‘If ever a message of unity was required in the world, that time is now’: An interview with Pauline Black

Selecter frontwoman Pauline Black requires little introduction, having written herself into British music history almost forty years ago as the voice of era-defining 2-tone hits like On My Radio and Missing Words. With her iconic style and on-stage confidence, she dared a generation of young fans to be confident and unconventional, saying of her and her friends’ original rude girl style: We took the Rude Boy look that Peter Tosh had pioneered in his early ska days and feminized it’; a quote from her excellent book Black by Design. Since their reformation, Pauline and the group have powered forward with new material, which she discusses in the following interview, alongside ska’s enduring qualities and her involvement with a possible 2-tone film.

If ever a message of unity was required in the world, that time is now’ – Pauline Black

The first Selecter & Beat co-headline shows earlier this year were a runaway success, with your Manchester show at Old Granada Studios selling out in no time at all! Were you surprised by the fantastic audience response and what has been a personal highlight among your live shows this year?

2017 has certainly been a superb year for The Selecter. Not only have we collaborated with The Beat in the co-headline shows earlier this year, but we have just returned from the USA, which saw us do five headline shows of our own plus thirteen dates with Rancid/Dropkick Murphy’s ‘Boston to Berkeley Tour’. 

The key to that success for both us and The Beat has been regularly releasing new material, which seems to have caught on with our respective audiences. Many people love the heritage ska acts, but there’s also a large contingent that want something a bit more progressive and we have proved that they love our new material just as much as the hits and old favourites. 

Personal highlight for me was after the first two shows of the co-headline tour in Glasgow and Manchester, because we knew after those shows that the idea for the two bands to come together with the unified message of 2-tone was a winner with audiences in Scotland as well as England and ultimately, by the end of the tour, all over the UK. 

Since those shows you’ve released Frontline, a number addressing our relationship with commodities and consumer culture. What inspired the creation of the tune, how quickly did the idea go from seed to song and has it become a feature of the live set?

Frontline deals with peoples’ reliance on social media for everything, from world news to the things we buy and even what to think. It’s a new frontline, which has both positive and negative aspects. At the moment, I’m inclined to think that the positives outweigh the negatives.

The song went from a hook-line and a melodic verse to a fully fledged song in the space of a week, thanks to the studio wizardry of our producer/MD/tenor saxophonist Neil Pyzer. We’ve just spent the past three weeks in the USA working it into our set. It would seem that audiences both sides of the ‘pond’ have had a really positive response to the song.

Some of the Beat and Selecter’s most popular tunes are nearing forty years of age now, and yet they remain fresh and exciting. What do you think gives them their enduring quality; do you think it lies in the recording itself or is it more a compositional/emotional element that resonates with the listener? 

It doesn’t matter how old a good tune is, it’s always a good tune. Even though times may change, the quality of a good song will always adapt to new events or happenings, all of which enriches the song for the listener. 2-tone, and the ethos that always surrounded the movement, always nodded towards the positivity in the ideas of unity between different cultures. We were singing about multiculturalism before the word was ever invented. If ever a message of unity was required in the world, that time is now.

One thing that both yourselves and The Beat have in common is that you’ve previously taken breaks and invited new musicians into the fold. During time away from the band, have you spread your wings and explored new disciplines or has music always been the main calling?

Personally I have explored a lot of different avenues within the entertainment industry. Since The Selecter began in 1979, I’ve added TV presenter, radio broadcaster, actor and author to my CV alongside my chosen profession of singer/musician. All of these different disciplines feed into each other and keep what I do interesting. Currently I’m mostly concentrating on The Selecter, but soon, if everything goes to plan, I will be acting as a film consultant on a movie about the 2-tone movement based on my autobiography ‘Black By Design’ that Molimetro Films are producing.

At the time when the groups were coming to the fore, British subculture was rich and styles were intertwined. Was it a thrill to witness the effect of subculture on British youth from your unique position as a cultural leader and do you see strains of what mod, ska and 2-tone represented, reflected in music and culture that has followed since?

The 2-tone movement was originally a loose subculture of different youth tribes – skinheads, mods, punks, rude boys & rude girls, soul boys, Northern Soul-ers, who all enjoyed a love of ska music. In 1979 we came together to fight racism, sexism, economic inequality & homophobia.

In 2017 I still believe that a hybrid mix of ska/reggae/punk and rock plus forthright lyrical content gives a voice to disaffected people everywhere. It’s good to see that quite a few new, young bands in the alternative rock and grime arenas are currently speaking out about similar issues in their communities and what kind of a future world they would like to live in.

While there’s a culture-wide focus on women in music at present; with funded projects addressing the imbalance between male and female participation and journalists, artists and music bodies striving to bring about greater equality in music; there’s still work to be done throughout the industry. Have you witnessed change in the industry since the time you began and did the Beat’s ‘beat girl’ emblem bring about a perceivable change in the subculture for young women? Is there anything you would specifically like to see change in the music industry for female creatives today?

Women need to be supportive of each other within the creative industries. There’s still a huge amount of work to be done in order to effectively break down the traditional gender stereotypes, but I see some progress being made. I hugely respect the new DIY ethic among young female bands and performers like The Tuts, Rachel Aggs, Big Joanie. If the boys won’t let you join in their game, then sometimes it’s best to invent a new one of your own. 

I always enjoyed the imagery of the ‘beat girl’, She just looks as though she’d be fun to spend an evening with going through her obviously extensive vinyl collection and she looks as though she’s a very cool dancer. 

What music have you been enjoying recently and what has been keeping you on top of your game vocal wise?

I listen to a lot of diverse music and not necessarily ska inspired. I’m an admirer of performers like Bjork, Solange Knowles, FKA Twigs, Christine & The Queens, Childish Gambino aka Donald Glover, Rachel Aggs/Sacred Paws plus most recently, I’ve been listening to a lot of early Trojan records in an effort to put together a definitive playlist for my newly minted DJ shows, which only US audiences have experienced yet.

I keep myself on top of my game vocally, because nobody sings like I do, and I have no wish to sing like anybody else. I try to stretch my range by writing songs that will do just that. If you know you have to sing a high note in a song every night on stage, then you make damn sure that you do everything possible to make that happen. Always be experimenting, otherwise you go stale – that’s my mantra, and so far it seems to be working.

Catch The Selecter & The Beat on their return to Manchester, at O2 Ritz on Friday 13th October.

Photo credit: Dean Chalkley

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Friday | 13.10.17

The Selecter + The Beat ft. Ranking Roger at The O2 Ritz

Band on the Wall, Manchester