Friday, September 20, 2013
My Favorite 2-Tone Era Album Of All Time: The Selecter's Celebrate The Bullet
In honor of The Selecter's visit to New York City to perform at the Gramercy Theatre tonight, I wanted to re-post something I wrote about the band's second album "Celebrate The Bullet." Written nearly five years ago, before Pauline Black rebooted the band with her co-front man Gaps Hendricksen, the album remains a personal favorite that defined the hope and promise of 2-Tone. Though recorded as the band and the 2-Tone movement were moving out of fashion in the U.K., it still stands the test of time, exploring dark themes of violence, racism, isolation and decline that resonate three decades later.
If pressed to name my favorite album of the entire 2-Tone era I would have to say "Celebrate The Bullet" by The Selecter. Surprised? You shouldn't be. Now don't get me wrong. I love The Specials first album and I am always moved by the near perfect majesty of 'Ghost Town' and the straight forward and soulful lament of 'Why'. The first album by The Beat was the soundtrack to my youth and I love the way I can track different times and places in my life by each Madness album. Indeed, 'Victoria Gardens' and 'The Sun and The Rain' are among my top 10 favorite songs of all time.
However, in my humble opinion "Celebrate The Bullet" broke the mold and remains the most creative and unique collection of songs to come out of the whole 2-Tone era. I wouldn't even call it a ska album necessarily. This is a dark, haunting, bluesy iteration of ska that to my knowledge has never been attempted before or since. This is very intense and emotional music. For that reason, it is a very unique record and it goes against the grain of what fans of 2-Tone probably expected when it was released.
At times the songs have a new wave feel via synthesized keyboard melodies that buzz over Neol Davies' blistering, bluesy and soulful guitar solos and riffs. Other times its almost undefinable as the songs are driven by a seamless melting pot of rock, reggae and new wave via memorable melodies that stick in your head. In fact, I would argue that 'Celebrate The Bullet' is on par with 'Ghost Town" as one of the best songs of the 2-Tone era. And personally, its the very end of 'Bristol and Miami' when there is an acapella chant taken from The Beatles 'Black Bird' that seals the artistic and emotional quality of the record for me.
When the album was released it took a beating from the critics. That's especially depressing given the rave reviews for "Too Much Pressure", which, while a great record, was almost a by the books ska revival recording. Songs like "Celebrate The Bullet", "Deep Water", "Washed Up And Left For Dead" and "Red Reflections" still give me the chills every time I hear them and demonstrate the huge steps the band had taken since their first LP. Under different circumstance this record could have really opened up a new path for ska, which has essentially remained fixed in time and space, except for this album. Some bands have moved beyond ska, but only The Selecter dared to expand and evolve the genre. It's too bad they were punished for it, when they should have been richly rewarded.
While the music is a step above, what stands out above all though is some absolutely great vocal work from Pauline Black who channels her own musical heroes (Billie Holiday, Nina Simone) and their presence can be felt in the music. Unlike The Specials ironic take on British society and Madness's nutty view of English life, The Selecter's second album come across like a very dark and serious news report with Pauline and Arthur "Gaps" Hendrickson reporting from the front lines of an early 80's Britain straining under the reduced expectations of Thatcherism. Indeed the songs and their subject matter seem spookily relevant for those of us in the U.S. who have barely survived 8 years of George Bush, the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, mortgage foreclosures and a financial meltdown that threatens to devour the life savings and job security of all of us.
Here is promo video of the band performing "Celebrate The Bullet":
I had the honor and pleasure to meet Pauline Black and Neol Davies when my band supported The Selecter when they reformed and toured the US in 1991. I most recently saw her when she and Lynval Golding of The Specials sat in with The English Beat in 2006. The highlight of those shows was when Pauline came out mid-set to perform 4 songs by The Selecter. She has always been very kind and accessible and remains a true artist to this day having acted in a number of UK TV shows and stage productions in addition to her singing with The Selecter and as a solo artist exploring soul.