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Pauline Black: Making a man’s world her own

Pauline Black is one of the most interesting and diverse artists of her generation. From her early days fronting The Selecter, Black went on to sing a number of records issued by 2 Tone records. Indeed, she had one of the best voices of anyone on the label, and the singer helped to give legitimacy to the rise of ska in the United Kingdom.

Her background was mixed, born the daughter of a Jewish mother and a Nigerian father, but it was the melding of influences that made her work so exciting. And thrust into what was a genre dominated by men, Black made her voice known, without necessarily highlighting either her race or her gender. Indeed, if she had an immediate peer, it was Blondie, who shared a number of musical similarities with the artist.

“Blondie and ourselves shared a record company a the time, called Chrysalis,” Black recalled. “They were responsible for putting out the 2 Tone label. I believe Blondie wanted The Specials to do the backing on ‘Tide Is High’, but they said no so they ended up doing it themselves. We would bump into them now and again, either at a party or some sort of launch.”

Her voice was shimmering, laced with jagged elements, bolstered by a passion for commitment and truth. But somewhere within the art was a desire to create a frisson that came from within the subtext as it did the emotional core of the tunes themselves. But the power of her voice was always more important than the song itself, which likely explains why she still holds a career all these years, long past the best by sell date of the average pop star.

Considering the lack of female representation in the British music industry, she was bound to be compared to a singer or two in her time, but the presses ensured that she was bandied in with a series of women whose work bore little in common with the former frontperson of The Selecter. But it’s testament to her standing as a creative voice that she was able to stand up and be counted among many of the British luminaries of the era, including Sally Oldfield, Joan Armatrading and the quirky doyen herself, Kate Bush.

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“There were obviously people who are missing from that,” Black said, noting the comparison. “I think Kate Bush – I think she’d been asked but didn’t come – or something like that, but if she hadn’t been asked then whoever organised it ought to have thought very carefully about that. There were other women around who should have been there, Joan Armatrading – those kinds of women, who were out there and doing it for themselves.”

Black started off in ska, but she was capable of creating any genre to her name, putting her own stamp on the form of music that she put her mind to. As to what the songs represented, it didn’t matter, particularly since it was the intention, not the realisation, that drew her to the audiences across Britain. Indeed, many of the vocal performances are riveting, not least on the angular ‘I Can See Clearly Now’, all bristle and grit, bringing ballast to the standard that was normally done with twee abandon and expression.

She gave a vocal delivery that sounded like silk but delivered it with the ferocity of a whack that sounded like a cement layer putting down a collection of bricks. There was a beauty, and there were brusque moments of anger and fury, which is why her vocals sounded so truthful, taut and thrilling. ‘On My Radio’ is one of the more notable examples of psychedelic pop on the British airwaves, but nearly all of her vocals sounded notable in some fashion or another.

My personal favourite Pauline Black vocal? On this occasion, I’m siding with ‘Three Minute Hero’, precisely because it’s laced with turbo-charged venom and decided poise. The song was accompanied by a bouncy video, which featured The Selecter in playful mode, clearly enjoying the moment in question. For all the dynamism and angular aggression that goes into the singing style, it was never at the expense of the audience’s patience, or at their penance.

Instead, the songs were a staple of what to expect from the forthcoming shows she presented across the United Kingdom. In their own endearing ways, the concerts gave off an aroma of the world as it might seem from another person’s perspective.

Music is made to be heard on the stage, and in the realm of the post-pandemic blues, there’s no doubt that Black will appear on the floorboards once more, this time bringing the new level of truth to the stages in question. She made her mark and then some in an industry that was nominally run by men. And with any luck, she will continue to do so.

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