In the early 80s, I loved British Ska. I couldn’t get enough of the likes of the Specials and The Selecter. I can’t say I listen to those bands much any more and I haven’t been tempted by any of the reunion tours cycling around. Regardless, they all have a place deep in my heart. Out book shopping recently, I came across Black By Design, an autobiography of Pauline Black from The Selecter. I picked it up on a whim, figuring it would be a good summer read.
The first third of the book is very strong. Black’s upbringing is a truly interesting window into England of the 50s and 60s, particularly since Black views it from the perspective of a black woman. Black was adopted by white working class parents in the 50s. This was not a common occurrence in England at the time, and though her family was, by all accounts, loving, her black heritage was a mystery. She was the only black girl in town and she felt the sting of racism. However, she could share her feelings with nobody. Not family or friends. She was aware that her blackness set her apart from her contemporaries, but her nascent black pride could only be nurtured alone. She was fascinated by the race issues in America and looked to the black power movement in America as a guidepost for her own behavior. Though her parents were kind, they did not love when Pauline would assert her blackness. Once she left for college, she never looked back.
The middle part of the book talks about her time in The Selecter and the 2-Tone scene that was exploding in Coventry where she was based. While I enjoyed this section of the book, I really wanted more. Granted it’s a memoir, and Black talks honestly from her perspective, but I felt I wanted deeper insight into why the movement was happening, who all the players were, and what fueled the coming together and the division of the various audience groups (the punks, the mods, and the skins). Black addresses it all, but not with the depth I hoped for. I’d be up for a juicy oral history from all the players of that scene.
It’s also interesting to note that The Selecter’s time in the limelight was incredibly brief. The Selecter track that appeared as a b-side on the first 2-Tone release was a hit. But that track was really a solo endeavor by guitarist Neol Davies using the name The Selecter. Once he had a hit, he needed a band. The band was still being formed even though they were already in demand and on the rise, riding the coattails of The Specials. Almost from the outset, the band is at odds with each other, fighting about producers and musical direction. The band implodes in about two years time. The rise and fall is equal parts exciting and dour.
Black is at her best and most passionate when she talks about the difficulties of being a black artist and a woman artist. The 2-Tone ethos was the perfect vehicle for her message. After the break up of The Selecter she struggled finding her way. Musical projects were mostly ignored. She found her way to the stage and television. She was moderately successful in those arenas. She found her way. Not as exciting as The Selecter in their heyday, but she made inroads as a working artist. The book, however, gets a bit dreary for my likes. It becomes the memoir of someone struggling, but eking out a living. The highs aren’t that high. The lows aren’t that low. I have nothing but respect for all that Black has done, and her political view of the world is spot-on, but the writing isn’t strong enough to elevate this into a must read.