“I think my very first favourite song was Longshot Kick De Bucket by The Pioneers,” she says, citing a band who were fundamental in ferrying this Jamaican sound across to the UK during the ’60s. “Mainly because that was the first ska rhythm song that I ever heard. I was around 15, and the school I went to was in a catchment area of Essex where they made the Ford cars, and a lot of the kids there were much more working class. A lot of them were basically skinheads and affected that style. They would bring in those kind of songs and would play them on the record player we had in the fifth floor common room. I remember hearing that, and it was kind of weird really. I was the only black kid in school, but I was introduced to ska music by white working class kids.”
It does seem fairly radical to consider a young black woman unexpectedly inspired by unruly, hair shorn youths. Though, in the UK of the 1960s the skinhead culture had yet to be overwhelmed by issues of race and politics. Instead, it took fashion and cultural cues from the West Indies, and ska was the potent spearhead. Although Black was instantly wooed by these sounds, it wasn’t until some time later that she fully took the plunge.
“It took about ten years,” she says. “It was something I put on the back-burner thinking, ‘I really, really like that kind of music,’ but it was just there with a whole load of others. At the same time I liked [ska], I liked a lot of other music coming from America. The whole civil rights movement was going on at that time, and I had a lot of interest in that. I mean, we had artists like Jimi Hendrix – I was probably more into Hendrix or really any of those Motown artists at that time, Marvin Gaye. Then I was necessarily into a fairly obscure form of music that was coming out of Jamaica.”
Despite the other influences, Black could never quite shake her affinity for the skank (a type of ska/reggae guitar strum; although the word has taken on some slightly less savoury associations over time). In 1977 The Selecter slowly started coming together, and in 1979 Black was appointed vocalist and the band complete. Their debut album, Too Much Pressure, quickly followed and so began the 2 Tone wave.
“It’s a whole load of things that come together to make a moment happen,” Black says. “At the time when I first entered into the sphere of The Selecter myself, a couple of other people were trying to get a reggae band together here in Coventry. Mainly because at that time Bob Marley was coming over here for the first time, people were experiencing that brand new. That conscious reggae vibe had really fired the imaginations of a lot of black British kids across the country. I think at our very first rehearsal Lynval Golding from The Specials, who was the rhythm guitarist at that time – I think they were even still called Coventry Automatics then – came along and sort of pointed at myself, the bass player and the keyboard player, ‘I think you should come and meet these people.’ And those people turned out to be the other half of The Selecter. From the moment that I walked in the room and heard the instrumental I thought, ‘Yeah. We can really do something with this sort of sound’.”
That sound continues to enchant and inspire listeners the world-over. It has waxed and waned across the decades, but steadfastly refuses to fade away. With acts like The Melbourne Ska Orchestra spreading the ska gospel across Australia, there’s never been a more fitting time to catch these pioneers in the flesh.
“I think that worldwide there has always been a ska movement of some kind or another, ever since the first sounds came out from Jamaica. That’s very much why we’ve called our new album Subculture. It has been this subcultural level of various groups, be it of a mod lifestyle, a skinhead fashion, all these different subcultures all over the world. And that feeds into the music, and of course, young people like appropriating what has come before. Take any retro sound that comes along, and they’ll do something new with it themselves. I don’t find it surprising at all. For the past 35 years that we’ve been together, we’ve travelled to many, many countries and found thriving ska scenes. I can’t see it ever going away.”
BY ADAM NORRIS