The Selecter – Celebrate The Bullet
It could be said that Selecter embodied the original intent of the Two-Tone scene more fully than any of the other bands on the label – which led to them being the most under appreciated. They didn’t have the Bloke-y, high-concept appeal of Madness, the sophisticated, cynical aplomb of the [English] Beat or the sense of cleverness, purpose, and social ambition of the Special AKA. The Selecter was just a really good ska band, tough and no-nonsense with a secret weapon in Pauline Black, a singlular vocalist and a woman in a usually boys-only club. Black was so legit that Deborah Harry invited her to a Summit of Women In Punk that included Siouxsie Sioux, Viv Albertine, Chrissie Hynde and Poly Styrene, so if you don’t want to take my word for how cool Pauline Black is, you should take Debbie Harry’s
The Selecter’s first album, Too Much Pressure was a sharp, terse set, that yielded two great singles “On My Radio” and “Three Minute Hero.” It was a promising debut effort from a band that started out as a one off B side to a Special AKA single. Had they sprung from a separate scene, the Selecter might have been huge, but that’s not how it works with these scene things – Ask Television.
Too Much Pressure got good reviews on both sides of the Atlantic but didn’t sell huge, though the band toured like crazy. The Selecter had basically sold themselves as a typical “good time” ska/dance band, but even their first album had tracees of darkness in the corners. As the band started work on a sophmore effort, The Beat were following up their debut I just Can’t Stop It with the darker, even more political Wh’appen, while the Specials were touring on their ultra-hip More Specials album and Madness were re-inventing themselves as “The Nutty Boys” and moving to Stiff records for their greatest UK success. The Selecter were busy losing their bassist sand keyboardist while trying to come up with a new album. Original members Charley Anderson and Desmond Brown departed to be replaced by James Mackie and Adam Williams as The Selecter laboured on
It must be true that artists do their best work in times of turmoil, because Celebrate the Bullet is a leap forward that should have put The Selecter on a level with their label and scene mates. The matte, almost brittle sound of Too Much Pressure is replaced on Bullet by a reverb-y sheen that owes more to the dub of Lee Perry than the tight-fi ska of Sir Coxsone or Prince Buster. The US version juggles the song lineup, wisely placing the title song in first position. Written by guitarist and co-leader Neol Davies “Celebrate the Bullet” cracks the album open with a tense guitar figure that leads into a sinuous, groove that leans more to rocksteady as Black shows more vocal colors than on the whole first album
The song title is a trick though: Davies’ “celebration” is actually an admonishment against using violence to get justice – a message that sadly never seems to lose fashion. Musically, it’s a sonic feast, bass-heavy and sinuous with a riveting trombone solo from Barry Jones. Black’s voice caresses the lyric, he singing equal measure of instruction and seduction as the tune weaves and haunts, evaporating rather than ending. For this blogger’s money, it’s as good an opening shot as “London Calling.”
The rest of the album lives up to the opening, veering between the danceable and the topical, never bothering with the typical ska covers and cliches that “fans” [still] like. Davies, Black and guitarist Compton Amanor all show up as strong writers, able to use the source material of ska as a jumping off point, but never getting hamstrung by the limits of the genre. The fascination that ska has with spy music and gangster/noir themes comes through in cuts like “Bombscare,” “Selling Out Your Future,” and “Deepwater” while “Tell Me What’s Wrong” and “Who Likes Facing Situations” naturally evolve from ska’s social/dancing roots. Black’s songs stand out especially, running the gamut from the romantic strife of “ Red Reflections” to her stunning ode to Billie Holiday “Cool Blue Lady.”
The record ends on a thrilling, artful note, segueing the haunted dub of Davies’ “Their Dream Goes On’ into the tense but exhilarating skank of Black’s “Bristol and Miami” – a pean to racial harmony that could have/should have been a major anthem. Sadly, it’s even more relevant in the age of Ferguson than it was in the Reagan 80s.
Celebrate The Bullet feels less like a genius attack than a talented band, graduating from good to great in a genre where being a one-trick pony is rewarded more often Regrettably, the Specials and [English] Beat were having genius attacks while Madness and Bad Manners [and a host of even lesser acts] were more than happy to reduce the spirit of Two-Tone to a monochromatic cartoon. Frustrated by their lack of success, The Selecter would break up shortly after touring for “Bullet.” Black left first, for a solo career as well as acting roles. The band hired Stan Campbell to replace her, which worked out about as well as you’d expect [no shade on Campbell – Pauline Black was just that cool].
The revivals and reunions would start almost immediately, with various cobbled lineups playing shows with “ska” bands not fit to shine the original Selecter’s Doc Martens. Ska would ossify into a bland, camp exercise for aging punks who couldn’t get into rockabilly or that fake swing revival that happened in the 90s and the creative spark of Celebrate the Bullet would fade with even the record itself going out of print for several years as Chrysalis Records was bought and sold multiple times. AllMusic dissmissed the record
with perhaps it’s shortest review ever, indicative of how many people just plain missed the point. Captain Mod would re-issue the UK version of the alum in 2001 with bonus tracks and a nice booklet. I personally consider the US version to be better in terms of track order, but that’s easily fixed here in the digital era. Don’t sleep on this one, it’s the very definition of a lost classic.
NEXT: I Can Dream About You…