The Selecter

TrackAlbum / Single
Missing WordsTwo-Tone CHS TT 10
On My RadioTwo-Tone CHS TT 4
Train To SkavilleChrysalis CHS S1
Celebrate The BulletChrysalis CHS S2
Three Minute HeroTwo-Tone CHS TT8
Because The NightSubculture
Armagideon TimeReal To Reel
ReselecterizationThe Happy Album
667 (The Neighbour Of The Beast)String Theory
HairsprayPucker!

 

 

 

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Contributor: Neil Waite

As a music fan at school you had to adhere to rules. One such playground directive was that you couldn’t be passionate about more than one genre. If you were into heavy metal, a positive comment about Adam and the Ants would not be tolerated. If you were a mod, then your view of Duran Duran could only be derogatory. Such shackles were frustrating. I was passionate about punk – the Undertones, the Clash, the Ruts et al. And for many punks it was ‘the attitude’, but for me it was more the music. So my secret likes of such releases as Tainted Love and Le Freak stayed hidden until years later when I realised it was okay to like whatever you wanted. But if you were a punk then you were allowed to like ska. Many punk bands’ roots were in reggae and certainly the Clash’s (White Man) in Hammersmith Palais and the Ruts’ Give Youth A Chance made it not only okay for punks to like reggae and ska but also cool, under playground etiquette.

I loved the 2 Tone ska revival in 1979. Although my listening at the time was predominantly punk there was something appealing about the demeanour and aesthetic of the 2 Tone movement. Punk had the bondage wear, the safety pins and the spitting. But ska had the Walt Jabsco logo: the man in a black suit, white shirt, black tie, pork-pie hat, white socks and black loafers. The image was created by Specials members Jerry Dammers and Horace Panter with the help of designers David Storey and John Sims. Not only was the logo probably the coolest ever to a 12-year-old school boy but also it was easy to replicate on bags, pencil cases and exercise books. Sales of black marker pens must have soared in late ’79.

2 Tone logo

The Specials released their debut single Gangsters in 1979. The drummer John Bradbury along with the guitarist Neol Davies and trombonist Barry Jones used a previously recorded track for the B-side called Kingstin Affair, credited to ‘the Selecter’. The name ‘Selecter’ was the Jamaican term for ‘disc jockey’. After the single’s success Neol Davies decided to form a band with the Selecter name. So with friends Charley Anderson on bass, Desmond Brown on keyboards, Compton Amanor on guitar, Charley ‘H’ Bembridge on drums and Arthur ‘Gaps’ Hendrickson on vocals the band was born. The line-up was completed after Pauline Vickers (aka Pauline Black) joined the band following an audition.

The Selecter dansette

This release passed me by. The Undertones had brought out their self-titled debut only two months before and this was the only PVC spinning on my turntable at the time. Ska came onto my radar in October 1979 though, when the Specials and Madness launched their debut albums on the same day. The Selecter also released the brilliant single On My Radio, written by their main songwriter at the time, Neol Davies. The Specials, Madness and the Selecter became the trinity of the ska revival. Arguments ensued in the playground as to which were the best (the Beat weren’t to release their debut I Just Can’t Stop It until May 1980). I liked Madness. But then everybody liked Madness. Due to their commercial appeal, being into them was less edgy than being into the Specials. But for me the Selecter was where it was at. I was unaware that the band were one of the few racially and sexually integrated acts around. I probably should have realised that the brilliant and charismatic Pauline Black was tackling sexism, racism and other social issues all at once, but back then I simply didn’t (I was only 12 remember). I was just enthralled by the music from the 2 Tone movement.

On My Radio is my number 2, as it sums up what the Selecter were about. That upbeat fusion of Jamaican ska rhythms and melodies with punky chord-work on guitar. The band’s debut on Top Of The Pops was memorable, with all of them fired up and Pauline skanking in a white jacket and black pork-pie hat. It was a refreshing contrast to many bland Top Of The Pops performances around that time. I was hooked. There was a two-month wait for the follow-up, Three Minute Hero. Again, they were good on Top Of The Pops, with Black in her trademark white and black, dancing athletically and offering to be someone’s ‘three minute hero’ – and she was mine all right. The debut album Too Much Pressure was released that same month. The simple sleeve image with the distinctive 2 Tone chequered border was striking, as was the music. It kicked off with Three Minute Hero but oddly didn’t include On My Radio. Later issues replaced track 1 with On My Radio and displaced Three Minute Hero to the end of the first side.

The Selecter three discs

Evolution of Too Much Pressure from the first 2 Tone label through to the later blue Chrysalis release

This disappointment was soon offset by some of the best songs of the ska revival. Most were penned by Davies although the album had five covers, including Monty Norman’s classic James Bond theme in ska style. So many covers would normally have put me off a record but the Selecter revamped them and made them their own. They went on to record many fine covers, notably in the Trojan Songbook releases. The next single came quickly, a mere month later, and was their finest hour. Missing Words starts off with two suspenseful chords, repeated so as to create a sense of mystery. Then the familiar ska rhythm kicks in, but more sombre and mature than in the previous releases, with changes of pace and key and a catchy chorus. Madness’s One Step Beyond and the Specials debut were both amazing records but Too Much Pressure surpassed them in energy and vibrancy.

The next release was The Whisper in August 1980. The song was good but lacked the catchy feel of previous releases. The B-side was far superior – a reworking of Train To Skaville by Leonard Dillon (founder of the Ethiopians). This has remained a favourite with fans and a staple of their live set.

The Whisper didn’t appear on the next album, though it does on later enhanced CD versions. The band split with 2 Tone and the follow up LP Celebrate The Bullet came out in February 1981 on Chrysalis. It received less commercial success than Too Much Pressure although it’s another fine album. Tracks such as Deep Water and Cool Blue Lady are brilliant, but I’ve chosen the title track. Blockhead bassist Norman Watt-Roy guests on this haunting track. It has the familiar ska rhythm but overlaid with fine guitar-work and with Black at her lively best. I always felt this great single never got the credit it deserved and sadly it was the last one for many years.

Celebrate The Bullet didn’t sell as it should have and Pauline Black left to pursue a solo career. The band soon folded after a new singer, Stan Campbell, didn’t work out. Black worked as a TV presenter and also in film and theatre. In 1991, nine years after the split, she fronted a reformed Selecter with Neol Davies. I had reached the grand age of 25 and was now free of the one-genre-only rule. So though I was into all kinds of music I kept a close eye on my favourite ska band – which with Davies didn’t last long. In 1993 he was replaced by ‘Gaps’ Hendrickson in time for The Happy Album, released in July 1994. The Happy Album was a joyful selection of ska songs. I’m including the diverse hip-hop opener Reselecterization. Mostly instrumental, it hardly sets the scene for the rest of the album but it shows that Selecter had evolved. “It’s a new Selecter,” as Hendrickson says.

Pucker! followed in 1995, and though good was less inspiring. The best track was the short but brisk Hairspray, with jaunty guitar and organ effects. Up to 2006 there was a string of live releases as well as studio albums: Cruel Britannia, the Trojan Songbook series and the brilliant Real To Reel (2003). From this album I’m choosing a song I shouldn’t really like as a Clash fan. Armagideon Time I would have said should never be covered. Yet the version does it justice with wailing guitar solos and Black’s sensitive singing.

The Selecter photo

In 2006, Black left again and Neol Davies toured with his Selecter incarnation. At this time she penned her brilliant memoir “Black By Design”. This is a great read, intelligent and thought-provoking, but I did also think it signalled the end of her Selecter. Luckily I was wrong about this. Black and Hendrickson played again under the Selecter name to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Too Much Pressure, performing the whole album live at the Sinner’s Day Festival in Belgium.

Since Real To Reel we have enjoyed three great new albums, each one better than the last. Made In Britain (2011) confirmed that Pauline Black’s Selecter was not only back but on form. This was followed by the even stronger String Theory (2013), full of great songs and the best since Too Much Pressure. Several tracks could have made my top 10, notably The Avengers Theme, the orchestral High Hair (about a woman’s mid-life crisis) and London’s Burning, about the 2011 riots. But the highlight is the superb final track, 667 (The Neighbour Of The Beast), a brilliant duet with Black and Hendrickson taking turns with vocals about regret and disappointment.

My final track is from their latest release Subculture (2015), another fine selection of songs, and in a great Banksy-style sleeve. Subculture shows how the band have evolved but without losing sight of their ska roots. It’s certainly not a Selecter that long-term fans will be familiar with but it’s a version of the band that can be enjoyed by all. Pauline Black and Gaps Hendrickson are singing well in the romantic It Never Worked Out and the more political Breakdown. Again, I could choose a number of tracks but I’m going for the cover of Patti Smith’s Because The Night. A great rendition of a classic song.

Pauline Black with Neil Waite

Contributor Neil Waite with Pauline Black (February 2015)

The Selecter have come a long way since Too Much Pressure. They’ve had too many line-ups to mention but have certainly released more great material than people give them credit for. They’re currently one of the best live acts around. I saw them support PIL on Mr Lydon’s 2014 tour. PIL are a great live band so maybe to say that Selecter blew them off stage is a bit strong … but the standard was set high.

 

 

 

The Selecter official website

Pauline Black official website

The Selecter on 2 Tone

The Selecter biography (iTunes)

Neil Waite, a teacher of 25 years, has written a number of posts for Toppermost (including the Undertones, the Clash, the Ruts referred to above… Ed.). He lives in Hampshire, England and has always been a music and vinyl addict. He loves a wide variety of music genres but is particularly passionate about Punk. You’ll find him on twitter @NeilWaite1

TopperPost #514

3 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Apr 22, 2016

    Neil, thanks for this great list and for bringing me back to my youth. Can still remember seeing ‘On my Radio’ for the first time on TOTP – sounded like a great song then and still does now. Good to find out more about their later history…

  2. Alan Leadbeater
    May 3, 2016

    Wow, as always Neil you set the bar when it comes to comprehensive contributions. So much in here I didn’t know, especially their later material. I will track some of it down.

  3. Rob Bellamy
    Jul 31, 2016

    The first four main Ska Revival albums (The Specials, One Step Beyond, Too Much Pressure and I Just Can’t Stop It) are all absolutely (no pun intended) brilliant but The Selecter LP will always be the best of the lot for me. That album captured the tensions of 79/80 with a Ska sound that sounded fresh then and does today and with lyrics that are unfortunately true today in this post Brexit country. If you get a chance to see The Selecter live grab it with both hands as they are brilliant live and the last 3 albums have been excellent as well.

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