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From my city to yours: Coventry through the eyes of 2 Tone music icon Pauline Black

Pauline Black, lead singer of The Selecter, has lived in Coventry — the birthplace of 2 Tone music in the 1970s — for the past 50 years. As the city prepares to become the UK's City of Culture for 2021, Pauline reflects on its powerful musical past.

Published 22 Aug 2020, 08:00 BST, Updated 6 May 2021, 11:19 BST
2 Tone icon Pauline Black with The Selecter bandmate, Arthur 'Gaps' Hendrickson. Pauline moved to Coventry as a ...

2 Tone icon Pauline Black with The Selecter bandmate, Arthur 'Gaps' Hendrickson. Pauline moved to Coventry as a student in 1971. 

Photograph by Dean Chalkley

Can you describe the 2 Tone genre to those unfamiliar with it?

When we started out in 1979, the 2 Tone movement was a loose sub-culture of lots of different youth tribes. Skinheads, punks, rude boys and rude girls — a lot of them trying on their Jamaican parents’ old clothes or listening to their music. They were drawn towards it because, lyrically, it discussed things like racism and economic equality — and sexism, too. But in 1979, those words weren’t current within the popular vernacular; these are modern-day things by comparison. I would say that 2 Tone was the pre-cursor to what we now call multiculturalism. We were living it out then, and we were aware, as young people, that there were injustices based on skin colour and gender. Loosely, that’s the umbrella of 2 Tone. It’s music to tickle the brain cells and the soles of the feet.

What were some of your favourite venues to perform in?

Before I joined The Selecter, I sang in the back room of a pub called the Old Dyers Arms in Spon End, where the dyers and the tanners had their little industries. Weavers’ topshops, clockmakers and watchmakers — they were all around here. It was all very folky at the time, and one of The Specials saw me sing and put in a good word with some other musicians. There was also a venue in Foleshill called The General Wolfe. Everybody came through there, from Eurythmics to U2. But my favourite was the Locarno, or Tiffany’s as it was later called. It’s now the local library, but it used to be a dance hall. There was a wonderful atrium, which was a glass column that stood in the middle of the precinct, and then there was a glass-covered corridor suspended above the pavement that opened out into this wonderful old dance hall with a revolving stage. I first heard Chuck Berry there in 1972, and it was where he recorded My Ding-A-Ling.

Talk us through your ideal day in Coventry.

My day would be centred around my dog, Eddie. We’d trot around London Road Cemetery, which sounds a bit grim, but it’s beautifully laid out — it’s a huge area that harks back to Victorian times. The intricacies of the Victorian headstones there are something to marvel at. Afterwards, I’d go to the 2-Tone Village, to Alph and Angela Knight’s 2-Tone Café — their plantain, rice and peas, and stuff like that, is pure manna from heaven. If it’s a good day, one of the people who runs the memorabilia shop up there might want me to sign some albums and pictures. Then I’d trot back into the city and stop in a place called FarGo Village in Far Gosford Street. It’s full of interesting little niche shops, but my favourite is The Big Comfy Bookshop. It’s home to thousands of used books of all kinds of genres, and, in the evenings, it hosts book clubs, poetry and acoustic sessions. If there’s something good on at the Belgrade Theatre, that would be my ideal way to end the day, because it has such a history with the city and with 2 Tone.

Where do you go for a quiet moment in the city?

The Coventry Boy Statue — opposite the cathedral, on the grounds of Coventry University — is a statue of a young boy holding up a diploma. He’s wearing one shoe and the other foot is bare, and a lot of people pass by and never really think about what he means. When I went to Lanchester Polytechnic [now Coventry University], I used to be fascinated by this little figure. I came from a working-class family, and when I looked at this young boy, I felt an affinity with him. The bare foot was a reminder of where he came from, and the diploma was a sign of him moving onto better things. That resonated with me back then, and it still does now. The statue is all of Coventry’s past, and it’s all of Coventry’s future, because I really feel the only way out of all of the dilemmas we have at the moment — racism, sexism, everything — is through education. ­

Coventry's old cathedral, built between the late 14th and early 15th centuries, was bombed heavily during the Second World War. A new cathedral, built next to the ruins of the old one, was consecrated in 1962. 

Photograph by Alamy

Coventry is the UK City of Culture for 2021. Is it about time it got some attention?

I’ve always wanted people to see how much has happened here, from medieval times to when we were ribbon-makers for ladies’ bonnets! And I’ve always maintained that the 2 Tone movement probably wouldn’t have happened in Coventry in the 1970s if it hadn’t been like a miniature Detroit. This is where all the cars were made; this is where all the immigrant labour came to work. People from the West Indies came here to work and mingle with other young white people in the car factories, listening to each other’s music and passing those records backwards and forwards. I can’t praise Coventry highly enough. Plus, did you know the man who invented the jet engine came from here?

Why do you think 2 Tone and ska still resonates with people today?

I marvel at the fact that I’m still talking about racism. People are perplexed by the idea of Black Lives Matter; the typically racist nonsense of ‘all lives matter’ misses the point totally. Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race has suddenly become a bestseller — but it should have been a bestseller three years ago, when it first came out. Maybe now we can really get the conversation going. But I do get frustrated: at each juncture, when this happens, it’s always feels like starting from scratch. But I really do think that, in some ways, in 1979, we started the conversation, here in Coventry.  

Sum up Coventry in three words.

Cosmopolitan, innovative and creative.

Pauline Black’s top three Coventry music venues

1. 2-Tone Village
In the evenings and weekends, when everything’s running, it’s a brilliant place to take in an up-and-coming band, and there’s a great sound in the room. Plus, there’s Red Stripe beer. What could fail in such a place?

2. The Tin
The Tin, in Coventry Canal Basin, is set in what they call the Coal Vaults. I like the whole ethos of the place — it’s a little bit like, as the name suggests, a coal vault. It’s very loose, and I’ve seen so many good bands from all over the world pass through there. It’s a great, intimate venue.

3. The Empire
And of course, The Empire, which we were supposed to be playing at this coming autumn with From The Jam. Unfortunately, that’s been moved to next year. Anything to support Coventry venues — what venues there are.

The Selecter’s latest album, Daylight, is out now. Pauline Black’s memoir, Black by Design: A 2-Tone Memoir, is published by Serpent’s Tail (£9.99).

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