Ranking Roger, singer songwriter with The Beat Featuring Ranking Roger, chats with Kevin Cooper about the original band’s split in 1983, the effect of releasing Stand Down Margaret, the release of their latest album Bounce and their forthcoming tour of the UK
Ranking Roger is a British singer songwriter. He was a vocalist in the 1980’s Two Tone band The Beat and latterly General Public. He currently leads a re-formed Beat line-up with drummer Everett Morton.
Born in Birmingham, he became a punk rock fan as a teenager and joined Ska revival pioneers The Beat in the late 1970’s. He had appeared on stage toasting and singing with them many times before officially joining the band. His energetic style and Jamaican-influenced vocals, paired with Dave Wakeling were crucial in distinguishing the band from the other second-wave Ska bands. The Beat released three albums; the critically acclaimed and seminal I Just Can’t Stop It (1980), Wha’ppen? (1981) and Special Beat Service (1982).
After The Beat’s 1983 break-up, he and Wakeling formed General Public with Mickey Billingham and Andy “Stoker” Growcott of Dexys Midnight Runners and Horace Panter of The Specials. They released the album, All The Rage, aided by the single Tenderness. In 1986 they released Hand To Mouth which was significantly less successful, and the band soon split up.
With Dave Wakeling performing as The English Beat, Ranking Roger fronts The Beat Featuring Ranking Roger and continues to tour, write new material and is releasing a new studio album, Bounce later this year.
Whilst busy preparing for the release of their first album in thirty years, Ranking Roger took time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.
Hi Roger how are you today?
Hey Kevin all is good man. I have been expecting you.
Let me firstly thank you for taking the time to speak to me.
Sure, it’s my pleasure.
And just how is life treating you at this moment in time?
Life at the moment is all very good. We have been spending time rehearsing the songs off the new album so that we will be ready to play them live. That for me is really exciting because we have now finished the album and I have to say that it sounds absolutely brilliant. We now have a release date for the album of the 30th September which we are all really pleased about and more to the point we are all really proud of it too.
Well on the subject of the new album I have to tell you that I have been playing it to death for the past few weeks and I absolutely love it.
That’s brilliant, have you heard the full thing?
Yes I have and I think that it is fantastic.
That’s great, that is really good to know. We have still kept The Beat flavour which for us was so important. We have that live so it was important for us to carry it through to the album which is why I do it. It’s that sound; there is nothing else like it. It was an original sound that we came up with back in the day. For me to still be singing Mirror In The Bathroom every night is just what keeps me there. It is really great.
This is not meant to be an insult in any way, but to me, the new album sounds that good that it almost could have been recorded thirty years ago. You have manged to keep the essence of The Beat perfectly.
Oh wow, that’s great. That is so kind of you to say that. That just goes to show that we must have done something right then (laughter).
My current favourite track off the album is Avoid The Obvious.
Believe it or not that is my favourite track on the album. It’s the one track which I feel sounds like The Beat but also at the same time sounds like something modern too. It just feel right. It’s a bit indie and also underground but I feel that it is commercial enough to stand on its own. That particular track contains all of the elements which made The Beat strong. We were commercial but we were also underground too and it is that which kept us credible. People were never in a position where they could ever accuse us of selling out. I am so glad that we could keep that essence in there and I think that the fans are going to be pleasantly surprised.
Who has been responsible for the song writing for the new album?
Well, if you listen to the album you can hear that there are many different flavours on there and the song writing has been down to me and my son, Ranking Junior. If you go back and listen to The Beat’s albums there were always different flavours on there too; some songs I sang and there were other songs where Dave (Wakeling) sang. It was weird and I liked it like that (laughter). It worked very well for us back then so we have tried to extend that into here. The album was produced by a guy called Mick Lister who was in it from the beginning with me and it was Mick who said to me “whatever you do, we need to keep the sound of The Beat”.
So I would have to say that Mick was responsible for keeping me on course if you like. I would have to say that Mick has managed to keep the essence of the original Beat in there which is exactly what I wanted. He was the perfect man for that job (laughter). Many years ago Mick used to be in a band called The Truth and whilst I know that he still plays occasionally, he does a hell of a lot of producing. In the past he worked a lot with Amy Winehouse and people like that so he has got some street cred to his name (laughter).
So how did you and Mick meet?
My manager suggested that I try working with Mick so I went along and met him and within a short space of time we realised that we had so much in common especially as we were both around at the same time back in the 80s. I can remember meeting his band and saying hello back then but we never actually got together and spoke. We had so much in common; we had the same record company and we were even touring America around the same time, and we simply just got on together.
Once you stated writing with Mick, did you find it easy?
Mick and I started writing together with just an acoustic guitar and vocals and all of a sudden it just kind of clicked. It was almost like the original days; it was totally mad. For years the way that I have written music is starting with a drum, a bass and a melody and then I write the lyrics for that. That is how the song usually comes out. I had forgotten the original way to write a song, and so with Mick it was like a relearning process for me. We went into my studio with an acoustic guitar and a voice and when it sounded good we came out of my studio and we played it to people and thankfully they thought that it sounded brilliant.
It was at that point that we knew that we had a song. If you can play with an acoustic guitar and a voice, no matter what the song is, and it is catchy enough, then you have got a song. The music can’t hide it, if you know what I mean. If you do it the other way, you start with a great backing track, and then you put lyrics to it, but if you can start with great lyrics and then make the backing track brilliant as well then ninety-nine times out of a hundred you will end up with a brilliant song. So that was the kind of process that Mick and I went through. Then when we got the band involved, it all just took off; everybody got it. It all fell into place and felt great.
Did you find that things had changed within the recording studio over the last thirty years?
Oh yes, most definitely (laughter). When we were making the new album I rediscovered a lot of things that I had forgotten plus many new things that I wasn’t even aware of. I also realised just how all of the engineering side of the business had changed. An engineer today is not just an engineer, they now have to be both very technical and also very musical. In fact the best engineers now days are actually musicians as well. It helps a great deal because they know when something is out of tune. The way that I look at it is that every day you learn something new. If you are not picking up something new then obviously you are not communicating enough with your fellow workers and artists.
With music you can never reach a dead end, simply because all of the avenues and all of the roads are always open to you. The fact is that you can always merge into something else, for example imagine if I released a country and western Ska tune. I’m just saying that off the top of my head so don’t start panicking (laughter) but no one has done it so that could be a new style. Or I could release an album of rockabilly music that is mixed with ragamuffin music; we could call it ragabilly for instance (laughter). The point that I am trying to make is that you can create new genres from other genres. People are always telling me that nothing is original and everything has been done which is probably true but it all comes down to how you use it.
I have to ask you why record a new album now after thirty years?
Well why not (laughter). There is no reason why The Beat should have split up in the first place to tell you the truth. I have been doing this for the best part of fifteen years now and people have been saying to me year after year after year “you are playing new stuff live, we want to be able to go out and buy it. When is it coming out” (laughter). A lot of the tunes on the album are new but there are some that we have been playing live for years now. So I personally feel that it is time that it came out.
Didn’t you try to release a new album a few years ago now?
That’s right, we did. We wanted to release an album about five years ago now but because the band kept changing, by the time that I was ready to put the album out, I had a new band and none of them knew the material well enough so that is what really stopped the album from coming out then.
Who is playing saxophone on the album now that Saxa (Lionel Augustus Martin) has retired, because it sounds so much like his playing?
The guy responsible for that magical saxophone playing is a guy called Mark ‘Chiko’ Hamilton. His father Andy Hamilton was one of the best jazz saxophone players ever and he lived in Birmingham. There are talks to erect a statute of him in the Birmingham city centre. Andy passed away a couple of years ago now. Chiko is the son of Andy and what a beautiful tone he has got. He actually had a two year apprenticeship under Saxa and before Saxa retired Chiko used to play with The Beat back then and he was Saxa’s backup. If Saxa didn’t feel up to playing a solo then Chiko would take over and play the solo. So he really does know the Saxa feel probably better than anybody else.
He is now a fully paid up member of The Beat and we are all loving it. There are never any arguments, we just get on with it and do the music. It really is great.
You are now with a new record label DMF Records, how is that working out for you?
That’s right we are, as you rightly say we are now with DMF Records. It is only a small record label but they are really good and they listen to the artists. They have done everything in the way that we wanted it done and it sounds great. We are even bringing the album out on vinyl as well as CD so I think that all of the vinyl heads both old and young will be happy (laughter). I personally pushed for the vinyl version because when you have got an album you have got stuff to look at, stuff to read, you can see who wrote the songs and you can also read the lyrics on the inner sleeve. However, when you have the same album recorded on a CD things are just not the same, even though it is convenient simply because it is compact.
I have to tell you that I have been collecting vinyl now for over forty-seven years and my argument in favour of vinyl is that it simply feels warmer than the CD.
That’s right and this is what I forgot to mention, the difference in sound quality. When I received the Studio Master Tapes to listen to and I listened to them on my speaker, but then when we had the first vinyl test pressing come through, the difference in the amount of bass on the vinyl copy was simply amazing. To me it sounded so nice. They always say that you can’t tell the difference between a CD and vinyl but really if you hear them side by side you can. The vinyl will sound brilliant. We are putting it out on the heavy vinyl so people will be getting the best quality Beat album just as they did with the others (laughter).
It’s good to know that you are a record collector as well. I will make sure that I get Dave Farrows to send you a vinyl copy of the album.
It’s quite obvious to me from speaking to you that you are really looking forward to getting the new album out there and playing it to a live audience.
I can’t wait, I honestly can’t wait. I actually wish that the album was out now. The amount of people who have been looking at our Facebook page who message us telling us that they can’t wait to get their hands on a copy of the album. It all feels nice but you have to promote and get everything in order so that you can let the market place know that a new album is just around the corner. We are letting people know that the album is coming out, and there is a nice long wait before it comes out. So if we do our jobs properly everyone will know that it is coming out. We will be performing some of the new tunes live hoping that will open up the new album to them.
Hopefully for us it will just be like the old days. Whilst no one can ever guarantee a hit, I think that we are all proud enough of the album that if it is a hit or not, in ten years time I will still look at the album and say “what a great record”. All that I want out of the music business is that I make records that I can call great records. I will not make what are in my eyes mediocre records. I want to make records that can stand up alongside the other Beat records, together with bands like The Clash and all of my other favourite bands. What I love about the album is the difference in the tracks; they are not all the same, they are not all necessarily Ska, but there is a bit of Ska in there together with a bit of Reggae, a bit of Rock, a bit of Soul, in fact there is a bit of everything in there. Every single track is based upon dance music and that simply does it for me.
What I was going to say was that from listening to the album what you can guarantee is air play, simply because the album is so user friendly whilst still managing to be politically aware.
Yes it is, from my point of view it is very user friendly but at the same time it is not too safe. There are semi-political comments on the album; songs like Fire Burn and Close The Door which show the darker side of The Beat. We also had that with the original Beat. Yes we recorded Hands Off She’s Mine and Tears Of A Clown but we also had Mirror In The Bathroom and Too Nice To Talk To which were the underground sound of The Beat. I have to be honest with you and say that all in all the underground sound of The Beat is my favourite sound (laughter). However, in order to be able to get that sound across to the people you also need to have a bit of the commercial side in there as well. If you can manage to make a couple of tracks radio friendly then the rest can sound just as you like.
You have mentioned some cracking tracks there but don’t forget my favourite, Stand Down Margaret, which was The Beat’s observation as to just what was happening in the UK at that time.
When we wrote that song we just wrote it because we thought this is what is going on and this is what we think about the situation, without actually ramming it down people’s throats. However, later on it became a great idea simply because of how things were here in the UK. The interest rates were going up, unemployment was the craziest that we could remember, all of the clubs were shutting down, musicians were out of work and everybody was affected. We finally put Stand Down Margaret out because we felt for people like Greenpeace, CND, all of the women at Greenham Common and all of the people like that at that time.
We decided to give all of the proceeds from the sale of the record to them. It was a great thing to do because I remember that the first cheque that they all got was for forty thousand pounds which back in those days was a hell of a lot of money. It actually allowed CND to open their first proper office in London. So whilst I know that the money went to some great causes, funnily enough it really damaged the band to the degree that there was no more airplay for the band on the BBC. We were blacklisted on all of the local radio stations because we were now being classed as being political.
Didn’t the situation get so bad that you actually left the UK for a while?
Yes it did, that’s right. We left the UK and went over to America for a while where we did really well supporting the likes of The Clash and The Police. Don’t get me wrong it was great; they really were great times hanging out with those guys and learning just how they had mastered music together with what they thought of the world. It was amazing to see first-hand the influence that we had on them never mind what influence they had on us. Then all of a sudden we put out a record from the first album; this was after we had released three albums, and this record got to number three in the charts and suddenly everyone was shaking hands with us again. Everyone seemed to have suddenly forgotten about Stand Down Margaret.
However, looking at it now nearly forty years later, everywhere that I go people call me a leg end or should that be a legend (laughter). They all say the same thing and that is that we were so brave to release Stand Down Margaret when we did. I have to tell them that they don’t know what that song did to The Beat. We are sure that we had MI5 watching us which would have been seen as being heavy but it was a cause that we all believed in. I didn’t want to see us entered into a nuclear war and I think that half of the country felt the same way too. Anyway, I’m getting into politics here and I’m sure that you didn’t want to speak to me and find yourself having a political debate (laughter).
I have been fortunate enough to photograph you playing live a few times now and it appears to me that being out onstage is where you enjoy being the most. Would you agree with that?
I have got to say that it is all down to the audience and how they make you feel. No matter how far that I have travelled, once I hit the stage that is it for me. I want people to have a great time and to make sure that they come back to see us again and again and again. I love it when people come up to me after the show and say “I have seen you forty times now and every show has been different”. And to be honest with you that is just how I feel. I play every show like it is my first and my last. The people can see that I am having a go so they have a go; I’m not the best dancer in the world but I have a go.
I’m having fun and I want the audience to join in, that human behaviour spreads to the crowd and they give you ten times more back. That feeling is phenomenal, it’s great. That’s what does it for me live. When you are in front of just cameras it simply is not the same. No matter how much effort you try to put into it you can’t get the same feeling in your stomach that you get when you are in front of even just two hundred people when they are all going for it and they are egging you on. There really is a difference and that is why it is really hard to film the best live gigs. If The Beat were to do a TV show I think that we would be fine but it wouldn’t be the same as when we are playing live and going for it because people have paid their money and they want their money’s worth so we give it them.
Do you still enjoy touring or has it now become a necessary evil?
Not at all, I absolutely love touring. It is what I do, it is what I am best at. Don’t get me wrong, I love the studio side of the business, the writing, the recording and I honestly feel that I have remarried that side of the business recently, but for me the live side of the business has always been an ongoing thing. I love it, the band love it and the mood in our dressing room is always very nice. If anything you would find us backstage in our dressing room taking the mickey out of each other (laughter). Everyone has a laugh. We are all intelligent enough to know just how far we can take it and we are all grown-up about it.
I have to be honest and say that touring can be tedious but generally what we do is we tend to play at the weekend and have the weekdays off. That way it gives us plenty of time to recuperate. We are now gigging less than we were which is good because we don’t want to oversaturate the market. We genuinely feel that we have got it right now, and that for us gigging every weekend is good, it feels great. So in answer to your question, yes I still enjoy touring, that’s the main fact (laughter).
Does it feel good having your son Ranking Junior out there on stage with you?
Oh yes, very much so. Junior has now been with me since he was fifteen years old when he first started joining me on stage performing backing vocals. He was absolutely thrilled when we asked him to join The Beat. Ever since then he has showed his colours because we now have a new generation of Beat fans who are aged anywhere between seven and twenty two years old who weren’t even around when the first Beat was around, but then again neither was he. He understands the old stuff plus he has bought something new to the new stuff as he understands that too. It’s good because I see it as a kind of update to The Beat (laughter).
Actually, when you think about it he is an updated version of me on the MC parts, he is twice as fast, he is still alert, he can get all of the words rhyming so effortlessly and the crowd love him. Sometimes we are in battle with each other but I have to say that he is very lenient with me because I know that he could win (laughter).
I will be coming along to photograph you twice this year. The first time is on Saturday 15th October when you will be supporting From The Jam here in Nottingham at Rock City. Are you looking forward to working with Bruce (Foxton) and Russell (Hastings) again?
Very much so. The Beat have played a few gigs with Bruce and Russell and we all get along really well. It is always good to see them and it just so happens that both bands together bring in a bigger crowd. We have been doing it for three years now, in random places, two or three times a year, and it really does work; it’s great for both bands. It just goes to show how close the fans are. The people who come to see From The Jam are not necessarily Beat fans but they accept The Beat. I can remember Paul Weller saying that The Beat were one of his favourite bands and as you can imagine we were thrilled to hear that.
Bruce and Russell are two of the most grounded, down to earth people that you will ever meet and they are so easy to deal with. That is also what The Beat are like, we are grounded and down to earth people as well.
What do you think to Rock City?
I have to be honest and tell you that it is quite a while since I was last there but I have played there many times. The main thing is that I always have a great time whenever I perform there. I absolutely love the place.
Correct me if I am wrong but I did hear a whisper that there could be a surprise regarding the drummer on a few of the live gigs?
(Laughter) go on, tell me what you have heard (laughter).
Well I did hear that Oscar Harrison from Ocean Colour Scene may be joining you on stage on a few of the tour dates. Is that going to happen?
(Laughter) just who has told you that (laughter). Well to be honest with you currently playing the drums for us is one John Richard Keith “Fuzz” Townshend who you will probably know now for being the TV presenter of Car SOS which is shown on Channel 4. I personally don’t watch it but I do know of it (laughter). Fuzz also used to drum with Pop Will Eat Itself and The Wonderstuff.
So no sign of Oscar?
Did I say that, I don’t think that I did, did I (laughter). On the forthcoming tour, yes you have heard correctly, we will also have Oscar Harrison on the drums as well (laughter). So we will be using two drummers; sometimes they will both play the same gig so maybe when we play at Nottingham with From The Jam we may well have two drummers. Actually, I think that we will be using two drummers because it is a bigger gig so we will be able to afford two drummers (laughter). It’s great having these people involved, they are great musicians and they both know and understand the music. Back in the day I would see Oscar at Beat gigs at the front of the crowd.
He was one of the Rude Boys who would stop all of the trouble (laughter). Oscar and his posse of Rude Boys from Handsworth would make sure that there was no trouble at Beat gigs, it was great. For me to see Oscar get into Ocean Colour Scene was amazing. They got really big and now here he is drumming for me now. It’s just been one big circle.
I have to be honest with you and say that I am particularly looking forward to the second gig that I will be photographing. On Sunday 18th December I am coming along to The Cooper Rooms in Coventry to see you and The Selecter. Now that really should be a special evening.
Yes it will, it will be really special. We have done gigs with The Selecter before and they are really good guys. Pauline (Black) is just a champion, from day one she has been at it, she has never stopped. She is one of the hardest working women in the business who knows just how to keep order. What you have to remember is that when The Selecter first started it was one women surrounded by seven men and Pauline had to keep them in order so you can imagine what kind of person she is (laughter). She is very sweet but just don’t cross her. She is one of the loveliest people that I have met within the business.
We keep on talking about the two of us recording a duet sometime, however we have never found the time to do that as yet but I have nothing but the upmost respect for Pauline. The Selecter really do put on a great show and now that Arthur ‘Gaps’ Hendrickson is back with them they are even stronger. At the end of the day, whenever we meet, and despite being friends, when we get out onto the stage everyone tries their hardest. We really do try to make it hard for them to follow us (laughter).
Wasn’t it like that back in the day when the Two Tone bands went out on tour?
Yes, that’s right. Back in the early Two Tone days when the bands supported each other everybody tried to be the best. From the support bands to the top bands they all tried to be the best. I must say that I simply don’t see that in today’s kind of shows. So what I will say to you is that when you come along to the show at The Copper Rooms you will most definitely see some of that going on (laughter).
You have the reputation for liking to keep things real don’t you?
Yes I do especially when recording. If you want to make big music that sounds authentically organic then you need a big band. I am into machines but I am against machines as well. In the past I have used machines to make records simply because I have had to and at the time it was cheaper than using a band, but then hearing the results back it is so lifeless in comparison. You hear our album now and there are no machines on there; that is a band playing and you can hear the difference to when you listen to something electronic. Don’t get me wrong, I like some electronic music but when it comes to playing proper music with lyrics live then there is nothing quite like ‘the band’.
I couldn’t possibly speak to you without mentioning the split.
Of course, ask away, whatever you like.
You split in 1983. Looking back was that the right time?
I have to say no. I have thought about it many times and I have found myself feeling really bad about it and then other times I have looked back and thought “oh well this is how it goes, just deal with it” and I have. I have dealt with it; it’s not like a burden or anything, it was simply a mistake. Now when I look back I realise that The Beat were overworked. We were so much in demand and we didn’t have enough time off in order to sort our own heads out. We were spending so much time over in America, first with The Clash, then with The Police, then The Clash wanted us back, then The Talking Heads wanted us and then we were doing our own tour over there.
People forget that when we were at our peak over in America we had the likes of R.E.M. and The Bangles opening for us. So as you can imagine we were over in America all of the time. It was simply too much for us to do. If we had been able to take six months or a year off and then got back together, then we could have done it. We would have made a proper fourth album and we would have been as big as UB40 were. I can even remember U2 opening for The Beat at Hammersmith Palais in 1982. I sometimes think “hang on, we could have been as big as U2”.
So just why didn’t it happen?
The reason why it didn’t happen was because The Beat went on to become General Public over in America who were quite big for a while, and also The Fine Young Cannibals who were very big. If The Beat had stayed together as The Beat you would have heard some Fine Young Cannibals songs within our set (laughter). That in my opinion would have been The Beat I think but The Fine Young Cannibals got it instead and I have to say rightfully so because it was me and Dave (Wakeling) who had walked away from it all. So if you like they became the millionaires and good on them because we were all meant to have done that but the fact is that I have now been in the business for almost forty years and as far as I am concerned I have been really successful.
Everything that I have tried I have had some reasonable success with and I am really proud of that. This is the guy who thought that he was going to end up in prison, a trouble maker, unemployed or something and I have managed to keep my head above water. For me that is because I have kept myself grounded all the way through. I have always said that I will forget the pop star status and I will deal with reality, simply enjoy life and have some fun. You could say that is my moto in life.
You have briefly mentioned Dave (Wakeling) how are things between the two of you now?
Everything appears to be alright. There doesn’t seem to be any animosity there anymore. Dave came over to play here in the UK last year and when he played in Birmingham he didn’t know that I was going to turn up, but I just turned up to his tour bus and he was so shocked (laughter). At that moment we could have either hit each other or we could have hugged each other and I am happy to say that it ended up as the latter. It was great. Deep down I knew that he would be pleased to see me whatever happened and we went onto the bus and hugged. We were on the bus for about an hour just talking and there was no animosity whatsoever.
We both agreed that all of the nastiness that had been going on over the internet had to stop. That was not what we were about and we agreed that two Beats were better than one. There was a way for both of us to work and we were going to try our best to make that happen. From there the two of us went off to see Saxa which was brilliant and we put a couple of pictures up on Facebook and when they saw it people were gobsmacked (laughter). I simply don’t have the time for all of the bickering over the internet, in fact the only time that I go on there is when I am looking at something on YouTube (laughter).
I decided a long time ago that I wouldn’t get involved in any silliness on the internet and that I would just let the music do the talking and to be honest, the music does. People who come to my gigs want more and that’s all that I know. They all leave my gigs smiling, sweating and really happy. For me that is a job well done, I must be doing something right (laughter).
So looking forward, could you ever see you and Dave working together once again?
At this moment in time, the only capacity that I could envisage me and Dave working in I think, is if we did something like General Public. That would then be mutual ground for us to work together in. At the moment he has got his English Beat and I have got my UK Beat and I am quite happy with how mine sounds. To me, my version of The Beat sounds exactly like it should. I really don’t want to comment on Dave’s version to be honest (laughter). I don’t want to say anything bad about either Dave or his version of The Beat.
That’s his sound and that’s what he wants but it doesn’t sound like The Beat that I know. The Beat that I know has a UK grounding and sound. Maybe it is only English musicians who can play that sort of thing because it came from the heart of England. It doesn’t matter what colour you are, you can still play it. We had a white drummer the other day playing for us and he played exactly like Everett (Morton) did. I had to keep turning around to make sure that it wasn’t Everett (laughter). It simply doesn’t matter what colour you are, if you can play the part, you get the part. And that is exactly how I run my band.
I would love to work with Dave at some time in the future. However, if the album comes out and it takes off then we know that we have got to keep it going, but you never know what the future holds so I can’t really vouch for anything, but I really do hope that one day me and Dave will do some writing and try something together. It may not be The Beat and it may not be General Public but it would be nice to work with him again under the right circumstances, if I can put it that way.
So the split was totally amicable?
Yes, that’s right that is totally right. When me and Dave split up all of the members of The Beat felt that everybody who was in The Beat was entitled to be in The Beat. There were six of us in the band and every one of us received one sixth. To this day I still receive one sixth of whatever The Beat make in sales worldwide. It was a democracy that actually worked and it continues to work to this day. I have to say that I don’t think that people such as UB40 do it in the same way as we did when they split up. Because our democracy was like that it allowed anybody who was involved with The Beat to go out and use the name.
If Saxa wanted to go out and use the name The Beat he could; if I want to I can and if Andy Cox wanted to then he could. The only difference is that me and Dave have agreed that we will let people know which version of the band it is in an attempt to stop the confusion; this is Ranking Rogers Beat and this is Dave Wakeling’s Beat.
I have recently been listening to some of The Beats hits such as Hands Off She’s Mine, Mirror In The Bathroom and Tears Of A Clown. Why do you think that they still sound as good today as they did forty years ago when you first recorded them?
I think that it is definitely because of the merging of the music. I think that has a lot to do with it. Not only is it clean and clinical sounding for its time, because you have to remember that The Beat were one of the first digitally recorded bands in the UK, but also the fact that you have got reggae and new wave punk merged together. I think that there is something about that sound which has nothing to do with black and white; it is something to do with mixing reggae and new wave punk. That is the key I think and as far as The Beat go we were good at throwing in a bit of soul in there, somehow there is soul within it.
It is not just one type of music, that’s what I am trying to say, it is many types of music in one and any album that you listen to changes all the way through. You hear the first track and the last track is nothing like the first track (laughter). I think that comes from all of the different dance styles that we like.
I had heard that when you covered Tears Of A Clown back in 1979 you received something rather special from Smokey Robinson?
(Laughter) just where are you getting your information from (laughter). We actually did receive loads of feedback from Smokey Robinson himself. When we had recorded the song the publishing company sent it over to Smokey Robinson so that he could listen to it and he said that he had heard six versions of the song that Christmas and that ours was the best by far. He sent us a telegram wishing us all the very best and told us that he hoped that the record would become a hit and it was a hit peaking at number six in the UK charts.
I really do wish that I still had that telegram. As I held it and read it I couldn’t believe that it had actually been sent to us by Smokey Robinson himself. I just thought that we had received a pat on the back from the man himself. That was massive for us considering that the record didn’t actually get to number one. Obviously he got all of the royalties from the song, and he made a mint from the song (laughter). It was serious retirement money.
The Beat’s Save It For Later has been covered by a number of artists including Pete Townshend, Pearl Jam and The Wonder Stuff. I know that you were featured on The Wonder Stuff’s version but do you have a favourite of those cover versions?
For me the Pete Townshend version is my favourite because he puts his own stamp on the song. I have seen a couple of live versions of the song but I always find myself going back to the Pete Townshend version. What amazed me was the fact that these people actually knew of The Beat and recognised our music. I’m not a big fan of his but the first time that I ever met Paul McCartney he came over to me and said “alright Roger how are you doing” and shook my hand (laughter). It blew me away as I never expected that sort of thing to happen to me. I met Paul McCartney at Air Studios in London many years ago and he invited me into the studio to see what he was doing at that time.
So you see, all of the best people including Mick Jagger, Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Sting, the whole of them are all down to earth, and the best of the best have nothing at all to be egotistical about. That’s what I have learnt from being in the business and I have been in the business a long time now. The best people are the down to earth ones. They will see a beggar on the street and they will stop and talk to him and they will still talk to a millionaire round the corner in exactly the same way. People like that are grateful for what they have had.
That’s how we live; we are musical gypsies who travel the world. We see everything which is different to what they show us on the news. Whenever we go to places we see the real thing. You get to see everything from a different angle. The divas of this world don’t last very long. It is just a shame when some of the nice people get burnt which also happens too. The music business is possibly one of the worst businesses that anyone could ever be in but the entertainment side of the business is absolutely brilliant; what you can do to people and what people can do to you. It is absolutely phenomenal and there is nothing else in the world like it.
Are you already thinking about writing and recording another album?
I was talking to my bass player this morning and I said to him that if the album comes out and it is successful then we won’t have to think about writing another album for eighteen months (laughter). However, if it comes out and flops this time next year we will have to find ourselves in the studio finishing off the next album. To put it simply, I don’t know and we don’t know just how the new album will be received. It is going to be released all around the world and we have to give it time so we really won’t know just how well it has done for around six months.
What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?
That’s a hard one you know. I have got to say that there are potentially two things; firstly The Beat playing the US Music Festival in America in 1982 and 1983 as we were the only band to ever play the festival two years running. It was a massive music festival that was held in a dust bowl in San Bernardino in California and there were more than half a million people there. All of the big bands were there, The Clash, David Bowie, The Talking Heads, there were so many bands it was unbelievable. The festival was put on by Apple and it was all of their favourite bands performing. They had invited all of their favourite bands to come along and play (laughter). The organisers were coming up to people and literally asking them on the day just how much money they wanted to perform (laughter). The Beat asked for forty thousand dollars and the organisers simply said “okay no problem”.
Back in those days you were lucky if you got ten thousand dollars for doing a gig (laughter). You think that’s mad, some of the artists, The Clash for example, got half a million dollars, David Bowie got two million, ZZ Top got two million, The Beat should have asked for a million (laughter). I don’t know exactly just how much The Talking Heads got but I did hear some of the figures and I thought ‘oh my god’ (laughter). So I would have to say that one of the highlights of my career must be playing the US Festival over there in California. It was rumoured that Apple put the festival on in order to get rid of a lot of money which they owed the tax man, but I couldn’t possibly comment (laughter). The company knew that they were going to go bust and so they just gave it to their favourite artists. That is why I always followed Apple; they were always dedicated to the musicians, their computers and most of their software was always dedicated to the music business.
The second highlight would have to be being a part of the Free Nelson Mandela record because that made a profound difference as to how people actually related to that situation. That song really helped to get him free. The record got a message across and it showed to me just how music can be more powerful than politicians. A politician will tell you something and it don’t mean nothing. However, if you can get it the right way through music it overrides all of that and it gets through to the masses. Music can be such a powerful tool if it is used in the right way. To politicians, musicians are dangerous people, we can end their career (laughter). Let me stress that I don’t want to end anyone’s career unless they are in government and are hell bent on doing the wrong thing.
What was the first record that you bought?
(Laughter) you can hear me giggling now. That would have been Pick Up The Pieces by The Average White Band. The first time that I heard that record I went absolutely mad for it. In fact I used my first paper round wage that weekend to go out and buy the record for fifty pence. I never used to get fifty pence per week but it cost me fifty pence (laughter).
Who did you first see playing live in concert?
Wow you’ve got me there (laughter). The first person that I was taken to see performing live was the reggae artist Big Youth and that was at the Bingley Hall in Stafford. However, I didn’t actually get in because at the time I was only fourteen years old (laughter). I was outside the venue in the backstage area and I could hear the bass just thumping thorough the walls and doors together with bits of the vocals. The show was absolutely sold out, the venue was rammed. So that was the very first gig that I went to. It’s hard for me to say what the first concert was that I ever went to, because I went to loads, for example the Rock Against Racism concerts back in those days and stuff like that.
I would gate-crash the stage and do a bit of MC’ing and dancing, then jump off the stage and the crowd would go wild (laughter). In fact I started to get my reputation by doing that. If you are known then you can do that and I was already known in the area. I had been a drummer in a punk band believe it or not, and after that I would MC for local sound systems and anywhere where there was a disco, I would pick up the mic and start MC’ing. I made up something about the punks and suddenly the punks and The Sex Pistols love me (laughter). Before I knew it I was one of them.
How did you and Dave meet?
It was shortly after I had started drumming for a local punk bank. At the third live gig that I ever played we decided that we were going to headline and Dave and The Beat wanted to open up for us. We actually auditioned them to see if they were good enough (laughter). As soon as I heard them they just blew me away. There were four of them at the time and I just thought that the band that I was drumming in were never going to be as good as The Beat. We let them open for us and as I had expected, they blew us off the stage. Our only saving grace was the fact that all of the local punks were loyal to us and in those days it didn’t matter if you sounded crap, you could still get away with it (laughter).
The punks loved our set but honestly, The Beat were far better than us. After that things just went on from there. I joined The Beat and became really good friends with all of them and they asked me if I would MC for them. Shortly after that they asked me to front the band, talk to the crowd between songs, and get them off their seats and dancing. Before I knew it, just six months later we were on Top Of The Pops and the weird thing was that I was still only sixteen years old. I had just left school, gone straight into the business and I have never looked back. Don’t get me wrong, it could have been a disaster story, but I have got to say to the original members of The Beat who were all a lot older than me, they all made sure that they looked after me.
Everyone looked after each other in that band which is the essence that I have tried to carry on throughout my whole life. You have to learn by what you have seen. When someone was sick the others would rally round and try to help them. You could see that the other people genuinely cared.
You have mentioned Top Of The Pops, what was your first appearance on the show like?
(Laughter) my first appearance on the show was when we were promoting Tears Of A Clown and let me tell you, it was nerve shattering (laughter). I was so nervous because I had never done anything like that before. You very soon realise that potentially the whole of the UK could be watching you. After I had been on the show a couple of times I started getting used to the cameras. The thing that I found the most difficult was all of the miming; pretending that you were actually singing and things like that. I don’t want to spoil it for all of the people who are reading this right now but (laughter) what can I say, it was interesting.
I got to meet some of the DJ’s who I had heard on the radio, people like John Peel who was a really big fan of The Beat. Also it was amazing to see all of the bands just walking along the corridors chatting with one another. I can remember one time walking down the corridor and I bumped into Phil Lynott the lead singer with Thin Lizzy. He shook my hand and asked me if I was okay. That blew me away; the big man from Thin Lizzy had shaken my hand, wow. As I mentioned earlier, back in those days most of the artists were grounded and down to earth.
So when, in your opinion, do you think the whole ethos of the music industry changed?
It’s funny that you ask me that. I have to say that in my opinion it all changed after the Ska revival when the New Romantics came to the front; that’s when all of the divas started appearing in the business. That is when I noticed people flicking their scarves behind them and snarling at you. I took one look at the situation and thought to myself ‘what’s this’ the whole industry had shifted and was going in a different direction. At the end of the day we are all people and the one thing that I liked about punk music is that it showed everybody that we were all just people and that we were all equal.
Punk and reggae music were the two working class sounds if you like and marrying those two together was and still is a brilliant thing, simply because it is the working man’s music for the masses.
Was it always going to be a career in music for you?
I think that it would have been either a career in music or a career in acting. When I was younger, about twelve years old, I had a dream and all that I remember about the dream was that I was in front of a packed house in a theatre and I was bowing to people. To me at that time it felt like acting and so from that point I grew up thinking that I was going to be an actor but as it turned out it was actually a musician. Whichever way that I looked at it, I was going to be an entertainer which actually runs in the family. My mum was a dancer before she came over here and my dad was a saxophone player and he also played the guitar. When he came over to England he gave all of that up.
So as you can see the entertainment side of things has always been there within the family. Having said all of that I was really surprised when I became a musician (laughter).
Who were you listening to whilst you were growing up?
Back in the early days I was listening to people like Prince Buster, Toots and The Maytals, a load of calypso music, lots of country and western music, Jim Reeves and those kinds of people. My parents loved country and western music (laughter). And then all of a sudden when I was about thirteen years old I started listening to a lot of reggae music that was coming out of Jamaica. I listened to it because to me it sounded as though they were talking about certain truths that were happening in the world. I always believed that they were sending a message out to the working class people. I felt attracted to that.
Then when I was about fifteen years old I got introduced to punk music. I felt that music had the same kind of influence on me as the reggae music had. They were talking about real things that were going on around them. For me, my whole purpose for being involved in the music business was to marry those two styles of music together which I have done continually ever since in the best way that I can whenever it is feasible.
Who do you listen to now?
At the moment (laughter) well, that’s a massive genre really. I currently listen to a lot of Adrian Sherwood and Iration Steppas, but on the other side I like to listen to a lot of ambient stuff like Higher Intelligence Agency who are an ambient dub crew from Birmingham. I also listen to a lot of electronic dub music from Germany. I also love the Gentleman’s Dub Club who I believe are originally from Leeds, well that’s where I first met them (laughter). However I think that they may reside in London now. They are one of the newer bands that have come out who I like.
Who has musically influenced you along the way?
I would have to say The Clash, The Sex Pistols, and I would most definitely have include Toots and The Maytals in there. I always called their music Comfort Reggae because it always comforted me. No matter what mood you were in, it would always put a smile on your face. Some of the other reggae that I listened to was based on more serious subjects, artists such as Dillinger, Clint Eastwood, Big Youth, Trinity, they were all big influences as well. And I had better include The Average White Band in there too who always had an influence on me. Obviously I used to hate bands like The Bay City Rollers (laughter) but they were there and they were part of what was going on. I tended to go for the more underground type of things.
So I would have to say that my influences are many and they cover almost all of the spectrum of music. Living in Birmingham the music is so diverse, people like The Moody Blues, Electric Light Orchestra, Dexys Midnight Runners, UB40, all across the board, it is amazing. Who would have thought that reggae and heavy metal could exist side by side in Birmingham but the fact of the matter is that they do. There is a whole melting pot of music and people are not scared to merge it. I personally think that within music today that needs to happen. It needs to merge in order to grow.
Thinking back to when The Beat had their own Go Feet label, with the development of the internet and in particular YouTube do you think that it is easier or harder to start a record label today?
The Beat were very lucky back then in that we had Arista behind us who would listen to us, give us ideas and then leave us alone to get on with it. They guaranteed to us that all of our records would be released on the Go Feet label and we were quite happy with that. However, I honestly think that it is much harder today than it has ever been. You have to remember that the market for record sales has shrunk beyond recognition. I have a silver disc on my wall from 1979 for two hundred and fifty thousand record sales which got to number six in the charts. To get to number six today you only need ten thousand record sales. That is the difference between today and back in the day; the market for sales has really shrunk.
There are only a few artists who manage to get into the market and sell millions of records. Things like YouTube, Spotify and iTunes all help but all of those things have taken away from what it was all about in the first place. The big problem is that you can download from most of these things anyway and people do. They are more than happy not to pay for the music and listen to a bootleg version of the album. It’s hard for me because I don’t want to criticise the business because on the other hand you can put one thing on Facebook and its gone all around the world within minutes. Before you know it you have got half a million views and that’s got to be good news especially if half a million views turn into five thousand sales.
From a marketing perspective the internet is brilliant if you have got the right people who know what niches to put you in and to make sure that you are seen. The problem is that you can easily get lost today. You can put an album out which could be the best album in the world and no one would know about it and you will only sell twenty copies. It’s not just a record company now, you also need a brilliant publicist, together with great media people who you have got to be willing to pay. They have to get you on the radio and get you on the TV. It’s a bit like it was in the old days but it is a hell of a lot harder. I have never known it to be so hard to sell records.
In the old days people would buy the album whereas now they can just buy the one track. They are missing out because the beauty of having an entire album is the fact that you can read the lyrics, you can see who wrote what song and you get the insight into things that you don’t get with a CD simply because it is too small for you to read. I still love the authenticity of vinyl. Every day, more and more, I am going back to vinyl myself. I am going to start buying vinyl again, not just the albums that I have on CD but I am going to start going out and actually buy new albums on vinyl. That way I will have something to look at and when you hold a sleeve in your hands it is so different to holding a small CD case or even worse your iPod with a small picture on it (laughter).
I am not trying to put people off from buying from iTunes but then again I suppose that I am because if I looked at an album on iTunes I would probably buy two or three tracks whereas if you buy an album then you have bought it outright. If it is a good album then tracks grow on you and so it is worth buying the whole album. That’s what I think anyway. I don’t mind paying for what I hear. If I like something then I will gladly pay for it.
It is someone’s livelihood and if they have put their heart and soul into making a record then they deserve to be paid for it.
Absolutely, I totally agree with you regarding that but your average Joe in the street won’t see it like that. They think that all recording artists are millionaires and that they have got everything already but if I could say one thing to the people out there is that the average lifespan of a band is three to four years. If you manage to last longer than that then you have done really well. Within that time you need to have a record out and if you manage that you have done really well but you then need to get a second record out. You have had all of your life to make the first record but the record companies want the next one out within six months of you releasing the first one (laughter).
They want you to be writing brand new songs again and the pressure placed upon these young artists and bands is unbelievable. If you come into this business then you have to be prepared to make sacrifices if you want longevity. It’s not that you have to come with loads of songs ready, it’s just that you need to come prepared with lots of refreshing ideas in order to survive in this business. If you do that then eventually one of them will get through (laughter).
So where do you think the music business is going?
(Laughter) now that is the sixty-four thousand dollar question. If I were to attempt to answer that question it would be like walking on a minefield. At the moment the musicians don’t even understand where the business is today let alone where it is going. We are still trying to come to terms with the new ways of doing things, especially the old school musicians. We are finally getting it but we can tell the new school that it was never like this in the old days (laughter). Back in the 70s and 80s you made real money especially if you were seen on Top Of The Pops. If you were then your record would sell another fifty thousand copies in that week alone and you went up the charts by five places.
It’s difficult to talk about that when now days they ask you how many copies you have sold in a week, and you tell them it’s five hundred and they think that’s brilliant (laughter). They then tell me that those sales have put my record at number fifty-seven in the charts. I just look at them and say “no, that’s awful, that’s really really bad” (laughter). What they have to remember is that I was there the first time around and I can see the differences.
I was once told by a very famous musician that the problem with the music business is that it is being run by people who have absolutely no interest in music whatsoever. Would you agree with that?
I would have to say that is partly true but what I am finding now is that within the music business there are now musicians who are business men. However, the majority of musicians are simply that, musicians, and they need managing, and they need organising. There are a handful of them who are business men but only because they have used their heads right from the beginning and watched exactly what it was that their manager was doing. Eventually they took over the job from their manager and they knew what it was that they needed to do. If you pay attention from the beginning especially the youngsters, then after a few years they should be able to run their whole band and know everything from A to Z.
They should know how to get into the recording studio, how to get the record out or getting the record out to the record company. So once again it is all down to experience. But I must say yes, a lot of musicians do need managing, and we also need people who are good at negotiating around us in order to make our visions a reality. At the end of the day that is what it comes down to. If I am writing a new song or rehearsing with the band I don’t want anyone from the record company calling me and saying “Roger can you do this interview tomorrow” because at that point I am not interested in doing that. Good management would take care of all that, which is what they are paid for.
They will also ensure that every gig that you do is signed off by the promoters, TV shows and radio programmes; they will check all of that for you. If you sign something that is wrong it then becomes the managements fault and not your fault. That is why you pay them. If you make sure that you have got good management who you both trust and get along with then the music business is a good place to be. There are a lot of bands who manage themselves and they save themselves on average twenty percent but if you have got an outsider looking over it and they know what they are doing, I personally think that is better.
What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?
Oh gosh, I’ve got to say that it is a song that you wouldn’t know. It’s a song that was going to be on our album but it didn’t get on the album because it sounded so different from the rest of it. My daughter Saffron who is twenty-two now was singing on it and it’s about me, her and Ranking Junior. It was about family. The first time that I heard it, the lyrics, the emotion and everything left me welling up. It was absolutely brilliant but I didn’t want to play it again because I thought that it would make me cry (laughter). What we wanted to do was put it on the album as a secret track but it was so different from the rest of the album that it didn’t earn its place on the album. Maybe it will be used for a movie or something.
If you could have written one song which one would it have been?
That’s easy, that would have been Thriller for Michael Jackson. I wouldn’t be talking to you right now if I had written Thriller would I (laughter), I would be a multi-millionaire. The songs on the Thriller album just did it for me. The icing on the cake was having the legendary Quincy Jones produce the album. I accept that it was very commercial but for its time nothing else could touch it and I am sure that you would agree with that.
I totally agree. What does surprise me is that people forget that it was Rod Temperton of Heatwave fame who actually wrote Thriller for Michael.
Wow that’s amazing. I’m sure that he has never looked back. Heatwave were another band that I used to like; they had some great tunes.
Doing my research before we spoke I was looking through some photographs of you and one in particular caught my eye. Tell me about your pod?
Well, it looks great in the garden, it’s all natural and the birds love it (laughter). Its four metres in diameter and it is now my recording studio. I love it in there; it feels like my very own little spaceship. I can lock myself in there and be in a totally different world that has nothing to do with all of the madness that is going on. I can actually get myself in the right frame of mind for being prolific and it’s great. People come in there for five minutes and forty minutes later they are still there (laughter). It is such a great vibe in there.
I have to say that from the photographs it looks fantastic.
It is, I really can’t knock it. Don’t get me wrong it cost a hell of a lot of money but honestly it was well worth investing in, simply for peace of mind. I have already done quite a lot of recording in there and even working on this album, doing some of it in the pod then as far as I am concerned it has already paid for itself.
So just what was the rationale behind buying the pod?
My recording studio was upstairs in my house and right next door to it was Ranking Juniors recording studio. Obviously I would play mine as loud as I wanted to and then sure enough Junior would start playing his as loud as mine (laughter). On my days off when I wasn’t producing music Junior would still be producing his music and so I was starting to wonder if he was in fact influencing what I was doing. I would hear some of his tunes and I would start creating something that was similar to his. I would realise that my chords sounded similar to some of his work that I had been listening to the previous day and I couldn’t have that.
For me to be creative I have to be totally removed from any other musical source and I really could do without the distraction in the house which is why I decided to have some kind of office/studio in the back garden where I could go and create my music because all that you hear in my garden is the birds (laughter). I was looking around but I didn’t like what I saw because everything that I looked at seem to be pretty easy to break in to. I then went into Designer Office and there it was; the pod and that was it, I was instantly sold on it. I took my time and looked into it before going up to York to see the designer and builder of the pod. The original pods were only three metres in diameter which could only house three people but I needed to be able to get six people in there comfortably.
After a few discussions he agreed to make me a pod that was four metres in diameter and that was it, the deal was done (laughter). It took about three months to build all together; there is loads and loads of plaster in there. It mainly consists of wood, plaster and insulation. It’s great, its different and more to the point the neighbours love it and fortunately they love the music too (laughter). Whilst I am writing and recording it is important for me to have a lot of daylight and the actual dome is so big that the natural light just floods into the pod. If you don’t want that then there are blinds to cover all of the windows. It is a great working environment. If it was just an office then it would be fantastic, it is so futuristic. That’s all that I can say about it.
If you could have three dinner guests, past or present, who would you invite?
Well that’s a great question. It would have to be people who I didn’t fear and a lot of the greats were really fearful. People such as Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela I really would fear although they were probably the nicest people in the world (laughter). I would love to have John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. I feel that Nelson Mandela would round it off perfectly. I would like to be the guy who is just sitting there listening to the conversation between the three of them. I know that you said only three but I would really love to have Joe Strummer there too (laughter). I think that would make for one great dinner party.
Now you have surprised me, no ladies?
(Laughter) I didn’t even think about selecting a lady. I’m not being a male chauvinist or anything honestly (laughter).
On that note Roger let me once again thank you for talking the time to speak to me, it’s been a pleasure.
Listen Kevin, I wouldn’t just do this for anyone. It has been really good and I think that it would be good for us to link up at Rock City. I need to meet you now, as I feel that I know you a little now (laughter). You take care and I will see you soon. Call me okay.