Thursday, March 28, 2019

In Memory of Ranking Roger of The Beat

A young Ranking Roger from The Beat smiles widely as he walks down the center of a street in Birmingham. Short row houses are on either side of him and his bandmate Saxa is in the background.
Photo: Adrian Boot (from "The Beat: Twist and Crawl" book by Malu Halasa;
note Saxa in the background!)
(By Steve Shafer)

This past January, during an extraordinary videotaped chat titled "Wha'ppen" with music journalist and author Daniel Rachel where Ranking Roger talked so candidly about his strokes, discovery and removal of two brain tumors, immunotherapy treatment for lung cancer, and the prospect of facing his own mortality, one could see in his eyes how understandably shaken he was by the whole experience--but his words, voice, and facial expression conveyed nothing but hope for his recovery, a desire to perform again for the 2 Tone 40th anniversary celebrations even in limited physical health ("I know I can sing!"), and deep gratitude for his many fans' expressions of support. And as clearly dire as his situation was, one absolutely believed that if anyone could beat cancer, it would be Ranking Roger.

So, the news that Roger passed away on March 26 at the painfully young age of 56 was profoundly unfathomable. How could someone bursting with so much love, joy, and life NOT be alive anymore?

The (English) Beat, along with Echo and the Bunnymen, were the soundtrack to my high school years--always on heavy rotation in my Walkman, on my stereo (WLIR loved its Special Beat Service--though my friends and I had many debates over which of The Beat's three albums was the best), and when I could commandeer it, the family car. As they were for many people, those particular years were tough ones. I didn't fit in at all at my school (I was a middle class suburban kid lost in a sea of incredibly wealthy kids from Park and Fifth Avenues) and absolutely dreaded practically every minute spent there. I also was probably dealing with some depression, too. But the music I so zealously loved validated (important for the teenage psyche!) and expressed whatever I was feeling--whether up ("Best Friend") or down ("Save It For Later"), pining away ("Hands Off, She's Mine"), or political ("Stand Down Margaret")--and lent me the strength to keep getting out of bed everyday just to take it on the chin.

It's always a shock to the system when someone so closely associated with your youth dies. Even though we know better, they're frozen in time in our minds; we've aged, part of them hasn't (so it breaks our hearts when reality intrudes). Back in the day, probably a lot of Gen X Beat fans like me felt what may have been an unconsciously close connection to Ranking Roger. After all, he was still a teenager (16 years old!) when he joined The Beat in 1978 and was only a few years older than me and many of my peers by the time we came to know him (whereas the rest of the band seemed like they were solidly adult men, even if they were only in their early 20s--with the exception of middle-aged Saxa!).

I only had the pleasure of catching Ranking Roger live in performance a few times. The first was when General Public played The Ritz in NYC in December 1984. Roger's hair was dyed in alternating blond and brown stripes (like it was on the cover of ...All the Rage) and he was amazing to watch--he was in constant motion on stage, covered in sweat, and clearly enjoying every second he sang for and interacted with the audience. (I missed seeing him with The Beat--I found out about their Special Beat Service related show at Rosalind in Manhattan the day after it happened and felt like an idiot for weeks afterwards.) And I caught him a few times with the wonderful Special Beat in the early 1990s, too.

My well-worn Beat cassettes from the early 1980s.
Last fall, Ranking Roger's version of The Beat was scheduled to co-headline a tour of the West Coast with Pauline Black and Gaps Hendrickson's Selecter and I had big hopes that a few East Coast dates might be added, as The Selecter has done extremely well the last few times they've been in NYC, and it had been ages since Roger last played here. Sadly, it was cancelled when Rogers' health issues began to manifest themselves. But I never imagined that he wouldn't recover and eventually find his way over here again.

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In Malu Halasa's 1981 band bio "The Beat: Twist and Crawl," the reader is introduced to Ranking Roger as someone, "who talked like a Rasta but had anarchy symbols all over his leather trousers and jacket. His hair, short braids on top, was dyed bright red and ginger. Aside from being one of Birmingham's few black punks, Ranking had charisma. During a Damned show at Barbarella's (Brum's only punk hangout), the audience, a rough mix of punks and skinheads, started chanting NF slogans. Roger, who had been toasting in various pubs around town, highjacked the DJ mike and began singing in rhythmic Jamaican style "Fuck-off, Fuck-off De Na-tion-al Front! "Fuck-off, Fuck-off De Na-tion-al Front!" Soon the entire audience was chanting along with him. He had earned his nickname from some sweet, white girl at school whom he loved dearly, but who had refused his advances, calling him "Ranking" instead. Ranking Roger was too crazy to be anybody's boyfriend."

According to Halasa, 16 year-old drummer Roger Charlery--a first generation black Briton whose parents had immigrated to the UK from the Caribbean island of St. Lucia--first encountered the fledgling Beat (Dave Wakeling on rhythm guitar and vocals, Andy Cox on lead guitar, David Steele on bass, and Everett Morton on drums) in 1978 when they were slated to open for Roger's punk band The Dum Dum Boys at a Birmingham pub called The Matador. It was The Beat's debut live performance. This connection led Dave Wakeling to invite Roger to see The Beat during their Tuesday nights residency at another pub, the Mercat. Roger (who had toasted with UB40, the reggae band Eclipse, and a reggae punk band called the Visitors) was soon on stage toasting during The Beat's reggae tracks and the band soon invited him to stay with them for their entire sets. By the end of the residency, he was a full-time member of the band and could crash at Dave Wakeling's flat whenever he needed to.

Over the summer of 1979, which began with The Specials releasing their self-produced debut single "Gangsters" with The Selecter's "The Selecter" on the flip side, The Beat got their first of several lucky breaks, a gig at Ashton University with Radio One's John Peel as DJ. Halsa recounts that Peel was so blown away by the band that he ended up swapping his payment of £360 for their £80 (he felt they worked harder than he did for it) and talked up the The Beat on his next radio show. Then, an opening slot for The Selecter led to a supporting space on the bill for their short UK tour. And this led them into The Specials' orbit; Jerry Dammers approached The Beat after their London show to offer them a deal to do a single on 2 Tone. As they prepared to record their debut single "Tears of a Clown" (backed with "Ranking Full Stop"), The Beat decided the song needed a sax to complete its sound; Everett Morton knew of an old Jamaican musician who had played with Prince Buster, Laurel Aitken, Desmond Dekker, and supposedly The Beatles, and Saxa (born Lionel Augustus Martin) soon completed the The Beat's line-up. That fall 2 Tone exploded (The Specials, Madness, Selecter, and Beat singles topped the charts and all appeared on Top of the Pops)--and the rest is well-trod history.

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In his brilliant and essential oral history "Walls Come Tumbling Down: The Music and Politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone, and Red Wedge," Daniel Rachel, who had completed working with Ranking Roger on his forthcoming autobiography "I Just Can't Stop It: My Life in The Beat" prior to his death, documented The Selecter's manager Juliet De Valero Wills recalling that "The Beat was more of a natural fit to 2 Tone [than fellow Brummies UB40]...They had that black-white thing and the look--it was a no-brainer--and Roger jumping around all over the place. He looked amazing and absolutely summed up the youthful energy of 2 Tone. He always had a smile on his face."

Roger also is quoted by Rachel summing up The Beat's driving mission: "The Beat was definitely a political band but we have long songs and a commercial side too. It was a balance. It was politics at home: meaning politics with your woman, or whoever is governing your country, and world politics. And it was our experiences. We saw racism; we wrote about it. We saw unemployment; we wrote about it. We saw war; we wrote about it. We were singing about realities, like punk and the reggae acts from the past. We just updated it to what was happening to us. Like 'Doors of Your Heart,' Stick him a room and turn off the light/Bet you couldn't tell if he was black or white? The philosophy behind Beat lyrics was throwing questions. Give them a story and let them decide for themselves. The spirit was promoting peace, love, and unity."

And that was Roger's guiding principle throughout his whole life: "I said a love and unity/The only way!" (from "Whine and Grine/Stand Down Margaret").

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When Ranking Roger sang together with Dave Wakeling, it was as if they were twin baritones--two halves of the same fantastic, resonant voice. During some songs, you couldn't tell where Dave ended and Roger began. But only Roger could toast (so incredibly well and effortlessly) and it gave The Beat an edge and appeal that the other 2 Tone era acts couldn't really touch. Go back, pull out all your old Beat albums and singles, and marvel at him on "Psychedelic Rockers," "Pato and Roger A Go Talk," "Doors of Your Heart," "French Toast (Soleil Trop Chaud)," or whatever your favorite tracks are.

Roger's most recent album with his version of The Beat, Public Confidential (read our review of it through the link below), was finished prior to his illness and it serves as an extraordinary parting gift to his fans. If you haven't heard it, get it.

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Towards the end of the "Whap'pen" video with Daniel Rachel, Roger talked about his life's work: "Every time the gig is finished or nearly finished, I just see pure smiling faces. So, I know I'm doing the right thing, the righteous thing...It's the most brilliant job anyone could have had is being an entertainer. You can be in front of all of those people and you can move them and make them all happy. That's the most joyous thing that I could have done."

Roger's life was so well lived. May we all be so lucky. Long may his spirit and music live in our hearts and minds.

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Below, please find Ranking Roger-related Duff Guide to Ska reviews and write-ups:

3 comments:

Mark said...

I only ever skipped school once [not counting art school, of course, when I had much more important things to focus on than mere attendance records]. It was in 1983, my final year of high school, and The Beat were gigging in my hometown of Cincinnati, at a venue called Bogart's. I had just come off an extensive bit of surgery to re-build my knee [a particularly nasty guitar accident - don’t ask!] and wasn’t exactly the picture of peak mobility. Shuffling along on crutches, with a cast from hip to ankle.

The day of their gig, me and my best friend skipped school to loiter outside the venue, just hoping for a chance to pay quick respects to a band that we liked a lot, as they made their way into soundcheck. Not only did we meet them on their way into the soundcheck, but Roger took us into the soundcheck, hung around shopping and eating with us for a few hours afterwards, smuggled us into the gig that evening [we didn’t have tickets because, at that young age, we had no money], made us comfortable backstage and chatted with us in the dressing room while the support band was on and, because my leg was in a full cast and I was on crutches, they put a chair on stage for me to safely sit on for the entire gig, right behind the keyboards.

I’ve never forgotten his huge kindness.

A legend, a gentleman, and an unspeakably sad loss.

Steve from Moon said...

Mark,

Thanks for sharing this wonderful story of your encounter with Roger! It's more evidence of his amazing humanity and generosity towards his fans. (Did you ask him to sign your cast?)

Best,

Steve

Mark said...

I didn’t, but I distinctly remember considering it and deciding against it, thinking that there might be something very un-cool about pulling your pants down in front of one of your favorite bands!