In which Dave Woodhall talks to 2 Tone legend Pauline Black.
It’s 34 years since 2 Tone exploded into the national consciousness, creating as many waves with its social impact as it did for its music. While some of the leading lights of the movement are now content with occasional tours which lean heavily on their back catalogues, one band is busier and more productive than ever. The Selecter are about to release String Theory, their second album in 18 months, and on top of that they’re about to start a twenty-date British tour prior to dates in the USA. We spoke to iconic singer Pauline Black about their latest developments.
“In 2010 we did a big gig at the Finsbury Theatre based around our début album Too Much Pressure and realised we didn’t want to be a heritage band. Some of our contemporaries have been doing that sort of thing for four years now, they play pretty much their first couple of albums but we thought there’s still something to say about what’s happening now. We covered what was going on thirty years ago with racism, that’s still alive, recession, those kind of things but we thought that now we’re not talking about racism we’re talking about multi-culturalism. That’s the reason why we did the Made in Britain album (which came out in 2011) and this is extending it forward. We’re doing this tour now and we’re doing dates in America, we’re doing the Coachella festival out there, so we thought we’re going international, the music ought to reflect that we’re tied to our past, yes, but there’s no reason why we can’t talk about the times we’re living in.”
Both String Theory and its predecessor Made in Britain are very traditional, old-school reggae albums. Have you deliberately decided not to add modern influences to your music?
“What do people expect? It would be really uncool for us to be experimenting with dubstep. It’s like people going round saying ‘Wicked’ after everything. We’re sticking to the sound of the Selecter and there’s no reason to go away from that but we can still talk about contemporary things in the identifiable sound of the band.”
The final track on String Theory, 667 (Neighbour of the Beast), is fairly self-explanatory with its references to hacking and lying. Is there anyone in particular you’re talking about there?
“We didn’t need the Leveson Inquiry tell us what was going on. Most people knew it but probably didn’t know the extent. Lots of things have come out that nobody knew about but there are a lot of other things happening now that we’ve tried to filter into the album, with songs such London’s Burning and Post-Modern, as well.”
It always seemed, to me at least, that you were the most authentic of the 2 Tone bands, the closest to original ska. Would you agree?
“Our sound back then was probably more orientated towards the original sound. We didn’t really mix it up with the rock edge which the Specials did. That’s the way we liked to hear it but I’ve always felt that because we had a male/female singer duo we had a broader remit for choosing subjects we wanted to sing about, and also in terms of harmony, things like that. The other bands had male frontmen so they didn’t have that broad spectrum we had. We could add soul, Tamla, that sort of thing as well as the punk influence from people I liked such as Siouxsie and Poly Styrene. We also ticked a lot of boxes that hadn’t been ticked before. Two black people up front, one male one female, one dressed in rude boy clothes. Our contemporaries ticked the ones that people had seen before.”
Does it ever annoy you that you’ll always be linked with Two Tone, and in particular the ‘mates of the Specials’ line?
“You can’t ever get tired of being associated with something like 2 Tone. The movement was paramount over all the individuals and bands. We’re not household names like Madness and we don’t play on top of Buckingham Palace – we might be asked to play on top of Transport House one day but not Buckingham Palace, I don’t see the Queen rattling her jewellery to our music and I wouldn’t want that to happen. We didn’t lose out with the association, because 2 Tone stands for something. All the things I’ve ever done l’ve always considered to be part of 2 Tone.”
Your tour takes you to one of our favourite venues, the Robin 2. You’ve played there before so presumably you like it.
“Sure, we’ve played there a number of times. It’s a fantastic club, I love the way you turn up and the lovely lady upstairs makes sure you have something to eat and you get looked after. Then you get on stage and it’s got a great atmosphere.”
It’s 34 years since the band started but the problems that were around then are still problems now – unemployment, recession, riots, racism. Do you ever feel that nothing’s changed?
“I can’t see how you can say that. We might be in a new century and racism is still around but so are many of the great things. If we can have this topic of conversation around the world about multi-culturalism wherever the band go, that’s what I want to do. If you have people talking about their differences rather than division that’s a big thing.”
And yet, as we often say, where’s the political music of today? When we spoke to Andy Kershaw last year he said that even though a million people marched against the Iraq war in 2003 he had to play a song from the sixties to represent the day.
“I don’t disagree in that respect. The music industry has changed but if you’re talking about mainstream music throughout history you’ll find the same thing in general. There may be the odd maverick record that gets through such as One in Ten from UB40, but we now live in a flat word where people have access to all kinds of things through social media. Kids can listen on their ipod to a blues song next to a soul song then a dubstep song so they can formulate their ideas through that and I’m not going to say as someone who’s older that they’re wrong. They’re fashioning a new future and I hope that’s a better one than the future that my generation managed to fashion.”
You’re a singer but you’ve also written books and you’re an award-winning actress. What would you like your legacy to be?
“I don’t know because your legacy is what other people think of you and it’s not for me to say what that might be, but I will fight until my dying breath against racism, in any form, Anywhere, whether on stage, writing, through music, anywhere. That’s my reason for being.”
Finally, given the music you play and what inspires you, would you rather make people happy, or make them think?
“Someone once said that the Selecter made dancing the only way to walk. I’d like to say it makes the mind the only way to think.”