Arguably the festival’s highlight was the appearance of the legendary ‘The Beat’ from Birmingham in the U.K. ‘The Beat’ enjoy a unique and proud position in reggae’s rollercoaster ride. They played a crucial role during the 1980s in adapting the genre to a British audience, successfully merging it with the emotions of disaffected punk rockers and (frequently fascist-oriented) ska supporting skin heads!
Prior to lighting the fuse for the festival’s launch, ‘The Beat’s’ active and ageless front man Ranking Roger kindly agreed to talk with United Reggae about a host of musical and personal issues.
To start, is there anything you want to get off your chest?
No. After about 35 years ‘The Beat’ goes on. The first time it only lasted 4 years, but this time round I’ve managed to make it last 10 years. So I think I’ve done better this time round. Even if we’re not as big as the first time – the respect and the credibility are still there – and for me, they’re great things to have.
When did it first dawn on you that ‘music’ was going to play a big part in your life?
When I was about 12 or 13. I know musicians often say ‘I had a dream’, but I did! It’s true. I woke up and recalled being in front of an audience, bowing to a packed house. I asked myself was I singing or acting – as I was into both at the time and wanted to be a singer and an actor. I couldn’t tell if it was pantomime or singing in a band, because all I could see was myself and the audience. And of course, many years later it turned out that I went into the music business and never looked back. So I think that dream was something telling me that’s the way I should go in life. Then I started deejaying with the local sound systems and school discos etc. By the time I was 15 I was well into it, as the punk scene was big and ‘Rock Against’ Racism’ was going down in Birmingham. You had punk bands starting gigs and a reggae bands finishing them. I would always jump up on stage with the reggae band, as I specialised in ‘gate crashing’ gigs! I learned that trick from the Sex Pistols! The Pistols explained that their first gigs were ‘gate crashed’ – to get gigs they used to lay by saying they were the opening band! So I did the same, and having jumped on stage and voiced the first few words the audience were already on my side. So it was impossible for security to throw me off stage then! And that’s when they first called me ‘Ranking Roger’ and the name stuck. I was about 15 then, hanging around with the punks. That’s when I became a drummer in a punk band called the ‘Dum Dum Boys’. We were together about 6 months, doing ‘Rock Against Racism’ gigs.
Remind us how ‘The Beat’ started?
Around the ‘Dum Dum Boys’ time ‘The Beat’ came along, asking if they could open for us at our next gig. So we said come along to our next rehearsal and if we think you’re any good we’ll let you. And man, they blew us apart! So they did open up for us and they blew us off the stage! So a few weeks later I went and joined ‘The Beat’ – becoming their front man and toaster. Six months later we were in the charts and never looked back. All I have to say is that I’m so thankful for everything that’s come my way.
Do you remember when you last spoke with Dave Wakeling (from the original incarnation of ‘The Beat’ and now front man with the U.S.-based ‘The English Beat’)?
I physically spoke with him about 8 years ago and spoke with him over the phone about 6 years ago and our last email contact was about 3\4 months ago. I’ve tried my hardest to mend things with him, regardless of what our differences are. Sometimes we’ve just ‘rubbed’ the wrong way against each other and it hasn’t worked out. But as far as I’m concerned my door is always open as far as friendship goes. It’s very difficult, a bit like Lennon and McCartney – we have different outlooks on life. I want to be grounded on earth and with the people – that’s all I know. And I can’t really talk for Dave.
In a recent interview he said that the ‘The English Beat’ do ~140 shows p\a. How does that compare with ‘The Beat’?
We’ve cut down our gig numbers, because we were doing far too many. You can overdo it. So it’s up to Dave to know when he’s overdoing it (or not). While we do ~140 annually it’s nothing really to boast about. All that shows is that the demand for gig music is there – and that is very important. You can do 140 per year playing to 3 people per night, but if you can do 140 per year to halls that are full or nearly sold out, then you’re on to a good thing. Thankfully all our gigs sell really well – and we’re lucky with that. That’s a lot to do with the lyrics and the music, merging punk and reggae – and we’re a bit different from other 2-tone bands. But our MESSAGE really appeals to today’s world, as much as it did 30 years ago.
Any comment on the fact that ‘Stand Down Margaret’ preceded her successive re-elections?
All I can say about ‘Stand Down Margaret’ is that it’s the way the nation felt at the time. When it came out we got banned from the B.B.C. for about 2 years. And when we put it out, we knew it was risky. But if you want to be like, for example, Duran Duran you wouldn’t do that. But we had things to say – and that’s the difference between the Rude Boys and the New Romantics. We come from the working class and we were telling people about unemployment, nuclear horror etc., while the New Romantics were more focused on ‘I love myself’ and ‘look at my nice scarf’. In the end all the bands got on well together, but there was a rivalry between the punks and the ‘New Romantics’ for a while. Though I think they killed whatever ska had to offer – but I’m not blaming Duran Duran for that. Actually John Peel (the late influential B.B.C. deejay) alleged that: ‘they let ska win by accident, not realising what it was’. But I think the ‘New Romantics’ movement killed ska. When ska first surfaced – like with the ‘Specials’ (doing the track ‘Gangsters’), then the ‘Selecter’, ‘Madness’ and so on, it was ‘semi-political’ – in its images and lyrics. And you’d go to the concerts and see black and white kids – all dressed the same – together for the first time ever. It was a new thing and it was when society started to realise what was going on – as these bands were actually more politically influential than they’d set out to be. So the 2-tone music and movement was really let through by accident. They let it through, then realised that it could destroy conservatism – and so our B.B.C. ban happened. It was the counter-equivalent of going to play in apartheid South Africa and being blacklisted – that’s the kind of apartheid treatment we got in Britain. So then we went to America, and became known as ‘The English Beat’ there, touring with the ‘Clash’, the ‘Police’, ‘Talking Heads’ and the ‘Pretenders’ and playing to bigger and bigger crowds. Then before we broke up the record company brought out ‘Can’t Get Used To Losing You’ in England and it went to No. 3! So suddenly the B.B.C. were interested in us again because we’d got a commercial song on the go. But unfortunately we’d split up by then. But we’d had a good 4 years.
In music, who has had the greatest influence on you?
Sly and Robbie were a mega influence – they were the drum and bass backers of 90 per cent of Jamaican musicians during the 1970s – like Black Uhuru. Later on, from about 1982, the ‘Clash’ had a big influence on me, because I used to hang out with them and we were buddies. We toured together and there was a real respect between the ‘Clash’ and ‘The Beat’. I now realise how they were seen as demi-Gods, yet they were so grounded and down-to-earth. Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were big stars in America, but they’d bypass their body guards to talk to people – it was a ‘this is ‘rock ‘n roll’ and ‘we’re the people’s band’ vibe. So with regard to all the limousines and the first class treatment, we never wanted to be part of that really.
Greatest satisfaction in music to date?
I guess it’s the fact that I’ve got about 10 gold discs on my wall at home – that’s something to behold. The thing that means the most to me, whatever happens from now on, is that all of us in ‘The Beat’ have left a legacy. Though what ‘The Beat’ meant to me may be different to what it meant to another band member, the band’s whole persona was really about ‘peace, love and unity’ and people getting on with one another. And that’s what we tried to do, by merging the punk and reggae music and their fans.
Greatest disappointment in music to date?
Greatest disappointment was splitting up in 1984. And all we needed was a year off, as we’d been over-touring and over-worked. We could have come back then and made ourselves big millionaires! But at the end of the day it’s not about the money. It was never about the money and had it been it might have changed me and I wouldn’t be bothered to talk with you now. It’s hard to say, but I think if we’d stayed together we would have been massive.
I won’t say David Bowie! But I think his new album is absolutely brilliant. It’s probably Michael Rose (formerly of Black Uhuru) – he has a fascinating voice
You were a Burning Spear fan. Any comment on Spear 2013?
I haven’t heard any of his stuff lately. But obviously ‘Garvey’s Ghost’ and ‘Marcus Garvey’ and that era’s music were really the climax of Burning Spear. I saw him live about 3 years ago and he was still ripping it up! I don’t know how all the German and French audiences can understand his deep patois, but they can! He gets the message across. Like Spear, I may have dreadlocks, but I’m not a Rastafarian. It’s more a way of life than a religion. In fact, I was brought up a Catholic. The 2 Rasta issues that I don’t believe in are that Haile Selassie was God and I support the spirit and practice of equal rights – so when it comes to women I’m not for degrading them. But I see changes – I now see the 21st century dread – that’s welcome.
Any comment on the music business?
Yes, the music business is awful. I’ve been watching it for 35 years and it seemed to be changing every 10 years or so. But now it changes every 6 months! At one time you could deal with a record company, get £500,000 to make a record, go on tour and work it. You would never owe them that money, so they would have to sell the record to make their money back – which was great. But in return they could take about 80 per cent of what the artist earned – so the payback for the artist was minimal. But nowadays, if you can get the marketing sorted out and you can let the people know the record is out there and they know about you, there’s better potential to make money. But just being on iTunes isn’t good enough. Anyone can get their music put on iTunes. The trick is getting people to buy it, so you have to market it. The way it’s going now is that people are selling their albums via their websites – so between websites and iTunes, that’s the way to make the money. Nowadays, record companies are being forced to give the artist a 50 rather than a 20 per cent deal. But if you can do it all yourself, you might as well go do it yourself. Big record companies, like Sony or EMI, now tend to come in toward the end and give ~£50,000 to help finish the album, do remixes or whatever. But it’s important now to show the business that you’ve made the start, then they’ll come in and help you.
Given that it’s such a tough business, did you have any reservations about your son going into it (i.e. Murphy Ranking Junior – co-member of ‘The Beat’)?
Well he’s involved with me, and I’ve had a great life. Don’t get me wrong. I was lucky. I was the youngest member of ‘The Beat’ at 16 – and I was protected. Wikipedia has me down as being born in 1961, but I was born in 1963 – and I can’t change the Wiki entry – there’s some trivia for you! You see when I was 16, you had to be 18 to be allowed play the clubs, so I had to lie about my age. When Junior was 2 years old, though I didn’t teach him, I stuck a keyboard in front of him and he started making his own tunes and melodies. By the time he was 8 or 9 he was already doing his own MCing, coming up with his own lyrics. By the time he was 15 he was collaborating with others musically and when he was 16 he joined the band – just coming and jamming with us at the start. After about 10 gigs I could see that he fitted and it looked good and people would say ‘it’s great he’s part of the show’. So after that he became part of the show and the business. It’s natural – as they say, it ‘was written’.
Are you working on any projects of note at present?
Yes, I’ve lots of projects going on. The first one is an album with my son this year. It’s solo from ‘The Beat’ and it’s going to be called ‘Return Of The Dread I’. We’ve some tunes already for it and we’ve some collaborations going on too. It won’t be a ska album, but it will definitely be reggae influenced, with some roots in there. We’re going to release that this year under new management.
Do you have a favourite politician?
Well in his time, it would have been Nelson Mandela – and it’s not because he’s black. It’s because of what he went through and came out of, to become a ruler of his country. Could you imagine the Queen of England being in prison for nearly 30 years and then all of a sudden being taken out of prison and she becomes the Queen? For me, Mandela’s story is a miracle – one of the miracles of our time. The Berlin Wall coming down was another miracle. There are certain things I thought I’d never see in my lifetime – and I never thought I’d see South Africa as a democracy. We went there 2 years ago and it’s a fantastic place – the people were so loving toward us.
Do you have a least favourite politician?
At the moment it’s definitely David Cameron (British Prime Minister). But I also think that Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (U.K.I.P.) is potentially very dangerous.
Greatest achievement in life?
It’s that I’ve got my own design studio at home now. It’s just finished – it’s where all my future albums (incl. collaborations) will come from. It’s designed like a spaceship! So far, for me, that’s the dream realised.
Biggest disappointment in life?
Having thought about it, maybe it’s the fact that I never got married. I should have been married. I’ve 3 kids and was with an Irish girl for 20 years, but we split up about 10 years ago. I regret that. We should have got married, but we didn’t. Maybe if we’d married we wouldn’t have split up later, I don’t know.
In life, who has had the greatest influence on you?
I would have to say ‘The Beat’ band and coming back to England. Everything I’ve done has come from ‘The Beat’ – including General Public and Big Audio Dynamite – ‘The Beat’ has been at the root of it all.
Remaining ambitions in life?
One big remaining ambition – a wish that has never been fulfilled – is to get a No. 1 hit single or album. We’ve got to No. 3 in the single charts and No. 2 in the album charts. But we – ‘The ‘Beat’ – have never had a No. 1. We’ve been high up there, with gold and silver discs though.
Will you live out your life in the U.K.\Birmingham?
I don’t know. I might do what my late mum did. I might go live my last days in the sun. My mum came to England and worked there for 40 years and then went back to St. Lucia in the Caribbean. And I’ve told my family that when I pass I’m going in the same crypt as my mum. So I’ll be buried in the sun anyway, in St. Lucia, by the beach amongst the fishermen!