Pauline Black, founder member of 2-Tone heroes The Selecter, is at home working on her new novel when Spotify calls. Indeed, much of the last 18 months have been spent at home constructing the story of a woman who travels to Nigeria and gives birth to twins – a prized occurrence in Pauline’s birth father’s Yoruba culture – one black and one white.
“The mother keeps the white one,” she says, “and the whole story pans out from there…”
Pauline’s own story, and the music she loves and makes, is another search for identity and belonging. Adopted at 18 months old by a white couple from Romford in Essex, she grew up in time marked by conscious and unconscious racism. In the late 70s Pauline went to university in Coventry and it was there in the summer of 1979, while gigging in local pubs and clubs, that she attended a band rehearsal that became the formative point for The Selecter.
Less than two months later this new band were supporting Madness and The Specials - soon after that they kicked off a string of hits with On My Radio. In 1982 they split, but in the last few years The Selecter have reformed again and are preparing to play a new string of shows to a generation of fans many of whom weren’t even born during the band’s initial burst of success.
“2-Tone bands like The Selecter now occupy the position that artists like Prince Buster, Toots and the Maytals or the Pioneers held for us,” she says. “It is strange to think it’s now us that are lurching into legend [she deliberately mis-pronounces it ‘leg end’] status!”
What do your new fans understand about what 2-Tone stood for?
I’m not sure they do understand Two-Tone, but I always understood it as a musical fight against racism and sexism – now I think people often forget about that part. Specials’ gigs have always been a bit of a football chant event, whereas our shows are not like that. The world’s a more dangerous place now and violence towards women is much more prevalent than it was at the end of the 70s so I think 2-Tone still has a lot to say. I grew up in a time where people had an opinion about social problems, but these days an opinion is like a political act – express yourself on social media and the whole world can come tumbling down around you.
There’s a one upmanship in being as offended as possible…
There really is, but what’s exciting musically is the new bands inspired by 2-Tone who want to make their own version of it. Miscegenation is a wonderful thing and we talk about that now.
What was the first music you were aware of?
Well, my mum and dad were older, white and working class, they liked Peters & Lee and Kathy Kirby. I parted company with that sort of thing very early on! I loved Millie’s My Boy Lollipop and anything I could search out that was authentically black. Motown, Diana Ross & The Supremes and particularly Stevie Wonder as he was almost my age group. This little guy was so full of music and life. It was easy to identify with him through the eyes of a black child surrounded by white people many of whom viewed him as an idiot savant. I remember thinking, ‘What happens when he grows up?’ Black people were supposed to be full of rhythm with big smiles and Stevie ticked those boxes but in the most wonderfully different way.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
Ha! The first one I tried to write was about the Yorkshire Ripper. I was a bit incensed by it all.
Quite right too, if you can’t be incensed about the Yorkshire Ripper what can you be incensed about?
Exactly! But it wasn’t the most commercial proposition, but that’s where I started…
Do you think the perfect song exists?
I’d say Tears of A Clown is pretty damn perfect. The subject matter, the imagery, the lyrical content, the delivery, it’s wonderfully uplifting and so full of pathos. And it lasts about three minutes too, which in itself is perfect!
If we came to a party at your house which five records would we be guaranteed to hear?
You’d hear Barbwire by Nora Dean, Get Up Stand Up by Bob Marley, Bjork’s Human Behaviour, Amy Winehouse’s Fuck Me Pumps and I’d finish the party up with a track from Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue.
If you could have joined any band in history for a week who would it have been?
Oh, The Rolling Stones. I was very jealous of Marsha Hunt – I wanted Mick Jagger’s baby! I’ve always loved that band – my parents absolutely hated them, which, of course, made me love them even more.
What was the last amazing record you heard?
That would be Laura Mvula’s Like The Morning Dew she’s absolutely fantastic. I followed a link to it from somewhere and that was it for me.
Finally – but crucially! – what’s your favourite noise?
Definitely the song of the blackbird. I never knew it at the time, but the song of the blackbird has a melody that is so close to the one in our song, On My Radio. And this black bird sings it!