Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Duff Review: Ranking Roger with Daniel Rachel "I Just Can't Stop It: My Life in The Beat"

Omnibus Press

(Review by Steve Shafer)

Apart from Malu Halasa's really terrific, if truncated, 1981 biography of the band, "The Beat: Twist and Crawl" (she was Beat guitarist Andy Cox's girlfriend at the time--the two later married--and also ran The Beat Fan Club under the pseudonym Marilyn Hebrides), there's not been nearly enough written about the history of this extraordinary band, so Ranking Roger's autobiography co-written with Daniel Rachel ("Walls Come Tumbling Down: The Music and Politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge," which includes the best history of 2 Tone that you'll ever read) is a very welcome addition to the growing body of literature focused on the 2 Tone era bands. Roger's "I Just Can't Stop It: My Life in The Beat" is a wonderfully engrossing and satisfying read (it's as if Roger was telling you all this over many cups of tea one afternoon) that provides readers with a very candid look--at times, he's unsparing in his opinions--at The Beat's rise and fall. Of course, it includes Roger's invaluable insights as to how songs came into being; conveys stories related to--and his thoughts on--each album and key singles; and recounts the highlights and lowlights of the band's time on the road. It's everything Ranking Roger and Beat fans could hope for and more.

Clearly, Ranking Roger was the right person (an ideal mix of great talent, charisma, intelligence, and PMA), plugged into the right band, at the right moment in time --all of which was illustrated in this story of his and The Beat's meteoric rise to fame. It was a mere nine months from the time sixteen year-old Roger joined The Beat until they were on Top of the Pops promoting their debut single for 2 Tone, "Tears of a Clown" (which reached #6 on the UK charts). Yet, through all this and his time with The Beat, Roger was remarkably mature and level-headed in learning how to successfully navigate his way to adulthood with humor and grace, despite the pitfalls of instant fame and the intense scrutiny/focus that resulted from being one of the first and few black pop media icons (along with Pauline Black, Neville Staple, Lynval Golding, and Rhoda Dakar) promoting an anti-racist message of "love and unity" in a very racist society.

The following passages are particularly profound and relevant to fans of Roger and the band--and are illustrative of Roger's clear-eyed assessment of his life and experience with The Beat.

When he was nine, Roger Charlery's family moved to Stetchford, which was an area with a heavy National Front presence, so he was forced to create strategies to deal with racists during his formative school years:
"Over time I developed my own ways of dealing with racism. If somebody said, 'You're a wog,' I would say, 'Yes, I am a Western Oriental Gentleman.' If they said, 'You're a nigger,' I'd say, 'That's one of the longest rivers in the world,' with the knowledge that the word derives from the River Niger where slaves were exported from West Africa. I would use my mouth, but non-aggressively. I was trying to each them something. Of course, if all else failed, I punched them." 
Roger added:
"There's been many a time when I've got on with racist people. When I've asked them why they're racist they don't really know. I concluded their bigotry came from their parents. I would say, 'If you like me you can't be racist.' They would say, 'You're all right, Roger. It's the others.' I would say, 'I am the others. I'm a representative of the others.'"
The Beat and other 2 Tone acts--most of which were interracial, played black music, and were actively involved in promoting racial tolerance--often drew large contingents of racist and Nazi skinheads to their shows, some were fans (talk about cognitive dissonance), while others paid the entrance fee to be there to disrupt the goings on or cause violence. Learning how to effectively counter/shut them down was a steep learning curve for the band. During The Beat's first tour supporting The Selecter in the summer of 1979, they encountered a particularly hostile audience in London. Roger recounted:
"It was packed with about five hundred skinheads. From backstage we could see the audience shouting 'Sieg Heil' and doing Nazi salutes. We were all terrified...I was like, 'I've got to go on stage to that? What's going to happen? The first coin that's thrown at me I'm down in the audience. I'll knock them out.' We went on and throughout the gig the chanting continued. I was saying to myself, 'Just keep going. If you jump into the audience someone might have a knife.' Thank God we were good and there wasn't any serious trouble. The flagrant Nazism on show was a shock but we went down really well. The music got through. But as we came off stage, Desmond Brown, The Selecter's organ player, started shouting at Andy [Cox], 'Don't you ever fucking do that again! You're a cunt if you get scared by an audience.' He obviously had taken umbrage at our nonaggression and was laying it on really thick...We were all going, 'London is fucking heavy.' How do you weigh that up? We're educating racists? It gave me reason to want to continue. From that night on I had something to fight for and I came to believe that wherever there is racism, Beat music should be played. In its very essence it is anti-racist music."
But Roger soon figured out the best--and non-violent--response to the racists in the audience at Beat shows:
"The fascists would do it to wind you up. You had to ignore it and show them that you were better than that. From then on I always used the power of the microphone to control a situation. It was a great art to learn. As soon as there was a fight, it was, 'Right, everyone stop. Spotlight on them two now.' Then I'd say, 'What do you think of this lot,' and the rest of the audience would boo. 'Okay, you want them out. Let me hear you say "Out...out...out."' You'd get a big cheer and then go into the next number."
In a similar vein, one of Roger's observations about the racist undercurrent of a certain strain of twisted patriotism in the United States in the early 1980s has particular resonance today with a white supremacist in the White House:
"Dave wrote 'I Am Your Flag' about young working-class men being used to fight in the name of nationalism dying to become man because I am your flag. While we had been on our in America, we were struck by how proud people were of their flag. You would see the Stars and Stripes everywhere. If you saw that many Union Jacks in England, you'd think 'National Front.'"
Roger was referring to The Beat's debut album I Just Can't Stop It in the following passage, but it aptly captures the band's essence and speaks to their great appeal:
"I loved The Beat because it was about two sides of the coin, in every way: in subject; in music. It crossed borders and appealed to a socialist conscience or simply to people in relationships, who could say, 'I've experienced that.' We were talking about real things--whether they be political, social or romantic--and our experiences. Punk and reggae lyrics were about social reality. We just updated it to sing about our lives. Songs like 'Two Swords,' about racism, or 'Big Shot,' which Dave wrote about capitalism after standing in the freezing cold at a bus stop in Five Ways [in Birmingham] trying to get to work. He said he would watch Rolls-Royces and BMWs go past and the drivers would deliberately steer into puddles and splash everyone in the queue."
The band's most overtly political song was, of course, "Stand Down Margaret," which was released as a single (in a dub version) with "Best Friend" on the flip side--and all proceeds going to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and Anti-Nuclear Campaign, aimed at shutting down nuclear power plants ("Psychedelic Rockers," the b-side to "Too Nice to Talk To," expressed the very real dread of dying in a nuclear war: "On a night like tonight, when I'm losing my hope/I pray for the best with my heart and soul/It is the hardest...At the edge of your nerves where the lights are pretty/A change in the weather and it smothers the city/Psychedelic, psychedelic, psychedelic war...Well, it's an atmospheric shock..."). But expressing their fiercely anti-Thatcher sentiments (in response to her racism and xenophobia--Thatcher: "People are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people of a different culture"; slashing of funding for education, housing, and social services; privatization of state-owned industries; wholesale business deregulation; and her belligerent Cold War stance aligned with Ronald Reagan that included allowing the US to base cruise missiles in England--making it all the more likely to be on the USSR's list of first strike targets, should nuclear war ever break out) came at a steep price. "Best Friend" b/w "Stand Down Margaret (Dub)" was the first Beat single (an amazing, double AA sided one at that) not to crack to the Top 20--they later learned that the BBC had secretly banned it--and Roger noted that even though Wha'ppen sold well (and many of its songs, like "Get-A-Job," "All Out to Get You," and "Monkey Murders," were pointed commentary on the state of things under Thatcher's rule; I got a kick out of learning that Wakeling wrote "Drowning" while holed up in the Empire Hotel in Manhattan--later in the 1980s, I lived there while going to college nearby, since the school's campus had no dorms), none of their post-"Margaret" singles did well on the British charts, and the next and last album Special Beat Service was much better received in the US than the UK. Even though Roger opined that it was probably their proudest moment, it marked the turning point that led to the eventual downfall of The Beat.

With an increasingly hostile UK press, suspected surveillance ("We were taking risks and there were times we thought we were being watched by the government. They probably sought we were communists or subversives. We would see suspicious-looking people at our gigs. It was very scary."), and imposed limits on their charting (and financial) success, led the band to shift their lyrics from political to interpersonal conflict (to focus on one side of the coin, so to speak) with Special Beat Service, and concentrate more on the receptive college rock/new wave scene in the US than what was going on in Blighty.
"The disenchantment in the UK surrounding The Beat signposted a new beginning for the band. For us, it was like, 'Well, we've said everything we have to say politically,' so as the band got more popular in the States, we started writing more pop and love songs. The next batch of songs replaced political issues with personal politics: we live with politics and we live with people. There's politics in relationships. It was good to combine the two, and as they used to say in the Seventies, 'the personal is political.' It got us to the next level."
The Beat's break-up came after a Top of the Pops appearance in support of the final Beat single, a remix of "Can't Get Used to Losing You" (from the What is Beat? comp), and three dates opening for David Bowie (and, afterwards, apparently an offer to open for Bowie on a nine-week tour of North America). Instead of continuing work on demoing songs for The Beat's fourth album, Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger left the band. Wakeling had spoken to Roger privately and repeatedly about it during their 1983 tour of America with REM (in 1982, they had toured the US with The Police and The Clash; they also played both US Festivals), convincing him of their elevated self-worth and how much more they'd earn splitting everything two ways instead of evenly with the rest of the band, as was their practice. In this book, Roger readily admits to succumbing to greed and hubris and, in time, came to massively regret this decision. He surmised that the never realized fourth Beat album--a combination of All the Rage... and Fine Young Cannibals--would have been pretty fantastic.

Loads more of interest is covered here, including tales about General Public and some dish about Madonna, Gwen Stefani, and The Bangles' Susannah Hoff (and there are the cliched rock star exploits about hooking up with countless women on tour in America that don't play well in this #MeToo age, but I suppose go along with the warts and all tenor of the book). And I never knew that "Save It For Later"--their most popular and enduring song in the US--was written during Wakeling's Isle of Wright days, before The Beat formed, when he and Cox were building frames for solar panels. They used to perform it during The Beat's early days in Birmingham, but didn't record it for I Just Can't Stop It, because David Steele thought it was "too rock...too old wave." (It's one of their greatest tracks and it helped buoy my spirits countless times when someone in my life or life itself was disappointing; but I've always found it depressingly juvenile that Wakeling wrote the lyric as a play on "save it, fellator," which gives "just hold my hand while I come...to a decision on it" a different spin, and insisted on printing the "fellator" lyrics on the inner sleeve of the Special Beat Service album that I picked up when it was originally released.)

While "I Just Can't Stop It: My Life in The Beat" was never intended as Roger's final memorial--there was certainly much more music for him to make and performing left to do (he became sick following the completion of this manuscript)--after reading this book (and listening to his excellent, final album Public Confidential, which he felt really captured spirit and sound of original band), one comes away from it with the sense that his life was so well-lived and to the absolute fullest--and that his fans (myself included) were so fortunate to share part of his life and gifts through his and The Beat's incredible recordings and live shows.

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