these are the tracks that changed original rude girl pauline black’s life

The Selector frontwoman on Essex, Two Tone and the future offered by young women of colour.

by Matthew Whitehouse
|
13 October 2017, 8:00am

Essex-born Pauline Black moved to Coventry at 18, forming Two Tone ska band The Selecter in 1979. Renowned their racially diverse lineup, the group had multiple hits, including On My Radio, and were credited, along with the Specials and Madness, with kick-starting the ska revival movement (launching 1000 pork pie hats in the process). Following their split in 1982, Pauline developed an acting career, winning the 1991 Time Out award for her portrayal of Billie Holiday in the play All Or Nothing At All, and released an autobiography, Black By Design, in 2011. The group have since reformed with new album, the very good Daylight, out now.

The song that reminds me of growing up in Essex…
Being forced to play the piano for elderly relatives on Sunday afternoons. I could clear a room with my rendition of Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata. But fortunately, my musical education did not stop there at such a tender age, because simultaneously I was being introduced to ska and reggae music via a small posse of skinhead kids at my senior school, all of who hailed from nearby Dagenham. They were really handy at subverting the school uniform and wearing tonic skirts and trousers with black monkey boots. Feathered hair cuts for the girls and No.2 crops for the boys finished off their sartorial elegance. They used to take over the red Dansette record player in the school common room and play delicious slices of ska like The Pioneers' Long Shot while the girls did an interesting variation on line dancing. So there was I, the only black kid in the school, playing classical music on piano in the evening and trying to emulate the elegance of five white girls dancing to ska music during the school lunch hour.

The song that reminds me of moving to Coventry is…
Blue by Joni Mitchell. I studied combined science at Lanchester Polytechnic, or Coventry University, as it is known now. I was only 17 when I left home to study, due to taking my 0 and A levels a year earlier than normal. I was totally unprepared for college life and had a really rough year adjusting to the curriculum. To cap it all, my boyfriend at the time committed suicide by hanging himself from the railings outside the student's union. Needless to say, nothing prepares you for such an awful episode, and I found Joni Mitchell's album Blue, and particularly the title, some small comfort at the time.

The first song I learnt to play on the guitar was…
Finger-picking my way through Girl From The North Country by Bob Dylan. In about 1976, I frequented a pub called The Old Dyers' Arms in Coventry, which ran a folk club in the back room on a Sunday. It usually filled up as the afternoon wore on, and a doughty, ample-bosomed Yorkshire barlady, Mavis, allowed selected clientele to remain after pub closing time for a 'stayback', i.e. serving alcohol out of hours. Rarely did any females play or sing, but one day I chanced upon hearing a girl sing Donovan's Yellow Is The Colour Of My True Love's Hair to a somewhat blank reception. I thought I could do better than that, so I went home and practised on my husband's guitar and taught myself a couple of tunes. One week later, I performed it and thereafter became a relatively short-lived fixture on the folk scene in Coventry.

The song that reminds me of early rehearsals with The Selecter is…
Our version of My Girl Lollipop, which was re-written as My Sweet Collie (Not A Dog). The revised version perfectly extolled the wonders of smoking marijuana, which is something that went on rather a lot in the early days of the band. On the recorded version, it credits the 'Hillfields Boy's Choir' with the harmonious backing vocals. It was really just all of us, really stoned in the studio. I don't know who came up with the opening line of "This Is A Government Health Warning -- smoking can really damage your brain', but I remember delivering it in the studio in my finest Romford cockney accent.

The best band we ever played live with was…
Blondie at the Hammersmith Odeon (now known as Hammersmith Eventim Apollo) in 1980. I remember Holly Beth Vincent [of Holly and The Italians] and I were ushered into the dressing room to have our photo taken with Debbie Harry, who looked a vision of cool loveliness in those days. She was very nice, but somewhat business as usual. I don't remember much about our show, but I thoroughly enjoyed Blondie, who were at the top of their game back then. My favourite moment was when a disco ball descended from the ceiling of the auditorium, sending out shards of light during the lightshow for Heart Of Glass.

The best band we never played live with was…
Bob Marley and The Wailers. I did see them play at Bingley Hall in Staffordshire in 1978, about 9 months before The Selecter formed. Unbeknown to me, all of the people who would eventually form The Selecter were in attendance that night. I was mesmerised by the music, the I Threes and Bob Marley's otherworldly way of dancing. I think it was that night that I decided that if I was ever going to be in a band that I would not be content with being a backing singer, no matter how in awe of the I Threes I was. I wanted to be up the front.

The song that best epitomises what 2-Tone stood for is…
Racist Friend by The Special AKA, which was the first single taken from their one and only album In The Studio. Not a huge hit at the time, in the early 80s, but it is a song that has stood the test of time for its simple yet effective lyrical message and loping, almost menacing reggae backbeat.

The song I'll be remembered for is…
Black and Blue, a song I wrote in the studio for The Selecter's debut album Too Much Pressure. It sums up how I felt at a particular time in my youth. As I've got older, I keep finding new layers in the music and lyrics that I hadn't brought to consciousness when it was first penned. Also, the late and very great Rico Rodriguez played a perfectly nuanced trombone solo on this song as an outro. I think it's safe to say that he 'got' what I was trying to say and his solo is a melancholic, perfect counterpoint to the slightly jazzy rhythmic structure of the song.

The Selecter's new album, Daylight, is out now via DMF Records.

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