“Whether it’s The Specials or The Clash or The Beat, we were all known as people’s bands because we made music for the people. We sang what was happening for the normal working class person.”
Ska legends The Beat will perform at the Charles Hotel on Monday, April 1.
MEG CRAWFORD speaks with Ranking Roger.
It’s the late ‘70s in England and under Maggie Thatcher’s iron-fisted rule unemployment levels are out of control, folks are losing their homes because interest rates are skyrocketing, the unions are getting a hiding, racism’s rife, youth is disaffected and yet somehow the rich are getting richer.
It’s against this bleak backdrop that the second wave of ska bands such as Madness, The Specials, The Selector and The Beat are born, bringing with them a fierce political message and a bit of light. It’s also the moment that Roger Charlery, better known as Ranking Roger (Ranking being shorthand for top ranking), a cheeky 16 year-old with a shitload of fire in his belly, is about to jump the punk fence, join the rude boys and become the baby of The Beat.
Looking back, Roger attributes his savvy to the social and political climate, but fundamentally it came from being a punk. “A lot of the fire that came out of me was from the early punk days,” Roger explains. “I was one of Birmingham’s only black punks. That was a great thing because I used to go into the pub and DJ and MC, or toast if you like, over punk records and the punks loved it.”
The tale of how he came to join The Beat is a corker. The Beat’s first ever gig was actually as support for punk outfit The Dum Dum Boys for whom Roger was the drummer. “They went on first and blew us off stage,” laughs Roger. “There was no way we could compete with that.”
But by that point of time, Roger had already developed a habit of jumping up on stage and toasting for bands, so he gave it a whirl with The Beat and the rest is history. Ballsy move for a kid.
“I was very cheeky about it,” Roger laughs. “A lot of people who were at those kind of concerts would know me from going to other discos. So by the time I went on stage, I’d get a cheer. I used to wait for the singer to get a drink and I’d just jump up at the front and start MCing. Believe it or not, it was so good even the band didn’t mind. In the end, people would be going ‘Will he go up tonight or will he not?’. I always used to, if I saw a moment I’d do it and get a cheer. It was part of building my reputation.
“So bold I think, but security was a lot more lax then and because of the kind of concerts I went to, they were Rock Against Racism concerts, it looked great when a black guy got up and was MCing over a punk tune. I had to force my way, but I only did that because I read that the Sex Pistols used to do the same thing in the beginning. They used to turn up at a gig and say to the promoter, ‘We’re the support band’. So, basically I listened to Johnny Rotten and got myself into a band by doing it.”
Considering what it was like back in the day, have things improved? “Not at all,” rues Roger. “In fact, I think they’re worse. I know a lot of parents don’t even allow kids to watch the news because it’s so awful and horrible. The news is worse than I was a kid, I know that much – we’re seeing worse pictures on the television.”
Musically things are a bit wonky too. “Everything’s gone X Factor-ish and if you don’t sound like this week’s flavour, you don’t stand a chance,” Roger observes. “But I think at the same time, music has become so diverse that anything can become a hit nowadays. The chances of a reggae tune being number one are as high as a pop tune, it’s just who’s got the catchiest tune that month. But as far as young bands go, there aren’t that many that we could count as political. There are a few out there, but not enough to make a difference to youth.”
While it never disappears, ska seems to make a resurgence every couple of years. Roger attributes this to the fact that ska didn’t quite reach the heady heights it deserved during the second wave. “It got big and it got into the charts and every band had a hit,” he reflects. “But I think because of the political messages that were in the songs, they quashed it really quick. It had a nice six-month fame kind of span, but then they stopped it and brought in the New Romantics – in came Spandau Ballet.
“I think they did it on purpose because they could see how dangerous it could be. At the time we had people striking all over the country and we were singing Stand Down Margaret and The Specials had Ghost Town out, which got to number one in the charts, and there were riots everywhere. With that kind of climate, our music came out at the right time. Whether it’s The Specials or The Clash or The Beat, we were all known as people’s bands because we made music for the people. We sang what was happening for the normal working class person. I think because it was short-lived, it never reached its potential, so every few years it comes back again.”