Pauline Black: Queen of Ska

As two-tone ska revival band The Selecter prepares to take to the stage at Bristol Sounds on 24 June, we catch up with lead singer Pauline Black to talk four decades of making music…

When I sit down with The Selecter’s frontwoman, Pauline Black, she and the band are on tour with Jools Holland after having just finished a UK run of their own, promoting their sixteenth studio album, Human Algebra, released on 21 April. Black is also in the midst of making a documentary based on her 2011 autobiography, Black by Design, and she’s days away from playing the first of many festivals that The Selecter are booked for this summer. Some 44 years after their inception, the seven-piece two-tone band from Coventry, who gave us On My Radio and Three Minute Hero, are busy and showing no signs of slowing down. Pauline’s genuine warmth, however, made me feel as though we had all the time in the world.

In May 1979, the same month that Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, The Selecter first appeared with a self-titled track on a shared record with The Specials. With Black and Arthur “Gaps” Hendrickson on vocals, the release marked the birth of what would become one of the most prominent acts of the ska-punk movement, which was named after the independent record label that signed them – 2 Tone Records, set up by The Specials’ Jerry Dammers. Others on the label included Madness, The Beat and the Bodysnatchers.

Two-tone paired energetic Caribbean ska rhythms with conscious lyrics that reflected the struggles of working-class Britain. The Selecter used their politically charged, hook-laden songs to spread their anti-racist, anti-sexist mantra and, in turn, unite youth tribes: skinheads, mods, punks, rude boys and rude girls. The Selecter’s 1980 debut album, Too Much Pressure, tackled the social issues of the time and found its way into the top 10 the year it was released.

“Through the power of music, we wanted to show that different cultures, people from different backgrounds and different classes could come together and find common ground,” Black tells me. “If you don’t start conversations when there are problems – and obvious problems – they will never get solved. I feel very much that we started the conversation about racism, we started the conversation about sexism just by existing and in the way that we presented ourselves in the charts.”

More than four decades on, their messages are just as relevant and their music continues to move audiences. Their latest album focuses on knife crime, fake news, the environment, Brexit and war. Written largely during the pandemic, the band questions and challenges today’s politics. Most notably, the title track includes a particularly evocative chorus hook, “Mama’s so blue”.

“Everybody is now cognisant of the fact that a lot of our youth are stabbing each other on the streets but no one is coming up with any answers to solve it. It seems to me that we’re doing a tremendous disservice to the young people in this country – and in others as well – and that we’re more or less condoning that this is some way to settle an argument. We’re all horrified by it but completely powerless to do anything about it.

“What I wanted to do in that particular song was highlight a mother’s grief and how that radiates out through an extended family. It’s not just the perpetrator and the victim, everybody becomes affected by it and then the community becomes affected by it. It seems like we’re in a state of paralysis at the moment without the necessary tools to figure it out.”

Human Algebra was finished in July 2022 – the day that Prime Minister Boris Johnson resigned – “it was a wonderful arc,” laughs Black, always striving to be an antidote to the wave of conservatism – whether it be 1979 or 2023.

As one of very few women in the two-tone scene – and often referred to as “the Queen of Ska” – Black was awarded an OBE in the in the 2022 New Year Honours. Pushing the boundaries in music and fashion, the singer had to find where she fitted into the industry. Heavily influenced by female musicians like Joan Armatrading, Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez, Black was always drawn to those that “had something to say, people like Bob Dylan” and, once she started making the journey towards two-tone, people like Bob Marley.

“The person who really made me think ‘maybe I could do that’ would have been Poly Styrene from X-Ray Spex,” says Black.

“I remember seeing her on Top of the Pops when they had released Germfree Adolescents and thinking she was absolutely amazing. It was the first time that I’d seen a woman of colour, somebody who looked a bit like me in a band that I could relate to, telling her truth.

“I liked the idea of punk; I liked that do-it-yourself culture, mixing up genres and coming up with something different and I feel very much that The Selecter achieved that.”

Black’s career to date is varied and venerable. After The Selecter split up in 1982, the singer went on to become a TV presenter before trying her hand at acting, winning Time Out’s best actress in 1991 for her stage portrayal of Billie Holiday. In 1992, however, a third wave of ska music began to sweep across America. Artists and bands, including the likes of No Doubt, were calling for the reformation of The Selecter.

“America’s young artists were saying, ‘Hey, come over and do a tour’ and so we reformed another version of band. My life has very much been like that and I’m grateful for it,” says Black. “Just when you’re coming to the end of one thing, a door suddenly pops open and it’s something new and different to do. It still seems to be happening even now at nearly 70.”

After the US tour and a few hiatuses during the nineties and noughties, The Selecter began to pump out new songs in 2011,
their sound ever-evolving but their success standing the test of time. How do they account for their longevity?

“As young as we were back then – and possibly even unknown to us – we were channelling some kind of truth that needed to be said.

I think all of the bands [from the two-tone movement], to my knowledge, are still in existence. There is still a version of The Specials, The Beat, Bad Manners, Madness, The Bodysnatchers.

I think that speaks volumes about what we had to say.”

As for the artists of today, Black is championing those that are “carving a different path through”. “I went out on tour with Gorillaz back in 2018. I did a track for their album and Damon Albarn invited me out to South America, which was really joyous. Little Simz was there and no matter where she went, she bought the house down. I really like her work ethic. I really like what she has to say and I really respect what she’s doing. I also like Kendrick Lamar; I think he is extraordinary. His Glastonbury performance was second to none.”

The Selecter will be gracing the stage at Bristol Sounds on 24 June, supporting chart-topping folk-rock band, Levellers. “We’re absolutely honoured to be asked by the Levellers to play. I love their way of working and it chimes completely with ours.”

Before we part ways, I’ve got to ask about The Selecter’s time in Bristol. Over four decades, there must be some stories to tell. “I’ve always had fond memories of playing at The Academy but also much smaller places, like The Fleece, too. We used to pack it out and it just used to be so funny. I actually fell off stage there once during Three Minute Hero – if you can recover from that you can recover from anything,” Black jokes.

“There is something about playing to an absolutely bursting-at-the-seams venue where your feet are sticking to the floor, the audience is practically on top of you and they’re all just going mad for the music. There is nothing better than that.”

• The Selecter will be playing at Bristol Sounds on Saturday 24 June, supporting Levellers. For more information and to book tickets, visit: