Selecter: Ska, Reggae and Politics

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by Scott Clancy; photos by Paul Quinn

Politics and music have been presented hand-in-hand for as long as people could back their ideas with a beat. Now, with so much to say about pressure in today’s climate, this tradition is thriving and artists of all ages continue to present what they see and feel politically in song. 

The Selecter’s origins come from 1970s Coventry, UK, where the 2 Tone Ska movement saw social and political issues merged with trailblazing new genres, mixing reggae, punk, roots music and ska into bopping social commentary. Pauline Black and Arthur ‘Gaps’ Hendrickson have led the legendary Selecter through classic album after classic album, including 1980’s Too Much Pressure. Take a look at this throwback conversation with Black and Henderson at Riot Fest 2019 about the album’s legacy and its thought-provoking relevance in today’s politics, as well their roots in the UK punk and ska scene of the 1970s. Their political and musical reflections are just as vital today they were in 1980.

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WLUW: You played Too Much Pressure in full during your set today. It came out in 1980 and I’m curious to know about playing songs from an album that came out some time ago, what resonates with you today about them?

Pauline Black: That came out 40 years ago … Yeah, it was too much pressure then and I would say that it’s too much pushing that, isn’t it? You know the same things were kind of happening in those days. You had Margaret Thatcher, who was the Prime Minister of Britain, who was giving working class people in Britain at that time a really, really hard time. I mean, decimating the unions there and all of that. And you had Reagan here, wasn’t it? He was rampaging around wherever he could run around, kind of causing a bit of trouble for a lot of other people in other countries. For 40 years, it’s pretty much the damn same. In Britain, at the moment, we have a country tearing itself apart [over] whether it wants to be part of Europe or whether it wants to be the 51st state of America. We’re just waiting to see who wins before we write the next album.

Arthur ‘Gaps’ Hendrickson: Yeah, we hope it doesn’t happen, but it seems, what’s happening in Europe at the moment, everybody is luring to the right. So 40 years ago, when we made the music [Too Much Pressure] … as Pauline says, it’s happening again. Because we were there then, it just seemed relevant at the time and you just think, as one journalist said to us, our “music is immortal” and that’s one way to look at it.

WLUW: Do you think that’s a compliment, to have your work called “immortal?”

PB: Well, I mean what it is, but I would also say that about history and people say that history repeats itself. It doesn’t actually repeat itself. No, it rhymes. That’s what it does and it’s rhyming at the moment. I think for people who look like me and Gaps here, it isn’t the greatest moment in history, you know what I mean? Because people feel as though they are able to say things now that hitherto they weren’t able to say, or at least kept under wraps and we thought that the human organism was developing, evolving, changing, learning new practices and being generally nicer to each other and we seem to take in a retrograde step now, and I think that that’s very harmful.

WLUW: Are you as alarmed today as you were back in 1980 when the album came out?

PB: I’m more alarmed. I mean, you’ve got people running around this country shooting people who look like me, or shooting people who are of different opinions, different kinds of sexual proclivities, who are Jewish in synagogues, all of those kinds of things. You’ve got a lot of troubled people in this country, and that is not just down to mental health.

AH: I have children, and things that I experienced, I hope that much they don’t experience. But I do see a little bit of movement toward people being a little bit more tolerant and that’s good, but I don’t see that much as changed from back then.

PB: I will say this – the people [in] our generation, the people who are in their middle years who have made their money, have their house, have their car or their SUV and have their “2.4” kids, and all that kind of thing, those are the kinds of people who are becoming most hardened and don’t care that much about what happens to anyone who is maybe not as well-equipped how they are. But I do think that younger people are definitely waking up to the future and there will be a huge correction soon, and I think a lot of people are going to be extremely troubled by that correction. How that will come, I don’t know. And, in some ways, I feel sorry for young people, but I think that they’re very resilient and I think that they see the mistake that people of my generation and those who are younger than me have actually made. And I have great faith in the fact that they are gonna sort it out.

WLUW: One thing I would observe from my generation, to echo your words, I think some younger people see the world that is of their own, seeing what is going on around them and making their own decisions, not based off of what was before.

PB: You have all these wonderful tools at your disposal that we didn’t have. You have the internet, you have the World-Wide-Web. It’s all knowledge, all information, you can see historically what has happened, how we have come to this situation. And from that you can make your own decisions. You have all the music laid out for you, from any time, all the different genres of music ever since white people decided the black people had all the best rhythms and then take them and make them their own. That crossover happened, and ever since that happened ideas then stopped crossing over and we became more tolerant of each other, and everything becomes more interesting with that tolerance. And for the world to become more intolerant, I just think it is an intolerable situation.

AH: And we have people like you, who come along to interview us so that we can, after 40 years, still show how important it is for ideas to be carrying on for so long and hopefully they will be taken on and evolved. And hopefully something comes that will make a better world, really. Because what’s going on at the moment is just mind-blowing sometimes.

WLUW: If I may change the subject a little bit – musically, what do you think transcends from something like Too Much Pressure and the type of music that you make? What transcends today that resonates with you?

PB: The offbeat. That is what ska music is based on – the offbeat.

WLUW: What is the offbeat?

PB: The offbeat is just the reverse of rock music, isn’t it?

AH: It’s that rhythm you get. I was reading something about that genre of music, reggae music, to be precise, and if you wanna get your baby to go to sleep you play reggae music because it’s so precise. And that’s what it’s based on.

WLUW: A lot of people around our radio station, in regard to ska, think it’s somewhat of a comeback in independent music. Is that something that you possibly have noticed as well?

PB: Well, it’s difficult, because I mean we’re from Britain and we can see that bands like The Specials are still going and putting out new music, we’ve continued to put out new music. That’s 2-Tone music. But a lot of those original ska artists are still around playing and various reggae artists are still playing, like Jimmy Cliff and Toots and the Maytals are still playing. So that music is there and we’re still interested in that and there’s always a healthy underground interest. As far as a lot of younger black people are concerned, they’ll have to search that music out; they’re into different music, R&B and those kinds of things. But it all has kind of the same origin. We’re all doing the same thing. You’re either writing pop-pap that is going end up in the charts and be forgotten the next day, or you’re writing something which may be taking on social issues and things like that, and I think that has a little more longevity to it. Reggae music has always done that and talked about what it’s like for black people in this world that sometimes it’s an inhospitable place. And that’s what we’ve chosen to write about and talk about.

AH: Yes, having come from that background, you know reggae music tells the truth. As I said earlier on, coming from my background and seeing the things that my parents have gone through, I really hope sometimes that it doesn’t happen to my children and their children.

WLUW: During your set, you said on stage that “punk was a state of mind,” and I’m wondering if you could extrapolate on what you mean by that? Especially coming from the time period that some label as the “first wave” of punk?

PB: Well, when I think of punk, and I’m talking about British punk here, I think about the Sex Pistols, I think of bands like The Stranglers. People who were actually making some degree of melodic music, attempting to write some music that I could listen to, but about themes which were not mainstream themes. And at the same time, as people were doing that, you had a lot of black British bands like Steel Pulse. To me, black people standing on the stage, as young people back then, was about the most punk statement I knew. That was real truth.

WLUW: I’ve never heard of Steel Pulse.

PB: You’ve never heard of Steel Pulse? Well, they did Handsworth Revolution (1978), that album, and they tour over here but, I mean, it’s so kind of cut off here. There we had a program called Top of the Pops, which was mainstream, half an hour, but you got everything. American artists on it, soul music would be on it … if it was good music, people listen to it. We didn’t have all these radio stations that just had a narrow kind of genre of music. It was all mixed up, therefore everybody fed off each other. That’s what I mean by punk – it’s against the establishment. Not because you run around, you got crazy hair and spiky hair or any of those kind of things, it’s against the establishment. And I would say that John Lydon was … I’ve never known anyone who’s quite so against the establishment … maybe not in latter years, quite so much, but back then definitely. But he was coming to our gigs, standing around listening to what we were doing as well as us listening to them. There was all this crossover. The Clash! That, to me, is punk. And they started mixing their sound up with reggae.

AH: A little story about at the beginning of punk – they couldn’t get a booking anywhere, but there was a club in Bristol called the Sixty-Seven Club, which was run by black people and they used to book punk bands as well as reggae bands. I think that’s how the two came together.

PB: That’s what I mean by punk being a state of mind. It was black people, at that time, who could see that the same issues were affecting young white working class kids who formed punk bands going, “Hey, we’ve all got instruments, we can play three cords, blah, blah, blah, we don’t have much else. We’re not Genesis, we’re never gonna be Genesis, we’re never gonna go to university or any of that kind of thing.” And they were just doing it, and talking about their lives, what was going on with them, what was going on in their communities. That chimed completely with young black kids who are also, through reggae music, talking about what was going on in their communities, and that’s the way to bring people together. Having huge arena shows, yeah, you make a whole pile of money, but it doesn’t really get down to the nitty gritty of what kind of affects people.

AH: I’ll take it from what I said about when punk started and there was no booking. I used to live in a place which was very conservative and I went to a dance in Coventry and the mixture of white people that were there, I just thought “Wow! I’ve gotta move here!” I moved to Coventry, and now here we are!

WLUW: I did want to ask you about Coventry. I had seen a documentary from the BBC was “Music for Misfits,” in which you participated, Pauline … 

PB: Was I in that?

WLUW: They had a segment on Coventry and the 2-Tone scene that was going on around ska music at the time, in the late 70s, early 80s, what struck me about it was that you spoke so highly of Coventry and what was going on there. I’m curious what…

PB: We both still live in Coventry, so that gives you everything you need to know. It’s a city and it has its own cathedral, but it’s like a town. There’s only 300,000 people.

AH: It was because of the motor industry, and it was a lot of work, like Detroit.

WLUW: I’m curious what the scene was like at the time?

Gaps: It was wild because, at the time, all the scouts from the record companies, they used to go to Liverpool and Manchester. But after 2-Tone a focus came to Coventry, looking to see which band is going to come out next, so it was quite exciting times.

WLUW: One final question, I’m wondering if you have any thoughts at all about college radio?

PB: Well college radio is the thing, isn’t it here? I mean, we don’t have quite the same thing at home. Last time we were here we went and played a session and it was really really great. It was just on a college campus and the DJs were wonderful. It was a great set up. We don’t have that at home. We have great sprawling universities, but the younger bands would maybe go when they were up and coming. But that scene is kind of largely gone, really. I mean, there was a university in Coventry that we played at innumerable times and The Specials played at as well, but all of that has just gone.

AH: Playing colleges, we enjoy every minute because we love to see younger people in our audience. That encourages us.

PB: I mean, I’d love to do a college tour. It may be a sort of acoustic thing or something. Just talking about our experience and opening it up to questions, all of those kinds of things. There’s a million and one stories behind all of those songs.

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