Interview by: Owen Jenkins
The sound of Two Tone in Britain can be summed up with a handful of bands. Of those the names like Jerry Dammers, Pauline Black, Suggs as well as many others who helped orchestrate the history of the Two Tone movement will always be remembered. There is also the unmissable sound of a Saxa’s ska horn or Bradbury’s bass beat, their has always been one voice that encapsulates the up-beat, horn blowing, shanking, Rock steady beat, that is Ska. And that voice?
It is of course the master of the toast Ranking Roger of The Beat. A voice that Stephen Rodrick in an article for the Rolling stone magazine 1990 said “creates a sound unheard of before or after”
Starting at the early age, he was only sixteen at his first appearance on Top of the Pops, Roger soon cemented himself into history of British culture in songs line Mirror in the bathroom, Too nice to talk too and Tears of a clown. As well as being the soundtrack of a skanking youth and showing they had their fingers squarely on the pulse of dispossessed teenage generation by being able to illustrate the issues of the streets with songs like Stand down Margaret.‘Ranking (which stands for top/high) Roger joined The Beat in the late 70’s. Coming from Birmingham in the Midland, when the Midlands was fast becoming the Catalyst for the expanding youth culture of Ska music.
After the mass immigration of the black families in the 1960’s, mixed with the Jamaica’s thirst for identity after recent independence. The concoction of Reggae and Rock sparked a sound that brought people together and got people of their feet.
The Beat released 3 studio Albums before their break up in 1983. Members went their own way, Dave Wakeling and Roger formed General Public and band mates David Steele and Andy Cox went on to form Fine Young Cannibalise. They came back in a number of forms and partnerships over the years like International Beat and The Special Beat, but with nothing sticking.
2003 they came back to one off sell out show at The Royal Festival Hall, but 2006 saw the rebirth of The Beat in UK featuring Ranking Roger. And now, other than the 7 Compilation albums and 1 Live In London album in 2013, The Beat Feat Ranking Roger are releasing
their first studio album since 1983
Bounce the new studio album is out on the 30th September 2016 but is now available for pre-order on CD/vinyl and digital download.
HI Roger, How have you guys been doing recently?
Yeah we’ve been doing good. Been busy with the new album but we’re doing alright.
Your new album “Bounce” dropped on the 30th September. What kind of response have you received to far?
Dropped, I like that! Its been good so far, people seem to like it. Its being released on CD and Vinyl so what ever you’re into its there.
Great to see it out on vinyl.
Yea and it not necessarily just my generation that’s buying it. You see DJ’s who are like 22 and they have vinyl cases upon vinyl cases. To them its, its priceless, it like antiquities to us. Its great that its come back in a cycle. I thought vinyl was brilliant when you could hold a an album in your hand and open is up and read about the artist and then inside you have all the lyrics and its all made to wow you with a great album.
“Walking on the wrong side” has been out for while now as taster of what’s to come. Its has that unmissable ska beat to it. What come first with your writing, the lyrics or sound?
Well for this one the music came first. I wrote the original melody and then I got together with a producer and sat together in my little studio for about 3 days and everything we done was done without electronics. It was all done on acoustics and vocals. It was a very cool way to do it. Very different to the way I normally do it. Normally I just start with the music and when its good enough I start writing to it. But this way we had to come out after 3 days with a song that could be sung with just a voice and guitar and sound brilliant, and we did it, we came out with 4 of them. It was the start of something great I thought. We managed to keep The Beat sound, as it is a Beat album at the end of the day.
There are song’s on this album that really encapsulate The Beat sound but you also have a number of tracks that bring something new to the table. What would you say has changed with album from people would recognise as iconic The Beat sound?
Gosh, its hard to say because when you are part of the musical journey its hard to see, its easier to see from the outside. For me songs like “close the door” at the end and Ranking Jr’s tracks “My Dream” there kinda of like a new way if you like. Its great for the young heads. Its kind what I like about the album is every track is different. That’s what Beat records are about. They had to sound like singles and thats not an easy thing to do but we managed to do it. Im so proud I can represent the The Beat in this way.
Listening to the album you can pick up on the ska roots on the tracks but there is hints of other genres, which I guess is kind of what Ska is about. You’ve done a number of other solo albums and these are the same as in every single one is different. Inside my head being one of my favourites.
Yeah that’s one of my favourites to out of the solo stuff.
Do you find exercising your music muscles by doing different sounds help when creating The Beats tracks?
Yeah its great, its healthy, that and working with other people helps. For me its been amazing, its been good and bad, its been up and down. You just keep treading on what you believe in and don’t let anyone get in your way. I believe in The Beat music. Not like a religion but the words that were sang so many years ago were sung with all my heart. They’re of meaning, some of them a political but they are the truth.
The Beat and the Two Tone movement were know for their political views, is there a political vibe on this album?
I do yeah. On “walking on the wrong side” I’m talking about surveillance and people listening to what you are saying and by saying the wrong thing you could end up in jail. Where as 30 years ago you didn’t have that to worry about. You could say what you wanted. If you didn’t like someone you could tell them and it didn’t matter, it was just an opinion. Where as nowadays people are quick to take it to court and you actually get done for it. People say we are meant to be free but I cant see it, where’s you freedom of speech? They’ve taken that away from us. Lyrics these days have to almost be code but you cant stop the language of music. The music tells the story. What I don’t understand to this day, is how you can have an audience smiling and having a great time dancing but the lyrics we are singing are so sad and depressing. For me I think its amazing looking at all these smiling people. Singing songs like “Stand down Margaret” about a possible world war three and unemployment and their all there smiling, grinning and dancing away. Its profound. I noticed that throughout The Beat music. Back then we could say what we wanted, where as now we have to be clever about how we say things. If there is something to be said and if it’s the truth, it’s need to be known. I’ll tell you now the tune “fire burn” was definitely directed at Blair and Bush. If you really listen to the lyric its sad and I’ve know it to make people cry. Songs like “close the door and walk away” is about the united nations basically being this big bully and all these little nations crying out for help and not being able to do anything as they are so small. Their very political but not the whole album, there are few love songs on there as well. Its about finding the right balance and I think we have managed to do that well.
Two Tone was known for being able to illustrate what was going on on the streets and talk about the current times. Do you think we could have that again?
I don’t know if its Two Tone, but most definitely, every ten years we need to refresh the country. It couldn’t be two tone again because I think that is it has to come from people who are from between 18 and 25. That’s what I’m looking forward to seeing, not all these old men walking around moaning. Our generation knew what was going on but we forgot to reeducate our kids. Something happened in the 60s to the youth and the whole world that made people unify and get together and start to try and change the world. It gave them a voice. Its was protests and it starts from the kids, non violent protest about something they feel passionate about. That was real affective. I would like to see more of that and maybe its out there but its being hidden because now the music business is being swamped with thousands of tracks and different tyres of music and you can go on to iTunes and there are millions to choose from. Where as in the day fashion, has its time to get their voice out there. It could be 8 months or a year but they get their chance to speak. Even though we didn’t know Two Tone would become a massive movement and be so short lived. When it first came out all the BBC and the media people thought it was brilliant but by the time we got to the third or fourth release they started to realise this was going to change the youth. This time is was political.
Punk got though, punk got thought to me. It made sense to me. I was just like “right this is it, I’m going for it” I’ve been out looking for fairness ever since, searching for justice for people. Its like when punk came in, it was to harsh for the major masses. Then when it started dying out when everyone wanted to be a weekend punk and then we got new wave. The Specials were very clever when they took new wave and mixed it with ska. They brought this new voice that was actually had something to say. It was the first time since punk that people started to stand up again.
Punk gave that idea that anyone can do it.
Yeah, the thing is in those punk days I was listening to bands that couldn’t play their instruments but the fact the were having fun was all that mattered, people actually went out there and became something because of it. It was amazing. I used to jump on the mic and start MCing and it was great. I used to mention peoples names and make little chants in Jamaican and people loved it. I could see the connection with in the music from the start.
So it’s that how you started to get in to the toasting side of things?
I was 13 when I first got into toasting. I used to listen to people like Trinity and the like and Clint Eastwood the early stuff. They were really influencing as they wanted to create their own style. With me it was just I was in the wrong place at the right time. Where as I should have been in with the sound system guys doing the MC, I was in with the punks instead. I grew in with that punk crowd and became on of them almost. Until I met up with The Beat and then we were going place.
You had been on stage a number of times before becoming an official member.
Yeah that’s right a few times. I remember one time and it wasn’t meant to of happened, they had invited me to come on stage with them but their show just wasn’t selling. Their was like 6 people in there. It was free entry but you had to buy a beer was the thing. It was a Tuesday night, I went down to a pub on Hill street called The Crown were all the punks used to hang out. This was about 1979, I went there and it was packed with loads of unemployed punks and skinheads. I said “Remember that band who opened up for my band and they blew us off stage, well their playing down the road and its free to get in”. There was between 50 to 100 of us then walking down the road towards to club, we ended up having these police vans following us down the road as they all thought we were going to cause a riot or something. All we were doing was going to The Beat gig, when we got to the pub and every one piled in, the band was like “wow”. I think that was my passport into the band there and then really. I think it was, obviously I went on and did a couple of songs with them and my mates were all pushing me back on stage to do more and the band didn’t mind and everyone seemed to love it. We formed a really good relationship then and it was just what I was looking for. I did a few bits with UB40 a couple of times they loved it, so maybe I could have been with them. I glad I went with the more diverse choice though, I prefer the more jump up music.
You’ve got The Beat with Dave Wakeling and then The Beat featuring Ranking Roger. You have these two bands with the same name doing your own things. Has this caused any issues?
Its weird you say that, I went to see Dave few days ago, and somehow I ended up on stage with him and I made a bit of a speech to the crowd. I said it doesn’t matter how many Beats there are, what matters is the legacy and the message. The crowd went mad for it and I think anybody who heard that would get it. To me it was a big speech and I didn’t mean to say it. They started playing the music and I said “stop” and that me and Dave ain’t enemy’s. what I’m saying is we have now found a way that we know we have our differences but we can now get along. Its strange that we’re both doing the same thing. In the US The Beat was known as the English Beat so its only natural that his band would be called the English beat. When we go to America we’ll be known as The English Beat featuring Ranking Roger. Its only right in our eyes that as he uses it when he comes over here. There is no animosity that’s just the way it has to be. Now the album is out, its like we have put our stamp down and he has his album coming out. When his comes out he can put his stamp down and then there will be two Beat albums out there. I hope his album comes out and is good and he makes it as good as ours. Getting where we are now has been excellent. The fans love the new album, so that means we done it right. Im very thankful for it all. There is no swell heads here from Ranking Roger, just thankful I could get it right. It sounds like The Beat and by golly it is The Beat! And I hope Dave can get it sounding like The Beat and I wish him all the best.
With this album your son Ranking Jr features heavily, this must have been a proud daddy moment being able to stand with your son doing what you love doing the most.
Yeah ranking Jr, AKA Murphy. Well the bands been together for like 15 years, we just slowly built it up until now its real great to play live. People come to the show knowing what to expect and wanting to jump right from the off. He has taken to it nicely. We’re both front men, wether he has learnt a lot from me or not his his thing but he is able to hold his own. He carries his own style which shows on the album. He good and what he does, he’s even gone in to singing a bit because that tune “work work work” is one of his. It was the first time I heard him singing properly.
He was on the Ordinary Boys track “boy will be boys”
Yeah, well Preston has written a few tunes for the Beat but we have never taken them on. I recon for the next album we’ll grab the tunes he written for The Beat and we’ll have him on as well. He a real nice lad. It’s a shame they didn’t take it further as their was some great song writing with the band. Jr nearly joined them at one stage but they ended up splitting up, which is shame.
I thought their album “brass bound” was a great album. But after the whole big brother thing, things didn’t go their way.
Yeah it’s a shame, that why you’ll never see me on anything like that. No matter how much money they throw at me. They delve in to your private life to much, it can make or break a person.
You obviously brought you son up with the same love for music. Do have have similar tastes when it come to the sound you both want to achieve?
Well yeah, the view on the music comes from me being an original member who was there. But the bass player for instance back with The Beat, I would be lying next to or behind him and could fall asleep. Bob Sargent used to really make the band work, 3 or 4 takes before we got it write. Doing that I would learn all the parts intricately over time. That’s how I managed to lock in that Beat sound. Like when we play live its like “man!” That’s real sound. Its not some cover band sound it’s the real thing. We get the right sound and if we want to add bits here and there we can, but only after have have got the roots of the Beat in first. We have to stick to the original and that’s the grounding and with it flows this new flavour so its not just like the original Beat but its got a new energy and people like it, its organic and friendly.
With the writing for this album has there been a general input? I know with The Beat there was a kind of democratic system in place when writing.
Yeah it was a weird way of writing with The Beat everyone got their look in and everyone got a say really. With this as I’m fronting it, well me and my son. Really all the decisions have come down to us. My decision is final. The Beat is The Beat and it needs to remain that no matter what the song is. That always been my motto. Everyone has followed that knowing that it’s the right way and it proven to be right now.
So by fronting it you’ve had a lot more say of sticking to The Beat guidelines but getting to add flavour to the recipe in your own way?
Yes, yes exactly that! If Jr want to bring a bit of his grime or something in then we would have to make that work but in a Beat style, and it canwork.
One of the tracks has a real jungly vibe to it but it works so well.
Yeah and that’s what brings us into the modern age. All the stuff that going with the UK hip hop stuff which some of it is amazing. I don’t listen to it that much but my son will show me these track that have like 6 millions views and I’m like “why it not in the charts the?” All these english rapper aren’t getting anywhere here so their all going over to the US and sign with someone and are getting ripped off basically. It should be here, people should know its come from Britain. We’ve lost something there. We need all these people in charge to let the youth in. We need it bad, if I could open the gate for them I would. We need to hear what these guys have to say. The youth have gone astray with mobile phones and PlayStation, to much distraction.
So what next on the Calendar for yourself and The Beat.
Well with the album out now, we’re gigging from middle of October until Christmas. Really looking forward to it. You can check the dates and buy the record on www.thebeatofficial.com. The record is out now and in the hands of the gods. All I can say is thank you to everyone who has backed us over the years and are still backing us.
Fantastic, Roger its been a pleasure to chat with you especially considering I’m a big fan.
No thank you it’s been great, hope we get to meet sometime soon. Gimme a txt when we’re in London and I’ll get you on the guest list.
Nice one Roger, see you then!
Well guys that was my interview with Ranking Roger of The Beat. Im sure most of you know their unmistakable sound and this new album is something not to miss. They have the old school ska sound with pinches of new sounds thrown in. Check them on on youtube or iTunes or however you listen and go down and seem them live. I guarantee you you’ll be skanking around within minuets.