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Black by Design: A 2-Tone Memoir

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Lead singer for platinum-selling 2-tone band The Selecter, Pauline Black has been in the music business for over thirty years. The only woman in a movement dominated by men, she was very much the Queen of British Ska. She saw The Specials, Madness, Dexy's Midnight Runners and all the other top bands of that generation at their very best ... and worst. Black was born in 1953 Lead singer for platinum-selling 2-tone band The Selecter, Pauline Black has been in the music business for over thirty years. The only woman in a movement dominated by men, she was very much the Queen of British Ska. She saw The Specials, Madness, Dexy's Midnight Runners and all the other top bands of that generation at their very best ... and worst. Black was born in 1953 of Anglo-Jewish/Nigerian parents. Adopted by a white, working class family in Romford in the fifties, Pauline was always made to feel different, both by the local community and members of her extended family, who saw her at best as a curiosity, at worst as an embarrassing inconvenience. Weaving her rise to fame and recollections of the 2-tone phenomenon with her moving search for her birth parents, Black By Design is a funny and enlightening memoir of music and roots.


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Lead singer for platinum-selling 2-tone band The Selecter, Pauline Black has been in the music business for over thirty years. The only woman in a movement dominated by men, she was very much the Queen of British Ska. She saw The Specials, Madness, Dexy's Midnight Runners and all the other top bands of that generation at their very best ... and worst. Black was born in 1953 Lead singer for platinum-selling 2-tone band The Selecter, Pauline Black has been in the music business for over thirty years. The only woman in a movement dominated by men, she was very much the Queen of British Ska. She saw The Specials, Madness, Dexy's Midnight Runners and all the other top bands of that generation at their very best ... and worst. Black was born in 1953 of Anglo-Jewish/Nigerian parents. Adopted by a white, working class family in Romford in the fifties, Pauline was always made to feel different, both by the local community and members of her extended family, who saw her at best as a curiosity, at worst as an embarrassing inconvenience. Weaving her rise to fame and recollections of the 2-tone phenomenon with her moving search for her birth parents, Black By Design is a funny and enlightening memoir of music and roots.

30 review for Black by Design: A 2-Tone Memoir

  1. 5 out of 5

    Robin Webster

    This book was a must read for me. The reason being I read an interview with Pauline Black in a national newspaper where she was talking about her experiences of being transracially adopted. I was amazed to find that her experiences mirrored my own. Like me, Pauline Black was adopted as a baby in the UK in the early 1950’s then brought up in a white area with no other black or mixed race families in sight. The similarities did not end there. As I did, she traced her natural mother (who was white) This book was a must read for me. The reason being I read an interview with Pauline Black in a national newspaper where she was talking about her experiences of being transracially adopted. I was amazed to find that her experiences mirrored my own. Like me, Pauline Black was adopted as a baby in the UK in the early 1950’s then brought up in a white area with no other black or mixed race families in sight. The similarities did not end there. As I did, she traced her natural mother (who was white) to Australia, and managed to trace her black father but alas he was dead before she got a chance to meet him. Because of this, I found the parts of the book dealing with transracial adoption in the 1950’s, moving, honest and insightful. There was no blueprint for transracial adoption then and Pauline Black manages to detail her journey in a balanced and clear way of how she forged her identity as a mixed-race person. She was not only able to outline the difference in perspective between the growing trans-racially adopted child and the rest of its family in the 1950’s but also the positives. Like Pauline Black I was loved by my family and have met people who were brought up in care homes in the 1950’s and the damage that can be caused being raised in that environment can be irreparable. I also share her view that things are better today with regard to transracial adoption but mistakes are still made in the UK, particularly in rural areas. I have to say that I was 30 years old when the 2-Tone groups came onto the scene in 1980 with their own brand of fast paced Ska. Like all the 2-Tone bands Pauline Black’s band ‘The Selector’ was embraced by a large section of British youth at that time. Because of my age I did not really connect with the energy of the music. In view of this I found myself skipping large sections of the book. However, I do acknowledge that ‘The Selector’s music was coming from a real place. I also felt that at a time when the far right was having a resurgence in Britain, the 2-Tone groups were not only a breath of fresh air but were also a counter-balance to the influence of the far right. This is a book written by an intelligent insightful woman that with hard work has managed to live her life on her own terms. However, in my view, the book’s appeal is limited to those who have an interest in the 2-Tone groups, or people that are interested in the history of transracial adoption.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Danny

    In the early 80s, I loved British Ska. I couldn’t get enough of the likes of the Specials and The Selecter. I can’t say I listen to those bands much any more and I haven’t been tempted by any of the reunion tours cycling around. Regardless, they all have a place deep in my heart. Out book shopping recently, I came across Black By Design, an autobiography of Pauline Black from The Selecter. I picked it up on a whim, figuring it would be a good summer read. The first third of the book is very stron In the early 80s, I loved British Ska. I couldn’t get enough of the likes of the Specials and The Selecter. I can’t say I listen to those bands much any more and I haven’t been tempted by any of the reunion tours cycling around. Regardless, they all have a place deep in my heart. Out book shopping recently, I came across Black By Design, an autobiography of Pauline Black from The Selecter. I picked it up on a whim, figuring it would be a good summer read. The first third of the book is very strong. Black’s upbringing is a truly interesting window into England of the 50s and 60s, particularly since Black views it from the perspective of a black woman. Black was adopted by white working class parents in the 50s. This was not a common occurrence in England at the time, and though her family was, by all accounts, loving, her black heritage was a mystery. She was the only black girl in town and she felt the sting of racism. However, she could share her feelings with nobody. Not family or friends. She was aware that her blackness set her apart from her contemporaries, but her nascent black pride could only be nurtured alone. She was fascinated by the race issues in America and looked to the black power movement in America as a guidepost for her own behavior. Though her parents were kind, they did not love when Pauline would assert her blackness. Once she left for college, she never looked back. The middle part of the book talks about her time in The Selecter and the 2-Tone scene that was exploding in Coventry where she was based. While I enjoyed this section of the book, I really wanted more. Granted it’s a memoir, and Black talks honestly from her perspective, but I felt I wanted deeper insight into why the movement was happening, who all the players were, and what fueled the coming together and the division of the various audience groups (the punks, the mods, and the skins). Black addresses it all, but not with the depth I hoped for. I’d be up for a juicy oral history from all the players of that scene. It’s also interesting to note that The Selecter’s time in the limelight was incredibly brief. The Selecter track that appeared as a b-side on the first 2-Tone release was a hit. But that track was really a solo endeavor by guitarist Neol Davies using the name The Selecter. Once he had a hit, he needed a band. The band was still being formed even though they were already in demand and on the rise, riding the coattails of The Specials. Almost from the outset, the band is at odds with each other, fighting about producers and musical direction. The band implodes in about two years time. The rise and fall is equal parts exciting and dour. Black is at her best and most passionate when she talks about the difficulties of being a black artist and a woman artist. The 2-Tone ethos was the perfect vehicle for her message. After the break up of The Selecter she struggled finding her way. Musical projects were mostly ignored. She found her way to the stage and television. She was moderately successful in those arenas. She found her way. Not as exciting as The Selecter in their heyday, but she made inroads as a working artist. The book, however, gets a bit dreary for my likes. It becomes the memoir of someone struggling, but eking out a living. The highs aren’t that high. The lows aren’t that low. I have nothing but respect for all that Black has done, and her political view of the world is spot-on, but the writing isn’t strong enough to elevate this into a must read.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Paul

    I came to this book as a fan of 2-tone, having enjoyed seeing The Selecter live in Glasgow a good few years ago, but as well as documenting the 2-tone days fronting The Selecter with much more astute observation than eg Horace's Ska'd for Life, the best bits of Pauline Black's memoir are the stories of her conflicts as a mixed-race child growing up in 60's and 70's Britain and the daily racism she has faced/ faces (sadly). The chapter on her days as a journalist on the Black On Black TV programm I came to this book as a fan of 2-tone, having enjoyed seeing The Selecter live in Glasgow a good few years ago, but as well as documenting the 2-tone days fronting The Selecter with much more astute observation than eg Horace's Ska'd for Life, the best bits of Pauline Black's memoir are the stories of her conflicts as a mixed-race child growing up in 60's and 70's Britain and the daily racism she has faced/ faces (sadly). The chapter on her days as a journalist on the Black On Black TV programme were fascinating and the story of her tracking down her birth parents has made me now buy Jackie Kay's Red Dust Road, where she makes a similar journey, to read another person's take on this. Great book

  4. 4 out of 5

    Lynrose

    I don't normally read biographies / autobiographies but was interested in this one because I remember the band The Selecter and because of the transracial adoption element. It was an interesting read. I enjoyed the adoption story which is focussed on in the early stage of the book and again at the end when she looks for information about her birth family. It was an interesting insight into the workings of the music industry but ultimately I got a bit bored in the middle section as gigs were remem I don't normally read biographies / autobiographies but was interested in this one because I remember the band The Selecter and because of the transracial adoption element. It was an interesting read. I enjoyed the adoption story which is focussed on in the early stage of the book and again at the end when she looks for information about her birth family. It was an interesting insight into the workings of the music industry but ultimately I got a bit bored in the middle section as gigs were remembered and recorded. There are good insights into growing up black in Britain in the latter part of the last century and into the particular perspective you have on that if you have been raised in a white family.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Sean

    My respect for Ms Black went way up after reading her autobiography. She's a survivor, not of your usual rock star drug thing, but of confused and conflicted upbringing and a search for inner identity. Recommend to any interested in her music and to those that enjoy learning of another person's self discovery.

  6. 5 out of 5

    David Roover

    While I thought this book would provide more insight into the 2-tone British ska movement, it was much more than that, telling the tale of Pauline Black's bi-racial upbringing in an adopted (white) family and all the hardships that presented and which she overcame. A unique story, just not what I was expecting.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Nat K

    Loved it!

  8. 5 out of 5

    Justin Simpson

    I've been a near-life long fan of ska and the 2-Tone movement is my personal favorite. The sounds of the Specials, Madness, the Selecter, and their kin have moved me like no other musical genre I've ever encountered. Unfortunately, they heyday of 2-Tone was a good 3-4 years before I was born, so that leaves me a mere baby as the movement was winding down. Additionally, being an American, I was born in a country that just didn't embrace it like it should have. Nevertheless, 2-Tone found me and it I've been a near-life long fan of ska and the 2-Tone movement is my personal favorite. The sounds of the Specials, Madness, the Selecter, and their kin have moved me like no other musical genre I've ever encountered. Unfortunately, they heyday of 2-Tone was a good 3-4 years before I was born, so that leaves me a mere baby as the movement was winding down. Additionally, being an American, I was born in a country that just didn't embrace it like it should have. Nevertheless, 2-Tone found me and it continues to be a passionate interest. I had previously read Horace Panter's 'Ska'd for Life' biography detailing his career, and thereby the career of the Specials, and enjoyed it thoroughly. Getting an insight into the lives and inspirations behind the scenes of one of my favorite bands was invigorating for me, and to learn about British culture at the same time was an added, and welcome, bonus. Knowing how much I enjoyed this book made me incredibly enthusiastic to read Pauline's. I know ska, I know 2-Tone, I know the Selecter. While Pauline was able to tell great stories about the band's history and what went on behind the scenes, what I enjoyed most about her memoirs here were the insights into the areas of her life I could never be familiar with: namely growing up a mixed-race female in the 1960s/1970s to an adopted family in an extremely racist town in England. And wow! Pauline certainly had the odds stacked against her from birth, but her story is inspirational, entertaining, and quite hilarious at parts. While most would know her and show interest in her because of her involvement with the Selecter, so much of her memoirs are made up of her journey figuring out who she is and where she belongs. While her struggles mentioned above are those I could never identify with, there exists a commonality between her and the rest of humanity that lies in that adventure she's embarked on, and she tells her story splendidly. Certainly, a fan of the Selecter, or merely 2-Tone, or even ska in general, would likely appreciate this book a little more than your average Joe, this is a great read for even someone merely vaguely familiar with her, her work, or the movement she was such a big part of.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Artnoose McMoose

    In the throes of a year of science fiction and graphic novels, I decided to cleanse my palette with this memoir. Pauline Black is best known for being the lead singer of the ska band The Selecter. A biracial orphan adopted by a working class family in an all-white town in the UK, Black came of age watching the Black Power movements rise in the US and applied their messages to her own life. In addition to chronicling her childhood, this book covers the formation of the band The Selecter and its v In the throes of a year of science fiction and graphic novels, I decided to cleanse my palette with this memoir. Pauline Black is best known for being the lead singer of the ska band The Selecter. A biracial orphan adopted by a working class family in an all-white town in the UK, Black came of age watching the Black Power movements rise in the US and applied their messages to her own life. In addition to chronicling her childhood, this book covers the formation of the band The Selecter and its very quick rise to stardom. It shows how certain ska bands were able to achieve mainstream popularity while others fizzled out and never successfully branched out to wider audiences. Black talks about her acting career after the breaking up of the band and her later search for her birth parents. I wouldn't say that this book is fantastically written. There were several of the musical recording and agent chapters that I thought could have been shorter, but I think Pauline Black has led an interesting life, and I'm glad she wrote this book.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Sal Littlejohn

    Wonderful account of the life so far of Pauline Black, a remarkable woman with great talent. Her childhood is fascinating, and not without difficulties, which she describes clearly and without rancour or bitterness. I think despite being adopted and of mixed race (which was pretty odd in 1950s and '60s Essex) she was well loved and cared for, and grew up to be able to express a great musical and acting talent. And with this memoir she shows she also has an engaging writing talent, too. I hope sh Wonderful account of the life so far of Pauline Black, a remarkable woman with great talent. Her childhood is fascinating, and not without difficulties, which she describes clearly and without rancour or bitterness. I think despite being adopted and of mixed race (which was pretty odd in 1950s and '60s Essex) she was well loved and cared for, and grew up to be able to express a great musical and acting talent. And with this memoir she shows she also has an engaging writing talent, too. I hope she writes more. (And I was reminded about 2-tone and ska, and sent on a quest to re-discover some of the jauntiest and jumpiest music ever conceived.)

  11. 4 out of 5

    Dave

    A fascinating musical autobiography, but also considerably more than that. Black was a mixed race child adopted into working class white family. As much as anything, this is a search for her own identity, having never really felt part of the world she grew up in. The story of her musical and acting career plays a significant part of this, rather than just being another part of her life. It is open, honest and opinionated, culminating in her search for her real parents.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Lynne

    I was totally unfamiliar with the author. This is an autobiography. I was not familiar with the 2-tone era of music either. She is of mixed heritage-English and Nigerian, born in England and adopted by an English family. This is her story of coming to terms with her life trying to find her place also as a musician, and lastly finding her birth family.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Kurt Gottschalk

    Black is an unexpectedly powerful writer, and "Black by Design" shines above the average musician memoir, as evidenced by the fact that the most compelling parts of the book aren't her 2-tone days but her striving for racial identity as an adopted child. Watch for my interview with her in Time Out-New York next month.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Jackie Mcwilliams

    An absolutely amazing life story!

  15. 4 out of 5

    Fasterpussycat Moore

    Great memoir and history of the 2-tone musical movement in England written by its premier Rude Girl. She's got an endearing writer's voice.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Mairi Morrison

    Have always loved The Selecter, and was interested to read more about Pauline Black. A very interesting and honest read.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Peter C

    Not enough sex, drugs and rock and roll stories, and a few too many "I had a strange dream where..." moments, but a good addition to the 2-Tone books out there.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Mills College Library

    782.42164 B6277 2011

  19. 4 out of 5

    Sean O'Brien

    Tough and compelling. A story of racism even in the state of "success".

  20. 5 out of 5

    Mark Heath

    GREAT BOOK, STIRRING THE MEMORIES OF MY YOUTH. WELL WORTH A READ.

  21. 5 out of 5

    MARK JOHN

  22. 4 out of 5

    Kate

  23. 5 out of 5

    Laceystew

  24. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Fox

  25. 5 out of 5

    Alan West

  26. 5 out of 5

    Jim Jones

  27. 5 out of 5

    Holly Newton

  28. 5 out of 5

    Darren

  29. 4 out of 5

    Tom Graves

  30. 4 out of 5

    Sue Snowden

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