Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Shots in the Dark: The Selecter's Celebrate the Bullet Revisited

To help prepare for my stint deejaying at the NY Beat 25th Anniversary party last month, I mail-ordered a copy of The Selecter's often overlooked and unfairly maligned Celebrate the Bullet (Captain Mod Records) on CD. Of course, I have vinyl and cassette copies of this album kicking around my collection, but I never happened to come across most of the extra tracks offered here (notably the single "The Whisper," two versions of "Train to Skaville," and "Last Tango in Dub," the b-side to the rare "Celebrate the Bullet" vinyl single--and the booklet includes good liner notes by George Marshall of "Zoot!," "Skinhead Times," and ST Publishing fame to put the album in perspective). Ever since it arrived, I've been playing the hell out of it, as it's been helping me get through some tough times.

At the time of Celebrate the Bullet's release in 1981, the high-pitched fever of 2 Tone had almost burned out (devoured from the outside by unrelenting hype and criticism in the press and from artistic and personal differences between The Selecter and Jerry Dammers within--which led The Selecter to leave 2 Tone, sign directly with Chrysalis, and create their own unnamed label in order to release their second album), and the socio-political mood in England was bleak: unemployment was high, welfare benefits were slashed, and Margaret Thatcher's conservative policies bluntly favored the rich and powerful at the expense and suffering of everyone else. In the midst of all this, The Specials' stunning swansong, the extraordinary Ghost Town EP, was like a bulletin from the front: the youth of the nation were purposeless and bored ("Friday Night, Saturday Morning"); social unrest was endemic ("Ghost Town"); and racial violence was all too common ("Why?"). So, it really should come as no surprise that Celebrate the Bullet, created in this kind of societal pressure cooker, would be a dark, bitter, difficult, and fiercely angry record, picking up where Ghost Town left off. There is no jubilantly upbeat "On My Radio," "Three Minute Hero," or "Too Much Pressure" here. The tenor of the times wouldn't allow it.

Without question, the songwriting, performances, and production on Celebrate the Bullet are all top-notch (and the band felt they had much to prove, as they were unhappy with their debut album, which they thought was rushed--indeed, it was only a matter of three months from their entering the studio until it hit the shops). From the second you put it on, Celebrate the Bullet is instantly recognizable as a Selecter album--though they explore the more mid-tempo ska and reggae-ish aspects of their sound here--which may have disappointed those expecting the same frenetic ska pace of their debut (plus their timing was off; by the time Celebrate the Bullet was released--ska was out, the New Romantics were in). Most notably, The Selecter's lyrics this time out are much more sophisticated, and vividly convey the apocalyptic fear and dread of that period, when the threat of nuclear annihilation (check out this lyric from "Their Dream Goes On": "Faces light up/glow in the daytime/they're all gone...") seemed more inevitable than ever with the election of cold warrior Ronald Reagan in the US, whose rhetoric and policies toward the USSR at the time only served to ramp up the friction between the superpowers. All in all, Britain--if not civilization itself--seemed to be teetering on the edge of the abyss, with everyone seemingly powerless to stop the plunge into darkness.

[Around this time, I remember going to an anti-nuke event at a church and actually being able to touch a ceramic roof tile from Hiroshima that had become so hot in that atomic blast that it had formed bubbles on its surface--which were frozen in time after it cooled. I also saw photos of people who had horrific radiation burns that kept me up late at night for years. It may seem far-fetched now, but back then a lot of us really did worry about dying in a nuclear holocaust; and we were under no illusions that "duck and cover" was going to save our asses.]

While "Celebrate the Bullet" is not about assassination specifically, the single was released around the same time that John Hinckley, Jr. shot President Reagan (and John Lennon had been assassinated only a few months earlier in New York City), so the BBC banned the song and it disappeared without charting. If the managers at the BBC had actually listened to the lyrics, they would have discovered that Pauline Black urges those burning to avenge a killing not to do so: "Put your finger on the trigger/But you don't have to pull it/'Cos you know it won't bring them/Back to you." Spin the globe right now, put your finger on a random spot, and these lyrics will be relevant to that location, considering all the civil wars, ethnic cleansing, sectarian strife, terrorism, and wars between nations currently raging out there. (And despite it being almost 30 years later, so much of what is covered on this album is so depressingly familiar.) The music itself is very similiar in tone and texture to The Selecter's debut instrumental single--though "Celebrate" includes some incredibly dramatic and evocative guitar flourishes. This track should have been huge.

"Deepwater" has strange resonance right now with the sci-fi-sounding Deepwater Horizon environmental mega-disaster and the terrible fact that an extraordinary number of Americans' homes are "underwater"--they owe more on their mortgage than their house is worth: "Deepwater, deepwater/I'm in trouble and I'm up to my neck again/Deepwater, deepwater, I'm out of money and it's banked by the fat-fish/Opening and closing their mouths/But there's no sound in my ears/I never wanted to be in deepwater again."

Throughout the 80s (and 90s), the thought and threat of a "Bombscare" was completely unfamiliar to most Americans (even though the bombings of the World Trade Center in 1993 and the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 should have forced some major changes in how we approached terrorist threats, domestic and foreign). The British, and Europeans in general, were sadly used to bombings perpetrated by homegrown terrorist groups. In the years since 9/11, I've been suprised that there haven't been more Times Square-type attempts (but I'm mighty happy that many have been foiled or fizzled!). But The Selecter are dead-on about their purpose: the palpable paranoia, fear, and distrust that they foster: "An unattended bag/in the corridor/Looking innocent/but we're all unsure."

Yet, The Selecter are not just concerned with decrying on the problems of the world. On Celebrate the Bullet, the relationships depicted between friends and lovers are marred by deep dysfunction--damaged by apathy and miscommunication ("Who Likes Facing Situations"); insecurity, loneliness, and anger ("Red Reflections"); character assassination ("Tell Me What's Wrong"); and alienation ("Washed Up and Left for Dead"). It was if the toxic relationships between nations and destructive policies of one's own government had trickled down to poison and corrode the bonds between everyday people.

"Selling Out Your Future," my favorite song on the album, vividly portrays the Cold War paranoia/siege mentality of the time. Pauline Black sings about people surrendering to their fears and trying to withdraw from the world and reality ("Drew the curtains/shut the lights/slept alone on the floor/But you couldn't stop the draft/creeping underneath the front door"). In exchange for this (false) security, they have failed to speak and stand up for their rights and for what's right ("You were taking your time/They were buying your mind/You had nothing to say/nothing to say/So nothing's said/Selling out your future...") and are now boxed into militarism, war, and mass destruction ("Switching on the colour vision/smiling faces lie to you/Faded voices crying Fall into line/then fall-out come tomorrow").

Despite being a seemingly upbeat tune, Celebrate the Bullet ends with "Bristol and Miami," which refers to race riots in both cities brought about by police state-like abuses (Sus laws in Bristol) and brutality (the beating death of Arthur McDuffie at the hands of five white police officers in Miami): "Bristol and Miami/where's it gonna be tomorrow/Anytime or anywhere/it's only time we borrow." The organized oppression of disenfranchised people is terribly universal, but so will be the furious payback. That violence is always lurking just beneath everyday life, just waiting to be set off.

Ska and reggae have a long and commendable history of speaking out against social injustice, which The Selecter uphold brilliantly on Celebrate the Bullet. It's just a damn shame that more people didn't tune in to receive the music and the message.


Unknown said...

Great review - weird to see so many insights into an album i've heard so many times.

Now i need to find it on mp3 so i can play it all day in the shop tomorrow!

Steve from Moon said...

Thanks, Dave! Back when I first started listening to "Celebrate the Bullet" in the mid-80s, I missed a lot of the Cold War references, too (I don't think my cassette came with lyrics). Bands should always print lyrics in their CD booklets--or make them available on-line! I'm always interested in what they've got to say...

"Celebrate the Bullet" is available through iTunes, though you get all those extra tracks if you pick up the CD.

Anonymous said...

This is a great review Duff

and I've listened to it a bunch of times

but I'll listen a lot more closely -and informed - next time so thanks for that

Steve from Moon said...

Thanks, Anon!

Kames Jelly said...

I love this album. It's always gotten a lot of flack from the people around me growing up, but I always thought it had their best songwriting.

Steve from Moon said...


I'm with you!



Mike said...

Well said sir. How refreshing to read a review of this brilliant LP that doesn't simply take the off-the-shelf view that has been perpetrated since its release. Bravo!

Heather Augustyn said...

Outstanding review, Steve. Love your history and insights that have helped me to enjoy this album in a whole new light. Thank you, Professor Ska!
Heather Augustyn

Unknown said...

Great to see this review and brought memories flooding back on working with Jane Hughes on the album cover and Martin Baker on the video which was in the basement of the Roundhouse at Camden/Chalk Farm. I can recall a Selecter gig at Hammersmith Palais and things got a bit not very nice with a certain section of the crowd. The new album was not that well received as some wanted the old stuff which some tracks were played but this was a great album.

John aka Teflon

Frank K said...

I'm just here five years after the fact to commend you on this fantastic review of what, in my view, is one of the greatest albums of all time.

KrackermaN said...

How do you download this from your blogspot

Steve from Moon said...

Sorry, I post reviews of albums, not the albums themselves...