In some ways, the world was a simpler place in 1979. Rockers liked rock. Soul boys liked soul. Punks liked punk and mods liked, erm, The Jam, usually. And never the twain would meet very often. You chose your tribe and you stuck to it. Even when The Clash began fusing their furious rabble-rousing punk with reggae stylings, the fans weren’t really feeling it, and kept on shouting for ‘White Riot’. And the days of rock fusing with rap, funk and soul were still some way off.
But something was happening that was attracting fans from every camp, and its name was Two Tone. It became known as ska because of the inspiration it drew from 1960s Jamaican music like Prince Buster and the Skatalites. But this was decidedly different – the tempo was cranked up, the backbeat beefed up and the attitude unashamedly in-your-face, reflecting the punk scene that had spawned it in the first place.
This was high-octane, furiously intense music that suited moshing as much as dancing, and since the scene’s first flowering in the late 1970s, it has pioneered the cross-pollination of musical styles to the point where now it’s now rare to find anyone who restricts their listening to just one form of music, and it’s commonplace to find rock bands drawing on influences from a whole range of different genres in their music.
The Two-Tone style of ska itself, meanwhile, proved hugely influential on ska-punk and ska-core bands like Rancid, Sublime and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, as well as informing the punkier side of American alt-rock like The Offspring.
Two Tone’s tentacles have reached far and wide, then, and that’s one reason why reformed leading lights of the original scene, The Selecter, have called their new album Subculture, as singer Pauline Black explains:
“We were a subculture, but we were also an umbrella for all sorts of people who just bought into the energy and attitude of what we were doing: punks, Northern Soul fans, rude boys, skinheads, mods – they all came to our gigs, and I think that was the beginning of music starting to cross-pollinate and diversify. I mean, we didn’t get everything right: I guess we influenced that twerp Olly Murs! But even if that doesn’t appeal to me because it doesn’t have the edge or the alternative philosophy we had, it shows how far Two Tone spread.”
The Selecter formed in Coventry in 1979, and signed to the Specials’ 2 Tone label that gave the British ska-punk genre its name. Singles such as On My Radio and Three Minute Hero made The Selecter one of the biggest names on the scene, while Black’s own songs such as It Makes Me Mad and Black And Blue showed she was much more than just a charismatic frontwoman for the band – she, and they, had a lot to say.
What Two Tone also did brilliantly – arguably better than any other genre since punk – was fuse social comment with a brand of music that demanded you got down the front and got involved. And that’s why, Black reckons, the music has continued to strike a chord.
“The bands actually had something to say rather than the ubiquitous unrequited love songs,” she says. “They had a lot of things to say about the times they were living in, and the times aren’t really that different now to how they were 35 years ago.
“OK, so things have moved on – a mixed race person running the most powerful country on earth is something I never thought I’d see in my lifetime – but institutionalised racism is still widespread, and you realise there’s still work to be done when Benedict Cumberbatch talks about ‘coloured people’ on the telly.”
The Selector in 2015: “This music doesn’t get old.”
This sense of fighting the good fight is something that was shot through their new album Subculture. When TeamRock asks her if she found it difficult to return to songwriting after such a long time away (she spent several years acting as well as writing an acclaimed autobiography, Black By Design, published in 2013), we get short shrift.
“No, that’s what we do. We’re still living breathing, sentient beings – for the time being anyway - and I’d much rather write new stuff than just be a heritage band trotting out past glories. We can still do this, and there’s plenty of things to write about – goodness me, if you can’t find stuff to write about with the world in the state it is, you’re in the wrong business!”
Subculture follows 2011’s Made In Britain and 2013’s String Theory in addressing modern social ills. Breakdown in particular stands out, a Specials-esque look at no-go areas of the country where ‘the taxi cab won’t go there, or he’ll charge you double fare – he says that there’s danger down there.’
“There are places like that all over the world,” Black explains, “where people have been moved to express their discontent in certain ways. I guess it was somewhat inspired by the riots that happened here a couple of years ago.”
Babble On, meanwhile, tackles the Israel-Palestine situation and the political posturing surrounding it – with the title’s pun entirely intended.
It all sounds strangely refreshing, not least because you suspect most bands of the current generation would steer clear of such controversial subjects.
“It’s not easy to be in a band now,” Black concedes, because you get micromanaged now - ‘you better not say this, you better not say that’. People are monitoring you on Twitter and Facebook and all points in-between, so everything you say gets picked up on.
“Pop is becoming more like politics these days, where everything people say is carefully measured to not cause controversy or offence. So it’s less political than ever, because people don’t want to say anything contentious! I mean god forbid that someone might disagree with them and they might lose sales!
“But when you reach the age of our band you don’t give a fuck. OK, obviously we <do> give a fuck about a lot of things, but you might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb.
“Anyway, it’s best we say it here – otherwise we’d end up on Grumpy Old Women or Grumpy Old Men - that’s not quite the career I had in mind for myself. ha ha!”
Subculture isn’t all deadly serious stuff, mind – there’s another brave choice of cover version in the shape of Bruce Springsteen/Patti Smith’s Because The Night, while the opening track Box Fresh is an anthem to music’s properties of an elixir of eternal youth.
It certainly seems to have done Ms Black no harm. She’s now 61 but you’d hardly know it given the vim and vigour with which she romps around a stage. She’s about to embark on a new 22-date tour with The Selecter, alongside original sidekick Arthur ‘Gaps’ Hendrickson and a newly recruited band that makes The Selecter not just multi-racial but multi-generational.
“Yeah, our keyboard player, Greg Coulson, is only 24. And that’s reflected in the crowds we get too. There’s people who saw us the first time round and their kids’ generation too. This music doesn’t get old.”
Black still lives in Coventry, where the town has now embraced its cultural heritage in the form of the 2 Tone Museum.
“It’s nice people have embraced it and recognised its importance,” she says. “And you still see some of the old faces around. Neville Staples is constantly in there, and Roddy Radiation from the Specials. There was always mutual respect between those bands and I think that’s even more the case now.”
It’s slightly surreal to think that a musical movement that was born in such an unprepossessing part of the UK should now be a global concern, but it’s undoubtedly true. The original ska and reggae artists saw their music spread a long way from Jamaica and the class of ’79 have seen their high-octane rebranding of it become pretty much a separate genre in itself.
One reason for that is that ska-punk remains some of the most energised, danceable music out there. Resistance is futile.
“It’s not shoegazers’ music, is it?” she laughs. “You’ve got to be involved, and I think that’s what’s really great about it. You’ve got to get your Fred Perry sweated up a bit or why are you here?”
The first ladies of punk (clockwise from back left): Chrissie Hynde, Debbie Harry, Viv Albertine, Siouxsie Sioux, Pauline Black, Poly Styrene
That’s doubtless one reason why the Two Tone sound has spread so far and wide, and better still, wherever it’s gone, people have reinvented it in their own image.
“It doesn’t matter where we go, people love it – New Zealand to the west coast of America. Poland, Argentina – we’ve played all over the place. And the great thing is they adapt the sound. We heard ska bands in Poland and they sound like us but they still put their own local take on it. Same with Argentina – they love ska down there but you can also hear the mariachi band influences in the horns. I think that’s just wonderful – and exactly how it should be.”
Probably the most noticeable rebirth of the genre came in the US, which saw a big boom in ska-punk in the Nineties, often referred to as ‘third wave’ ska, and added a further dose of bottom-end punch to the sound with its hardcore and rock influences.
“Yeah, that moved it on from what we did and made another hybrid again,” says Black. But now I’m actually waiting for a fourth wave of ska. Who’s going to take it to the next level and do something new with it? Rock music evolves all the time, and so does reggae music, so there’s no reason why it can’t be brought together again in a new way.”
She’s got a point. Anyone want to give it a try?
_The Selecter’s UK tour starts tomorrow in Gloucester. For dates, click here. Subculture is out this spring. _