Hailing from Coventry, England, the same hometown as ska pals the Specials, the Selecter’s secret weapon was lead singer Pauline Black, arguably the best lead singer of the ska revival, who gave the jumpy and jittery songs an edge that veered into haunting drama. Although they got off to a roaring start with their debut record, 1980’s Too Much Pressure, the second record, Celebrate the Bullet, was a strained follow-up that led to the band’s rapid demise. Black spent some time singing solo and eventually re-joined guitarist Neol Davis in a Selecter reunion in the early ’90s that has seen them become dance club favorites. According to those attending Selecter shows, the vibe is strong and the music great.
The Selecter began life not as a band but as an instrumental track titled ‘The Kingston Affair’, which was then later re-named ‘The Selecter’. Coventry musicians Neol Davis, John Bradbury and Barry Jones recorded the track in 1977, and it was to remain under wraps until 1979 when it would appear on the flip side of Gangsters. The Special AKA had used the entire recording budget (said to be £700) for Gangsters and were in need of a track for the records b-side. John Bradbury, by this stage drummer for The Special AKA, mentioned a track, which he had recorded a few years previously. The laid back rocksteady sound of ‘The Selecter’ proved an ideal partner for ‘Gangsters’ and was released complete with is on unique catalogue number, TT2. This move also earned Bradbury the accolade of being the only person to play on both sides of both the first and the last 2 Tone single releases (JB All-stars ‘Alphabet Army’); and on top of that, it also means that he recorded for the label under 3 different guises.
By July 1979 ‘Gangsters’ was in the national charts, so with some assistance from The Specials’ Lynval Golding, Neol Davis set about forming a band along similar lines to The Specials under the name The Selecter. At the time Coventry had various reggae, punk and soul bands on the go, which proved to be rich pickings for anyone wishing to create the 2 Tone sound. Local reggae outfit Hard Top 22 provided the nucleus of musicians so with the addition of a female vocalist by the name of Pauline Vickers the line up was complete. Pauline had made her way to Coventry via Lanchester Polytechnic where she was ‘asked to leave’ although she did gain employment as a radiographer in a local hospital. Pauline had performed with various local bands and adopted the stage name Pauline Black to avoid any awkward questions from her employers. She would also earn the title of the first 2 Tone pin up which she took in her stride but she was always keen to point out that the music should come first.
After a matter of weeks the band managed a gig and with a few more under their belt, they made their London debut supporting The Specials. The band had signed to 2 Tone and along with The Specials were to form part of a 14 strong ‘committee’, which would handle the labels’ affairs. The first move was to record the debut single. Roger Lomas, who had produced the track ‘The Selecter’, suggested that ‘On My Radio’ was a perfect choice for a single. So with the standard 2 Tone single budget of £1000 the band went in to Horizon Studios in Coventry and with the assistance of Roger Lomas recorded the track and its b-side, Too Much Pressure.
By now the first 2 Tone Tour was just about to begin. Madness, The Specials and The Selecter were about to undertake a nation-wide tour, which would see the bands play on the same bill with a rotating headline slot. The tour began at Brighton’s Top Rank on 19th October 1979 and was, not surprisingly, a sell out. The slot on the tour gave ‘On May Radio’ a welcome boost and the band were scheduled to make their Top Of The Pops debut. So on Thursday 8th November the band made their national TV debut and were joined on the same episode by The Specials performing ‘A Message To You, Rudy’ and Madness with ‘One Step Beyond’, leaving no one in any doubt that 2 Tone had well and truly arrived. ‘On My Radio’ went on to sell a total of almost 250,000 copies and made every play-list in the country, which is surprising as the song is a direct criticism of the radios indifference to new music.
By this stage the band were regulars in the music press with Pauline being an editors obvious choice for the front page. Numerous TV and press interviews followed as 2 Tone fever swept the nation. Keen to capitalise on this new musical phenomenon, Chrysalis rushed the band back into Coventry’s Horizon Studios to record their debut album, Too Much Pressure. Errol Ross was brought in to produce the album, which like The Specials debut consisted mostly of the bands live set. And again like The Specials debut, the record contained covers of old reggae and ska tracks. The Selecter were somewhat less obvious in their choice of covers and opted for the likes of Justin Hinds ‘Carry Go Bring Come’ and the The Pioneers ‘Time Hard’. Two tracks from the bands live set which didn’t make it on to the album were The Upsetters ‘Soulful I’ and The Ethiopians ‘Train to Skaville’, although the band did go on to record the latter but only after they had left 2 Tone. The band also performed their own version of ‘Madness’ but this also failed to make it onto the album.
The album was recorded over a two month period and saw the band assisted with honouree Specials members Rico and Dick Cuthell, who were brought into to add the necessary brass sections. The album was completed and a release date of St Valentines Day was set, with a single ‘Three Minute Hero’ acting as a taster of what was to come. The single got an average review from the critics and achieved the lowest chart position for a 2 Tone single since ‘The Prince’ by Madness (both reached number 16).
With an album to promote, a tour was organised that was billed as the “2 one 2 Tour”. The Beat and 2 Tone’s latest signings, The Bodysnatchers were set to join the band on the 30 dates. However, The Beat had just started their own label, Go Feet, so they couldn’t commit themselves to the tour and were replaced by Holly and the Italians. Holly and the Italians unfortunately got a poor reception from the crowds on the tour and pulled out to be replaced by The Swinging Cats who themselves would later sign with 2 Tone.
On the tour The Selecter were to witness what was becoming all too familiar at 2 Tone gigs; violence and racism. Holly and the Italians sound was not what ticket paying fans wanted to hear at a 2 Tone gig. While most of the crowds were indifferent towards them, some members of the audience took exception to the band and fighting would breakout during their set. Then there was matter of racists attending the gigs. Like all bands on 2 Tone, The Selecter had their share of ‘fans’ who had rightwing sympathies and would make their presence known at gigs. Why racists would listen to ska or reggae is a mystery in itself and is all the more bizarre that they should attend a Selecter gig where of the 7 members of the band only Neol Davis was white.
Despite these setbacks the tour was a success and helped push the album to number 4 in the national chart. Roger Lomas was back working with the band again and he remixed the track ‘Missing Words’ which was released as the bands next single. Backed by a live version of ‘Carry Go Bring Come’ the single was yet another hit for the label but the chart position of number 23 was the lowest so far for a 2 Tone single. The chart position was no reflection on the work of Roger Lomas, who prior to 2 Tone had no experience with ska but had since went on to work with Bad Manners and The Bodysnatchers, but was perhaps a sign of things to come for the band and 2 Tone.
Like The Specials, parent company Chrysalis were keen to push The Selecter in the US. A coast-to-coast tour was organised and the bands first single ‘On My Radio’ was released just prior to the bands arrival. 2 Tone failed to make the same impression in the US as it did in the UK and The Selecter discovered that certain sections of the country were unaware of who they were. Pauline Black said of the tour ” There were small groups of people on the west and east coast who knew who we were but there was this huge big bit in the middle (of the US) who were completely gob-smacked by us”. The tour did little to expand the bands popularity in the US and they were to suffer the same fait as The Specials, with their material confined to the college radio circuit.
The Selecter had been together less than a year and already they had a top selling album, 3 top 30 singles under their belt and not to mention tours on both sides of the Atlantic. But all was not well with the band or more importantly the bands’ relationship with 2 Tone. The label was a run away success but the unfortunate thing was that it was now out of everyone’s control and the ideals that 2 Tone were founded on seemed lost in the mountains of rip-off merchandise. As Neol Davis said “There is a hell of a lot of money being made, supposedly in our names, but where’s it all going?” Worse still were the badges and T-shirts printed in the name of some band called “The SelectOr”. It’s not that the band had anything against the imagery of 2 Tone, far from it; it’s just that they felt that they were now restricted by the media’s perception of 2 Tone. Neol Davis said of the 2 Tone image, “It’s great to have things that are visually eye-catching and 2 Tone records have a real identify of their own, which is great. But I do feel the way it has been presented spoils all that and it’s original intentions and turns it into something it shouldn’t be”.
The band also felt that there were not enough avenues for them to broaden their musical horizons again this was due to the huge success of 2 Tone. The band admitted that they were less than happy with their album ‘Too Much Pressure’ and again it was the result of what Pauline Black described as ” a life-span, which was telescoped down into a very short space of time”. Jerry Dammers agreed that in 2 Tone he had created a “Frankenstein’s monster” and while he ignored The Selecter’s suggestion to close down 2 Tone the band themselves chose to leave. In the statement to the press the band said, “We originally wanted to stop 2 Tone completely. On one hand, we had certain ideals about the recording industry, which could have been put into practice. On the other hand, due to the success of 2 Tone, many of our ideas have been hampered, so we were faced with the choice of leaving or staying and living with it”. The band chose the former and signed directly with Chrysalis in a deal which gave them their own label and the option of signing other bands. In turn 2 Tone released a statement say that the label would continue “with the main objective of helping new bands”. And true to their word a week after The Selecter left 2 Tone the label signed The Swinging Cats, who ironically would pick up a few support slots with the post-2 Tone Selecter.
With the perceived burden of 2 Tone off their shoulders, The Selecter wasted no time and once again went back to Horizon Studios to record material which as they saw it would be outside the confines of 2 Tone. And just when the dust was beginning to settle on the split from 2 Tone, keyboard player Desmond Brown decided he had had enough and quit the band. Taking stock of the situation the band made the decision that some sections of the band were not up to the job and bass player Charley Anderson was “asked to leave”. The band was of the opinion that they now had the material to record a very good second album, which would make-up for a debut, which they were far from happy with. And in order to do this changes would have to be made and unfortunately Charley Anderson was that change. Charley and Desmond went on to team up with original Specials drummer Silverton Hutchinson and form The People. Their first single ‘Musical Man’ was released on Specials drummer John Bradbury Race Records and was a tribute to another 2 Tone signing Rico Rodriguez, proving yet again that 2 Tone really was a ‘family affair’.
Producer Roger Lomas took over bass duties until a permanent replacement was found in the shape of Adam Williams. And as luck would have it Williams knew a keyboard player, James Mackie who could also play saxophone, which was ideal for the musical direction which, The Selecter were about to take. The result of all these upheavals was a much darker album and a sound, which Pauline Black described as “quintessential Selecter”. Trombonist Barry Jones was back in the fold once more and the album titled ‘Celebrate The Bullet’ was set for release on 27th February 1981. However, luck was not on The Selecter’s side. The title track of the album was released as a single at a time when US President Ronald Reagan had just survived an assassination attempt. At such a time it would have been a brave radio producer who would have earmarked a track titled Celebrate The Bullet for a prime time slot. Chrysalis had expected big things of the track and even the accompanying video could help its fortunes. The bands debut single for Chrysalis ‘The Whisper’ had fared slightly better but only just made it into the top 40.
No matter how honourable the intentions of the band were they were first and foremost recognised as a 2 Tone band. A change of image wasn’t going to help either. Pauline had dropped the trademark trilby hat and Fred Perry’s in favour of a frizzy Afro and jump suit but even this couldn’t revive their fortunes. Ska was no longer the force it once was and this coupled with lack of airplay left the band with no other choice but to split.
Pauline had a brief solo career (see below) and it wasn’t until 1990 that The Selecter would once again come under the spotlight. Pauline and Neol were invited to play a brief set in support of Bad Manners, which to their surprise was well received. They teamed up with Nick Welsh and Martin Stewart to form the nucleus of a band and re-recorded ‘On My Radio’, which was released under the titled ‘On My Radio ’91’. The band continued to record and perform with different line-ups and recorded 4 albums of new material: The Happy Album, Hairspray, Cruel Britannia & Pucker. All of which were well below par with the original band and did little for the reputation of a once great band. On top of this there were what seemed like endless compilation and pointless live albums.
After the original band split Pauline Black signed a solo deal with Chrysalis Records and released a cover of Jimmy Cliffs ‘I Can See Clearly Now’ which failed to make an impression with the record buying public. She also teamed up with ex-Specials/Fun Boy Three members Lynval Golding and Neville Staple to record a single ‘Pirates of the Airwaves’ as Pauline Black and The Sunday Best, but a song about illegal radio stations was never going to catch the eye of a play list compiler and the song sadly sank without trace.
Pauline then went on to do some acting and the occasional piece of TV and radio presenting, most notably her own late night programme Black on Black and children’s TV show Hold Tight (where Bad Manners provided the theme tune). She continued acting and won the Time Out Award for Best Actress in 1990 for her portrayal of Billie Holiday. She also found time to write a novel, The Goldfinches, which got some favourable reviews at the time of its release. She continues to perform with various musicians as The Selecter.