I should add, in case he never mentioned it.

“Well, I thought he was, from the things he was saying. He didn’t kind of elaborate. But I could tell!”

Surely there’s no future in rock ‘n’ roll or ska though. You’re bound to have a short shelf life in this business, Pauline.

“Well, you never know what might happen! We seem to be managing. They can dust us off!”

There was certainly lots of interest in remastered 1981 live documentary, Dance Craze (also starring Bad Manners, The Beat, Bodysnatchers, Madness, and The Specials) when it got its recent cinematic tour. But it’s not just about nostalgia for the past. It seems you’ve always moved forward in everything you’ve achieved.

“Well, I’ve always wanted to move forward because you’ve got to make it interesting for yourself and you’ve got to fulfil your own creative life. Just bouncing around to ‘On My Radio’ and ‘Too Much Pressure’ for the rest of your life is limiting, let’s just put it that way.

“We’ve always tried to push forward, but after this amount of time, we seem to have the dream team at the moment because we’ve got Charlie ‘Aitch’ Bembridge back on drums, while ‘Gaps’ Hendrickson has been with me these past 12 or 13 years. And Neil Pyzer I’ve known for a long time now, he was formerly in Spear of Destiny and he’s a great producer and saxophonist, and we now have Andy Pearson – who was playing with The Beat, who we co-headlined on numerous tours – after Roger’s death, sadly, when I asked if he’d like to join us. And John Robertson on guitar is no stranger to Grace Jones. So it’s all good!”

You mentioned Roger there, and we paid tribute to him last time we spoke in late 2019, and there was a fitting tribute at your Guildford show shortly after that, as an encore, the band joined by special guest Rhoda Dhakar (who started out with The Bodysnatchers, and also featured with The Specials) on a cover of ‘Can’t Get Used to Losing You’, for what proved a true ‘not a dry eye in the house’ moment (The Beat’s co-frontman having died earlier that year, aged 56).

“Yes, and on this album we’ve written a song specifically for Roger and our memories of him, ‘Parade the Crown’, and I do hope people don’t think it’s a song about the King’s coronation!”

Well, now you’ve got your OBE, you are part of the Establishment, after all.

“Well, there is that aspect of it! But when that song was written, the dear late Queen was still in residence. And that’s the weird thing I think about this record – serendipity has brought everything together, and it’s kind of backing it up. You know, when ‘War, War, War’ was written, there was no Ukraine war, and then there’s ‘Scandalous’. We could see maybe where things were going, but they hadn’t gone there yet. And the very last day that I put vocals on the album, and ostensibly then it was done, Boris Johnson resigned. So he’d obviously heard ‘Scandalous’!”

While I’m only a couple of listens into the album – and I tend to leave proper judgement until three or four – on the first play it was ‘War, War, War’ that really stood out, as did ‘Depends’ second time around.

“The strange thing is that practically every review has picked out different songs, which makes me think overall you’re touching all the bases. And it’s definitely a slice of how The Selecter sees life, and how we can affect our own lives in some way and move forward with that.”

Regarding meeting the future King at Windsor Castle, receiving your OBE last November, I see that came ‘for services to entertainment’. But you were quick to widen that premise, dedicating that honour to your home city, Coventry, your roots, and your part in the recognition and celebration of a diverse, multicultural modern Britain. And that’s the angle you continue to come at all this from.

“Yes, totally. That’s the angle I’m coming at it from. I mean, yes, you can send these {medals} back, you can decide not to have them, all of those things. But I thought that British black people are here, we’re now, and we’ve effected the culture. I just felt that it would have been a disservice to all the black friends that I have that do have one of these to choose to dismiss it, and say no. And I also thought that if it’s good enough for Elvis Costello, it’s good enough for me!”

Talking of strong women and survivors in the music world, I mentioned how Rhoda Dakar was with you on the road last time around. And she seemed to be a perfect star addition to the bill. She’s not with you this time, but you remain close.

“Yeah, we are good friends, and she’s an artist in her own right. It doesn’t serve either of us any good just to be lumped together as the women of 2 Tone, and yet people want to do that to us, so we rail against that. And I can’t wait for her new album, Version Girl, to be out, because she’s really got the bit between her teeth at the moment.

“We’ve learned from each other over the years, we’ve learned the pitfalls and we’ve learned how you negotiate everything, because everything was still skewed to a white male kind of musical fraternity. But you make your way in it. And we of course, have the music, which, if you’re dealing with more political or more social things, then we are in the firing line, if you know what I mean. It would be easier to pick us off than it would be, say, the late Terry Hall, or Suggsy, for instance.

“And when you have consistently been there, and really upholding, I think, those twin desires of what 2 Tone was supposed to be about – an anti-racist and an anti-sexist stance … So all power to her, and I think it’s absolutely wonderful that ladies, you know – ha ha! – of a certain age can be doing this.”

I didn’t like to mention the age, but there is a big birthday coming later this year (Pauline’s 70th). Are you still counting?

“Oh, you give up counting after a while, but I have to say, it’s a big one this year. And every time I stand on stage, it’s just a blessing, really. So many people, some younger than me, you know, Terry Hall, Ranking Roger, Saxa, Everett Morton, have gone before, and untimely gone before us, with Roger being the very youngest. So every day that I can stand on stage and do creatively what I want to do with my friends is an absolute blessing.”

Incidentally, when Terry Hall died last December, aged 63, The Selecter posted on their social media pages, ‘Terry Hall was always the epitome of cool. The golden voice of 2 Tone’s greatest band, The Specials, plus many other worthy vehicles for his prodigious vocal and songwriting talents. He’s even managed to die in the coolest way possible – hardly anybody knew he was ill, until he’d gone – that’s going out in style! Hat’s off to you, Terry. The Selecter will always have fond memories of the 1979 2 Tone tour. RIP.’

If you’d have stuck with your post-uni NHS role as a radiographer, you could have been retired by now. But maybe retirement’s never been an option for you.

“No, that’s not on the cards! You’ll have to carry me off a stage somewhere, that would be a good ending. Ha ha!”

The UK leg of this tour involves some iconic venues, such as Band on the Wall in Manchester (Wednesday, May 3rd), and Koko in Camden, North London (Friday, May 5th). Didn’t that used to be the Music Machine and …

“Camden Palace!”

So you’ll have some good memories from there.

“Oh, absolutely. That was a fabulous venue to go to and to play back in the day. And it’s lovely to go back. We’ve played there before, but a long time ago, probably a decade ago. And you know, we’re really hoping that London’s going to turn out for us. I see no reason why they shouldn’t. If they’re doing it as far away as Amsterdam and Paris …”

And is it always a proud moment to get back to Coventry to perform, in this case finishing the tour at the HMV Empire, playing to that hometown crowd?

“Hometown crowds are always special, and we’ve never been disappointed in Coventry. And there’s a lot of people in Coventry at the moment looking at this new record and feeling very proud, I think, that something has come out of it. You know, we had Coventry as the UK City of Culture, and 2 Tone was very much a part of what the legacy of that was. And for my hometown people to actually see something new come out of it, it’s not just nostalgia, and it’s not just going to see what was once glorious. It’s actually seeing something and taking it forward, music for today.

“That, for me is the best legacy that The Selecter could have. It’s like we’ve been handed the baton of 2 Tone now, to a certain extent. And we intend to run with it!”

And what happens after that Coventry show? A well-earned rest, or straight back to it?

“We’re out again – myself and Gaps. This is our third tour of duty now with the Jools Holland R&B Orchestra. So we’re doing material on that, Selecter songs that people will know – we’re not going to kind of foist on them with a whole new set, but it’s glorious going out and doing that show. It’s like being on a lovely comfy feather bed, among others you’ve have heard about for years and years, but you’ve never met them. And Jools makes it such a wonderful feeling on stage. It’s an honour and a joy to help him make a night of music.”

And sharing a stage with Ruby Turner has to ensure you a good night out.

“Ah, she’s lovely, isn’t she!”

In the meantime, thanks for your time, happy travels, enjoy the rest of the tour, and all being well, I’ll get along to the Band on the Wall.

“Ah, that would be fabulous. And do come and say hello to me at the merch desk!”

For this website’s previous two feature/interviews with Pauline Black, follow these links for October 2017 and October 2019..

For full tour details and more about Human Algebra and The Selecter’s back catalogue, visit the band’s website and stay in touch via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.


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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