The exact day I became a fan of (Two-Tone) ska was April 19, 1980. That was the night the Specials played on Saturday Night Live.*
I was enthralled. I went out and found the record the very next day.
When I found it, I actually thought it was a little dull in comparison with the live songs I heard the night before. I learned to love it, but I really do think, unlike a lot of genres, that the live recordings of this short period of time capture it in a way that the vinyl never did. The Specials “Ghost Town”** may be the only song better in the studio, but that’s because it’s a brutal, bitter announcement that not only was the two-tone era dead -- such a short life! -- but so was everything progressive people had worked for, including hope.
I just read Pauline Black’s autobiography “Black by Design” so I’ve been thinking about that era a lot this week. Pauline Black was the singer for The Selecter, probably the most famous woman in that era of music. The book itself is an adoption memoir sandwiched around a musician memoir. Black, adopted at birth, was raised in a white working class English community with very few non-white influences available to her. The provocative title of the book shows her battle with being black, but not being raised black. The surname she grew up with was actually Vickers, but she took on the last name Black as a way of 1. Truly identifying as black and 2. Having a performer name so she wouldn’t get fired from her day job in case the whole band thing didn’t work out.
Here’s the first incarnation of The Selecter so we can all have a clear starting point:
The weird thing about The Selecter -- the blackest band in Two Tone -- was that they were started by the white guy. He had written an instrumental with one of the folks who was in the Specials and The Specials, not having enough money to record a second song for their first single, put that song on the other side of the record. It became a top ten hit and the guy who wrote it figured he better form a band to capitalize on its success. He basically found a Coventry reggae band, added Pauline Black, and The Selecter was born.
Unlike most musician memoirs, “Black by Design” doesn’t have many bad things to say about anyone, including the members who left the band angry when they kind of disintegrated after the first album. About as snide as Black gets is when she – proud of her band – talks about how they were they only band on the label that was truly all working class. At first it was maddening that Black would only hint at the real personalities of the more famous people around her, but I started to respect it after awhile. It may have been unsatisfying, but she must have resisted a lot of pressure from her publisher to not trash her bandmates and more famous Two-Tone artists. A typically understated sentence, (discussing the reunion version of The Selecter) “Neol Davies and I found that some wounds are too difficult to heal and went our separate ways in 1993.” Yes, that is the only sentence about the guy who wrote all the band’s hit songs, and who formed the band originally, deciding to leave.
What is fascinating, and again also maddening, is that it’s a memoir of a small-scale star who never really got rich. She talked about the day – a decade or so after their one big album was released – when she finally had enough money to open a savings account. Her husband of 30 years or so is pretty absent from the narrative except it’s clear that he worked 40 hours a week his whole life at some job. The memoir of a star who isn’t rich: that’s a book I want to read! This could have been that book, but it’s only hinted at, not really explored.
Other things have a way of just being dropped in… Black became an actor after leaving The Selecter and it turns out she’s friends with Vanessa Redgrave because they are in the same Marxist party. Hi! I’d like to know more about that please. In fact that mention was only there at all because she was talking about her working class brothers’ homophobia and inability to interact with her black, queer, or arty friends.
Still, like I said, the book is an adoption memoir sandwich. I am – for obvious reasons – much more fascinated by adoption stories than I used to be and this has a lot of the usual adoptee narrative, with some extra transracial abductee intensity: adoptive mother who didn’t want her to hang out with black people, adoptive mother who views Black’s (also adopted, but white) brother’s search for his birth parents as a betrayal, the search for grounding, community, and place. She almost never mentions her adoptive family and unknown birth family during her fame years (was she not in contact? doing too many drugs? too busy? We don’t know.) but after her adoptive mother’s death (her adoptive dad dies before that, though it is only mentioned after the fact and in passing) she searches for her birth family. It’s the last 60 pages of the book, but it’s – to me – the most gripping –even tearjearking – part.
Still, after thinking about it for a week, I don’t know whether to recommend this book to folks or not. I found the whole thing fascinating, but I was already a big fan of her music and intrigued by her story which I had no idea of before the press for this book came out.
Anyways, here’s a great live version of “Three Minute Hero” to end this post with:
*embedding is unfortunately disabled. But go check it out and try and remember yourself at age 12. Why wouldn’t you love this?
**( further studies )