In Does Rock 'N' Roll Kill Braincells?!, we quiz a grizzled artist on their own career to see how much they can remember – and find out if the booze, loud music and/or tour sweeties has knocked the knowledge out of them. This week: Pauline Black, lead singer of The Selecter, who are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year.
1: In 1980, Debbie Harry hosted a tea party that you went to…
Pauline Black: (Interrupting) “Allegedly!”
..where a now-famous picture was taken. Can you name the other icons there?
“Viv Albertine from The Slits, Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders, Siouxsie Sioux from the Banshees, and Poly Styrene from X-Ray Spex.”
“Well, it wasn’t a bloody tea party for a start! (Laughs) In her older years, she’s come up with that story. Chrissie Hynde got roaringly pissed there, and me and Poly were thinking: ‘What the hell are we doing here?!’. For this supposed tea party, Debbie Harry was the last to turn up, but hey, that’s her prerogative if she says she arranged it. Why be early?!”
Did it feel like a meeting of minds?
Do you want my honest answer? (Laughs) It was organised by a music magazine. The way it was pitched to me was if they put one woman on the cover, it wouldn’t sell copies so they were going to cover all bases and stick everyone on – black, white, whatever genre of music they played. These days, people are more vociferous – and black women tend to get their dues more. If it was now, I would have called it out. Poly and I weren’t exactly uncomfortable because we were ingenues and were going to meet Debbie Harry. And it was lovely to meet Viv because we both admired The Slits. But you know, the hierarchy was definitely there. And it’s there in the photo. When Debbie Harry says she called a tea party, I can definitely tell you that’s not how it was sold to me and Poly. (Pauses, before dropping the mic) You weren’t expecting any of that!”
For a bonus half-point, which Selecter song have Blondie regularly covered over the years?
“Not a lot of people know that! She says – hopefully in a Michael Caine voice!”
2: You appear on the Super Deluxe version of the Gorillaz album ‘Humanz’ on the track ‘Charger’, and you toured with them as a guest vocalist. Can you name the animated members of that band?
“Oh blimey! The green one is Murdoc, Noodle is the girl, 2-D is the one everybody knows, and Russel Hobbs is the black drummer. It was magical being on that tour – Damon Albarn’s a great guy.”
“There’s a story about that which I probably shouldn’t tell you. But what the hell! (Laughs) In 2016, Damon said he could really hear me on a track, invited me down to the studio, played me half the album and asked if there were any tracks I wanted to sing on – I picked ‘Charger’. I was told the vocals would be divided between me, Mavis Staples and Grace Jones. But when they took the track over to Jamaica to play it to Grace Jones, she stood scratching her head and said if she was going to do a track, it was only going to be her on it and nobody else. So I’m on the Super Deluxe vinyl version which is 12-inch singles – with her on one side, and me on the other. I still try to be a fan of Grace’s! (Laughs)”
3: Which musician once proposed to you?
“To be wife number 12 or something! I was in bed with my husband and picked up the phone and it was Fela Kuti. As you do! I told him I was married and he replied it wouldn’t matter. I said maybe he’d like to speak to my husband, so you can imagine the conversation between Fela Kuti and my husband about the marriageability of his wife. (Laughs) It’s an eventful life!”
4: You covered ‘Guns Of Brixton’ at Africa Express in March this year with The Clash’s Paul Simonon and which British band?
“I was only asked to do it an hour before we went onstage. Ranking Roger of The Beat, who we’d been touring with for the past two and a half years, died the day before, so I was in two minds whether to do it as I was upset. I sang [The Beat’s] ‘Can’t Get Used To Losing You’ in tribute, with Dennis Bovell and Jah Wobble. Then Paul Simonon asked if I wanted to perform with him and Slaves, and flashed his sexy smile! As an experience, it ranks with the best ever.”
Were you familiar with Slaves beforehand?
“No, they’re just young boys to me! I don’t necessarily hang around with young boy bands. Doesn’t look good! But I thought they were brilliant.”
The gig happened on March 29, the date we were supposed to leave the EU.
“Just revoke Article 50 and let’s get back to normal! As a black woman, for the first time I’m afraid to be in this country. That’s something I’ve never felt before. I mean, we’ve had our run-ins with the BNP and the NF [National Front] back in the day, but this is no longer little rump organisations with 10 members. This right-wing lurch in this country is backed by big money from people like Steve Bannon. And for the first time, I’m afraid to live here.”
“But us in 2-Tone are made of strong stuff. These people were out there sieg-heiling at the stage in 1979. We thought we’d put that to bed. But if we haven’t, then there’s no way we can put our bands back to bed yet either.”
5: Who replaced Madness on the famous 1979 2-Tone Tour?
“Dexys Midnight Runners.”
“They actually got thrown off the tour in the end. I remember a very pissed-off Kevin Rowland throwing his guitar at a roadie, and splitting his forehead open, and people had had enough of that. We [The Selecter, The Specials, Dexys] were all there together and had Top Ten records, so from a male perspective, there was a huge jockeying for position. Generally, our relationships with each other weren’t the problem. It was when we took it onstage and found this wondrous togetherness we were talking about within the music would be met by be a whole bunch of right-wing people there who decided sieg-heiling to the stage at a predominantly black band – ie. The Selecter – was a good idea. In fighting that racism, we were all united and it was great fun. When can you actually remember three bands with top ten records sharing a tiny tour bus? And against the backdrop of Margaret Thatcher coming to power with all the draconian measures that were brought in from that with working class people still reeling from the three-day week. Wouldn’t happen now!”
6: Which coach in the American version of ‘The Voice’ once performed The Selecter’s ‘On My Radio’ at a talent show as a teenager?
“That’d be Gwen Stefani!”
“She’s alright. She’s cool. We supported them on some dates across the east coast of America in ’97. My brother was over from Australia at the time and I said: ‘Do you want to roadie for us?’. So that was fun! If Gwen Stefani wants to say that ‘On The Radio’ when she was 12 or 15 put her on the path to riches and stardom, great! Who am I to argue?!”
Who’s the most unusual person who’s said they like your music?
“When we played Whisky a Go Go in LA, this old bag lady came up to me in the dressing room after the show and asked: ‘Hey, how do you manage to jump around like that without your titties hurting?’. She turned out to be Bette Midler! (Laughs) This is when she was super-famous – and I was a big fan. But she had on an old beret and a big old shapeless coat. She was really into the gig and thought it was brilliant. I was having a conversation about bras with Bette Midler – I’d died and gone to heaven!”
7: When you started out, what did The Selecter used to do mid-song during ‘Too Much Pressure’?
“Oh, have a punch-up. What else?”
(Laughs) We were trying to educate the youth! Fights would sporadically break out at gigs among the different youth tribes there – Mods, rockers, skinheads, rudeboys. We thought we’d demonstrate to them how ugly a fight actually looks. The theme of the song is endless stressful things happening, so as the audience were chanting ‘Too much pressure!’ in the middle of the song, we used to have a fake fight – well, sometimes it was real! – then get back on our instruments and finish the song. It must have been shocking for a predominantly white audience to see a bunch of black people – and a woman no less – piling into each other (Laughs). Music wasn’t as mixed up now. Black people tended to be in disco bands – but they couldn’t fight without spitting those tight pants! And in reggae, everyone was stoned – so punch-ups would be in slow-motion. But not us!”
8: Who once reviewed ‘On The Radio’ on Radio 1 and compared your vocals to ‘Wuthering Heights’?
“Well, that’s easy isn’t it? Kate Bush!”
“I thought that was quite cute. She compared me to the punk Lene Lovich as well. All three of us had done some ridiculous high falsetto singing – it must have been a zeitgeisty thing that was in the air.”
Is that a better compliment than Marlene Dietrich sending you a telegram in 1983 when you acted in the musical The Blue Angel?
“That was fairly insane because first I thought ‘Blimey, is she still alive?!’ And to get a bouquet of flowers from her on my opening night at the Liverpool Playhouse bringing my Lola Lola to the great unwashed public…well, it set the cat among the pigeons!”
9: You appeared in the ‘Never Mind The Buzzcocks’ Identity Parade in 2010. Can you name the guest host and two of the guest panelists?
“God no! I never took any notice! I assume Porky was on there? Phill Jupitus? No offence, but those programs are so shit. It seemed like a gas at the time and I must have been in a good mood when they asked. Who’s the other bloke with the horsey looking face? Neil? Nigel?”
WRONG. We think you mean regular team captain Noel Fielding. The guest host was Robert Webb and the guest panelists were: Cee-Lo Green, Chris Packham, Example and Andi Osho.
“I do remember Cee-Lo Green! I was quite excited about that. I don’t think I was deemed fun enough to be on the main panel – I mean, who wouldn’t deem me fun?! (Laughs)”
10: You starred in the 1994 horror film ‘Funnyman’. Who sings its closing credits?
“I’ve never watched it! (Laughs) I might have just watched my bits because I am that vain. Who does?”
WRONG. It’s Christopher Lee.
“I know Christopher Lee’s in it, but I didn’t know he sang in it. Well done! Touché! (Laughs) You watched it?! Poor you! I hope you were stoned – because the people who wrote the script were obviously tripping! It was done on a shoestring and they’d somehow wrangled a night shoot in Shepperton studios because they had an Old Anglo-Saxon village set, with chickens. When I was (Spoiler alert!) writhing around and my belly was being split open, with this jester was crawling out of me and all this nonsense, a fox got in and massacred the chickens. So we had to get the hell out of Dodge. My big death scene was upstaged by some bloody chickens! (Laughs)”
You’ve sold the movie rights for your 2011 memoir ‘Black By Design’. Who would you like to play you?
“Nathalie Emmanuel, who was Missandei in Game of Thrones. Because she played my daughter when I was in the first black family [the Valenties], on Hollyoaks in 2006. She was so young, she was doing her school exams at the time. My son was played by Shadow Moon from American Gods [Ricky Whittle]. They killed me off after a week which I was quite happy about – put it this way: I wouldn’t have done it unless I got killed off! When the anniversary came along, they played ‘On My Radio’ in the background which I thought was funny. But I think Nathalie would do a good job.”
The verdict: 8.5/10
“Oh good! So I know about me! (Laughs) I don’t know about that wretched Never Mind The Buzzcocks!”
The Selecter perform at Rewind North on Sunday 4 August and Rewind South on Sunday 18 August. Tickets are available here.