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The truly great bands are the ones you recognise in an instant – from a snatch of vocal, an inimitable snap and swagger of rhythm, a sonic fingerprint that says this could not possibly be anyone else.
That’s the way it is with ‘Bounce’, the spectacular new fourth album by first-generation 2 Tone skankers turned purveyors of joyous political pop The Beat. From the clipped and hectic rude boy shuffle of new tunes ‘Avoid The Obvious’ to the chiming sunshine pop romance of ‘Heaven Hiding’ through to ‘Fire Burn’’s heavy-duty righteousness, ‘Bounce’ shows off every gleaming aspect of the most musically diverse band to come out of the multiracial, multicultural explosion that remade British pop from 1979 onwards.
The same energy that drove ‘Mirror In The Bathroom’, ‘Stand Down Margaret’ and ‘Too Nice To Talk To’ – reggae looseness plus razor-sharp songwriting meets the paranoid pace of punk – is here again. It’s all been re-rubbed, freshened and refracted through the multiple dance sounds that followed on from 2 Tone, all the black-meets-white, bass-meets-melody mashups that The Beat helped to trigger. Look into the DNA of every generation of British ravers from The Prodigy through drum’n’bass to UK grime and you’ll find traces of The Beat in there. And now they’re back.
“We knew this record had to be really varied and versatile because back in the day, The Beat always were varied,” says Ranking Roger, original member, MC, songwriter, singer and now driving force of the reconstituted Beat. “That’s what people loved about us. We could be pop or rootsy and underground, we sang about serious things but we made you feel good.
“The Beat were my education,” he explains. “It was where I learned what music should be, how you can bounce different styles off one another, how you can talk about politics and things that matter but keep a happy, positive vibe that brings people together. So this record had to be classic Beat but with a modern edge to it – something that long-time Beat fans will like but new people will get into as well.”
“And,” says this irrepressible, dreadlocked, none-more-Brummie living logo for The Beat’s sound, “we’re dead proud of it.”
Long-awaited hardly covers it with this record, nor with the long road that has brought Birmingham’s original punk-reggae rockers right back to relevance in 2016. In the 34 years since Bounce’s predecessor ‘Special Beat Service’ – the one that won them a huge and lasting US college audience with early MTV favourites ‘I Confess’ and ‘Save It For Later’ – The Beat have split up, partially reconvened (off and on) with friends under names like Special Beat, and seen their gritty love-and-unity sound come back into focus in an age of austerity not so different from the Thatcherised years that produced it. Along the way Roger has recorded solo albums and been a member of Clash legend Mick Jones’s Big Audio Dynamite, sung with Sting (on The Bed’s Too Big Without You) and had solo success with Pato Banton (1992’s Bubbling Hot).
But it was a handful of gigs in 2004 that put them on the path to a full-time reunion and a return to recording. After a landmark show at the Royal Festival Hall, Glastonbury booked The Beat to play the very last performance of that year’s festival – a show at 2am on the Monday morning where festival staff, their work done, could finally let off steam with the diehards. “We had to drive down straight from a show in London with Desmond Dekker on the same night,” Roger recalls, “so it was already a bit mental. When we went on the tent was absolutely heaving. There were even more people outside trying to get in. It was just an incredible gig, really special. We had kids coming up afterwards saying they loved our stuff.” Glastonbury booked them to play three different stages the following year. “We got a year’s worth of gigs on the back of that one show,” says Roger, “And we just never looked back.”- they were voted in the top 50 of the best live gigs ever at Glastonbury by The Telegraph.
The key to ‘Bounce’ is Roger’s newfound partnership with Mick Lister, once of mod revival band The Truth and now a writer-producer whose written songs for Amy Winehouse, Bad Company and Steve Balsamo amongst others. Back in the 80s The Beat had been a jamming band. Roger used to hum basslines or whistle melodies for the original line-up’s instinctively inventive musicians to twist and remake and alchemise. (“I can’t write a note of music,” he admits). But he hit it off immediately with Lister, “a proper nutter, full of amazing ideas”, and they worked out all the new songs on acoustic guitar before taking them to the band.
“It was a different way of doing it but we knew they were solid songs before we even recorded them,” says Roger. “Mick really did his homework. He understood what it means to be on brand. He made sure we sound like The Beat – a modern version of The Beat.”
This revitalised Beat is a family business too. Joining Roger is his son Ranking Junior AKA Matthew Murphy, a powerhouse MC who adds a new dimension to The Beat’s live shows. “He can do a brilliant fast rhyming style, and I’m just too old for that,” says Roger, laughing. “It’s great for the younger fans too because it connects us to grime and UK hip hop, all the things that partly descended from 2 Tone.” Ranking Junior, who had a UK Top 10 hit with The Ordinary Boys with Boys Will Be Boys, has written two tracks on the album ‘My Dream’ and ‘Side to Side’ which have been mixed by the legendary Dennis Bovell (Linton Kwei Johnson, Madness, The Slits). Joining Ranking Junior are drummers Oscar Harrison of Ocean Colour Scene and Fuzz Townshend of Pop Will Eat Itself (and TV show ‘Car SOS’), plus Chiko Hamilton on sax, Andy Pearson on bass and guitarists Steve Harper and Bobby Bird whose background in ambient dub as Higher Intelligence Agency brings a new psychedelic dimension to The Beat.
People ask Roger if it’s strange to be in a band with his son, but The Beat always mixed the generations together. Their original saxophonist Saxa was in his 50s when he joined the band in 1979 and Roger himself was only 16. The son of St Lucian immigrants, Roger Charlery was one of only a handful of black punks in Birmingham. He’d gone to a Catholic school with lots of Irish kids. They introduced him to punk and he turned them on to reggae.
“When you look at it years later it’s obvious, isn’t it? They were both singing about oppression. That was the turning point for me. I knew that if I was going to be in a band it had to be a mixed band.” Inspired by Sly and Robbie (who he later recorded with in Jamaica in the mid 90’s) and Toots and The Maytals but also the Sex Pistols, The Clash, Devo and early Human League, Roger grew up in a music world where everything was up for grabs. He played drums with a punk band called The Dum Dum Boys but also learned to MC in the style of Big Youth and Dillinger, gatecrashing Rock Against Racism shows to toast over the bands. “If you’re rhyming about love and unity, nobody can throw you off, can they?”
He first met The Beat when The Dum Dum Boys invited them to try out for a support. “After the first few numbers I thought, My God we don’t stand a chance,” he says. “The Beat were that good.” After a few guest MC slots, and a flirtation with joining UB40, Roger signed up for The Beat full-time. Thus began a breakneck three years when The Beat recorded a classic ska-driven debut ‘I Just Can’t Stop It’ and a deeper, dubbier follow-up ‘Wha’ppen?’ – and went from Birmingham club band to ‘Top Of The Pops’ to US stadiums with scarcely a break.
Pressure and ambition would split up The Beat in 1983. The rest of the band needed a break from touring but Roger and co-frontman Dave Wakeling wanted to press on. They quit The Beat and formed General Public, an MTV-era success in the US. Wakeling still lives in California and tours with his own version of the band, The English Beat. “I get on fine with him,” says Roger. “We both made this music and we’re both entitled to play it. For our part, we’ve made a new record that we’re really proud of and it’s been a long time coming. That’s why, whatever else has happened along the way, we’re calling this the fourth Beat album.”
One of the originators of political pop is back on fine form, avoiding the obvious with an album to be proud of. In fact it’s like The Beat have never been away. What more could anyone want? Ranking full stop.