Photo: Dean Chalkley
Ska Greats The Selecter Talk 40th Anniversary & Why Greta Thunberg Is "The Most Together Person On The Planet"
This year, pioneering U.K. two-tone/ska group The Selecter celebrate 40 years as a band and 40 years of two-tone (they helped found the second-wave ska movement in the '70s). They came together, rather serendipitously, in Coventry, England in 1979, the same year that conservative posterchild Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister.
The two-toners responded to the increasingly unsettled social climate through their socially charged music, with groups made up of a racially diverse—and in the case of The Selecter, gender diverse—membership. The frenetic, upbeat sound they created blended Jamaican-born ska with punk and new wave sounds and aesthetic. In 1980, not long after The Selecter was formed, they released their powerful debut album, Too Much Pressure. Every line of the title track begins with the words "too much pressure," echoing the climate of the time.
Fast forward to Oct. 6, 2017, not long after the 45th President of the United States took office and Britain first voted in favor of Brexit, 37 years after their debut, The Selecter released their 15th studio album, Daylight. The album's messages responding to the current state of affairs don't feel all that different from their debut, with coy references to hashtags.
"My mind is full, my heart is empty. / It's hard to live in a world of plenty. / The more I see, the less I feel. / You sell me dreams, but they're not real," frontwoman Pauline Black sings on "Frontline," the opening track of Daylight. "Nobody's, nobody's hashtag / ever the mighty shall fall / nobody's, nobody's hashtag / nobody's hashtag at all!"
As anyone following the news will realize, yesterday's revolutionary music continues to resonate today. But, as founding Selecter members Black and Arthur "Gaps" Hendrickson reassure us, things have changed for the better since their debut—and will inevitably keep improving.
"You've got to remember that we're celebrating our 40th anniversary. 50 years ago, I believe, black people in this country were celebrating the birth of civil rights," Black recently told us. "That's within my lifetime, only 10 years more than when we first started and we came over here. From that point of view, things definitely have changed. They might be taking a retrogressive step at the moment, but you can definitely say that things have changed."
The Recording Academy recently sat down with Black and Hendrickson hours before they joined their bandmates for a high-energy show at the Saint Rocke in Hermosa Beach, Calif., during the U.S. leg of their anniversary tour. Read on to hear from them about their hopes for the future, what music and artists most inspire them, how the band originally came together and more.
What does 40 years of The Selecter mean to you?
Pauline Black: 40 years of The Selecter actually means that, my goodness, we've lasted this long, we've made some music that actually resonates with people still, around the world, after 40 years. I don't think that's any mean feat in that way. And it's still a work in progress. All bands are a work in progress, aren't they? You just celebrate these decades as they roll around, but this is a fairly special one because you really don't know, at the ages that we're at, whether you're actually going to see the 50th.
Gaps Hendrickson: And we'd tour places and, people said they were 15, they were too young to come to a concert and they're glad to see us. That's all encouraging news and it gives us a lot of scope to advance.
It is definitely a feat. And you're about to wrap up the 40th Anniversary Tour. What has stood out to you the most about your experiences on this tour?
Black: In America—well, we started off in Mexico. Mexico City, which was a really, really, really brilliant gig, wasn't it?
Hendrickson: Yeah, very good.
Black: It was at Sala and that was just amazing. It seems kind of weird for us because I think after the U.K., America and Germany, Mexico is our next best-selling place for records, but we haven't been there that much. We've only done festivals, so to actually go there and do gigs was quite radical really, wasn't it?
Hendrickson: Yeah, especially Mexico City. Every song got really loud applause.
Black: And they knew the words and everything, which you're not really expecting. Also, we got to look around the whole place, which is rather fabulous. We went to the Leon Trotsky Museum, that was cool. And then we went around some Aztec temples. And we did a few touristy things, which we'd never done before. Then we flew to New York and we were there on September 11, which of course was a bit of an auspicious day.
Hendrickson: That was the next best one, wasn't it?
Black: Yeah. We didn't feel as though we could let that anniversary pass of what happened in New York. We invited some of the firefighters, the first responders, via the union of the fire brigade union in London. They responded to that and we had a whole load of officials come down and the guys came down all dressed in their best dress uniform and stuff. We had them on the stage at the end for our encore when we do "Madness," because that's what it must have been like on that day. So yeah, that was a thoroughly satisfying visit there and it was a really great show too, at the Gramercy Theatre.
What have been your favorite songs this go-round to play live?
Hendrickson: At the moment, I wouldn't say I've got a favorite song.
You don't have to pick just one.
Hendrickson: Well, okay then. I do like singing "See Them A Come." I think that's one of my favorites to sing on stage. But to listen to, I would pick a song of our latest album, which is called Daylight, [the title track] is my favorite track. I would sit down and call my friends and say, "Hey, listen to this," because I think that's a great song.
Black: For me, when we were putting the set list together for this particular tour, we wanted to do a broad spectrum of songs that encompass basically 40 years, so we went back and looked at our second album, Celebrate the Bullet, and resurrected a great song that Gaps sings called "Facing Situations," which seemed really apt for the political-social time that we're living through at the moment. Everybody's having to face situations and figure out what we're going to do, be it climate change or be it what on earth is going on with our governments as they all lurch towards the right and stuff like that.
So yeah, that was a favorite for me and we also resurrected another song, "The Whisper," which is our fifth single. We thought, well, a lot of people in America probably never heard that or didn't get to hear it. I think a lot of people in America came to The Selecter maybe in 1981, when they put out a compilation album here called Selected Selecter Selections. That's a bit of a mouthful. They took cuts off the first and the second album so some got missed off.
People here didn't actually go out and buy the Celebrate The Bullet album, they bought that instead, so there's a lot of things that they didn't get to hear necessarily. And I love doing "Celebrate The Bullet," if nothing else, to spite the N.R.A. and their policies.
You guys mentioned Daylight; on that album you tackled the issues of today, which somehow unfortunately really don't feel that different than what you were talking about on the first albums.
Hendrickson: Indeed, yeah.
It's kind of crazy. What do you think is the biggest societal change that needs to happen now?
Black: Well, the biggest societal change would be what your generation decide to do. That's going to be the biggest thing. I hope you make less of a mess of the planet than we did, or at least our generation did. I'm not particularly proud of our generation at all. I think that we created all kinds of chaos on the planet and now we're denying that it's actually even happening.
I think the one thing that would give myself and Gaps hope—Gaps has a 12-year-old daughter—is what that generation can do. Greta Thunberg is a showing the way, isn't she? She's a teen and seems to be the most together person on the planet, I would say, at the moment in terms of what the future of this planet actually needs and what we should be doing. All hope has to be in young people.
Hendrickson: I wouldn't like to see these children struggle the way that I struggled against racism and prejudice. I have to admit, it's somewhat easier for them because they can go out and do what they want to want to do, more or less. And there's not as many obstacles or doors shut in your face now, so that's good. I've seen, for them, a little progress that way. I hope it continues, very slowly, but I'm sure it will one day.
Black: You've got to remember that we're celebrating our 40th anniversary. 50 years ago, I believe, black people in this country were celebrating the birth of civil rights, certainly the civil rights movement was going on. Now, 50 years isn't that long. That's within my lifetime, only 10 years more than when we first started and we came over here. From that point of view, things definitely have changed. They might be taking a retrogressive step at the moment, but you can definitely say that things have changed.
But I think it's like everything. It's very easy to say, "Goodness me, things that were happening in 1979, when we were first around, are the same as what's happening now." People say that history repeats itself, but I don't think it does, but it does rhyme every now and again. Currently, it's rhyming quite significantly with what was going on in 1979, both in this country and in the U.K., where we come from.
I like that.
Black: I didn't say that, Mark Twain said it.
How do we keep moving forward so that in the future, it's good for everyone?
Black: Oh, we don't have to worry about that because nature would change anyway. Whether we're here or not, we're all part of that. That's always going to change. It's how we respond to it and what we learned from it that's the significant thing. The human animal doesn't seem to learn very much or very quickly sometimes. I think maybe we need to speed the process up and maybe your generation can speed up the learning process.
Well, what is your biggest hope for the near future, in say, five years?
Black: The future's in every moment, isn't it? Within the next five years, I would definitely like to see some actual progress towards getting rid of fossil fuels and all of those kinds of things because they're the biggest culprits at the moment. Plus all those farting cows that are doing their thing all over the world. Whether I particularly want to end up eating crushed beetles or whatever is going to be our protein source, I don't know, but I'm game for anything. It's better than frying on a planet, and that's not going to be such a great thing either, is it, when everywhere is a desert. So that would be my biggest hope, that we wake up to that.
Hendrickson: I agree. Walking down here just about half an hour ago, you smell all of the [vehicle] fumes. I'm sure I won't be around when all vehicles go electric, but I think it will be a wonderful thing to not smell fumes like that.
You two are pioneers in music, fashion and more. What does it mean to you to have led the way for others? And what do you hope to see in the next generation of artists?
Black: That's a continually evolving thing. We're just a small part of it really. Ska music doesn't even have its own genre on iTunes or any of those kinds of things. It's lumped into reggae and things. I don't really see it like that. Rock music is ubiquitous and all that it is four on the floor. It's just the on-beat. All we are is four on the off-beat, really. Why people can't be more imaginative with that in the same way as what we've tried to do and be, I don't really know.
I see there are still people, including young people, who are interested in music as a form. Us older people, we continually try and make new music and stuff like that, and people like The Specials have had great success in the U.K. with a new album. So yeah, I think that ska music is in the best shape really that it's been in for a long time.
Hendrickson: Pauline and I sing with Jools Holland, who's a very reputable musician in the U.K., and we go to places that we probably wouldn't play with The Selecter. When we go out as The Selecter, we get people saying, "We saw you [with Holland] and we thought we'll come along and see what your band is like because we really love your music and had never heard it before" As I said before, it's always lovely encouraging new sorts to be there. It's a privilege after 40 years, may it long continue.
"It's a privilege after 40 years. May it long continue." – Gaps Hendrickson
And for you Pauline, there was a recent Vogue feature on your style.
Black: Oh, that was last year. I don't know about that, it just came out of the complete blue.
I think you could say that whether or not you were realizing at the time, you made your mark in fashion.
Black: The whole of the fashion of all the subcultures that coalesced around the two-tone movement, was people wearing black, white checkers, that kind of thing. Monochrome aesthetic, a mod aesthetic as well, not to mention hats. I really like your beret.
So, it's the style and it's as valid as any other style that I can think of, and the fact that Vogue woke up and saw it as a kind of a style, I don't know. It began with Duro Olowu, who is a fashion designer. He's a Nigerian-British fashion designer. His wife Thelma Golden runs the Studio Museum in Harlem, they're both artistic people. He decided that I was going to be his muse last year, which was complete news to me.
I saw some of his clothes and they were very colorful, some Nigerian colors. He made me an outfit, which is absolutely lovely. I can't actually say that I might ever wear it on stage in the kind of style that I do, but it's a beautiful outfit and I'm dying to wear it at some point in time. But he decided that what he was doing had some resonance with Rude Boys and Rude Girls and who was I to argue? I wasn't going to argue. He's a very lovely man too. So that's how that came about. Whether Anna Wintour had anything to do with it, I didn't know.
Amazing! I'd love to hear a little bit of the backstory of how you guys came together as a group.
Black: Well, that's long. You start, I'll finish.
Hendrickson: The original members of The Selecter are Charley Anderson, Desmond Brown, Charley "H" Bembridge and Compton Amanor. We had a band called Hardtop 22, which was basically a reggae band. In Coventry, we used to have this club called Mr. George's and every Monday night, Coventry Automatics, who later became The Specials, and Hardtop 22 used to play. At the end of the night, they'd probably give us a pint of lager or something. We knew each other, living in Coventry, and The Specials made good and they thought they'll bring us along and basically that's how it started. This is where Pauline picks up the story.
Black: Well, at the same time, there was a white guy in Coventry called Neol Davies, who knew Jerry Dammers from The Specials. He had recorded a track, which initially he called "Kingston Affair," in the shed of the producer, who would go on to produce some of our records later, Roger Lomas. When The Specials put out "Gangsters," they didn't have a B side, they ran out of money to record one. Jerry rang up Neol Davies and said, "You know that track that you've had lying around for two years, do you want to put that on the B side of our single? We'll call it The Specials versus The Selecter." Which is all a very Jamaican kind of way of doing a single. And that's what they did.
I don't know whether they thought that it was going to be a hit or not, but anyway, it started climbing the charts. Initially a lot of people thought that The Selecter was just the B side by The Specials. They didn't know that it was a band in its own right, but at that time there was only one member, Neil Davies. At the same time, I was trying to put a band together with people that included Desmond Brown, who was also in Hardtop 22, Charles Bembridge and also Silverton Hutchinson, who was the original drummer for The Specials. Are you keeping up? [Laughs.] Trying to pick the sense out of the nonsense.
Anyway, we were rehearsing somewhere in the deepest, darkest Coventry, and who should turn up but Lynval Golding from The Specials. He had a little listen and said, "I think you should come along and meet a friend of mine," which was Neol Davies. Somebody had to be sent out to get Gaps because he didn't feel like coming over that night. And all the people who ended up there all went on to be in The Selecter, which is kind of weird, really.
When you guys were younger, did you imagine that you would be in music?
Black: No, I thought I was going to be a biochemist.
Hendrickson: I've always had two ambitions in my life. One was to be a pop star and the other one was to be a lazy bastard. [Grins.] I'm still working on the being a lazy bastard bit.
There's always time. When you were growing up, who were your musical idols? Who were the people you were always listening to?
Black: Billy Idol? You've kept that out of your hat.
Hendrickson: Growing up, on Sunday mornings, my parents would put on Prince Buster, the Skatalites and things like that on. Obviously, you know that music was invented, more or less, where I was born, which is in the Western Indies. It just resonated with me and here I am. I couldn't believe it when I met some of the stars because I always used to go up to buy the records, Desmond Dekker and artists like that. That was my greatest influence.
Black: I started playing music in folk clubs, not because I liked folk music, but because if you wanted to play guitar and sing at the same time, and that was one of the very few places you do it in the '70s. I was listening to people like Joan Armatrading, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, those kinds of people.
Hendrickson: And Carole King.
Black: Carole King, yeah, those kind of things. I always had a love of Tamla Motown [the U.K. affiliate of Motown Records]. And Aretha Franklin, obviously. Not that I have any wish to sound like Aretha Franklin, or could, but I greatly admired her tenacity and the way that she carried herself. Harking back further than that, Billie Holiday. Her choices of music, things like "Strange Fruit," and living through the times that she lived through in this country, when she had to use the back doors of the places she was performing and touring in the South. I read all those stories and lapped those up. Anyone who's on the margins of society or has something to say about that, those kinds of people who are ostracized from mainstream society or the status quo, I'm interested in.
And are there any newer artists, or artists that are newer to you, who you're really excited about?
Black: Yeah, I constantly keep an eye on what's around. I'm always interested in new female artists. This young girl Billie Eilish, I think she's absolutely fabulous at the moment. She seems to have come from nowhere and whoa, sprung fully formed. She's only about 17.
And similarly, there's an artist called Christine and the Queens and I greatly admire what she's doing. Just the sheer feet of her athleticism and dancing and the music that she makes. And coming from France and speaking in both English in French, that's no mean feat either. That's the sort of things that I would search out.
Hendrickson: Yeah, having grown up, as I said, in the West Indies, we listened to calypso and other rhythm, like merengue, which comes from the Dutch West Indies. That's pretty good. I love all that sort of thing. Artists come and go and you see them spring up today, then tomorrow you don't hear of them. Wait until they've established themselves and then I will listen to their music.
Black: Well, yeah, that is true about artists, but I also think that in terms of music now, it's so hard for new artists, particularly young artists, to make any mark anymore. You need enormous backing from record companies and stuff like that. It has got so much easier to make music because you can make music on your phone now. You don't need big studios, but you still have the same problem, how to market your music if you don't have any money, and invariably, artists don't tend to have the kind of money that other pursuits have. That's the difficult thing, so unless they've got real backing from record companies, it's as hard to break through now as it ever was.
If you could go back 40 years and give your younger self then a piece of advice, or a message, what would it be?
Hendrickson: Me, I don't think I would change anything much, especially leading up to the formation of The Selecter. Financially, when you look back at that, that's where I would probably start changing, but hey.
Black: I don't think I'd change anything really. I probably would tell my younger self enjoy it more. Because when you're young, you're always worrying, "What do people think of this? What do people think of me?" And you're unsure about all kinds things, of how you look, stuff like that. And then you look back at photos of yourself and you think, "Wow, what was I moaning about?"
But I wouldn't change anything because it's been a great learning curve and I've got to share it with Gaps. I kind of live for the moments on stage. That's the coolest part of the whole thing to me, when you just get those nights when everything you do resonates with an audience and they're giving you back as much energy as you were putting out. When that happens, it's just a great feeling and I can't think of anything better to do than this.
"I kind of live for the moments on stage. That's the coolest part of the whole thing to me, when you just get those nights when everything you do resonates with an audience and they're giving you back as much energy as you were putting out." – Pauline Black
What is the legacy you hope to leave behind with your music?
Hendrickson: For my children, and other black children, to go out there and seize the moment and have a happy life. And hopefully I would've shown my children that and hopefully they'll take it from there. Nothing stopped dad from being the boy he wanted to be, so I would like to leave that legacy with them.
Black: I don't really think about legacies in that way. I think about changing people's perceptions. Every time that we step on stage, being people of color, we're not the usual way of being. A lot of the people that are into ska music, particularly over here, are white people, and that comes with its own way of looking at both this music and the issues that they deal with. I think in some ways it's quite shocking for audiences to look at us and the way we come at them. And the things that we try and impart to them through the music, both joyfully or politically or socially. It's not the usual norm.
I'd like to see that legacy carried on by other young black people that are coming up, that might take what myself and Gaps have done and further that. I think there's plenty to explore there. To a certain extent over here, a lot of young people got into ska music back in the '90s but it was all very much about just having a good time, having beer. There's nothing wrong with that, but I feel that the music's a lot deeper than that. I would like to see that legacy to be left and furthered.