The Selecter – Greatest Hits

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I find The Selecter to be the least immediately appealing of the two-tone movement bands (at least, of the ones whose work I own). Partly this is due to the fact that they were short-lived and didn’t produce much material in their classic, original incarnation. The other is that the Coventry band were a bit less melodic and a tad more adventurous than their peers (and more reggae-influenced than ska, and I greatly prefer one to the other).

The Selecter’s origin story is unusual, as is their later history. When the Special AKA (the original name of the Specials) had difficulty finding an appropriate song to be the B-side to their 1979 debut single “Gangster,” their drummer mentioned a tune he had recorded a couple of years earlier with Neol Davies. He asked Davies to overdub a guitar track and that song – “The Selecter” – wound up as the flip (actually the single was a double A side release), credited to the Selecter, a band that technically did not yet exist. Shortly thereafter, though, Davies recruited the other six members of the Selecter. They released debut album Too Much Pressure in 1980, experienced a line-up change, and released Celebrate the Bullet in 1981, after which vocalist Pauline Black left, and effectively that was it.

Black and Davies reformed the band in 1991 (with members of Bad Manners), but Davies left soon after; original co-vocalist Arthur “Gaps” Hendrickson joined Black in the reformed band as of 1993. They persevered until 2006. Four years later, Black and Hendrickson revived the band once again, and in 2011, Davies formed his own version (though Black had the rights to the name the Selecter).

What I Think of This Album

This comp presents the Selecter’s songs out of order, which I find incredibly frustrating. So, let’s do the fucking work that EMI didn’t. The album contains 16 tracks. Eight come from Too Much Pressure; five were originally on Celebrate the Bullet; two are non-album singles; and the last song is a dub version of one of the Bullet tracks (and I am not sure of its original release format). 

Statistically, Celebrate the Bullet comes out ahead in terms of quality of selections. Four of the five tracks represented here are among the best of the collection. Most of these are far from classic ska, incorporating both new wave sounds and atmospherics. They may not necessarily be catchy and are certainly not feel-good, but they are fascinating. “Celebrate the Bullet” – apparently about the futility of revenge – is spare and spooky, with a haunting horn part and ominous guitar. 

“Bomb Scare” is faster-paced but just as unsettling and Pauline Black does a fantastic job. Black shares her lament on the affecting “Deep Water,” which skitters through the speakers; the echoed guitar part is pretty cool. The St. Paul’s rebellion of 1980 and a similar racial uprising in Miami that same year are the subject of “Bristol and Miami,” which rides on organ chords, that familiar ska guitar rhythm, a healthy bass line, and some shimmering keyboards.

Single “The Whisper” may be the best Selector song of all:  melodic, bright, bouncy, and Pauline Black doing her best to convince herself she isn’t troubled by her partner’s betrayal.

Meanwhile, even though over half of Too Much Pressure is represented here, only four selections really stand out. Those four songs, though, are pretty great. “Too Much Pressure” is a joy to listen to, relentless and infectious, with a cleansing bridge that arrives just in time (twice). The band comes to life on their cover of ska song “Time Hard” (originally by the Pioneers and released maybe in the mid-’60s?). Another cover is the irresistible “Carry Go Bring Come,” a hit for Justin Hinds in 1963. Finally, there is “Murder,” which is a bit unsophisticated lyrically but maybe that’s just how it is when you are begging for someone else’s life; in any event, its another prime melodic nugget, with some fun guitar licks and Arthur Hendrickson shouting “MURDER.” 

The rest of the tracks don’t do much for me, though most of them have something to offer. Even so, “James Bond” is silly. “Last Tango in Dub” is a fantastic title but it is just the dub version of “Washed Up and Left for Dead.”

Norman Watt-Roy of Ian Dury and the Blockheads (and guest of the Clash on Sandinista!) plays bass on “Celebrate the Bullet” and “Washed Up and Left for Dead.”

Like other two-tone bands, the Selecter was racially integrated, but unlike most two-tone bands, they were majority black *and* they had a woman member. Notably, the Bodysnatchers were an all-female band on the 2 Tone label but they only released a couple of singles (as did most 2 Tone labelmates).

The Best Thing About This Album

“The Whisper”

Release Date

May, 1996

The Cover Art

Fuck, yes. First, the font for the band name is excellent. The checkerboard ribbon ties the two-tone aesthetic together (and in fact was part of the 2-Tone label’s design). Also borrowed from the 2-Tone label is the character known as Walt Jabsco. Based on a photograph of Peter Tosh, he was the creation of Jerry Dammers (head of the label and keyboardist/founder of the Specials), Horace Panter (bassist for the Specials), and graphic designers John Sims and David Storey. What a great use of space, lines, and shape!

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