"We definitely wanted to create a new way of thinking about music – using music to demonstrate unity by mixing up black people and white people in a band"
Think of punk and ska in 1980s Britain and you may well picture bands like The Clash and The Specials. Pauline Black, however, is the original rude girl. As the driving force behind Coventry 2-tone group The Selecter, she was a rare black woman making her way in music and sticking two fingers up to the skinheads.
Today Pauline is a style icon and a cultural force, with her signature fedora, Doc Martens and formidable attitude, as documented in her book, Black By Design: A 2-Tone Memoir. She invited The Last Bohemians into her immaculate home in the Midlands to discuss how she became the first lady of ska, 2-Tone's multicultural vision and why politics is life.
This episode is produced by Renay Richardson.
TRANSCRIPT: Pauline Black
[Road noises. A dog is heard barking]
Renay: Oh, a dog! Exciting!
Renay: Sounds big.
Pauline: [Answers door] Do you like dogs?
[Group all greet dog and say hi, dog continues barking]
Renay: Hi, lovely to meet you, I'm Renay.
Pauline: Hello, Renay, Hi.
[Dog runs around, group continue their introductions]
Pauline: Someone told me once, right, that um, they were talking to somebody and there were three black people walking down the street, there were two men and there was one woman. And they were both white, these people, and they said, "Describe what you can see", and the person said, "Well, I can see three black people". If they had been three white people, the person would have said, "I can see two guys, and a woman". I am absolutely and always have been perfectly aware that if I'm going to be in a room, my voice is going to be the one that is least sought out. So you just have to be louder than ever other fucker.
Kate Hutchinson intro: Pauline Black is the original rude girl. As the driving force behind Coventry 2-tone group The Selecter, she was a rare woman of colour making her way in music during a notably sexist and racist decade. She is a style icon and a cultural force, with her signature fedora, Doc Martens and formidable attitude, and she's still making music as The Selecter today. Pauline invited us into her immaculate home in the Midlands to discuss how she became the First Lady of ska, and why politics is life.
Kate: Can you just walk me through what the rude girl persona was about and how you created that?
Pauline: I have absolutely no idea what the rude girl persona is other than I got on stage and I started singing some songs, ska songs with an offbeat rhythm and it kind of developed from there. I mean, it was never meant to, um, have any particular sexual connotations in terms of the fact that, you know, I was making myself attractive for men or whatever. It was just that this seemed a way to go, and I felt that I needed to be taken relatively seriously, i.e - in what I had to say and all those kind of things, and I wanted a no nonsense image that, you know, no peering up skirts and [laughing] stuff like that that would be... not scary on stage, but would certainly say, "Right, this is my place, and I feel comfortable here, and this is what I wanna wear and you're just gonna have to put up with that". The hat was probably the last thing that came along and that kind of finished it off really.
Kate: Talk me through what was your favourite or most memorable stage outfit, or maybe what you're wearing now?
Pauline: My favourite was a white Fred Perry with tips on the colour and I got this absolutely gorgeous kind of boxy jacket with zips on the pockets and sort of black cigarette pants really. Always your loafers had to look as though they'd had a row with your trousers, so there was ah, kind of, you know modicum of sock always, preferably white. And my hats I used to get from an old man shop here in Coventry opposite Sainsbury's on Corporation Street called Dunn & Co, and they used to go all into a bit of a faff every time I used to walk in there, because they didn't really know what this young black woman was doing coming in and choosing their grey fedoras.
Pauline: I'd been an embryonic musician for about a couple of years I suppose before I joined The Selecter. And I had been writing songs, doing other people's songs and mainly kind of Dylan, Joni Mitchell. So I started frequenting folk clubs, because that was the place where you could just sort of rock up with a guitar, sit down. They'd sort of look to me as some sort of exotic thing that had just come in like, "Oh, we don't usually get any black people in here" kind of thing. But anyway, you know, "Bang one out Pauline, we'll have a listen". And so that was it really.
Pauline: I'd been trying to get together a reggae band and in that band were two people who would go on to be in The Selecter and had played with various other, all the musicians who were around the Coventry scene who were in ska at that time, but Lynval Golding from The Specials came down because he was friends with the keyboard player. He'd come down to us meandering our way through a few kind of reggae sort of songs that we'd penned ourselves, and at the end of the session turned around to myself and Charles H Bembridge who would then become the drummer in The Selecter, and Desmond Brown and said, "I think you should meet these guys that I know". And I was given an address, I went around to that address and everyone who was in that room would end up in The Selecter.
Pauline: I don't think we really thought about sort of creating a new culture at the time. We definitely wanted to create a new way of maybe thinking about music, using music - using music to demonstrate unity, i.e - mixing up black, white, you know, black people, white people in a band. It wasn't that it hadn't been done before, but we consciously did it. It was like you were demonstrating to anyone who came to see you unity by the fact that you were all coexisting on the stage, you were all getting along, you know. And for seven people to get along in a band and make music, that's quite significant.
Pauline: I think The Selecter embodied the Black British experience because we were part of a whole which included Black British music in terms of Black British reggae. That was beginning to come to the fore, you've got bands like Steel Pulse, Misty in Roots, and um, you know, Dennis Bovell was working in London, he was working with The Slits, he was embracing what was good about punk. Um, you had also got people like John Lydon, Johnny Rotten at the time, of the Sex Pistols, was taking over like John Peel's show and playing reggae, you know, imports and things like this that he was getting that nobody had ever heard before. So it was a fascination with each other's cultures, um, and of course you've got Bob Marley coming over here, and that was the first time that people had seen a proper dread as it were, and the I Threes and, you know, Judy Mowatt and people like that. It was like this was all incredible. The politics was in there, it was implicit in the music. When Marley did things like Trench Town Rock or Exodus that was where he was coming from and there were plenty of kids over here who could identify with that kind of thing because you were feeling like a, a, a stranger in a strange land here. It was like you'd been to school with your white school mates and things like that, but you know, you could still be called the N-word sort of on your way home or any of those kind of things. You knew you were not on a level playing field. And what 2-tone arguably was trying to do was put music on a level playing field like you were welcome in the place, black or white, let's make music together.
Pauline: Protest music, it's, was always the first music that interested me. I think as a black person, well, the first music that really interested me was Tamla Motown, because you'd never seen any black artists before so fully in charge of what they were doing, you know, with a black producer, Berry Gordy, or what. All of these kind of things, it was something that came out of America and just hit you. People like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder used to do relatively political songs, you know like Village Ghetto Land is just great. I mean, Superstition, it was, it was all at the time when the Civil Rights Movement was going on in America. Nightly, pretty much, on the TV the stuff that you would see would be pictures of black people getting beaten up because they wanted to sit at lunch counters and this active kind of strange apartheid thing that was going on in the Deep South at that time. And young black people being denied access to universities or to any teaching really if white kids were in the school as well. The Kennedys, they had implemented a thing of bussing of children, so that schools were more integrated, they tried to integrate schools in the South. And this just kind of brought every redneck racist that lived in the South out onto the streets and you used to see these pictures of white people, I mean who you, you know, who looked perfectly normal in their little white hats, the ladies in their white gloves and all this kind of nonsense, and the guys in shirts just come from work, would be frothing at the mouth when they saw this kind of thing, like that wasn't gonna happen. And that was the first time that I really began thinking there is something profoundly different here, and I'd better find out about this. Why these things happened. In the 70s, I don't know, 76, 77, something like that, Eric Clapton had a bit of a racist rant on Birmingham Odeon stage and said that he agreed with Enoch Powell and all of these things, which was Enoch Powell's assertion at that time was that you keep letting people in of another culture and another colour, and the black man and, those were his words, "The black man will have the whip hand over you". Really that's kind of an ethos which has pervaded through since, since he uttered those words. There are people in this country who actually believe that, which is just, you know, demographically is nonsense. It was after his racist rant that people got involved, you know, Rock Against Racism was formed and those kind of things, and there was an understanding within this country that as young people that it didn't have to be like that, you didn't have to be like your parents.
Pauline: 2-tone happened in the middle of New Romantics and punk. It was, yeah, we were just tribal for want of any other word, and you belonged to that tribe, and that tribe fetched up and over there there might be mods and over here there might be skinheads, and they all had their different ways of dressing. You just stood round like peacocks in a bar, do you know what I mean, like "They're here. Ok. They look cool". It kind of started around 78 and it started with The Specials, um, Jerry Dammers in particular, and um, he came up with that whole idea for the 2-tone man, which we call Walt Jabsco. But he also put together a band that mixed up really kind of punk and rock, reggae, initially, and then found that ska music because it's more upbeat and a little faster made it very very danceable. It was an original thought, but The Clash were there and they had mixed punk and reggae, but they'd just done it in a different way. They gave a support slot to The Specials and The Specials gave a support slot to The Selecter, which was the band I was in and that kind of grew. But we had different ways of mixing the sound with ska, we mixed it more with reggae and ska maybe, and The Specials mixed it more with rock.
Pauline: I was adopted by white parents and, er, they were white working class parents. My dad worked near Fords and worked seven days a week, kinda 12 hours a day and all those kind of things. My mum just stayed at home. I went on a journey to find my mother, because she was the only one who was gonna tell me who my dad was, so that was 1996. So it was some years ago now.
Pauline: Why did I do it? Um, if I'd been white I might not have chosen to. But I wasn't, and I felt that I needed to find out where I had come from, some definitive answers to the questions that I was asking, so that's why I went looking. I kind of knew she was about 17, 18 years older than I was. She was in fact 17 years older than me. And, um, you know, that put her into her late fifties, and I thought maybe I better do something about this now because if I leave it another 10 years she might die and then I'll never find out. Fortunately she was still alive and thriving in Australia. I asked her, I said, "Who was my dad?", and she told me that he was Nigerian and how she'd met him and stuff like that. I knew that, yeah, Adenles were probably going to be a fairly kind of, you know, a clan that was not going to be difficult to find. I would find an Adenle somewhere and they might be able to lead me to, to whatever. And the phone book in London, because I started there, had two Adenles: one was one of his wives and the other was my half sister. [Reverberated sound effect plays]. I ended up being the oldest of, um, 18 of his children, I think he'd had 18 children and he'd had um, eight wives, um, some kind of you know he'd married, some he hadn't. And, um, yeah, so I inherited a whole load of other siblings as it were. Some who lived here, and cousins and you know, this huge extended family. Unfortunately he had died the year before I'd found the key to all this, as it were, so that was a bit of a downer. But I always said that I was looking for the man who coloured me black, and I'd named myself Black by deed poll, only just to sort of really get up the nose of my white adopted family because they always called me coloured and I was really pissed off with that, and so then they had to call me Black.
Pauline: I was lucky enough to be at a time when there were other strong females in bands. People like Debbie Harry was in Blondie, People like Chrissy Hynde in The Pretenders, people like Poly Styrene in X-Ray Spex. The Slits were around at that time, Siousixe Soux was around at that time. Kate Bush was around at that time. They covered a whole spectrum, I mean the wonderful thing about being a woman is that there's a wonderful spectrum of artistic sensibility that women put into their music that you don't find anywhere else! You don't find it in men's music in that way. There's all kinds of, I don't know of another counterpart say to people like Kate Bush, but I don't really know of too many counterparts to what I did or what, um, Poly Styrene did. It’s just different. You'd be hard pushed to go back in time and find anything that actually deviated too far from a thread of racism and sexism, really, in terms of whatever you're trying to put out there. You know, it falls into those categories really, I've never really bothered myself too much about anything else.
Pauline: I mean, as a black female I sometimes look at the feminist movement and think, "This is about white women. This isn't about me". But white women expect me to come and fight their struggles with them, and I will always do that because I think feminism is a great, you know, sort of, that's the way forward for women. But often black women will have struggles, but they don't get that same quantity of white ladies donning their pink pussyhats and all the rest of it coming along to fight their struggles for them. So as a black woman you, yeah, you have to pick your struggles, and for me at the time - and still now - racism was the thing that I felt held me back far more than the fact that I was a woman. I mean as a black woman I was bottom of the pile anyway in terms of the pecking order of things. If you take the white male at the top, then the black male, and then the white female and then the black female, because that's what the pecking order is. I knew that pretty much in 1968 and I don't really see that those things have changed that much for all of the hashtags that we have come up with in that time. Still those kind of things prevail. I will say this: since the Brexit vote happened I feel that many racists within this country now feel emboldened to come out and loudly say to anyone who will listen, "You see, I told you so, multiculturalism doesn't work" - blah, blah, blah. And when you look to the fool that is in charge over in America at the moment, you can see how that is all feeding into a general pervasiveness of the Western world about how things are. Look, life is politics. Or politics is life. Without opinions, what's the point in doing any art at all? I don't know any other way to be on the stage other than that way. I find politics probably the most entertaining thing in the world because it’s a thing that actually has a direct effect on my life, and it's a thing that I can [dog is heard barking] direct to a certain extent. See, even my dog is political! [Laughing] That was a woof of approval!
Pauline: Whether you need The Selecter now more than ever - I really don't know the answer to that. I think the question is, is that why are we still here? Why are we still here 40 years later? We came up with plenty of other bands who've completely gone by the wayside. The nucleus of the 2-tone movement is still around, and still commanding audiences of certain sizes, because racism and sexism still hasn't gone away. We serve a purpose. And I think as time goes on that more and more people will see that that purpose is probably a good thing. And I'm sure that there will be younger bands as well who start being, um, as vocal as maybe what we were in the past.
Renay Richardson: This episode was produced by me, Renay Richardson. For more in The Last Bohemians series, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, follow on Spotify and Google Podcasts. You can see the portrait series at www.thelastbohemians.co.uk.