|Photo: Adrian Boot (from "The Beat: Twist and Crawl" book by Malu Halasa;|
note Saxa in the background!)
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 Roseland 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.|
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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."
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:
Duff Review: The Beat Featuring Ranking Roger Public Confidential
Duff Review: The Selecter/The Beat Split Single "Breakdown" b/w "Side to Side"
Duff Review: The Beat Featuring Ranking Roger Bounce
Duff Review: The English Beat Live at the US Festival '82 and '83
Duff Review: The Clash featuring Ranking Roger "Red Angel Dragnet" b/w "Rock the Casbah"
Duff Review: The Spritely Allstars featuring Ranking Roger "Two Swords (Majestic Mix)" b/w The Stiff Joints "Ackee 123"
Adventures in Record Collecting: The Beat's "Psychedelic Rockers"
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