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2-Tone Talk

In Coventry, at the end of the 1970's, Pauline Black began fronting multicultural ska band The Selecter, who scored a top ten hit with their first single 'On my Radio'. Pauline has been described by Rolling Stone magazine as "the greatest voice in 2Tone", the label set up by ‘The Specials' Jerry Dammers. A thirty-year career has seen Pauline sing, act, broadcast, write and be a spokesperson for multicultural Britain. Tracey Dunn talks to Pauline about her fascinating life.

In your new biography 'Black by Design' you examine your childhood in Romford as a mixed race child growing up in the 50s. I myself moved from London to Romford when I was four and would like to know why you were always made to feel different, both by the local community, and members of your extended family.
It would be wrong to blame the town of Romford for whatever discomfort I felt as a child. What has to be remembered is the fact that in fifties Britain there was no concept of racism or multiculturalism. Words like 'darkey' or 'coon' were not considered offensive to describe a black person; indeed the word ‘coloured’ was considered polite terminology in those days. Racism was endemic and across all classes. Britain still enjoyed the remnants of an Empire. Therefore my family and their local community were not behaving differently from most other British people at that time. Colonialism was still thriving and subliminally us mixed race children were blatant evidence of miscegenation in a world that operated an undeclared silent apartheid.

Growing up in Romford, now so identified with the National Front, was your passion for music an escape from such attitudes?
Music definitely helped. Listening to Motown and Soul was a revelation for me, both in terms of style and content. Also protest singers like Dylan and Joan Baez opened my eyes to what was happening in America. The Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King was not a popular subject for conversation in Romford in the mid-to-late sixties.

I was introduced to reggae music as a schoolgirl by Radio London's Sunday afternoon reggae show and also by a local school youth club in Romford. Where did you first hear reggae?
I first heard reggae music on the radio too - Desmond Dekker's Israelites was my favourite track.

The first 45 single I bought as a teenager was Ken Boothe's cover of Bread's 'Everything I own'. What was the first record you bought?
Millie Small's ‘My Boy Lollipop’ was the first record I bought.

When Jerry Dammers set up 2 Tone, a subsidiary of Chrysalis records, he gave The Selecter £1,000 and you put out the single 'On My Radio'. How did that change your life?
It made the first band that I was in into a pop phenomenon. Achieving a Top 10 hit with your first band is quite a feat.

As a young woman I went to loads of 2 Tone gigs all over the country and even Paris. One good thing with 2 Tone (and punk) was that I never experienced any sexism although women did not have the equality they enjoy these days (ahem). As the only woman in 2 Tone on tour did you experience much sexism?
In those days, most men held sexist attitudes, but I didn't really suffer from it. Most guys were scared of me - that suited me rather well. If you're a woman in a band and you are not selling an openly sexual image, then you had better have something to say for yourself. I chose the latter path - moral of that story is 'always remember what you're good at and don't over-reach yourself’.

2 Tone music in your words "Tapped into a truth - ghost towns, recessions, too much pressure on the street. Nothing much has changed in 30 years!" What does that say about Britain?
I think that it says that the dialogue needs to begin soon. There are no 'left' leaders in politics anymore. People will rebel, when they feel disempowered, disenfranchised and just plain disappointed at having no stake in this society. We have seen evidence of this in the riots that happened a few weeks ago on Britain's city streets. I suggest that we all wake up and deal with what has happened, rather than 'banging people up' and hoping the problem will go away. It won't. But I rather hope David Starkey and his pernicious philosophy will!

The new Selecter album Made In Britain has a track, 'Big in the Body, Small in the Mind'. It starts by saying 'Welcome to the Condemnation' and is a reworking of Woody Guthrie's 'All you fascists bound to lose'. Why is it so relevant today?
After the massacre in Norway by a deranged fascist the song speaks for itself. The appalling loss of young life has made people sit up and take notice that there is a cancer in their midst and they must make sure that it doesn't take hold of the body politic.

In June you took part in an event called 'Panic on the Streets' about the Brixton Riots. Could you tell us a bit about your involvement with that?
It was organised by Mykaell Reilly, who is an old friend from seminal British reggae band, ‘Steel Pulse’. He now lectures in music studies at a university in London. He got together myself, an excellent young rapper Akala, Dr. Lez Edwards and Pogus Caesar (a gifted photographer - he presented a whole load of photos taken at the Handsworth riots in 1981). We all had stories to tell and the audience who came along had plenty to say and asked very intelligent questions.

Cameron's 'Condemnation' party seems worse than Thatcher, with the savage cuts kicking in. Have you any suggestions how we can deal with them?
We need a credible 'left' party with a leadership that has more on their mind than fleecing the taxpayers and stealing money through indirect taxation and public spending cuts from the poor.

In a biography written about John Lennon, when he lived in New York, it said he played a Selecter album very loudly in his apartment. He was trying to find a lively backbeat. You have also performed the Beatles' lyrics to 'Blackbird' at the end of your song 'Miami and Bristol', a song about race relations in the 80's UK and US. Did the Beatles or Merseybeat music have any influence on you whilst growing up?
When I was growing up in the 60s it was impossible to ignore the Beatles and their music. After they split up I got into the music of John Lennon. ‘Imagine’ still remains a favourite album, and the classic song, ‘Give peace a chance’, by the Plastic Ono Band, is a no-brainer, even these days. Some of that mood was bound to rub off on me when I began writing songs. If you are going to be influenced by people, it might as well be the best.

Read review of Pauline Black's book, Black by Design: A 2-Tone Memoir

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Sorry Comments Closed

Comment left by Corinna on 10th March, 2012 at 10:05
Here's an indepth review of this brilliant book:

Comment left by Tracey Dunn on 2nd April, 2012 at 7:34
Here's Sue Hunter's review for Nerve of Pauline's book

Comment left by Tracey Dunn on 2nd April, 2012 at 7:45
Here's an interview (by Marco on the Bass) with John Sims aka Teflon who designed the 2 Tone Graphics

Comments are closed on this article