Interview – Ranking Roger of The Beat
To mark Demon Record’s heavyweight re-issue of seminal 2 Tone album, “Wha’ppen?” we take the opportunity to talk to The Beat’s Ranking Roger about his memories of the album and the 2 tone period, his new project with his son Ranking Junior (pictured above with Ranking Roger) – and – getting REM a record deal!
Back in 1981 when you released your second album “Wha’ppen?” The Beat had a fairly unique line up – including yourself, Saxa and Dave Wakeling. Can you tell us a little about how the band came about and formed?
Yeah sure – Dave Wakeling and Andy Cox, who was the lead guitarist, they were best mates and they went to the Isle Of White – to make solar panels – and while they were there they started playing with acoustic guitars and making up tunes and met the bass player over there, came back to Birmingham and met the drummer, Everett, in a kettle factory. They tried a few rehearsals, but I wasn’t a member then – I was in a band called The Dum Dum Boys, a punk band, and I was their drummer, and The Beat asked if they could open for us and obviously they blew us away and I ended up joining them in the end. Then Saxa came along about a week later, about a week before we went into the studio to record “Tears Of A Clown” for 2 Tone’s first release. Everything happened so quickly, it was amazing. I was surprised – I had joined them in the March of that year – and November of that same year 1979 – we were top ten in the charts.
Saxa had played with some huge names. Is it true he had played with first-wave ska legends such as Prince Buster and Desmond Dekker – and even The Beatles?
So he says – and if Saxa says you’d better believe it. I know they used to play Manchester and Liverpool quite a lot, he used to play with these jazz bands that went all around the country, and I know John Lennon used to go to a lot of blues dances, or shebeens as they were known then, and obviously they were after hours parties, and sometimes they would have a band playing there, just a small line up, nothing too loud, but enough to keep the thing going. I think it was in that kind of setting where it must have happened. For John Lennon to have been into that kind of thing is good, and later on we found out that George Harrison was a big reggae lover within The Beatles, there was a reggae vibe I think, in there somewhere.
What was the scene like in Birmingham at the turn of the 1980s?
Obviously there was a lot of poverty. It needed building up. High unemployment. It seemed like there was no future. I was about 16-17 and it looked like there was no future for the youth. It was a horrific picture when I really think about it – the strikes going on everywhere and the threat of nuclear war – we’ve found out since that Russia aren’t that bad – and they’re now our friends – but that was the biggest thing for a lot of people then – we really thought that the chances of nuclear war were high. We’ve learned years later that there was never really any intention for any side to start it – but it’s weird the things we live under – like the wars in the Middle East – and the Western world’s secrecy with China – so it’s like a new iron curtain has come up now. It’s a shame.
Who did you look up to to for inspiration back then?
I would have looked up to people like Sly and Robbie, Burning Spear, The Sex Pistols, The Clash, they would have been people I looked up to – it’s an endless list. I remember the first record I ever bought was “Pick Up The Pieces” by the Average White Band – I love any tune that’s got rhythm and melody and that’s always how I’ve been. A lot of music coming out nowadays are merges of two different styles coming together, and I think that – not that we were the originators of that – but we did a lot of that – and got away with it because we still managed to get hits within it all.
It seems you spent a lot of time touring around 81-82 with artists including The Clash, The Specials and even Bowie. Which gigs stand out in your memory today?
Yeah – not forgetting The Police and Talking Heads – and just to let people know that REM used to open up for The Beat. They had three or four tours with us before we made our record company sign them up. Obviously I’m glad that they became massive in the end. U2 opened up for us once – but you know – you meet people along the way and some of them are nice and some of them are horrible – the nice ones you end up working with again. If you’re a diva I don’t want to know, but if you’re grounded and down to earth like a lot of bands around then seemed to be – it still seems to be the way to be.
Many people’s memory of “Wha’ppen?” will be the hit single it gave you in to form of “Too Nice To Talk To” – what is your favourite memory of the album?
That album was weird because the first album was really up and dancey and then that album was more relaxed, and I don’t know what people thought, but when it came out people were like, ‘what’s happened to The Beat?’. It’s a lot like The Specials who came out with their first album all guns blazing, then the second album was more like muzak and Spanish music and we thought, ‘hey up what’s going on? It’s modern cowboy music or something?’ – but people still got into it, they still think of it as a classic – look at “Ghost Town”. The idea was not to keep the same, but to keep changing and the second album “Wha’ppen?” was a lot more relaxed, but the melodies and the catchy hook lines were still there. Then the third album was like a combination of the first album and the second album. The second album was the most relaxed Beat album, Californians and surfers, people like that – that album was made for them.
What do you think the real legacy of 2 tone and the second-wave Ska movement has been?
I think the fact that people recognise that if bands like The Beat and The Specials and The Selecter – bands like that – if we weren’t about – and bands like The Clash and the Pistols and people like that – the racism in this country is getting out of hand – again, and it’s not necessarily out of hand yet – but we all know that there are more people in this country that are against racism, than there are for racism, and I think what those bands did, The Beat, The Specials, The Selecter and Madness, we united a generation of kids and taught them not to fight, to try and get on no matter who you are. I was hoping that would be reflected in their kids, but it still needs to get through to their kids and the younger ones too – they need to know that you mustn’t look at people’s colour, you must look at what they did and what they put out.
What new music are you working on at the moment?
At the moment I’ve got an album coming out on pledge.com and that’s going to contain some of my first solo album and my second solo album, and some collaborations with people like Pato Banton, Death in Vegas – people like that. That’s happening now so people can go out there and pledge now. Then later this year or early next year I want to do a new project with my son called “Return Of The Dread-I” and that will run along side with The Beat. It’s going to be an interesting time to be prolific and be inventive and try and bring new music out – with all the rubbish that’s out there.
Apart from music what else gets you excited?
When I can – or when the weather’s good – I try to do loads of inline skating, that’s my love, second to music – getting on my skates and getting out there. But I haven’t been on the streets for a long time – I skate around the park a lot. I used to be on the street racing the buses – but now I’m like – heeeeeey – this is a dangerous thing to do. I used to be a bit of an expert, I still am, I teach people, I love doing that. And I love video games – I do loads of video gaming – that’s when I’m not writing or building a rhythm – but sometimes it’s good to get away from all that, and get away from who everyone thinks you are – and be yourself. That’s important too.
You’ve been involved with so many projects over the years including Big Audio Dynamite, Special Beat and General Public. What’s next?
I touched on the new project – The Dread-I thing. It’s not the end of The Beat – I’ll still do that, and people should know that, but I’d like to try another project where I can be more dynamic and me and Ranking Junior can control it – different styles, different audience that kind of thing. It’s all part of the challenge.
“Wha’ppen?” is out on vinyl and it’s the thickest plastic we could get it printed on – DJs will be happy.