When The Specials released their debut single on the newly minted 2 Tone Records label they needed a B-side, badly. Thankfully, drummer John Bradbury had a track he had cut a couple of years prior with friends Neol Davies and Barry Jones. Given some polish and a new name, The Specials gained a track for their B-side re-titled ‘The Selecter’, credited to a fictional band of the same name. As the single gained traction, so did the motivation to make The Selecter a legitimate enterprise. Adding several members in short order, the group was padded out with players and a new lead singer, Pauline Black. Naturally, the band was signed to the 2 Tone Records label in short order.
Often compared less favorably to The Specials, the band’s debut ‘Too Much Pressure’ is an underrated and oft overlooked classic that played a significant role in the growth of Ska and Rocksteady in mainstream Pop culture in the UK. Released a few months after the debut album by The Specials, ‘Too Much Pressure’ mixes original tracks with covers of Jamaican hits much like its forebear. Like their more famed labelmates, The Selecter’s principle songwriter was white, though Davies was the band’s sole white member. Unlike The Specials, the band’s primary vocalist was Black and female, a rarity among 2 Tone acts and in the homegrown charts at the time. The result is an album that comes from a perspective that few others were capable of channeling, in spite of the musical genre they were playing.
Starting with ‘Three Minute Hero’, the band dive in to a set of tracks that focus on the everyday and the ordinary, starting with the monotony of working life for those on the 9-5 and its proposed solution; to become a Pop star. Beginning with a solid ska guitar riff, and robust bass groove Black’s vocals immediately demand attention as she sings boldly but not brashly.
Next up is one of several covers, following the Jamaican Pop tradition of ‘versioning’ that helped underpin the creation of Dub and provided ample fodder for sound clashes. Placing their own spin on the Jamaican originals, The Selecter amp up the tempo on ‘Time Hard’, originally by The Pioneers. Elsewhere, on their version of ‘Carry Go Bring Come’ the band is more faithful to the source material before sliding into a group singalong finale, while their version of ‘James Bond’ draws on a separate cover by Roland Alphonso of The Skatalites.
At the centre of side one, ‘Missing Words’ plays out as a more traditional Pop track with a Ska rhythm slotted in to hold things down. Played back to back with New Wave giants like Blondie the incredible talents of Pauline Black’s vocal performance are on full show as she radiates power and strength spurning and castigating a no-good lover.
Prior to that track is the first of two tracks penned by Black; ‘They Make Me Mad’ and ‘Black and Blue’. The first features some rich organ and energising tempo shifts with lyrics decrying the use of overly convoluted word choice and language to belittle, other and wield power. It’s notable that wide-ranging cultural discussions of exactly these topics continue today, from use of pronouns to racial micro-aggressions, and tracks like this remind us that these are part of a much longer fought battle for social justice on many fronts.
The second track from Pauline Black, ‘Black and Blue’ runs on a similar theme as an outsider tale of loneliness read through the lens of race. The pair of tracks are the densest and darkest of the album, more so than either ‘Murder’ or the title track. That should be no surprise; Coventry (where the band were founded) was one of many places with significant racial tensions, and Black’s tracks are the most realised personal reflections on the album. As an album, ‘Too Much Pressure’ routinely touches on the lived experience of being Black in the UK while also drawing on narratives and themes already abundant in Reggae, Ska and Jamaican musical culture. These aren’t always reflected through a social-realist lens, however, as the band pick up the rich and varied mantle of cheesy Pop song and nursery rhyme versioning common in Reggae on ‘My Collie (Not a Dog)’, an ode to smoking and getting high.
As a debut, ‘Too Much Pressure’ follows so many others and packs a surprising amount into a relatively tight-fitting package. It’s accomplished work and shows a band with their eyes clearly on their own game rather than on that of contemporaries. While the debut by The Specials was undoubtedly special, and a landmark album in its own right, that band were visionaries of a unique and singular sound that broadened what we think of as Ska. When their tracks are placed in a playlist of Ska or Rocksteady they tend to stand out because the band was doing something very much their own. For The Selecter, a more faithful connection to the roots of their influences results in the ability to slide many of these tracks in beside those of their heroes effortlessly.
Unlike so many other of their 2 Tone label mates, The Selecter successfully ingrained their sound with the history of Ska while drawing on the self-driven energy of Punk, the prevailing New Wave Pop trends, and the lived experience of being Black and female in the UK. Packing it all into a debut, they struggled to follow it up and as a result have rarely been given the credit deserved for an album that did so many things, so very well. It may not be the album people reach for first, but ‘Too Much Pressure’ by The Selecter is a classic not to be missed.