With ‘Art Comes First’ emblazoned on the back of her jacket, Pauline Black from British ska revival band The Selecter sets out her stall early with a line about Obama being a black guy in the White house. “What do they have to do to be taken seriously?” she asks. Pauline wearing one of her trademark hats, describes racism as existing like a chill in the air…
I am intrigued to learn that like me Pauline is an adoptee, she was adopted into a white family at a young age. The subtext she describes behind the line ‘you were chosen’ fed her by her new family, of feeling she should be grateful, sets the tone for an insight into what it was like for her growing up.
When she pulls out a birthday card with a golliwog on it given to her back then, she talks about becoming race conscious, of understanding she was black, that she was somehow different from the other kids.
The young Pauline looked to music and found Tamla Motown and The Stones… “Jagger looked like a black man.” she says excitedly. Many years later she would win a Time Out Best Actress Award for portraying Billie Holiday on the stage.
The singer/songwriter responsible for the Rude girl hit ‘On my Radio’ explains how it was the skinheads who first turned her on to Ska… “skinheads looked quite sexy really” and how the 2-tone movement informed her early politics.
It was John Peel who first played them- synonymous with breaking so many ground-breaking artists – he played their eponymous debut ‘The Selecter’ thinking it was The Specials. Top of the Pops and the Ska Tour followed with 21 people on a little tour bus that left a fog of ganga smoke across America. Recalling a particular hairy moment with rednecks in the U.S she described how some angry locals threatened to beat them up with baseball bats. “We’d all seen Easy Rider, so we did as we were told and got the hell out of there.”
Pauline describes going to see Bob Marley and the Wailers at Bingley Hall in Stafford. “I didn’t want to be the I-Threes (Bob’s all-girl backing singers) I wanted to be him.” Like fate was already playing a hand, all of the people who would become The Selecter were there in that audience watching.
Timing also played another role in the life of The Selecter when John Lennon was shot and an attempt was made on Reagan’s life around the time of their anti-gun violence track called ‘Celebrate the bullet’. It seemed the powers that be couldn’t see that it was an ironic statement and subsequently banned it from airplay.
Inspirational to the last Pauline described how she eventually wrote a letter to her birth mum – having tracked her down to Australia – after coming to the realisation that, if she didn’t go looking now it might be too late.
Black by Design is the name of her book about music, family and roots – in it she describes how it is the things that unites our humanity, not the things that divide us, which are important.
Michael Head and the Red Elastic Band ended the first and hopefully not the last Lyricull Festival- the highlight of which was the tune Comedy, which was then played the next day by Burnsy on Radio Humberside. Described by Lyricull host Russ Litten as one of the best singer songwriters today it’s well worth seeking him out and his music.