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Ranking Roger's four decades on ska's front line

THE BEAT MAN: Ranking Roger

THE YEARS have been kind to Ranking Roger, a founding member of The Beat – one of the most important and loved alternative ska bands ever to stand on a stage.

In fact time seems to have stood still for a music icon who has been on the industry’s front line for almost 40 years – perhaps a little less baby-faced, but still beanpole slim from decades of rude boy dancing.

With a reformed Beat line-up he’s still out there playing gigs every weekend, whirring round the stage with the energy of a teenager.

On meeting this Birmingham-born legend, I was expecting just a slight trace of ego-centric celebrity arrogance, or at least a small entourage of agents and PR people.

I was totally wrong on all fronts – even about the flash car I had earmarked in the car park as Roger’s because he walked to our interview destination and insisted on buying me lunch.

“I can’t imagine me ever driving anything like that!” laughed the irrepressible originator of political pop, dreadlocks tucked under a smart fedora. “That’s so not me.”

We met up to talk about Bounce – the Beat’s first studio album in more than 30 years, which has just been released by DMF Records on CD, vinyl and digital.

You only have to listen to the first two tracks to realise it contains the same raw energy that drove Mirror in the Bathroom to number four in the UK charts back in the early 1980s.

And The Beat’s strong tradition of music with a serious political message is there too, such as in the track Walking on the Wrong Side, which highlights the worrying lack of freedom of speech.

“Today, you have to be very careful about how you say things despite the fact we like to think we’re in a more enlightened age,” said Roger. “Growing up in the 1970s we had to deal with a lot of racism, but we healed each other. Our kids’ generation still has a lot to deal with.

“Where there is racism, The Beat needs to be there because our main message was always peace and unity – and we’re still striving for that. Music can get through where politics can’t.”

Roger recalls one of his proudest moments was working with The Specials on Free Nelson Mandela one of the world’s most potent protest songs, which reached number six in the UK charts in 1984.

And then of course The Beat had their own proud moment with Stand Down Margaret – a political protest single against the Thatcherite era, which was soon banned on BBC Radio 1.

“Despite the single being banned we managed to make £40,000 from it which we donated to CND,” said Roger, who has played at Glastonbury several times. “That helped them to open their first office in London. That, for me was a very proud moment.

“The women protesting at Greenham Common used to sing it and so did the men in the miners’ strike a few years later. It became an anthem for that time.”

It’s all a far cry from the days when Roger, barely 16, and already a respected toaster, became as he puts it himself ‘one of Birmingham’s first black punks.’

“In those days everyone wanted to be in a two-tone band that was both black and white,” he smiled. “Within nine months of joining The Beat we were on Top of the Pops. I remember watching it with my mum and she cried – she was so proud!”

The original Beat split in 1983 and fellow front man Dave Wakeling now leads The English Beat in America. Unlike their contemporaries UB40, they found that the world was big enough for the two bands to exist separately without rancour.

A strong link to family has clearly kept Roger grounded. He made sure he looked after his late mum Anne-Marie, who was born in St Lucia.

“I remember her always sending money home to her family, as was the Caribbean tradition,” he said. “In turn I helped her to achieve her dream of having a house built in St Lucia before she died. That was very important to me.”

He credits his dad Jean Baptiste Charlery with nurturing his early interest in music because he was always playing it.

“My dad played a wicked guitar and sax, but when he came here to Birmingham he came to work, so he gave it all up. He could have been very successful.”

Father-of-five Roger recalls how nervous he was when his dad, who he was reunited with after 30 years, came to one of his gigs.

The family bond now continues with his son Matthew Murphy ‘Ranking Junior,’ a powerhouse MC, who’s a vital part of the reformed Beat. His daughter Saffron has also done some vocals and is now studying music in Ireland.

The new album was put together in record time last summer in Roger’s eco-friendly hideaway – a round recording studio in his back garden, which he calls The Pod.

So now all the hard work is being put into practice with a series of gigs with the first on October 15th at Nottingham Rock City.

Roger will be joined by his son Ranking Junior, drummers Oscar Harrison, of Ocean Colour Scene and Fuzz Townsend, of Pop Will Eat Itself.

The line-up also includes Chiko Hamilton, son of sax legend Andy Hamilton; Andy Pearson on bass guitar; Steve Harper on guitar and Bobby Bird, of Higher Intelligence Agency.

Roger concluded: “The Beat was my education. 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.”

And Bounce certainly will.

For more details visit The Beat website at: www.thebeatofficial.com

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