Louder Than War Interview: Ranking Roger From The Beat

On the eve of the re-release of The Beat’s Wha’appen on Demon Records Vinyl Louder than War’s Martin Copland-Gray had a chat with the band’s front-man (and fellow Brummie) Ranking Roger.  

For those of you too (much too) young to remember, Birmingham in the late 1970’s & early 1980’s was not the nice, clean & shiny thing that it is now. It was dull, grey and seemed to rain as much as Manchester! Nowadays, all dressed up in its finery with the Bullring turned into a shopper’s paradise, trendy restaurants and a revamped market hall it’s hard to believe that back then it was a bit of a dump. Who am I kidding – it was awful.

On many a Saturday I’d be dragged round the submerged Bull Ring market that was full of dirt & noise whilst my parents searched for ingredients for that evening’s dinner or a new jacket for me for school. Above the Brutalist architecture of the market was a large road that was connected to the inner ring road and for me it was the one exciting thing about those regular trips to Brum. For a young boy like me it was akin to being on a racetrack and I would shout “Go round again Dad” much to my Mother’s displeasure.

Maggie Thatcher’s economic policies had literally ripped the heart out of the local community and it left a lasting effect even to this day. One has only to drive through places like Longbridge to see just how bad things became then. Over 30 years later & things are only just beginning to improve.

But, amidst all of this upheaval and social change there was the music. Out of the devastation of the heart of the country came bands like Dexys, The Specials, The Selecter and The Beat. It was loud, proud and carried a message, so much so that at times these bands were derided for their stance. Taken as a political one they were shunned by the BBC (quite ironic really given current circumstances) and banished to the lower reaches of the charts.

For a time though it was glorious. Between the years of 1978 and 1983 Two Tone was the sound of Birmingham and The Specials aside, no band encapsulated this feeling more than The Beat. Led by the twin force of front men Dave Wakeling & Ranking Roger they began their assault on the charts with a cover of the Smokey Robinson track Tears of a Clown which hit No. 6 in 1979. Next up in 1980 was Hands Off…She’s Mine, closely followed by a No. 4 hit and one of those classic tracks that they are perhaps now best known for – Mirror in the Bathroom. The album ‘I Just Can’t Stop It’ released on their own Go Feet label is still a classic to this day.

So, fast forward to the present day. I’m sat in an onion shaped pod in the garden of an Edgbaston home belonging to one of Birmingham’s musical icons and all round top bloke Ranking Roger. With it’s Deloreon style door of entry and the mother of all glass ceilings “so I can do some serious star gazing” this is where Roger still creates music to make your head bob and your feet tap.

We’re here to discuss the release of The Beat’s wonderfully titled second album Wha’appen? on heavyweight vinyl by Demon Records (demonrecords.co.uk). Originally released in 1981 and featuring the hits Doors of your Heart, All Out to Get You and Drowning it marked a departure of sorts from their debut release.

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Martin Copland-Grey: So how did it all start with The Beat?

Roger: When I first met The Beat I was in a punk band called The Dum Dum Boys and I was their drummer. This band called The Beat wanted to open for us at a gig at a place called The Matador in The Bull Ring. They came to a rehearsal, played Twist & Crawl and Mirror in the Bathroom and I thought “we’ve got some work to do”. We did the gig, they came on and the place went mad. We knew then that The Beat had won the day. They started wanting me to come to their gigs to check them out. They were playing a place in town called the Mercat Cross so I went down there and there were six people in there. I said do you want me to get some people and they were like yeah, we’re on in half an hour. So I ran down a quarter of a mile to The Crown pub, where all the punks hung out on Hill Street. It was a Wednesday night & some of them were bored out of their heads, some sniffing glue and some of them were just drunk.

I said “remember that band The Beat that opened for us? They’re playing down this place the Mercat Cross.”

Now there must have been about 150 punks following me to this place. I remember the police cars, the Black Marias coming past and it looked like we were going on a rampage to look for trouble. But we weren’t, we were all talking – this is gonna be exciting, it better be Rog or we’re gonna get ya! We got into this place and it filled out all of a sudden and then the band went on. I got shoved on the stage so I picked up the mic and started toasting and they all started going mad. I came off and about two numbers later again they pushed me back on and the band didn’t mind.

Then me and Dave Wakeling spoke and he said we’d like you to do more with us. At the time I was living in a hostel, believe it or not. He’s says right you’re not staying there any more, you can come and stay at my flat. So I stayed at his place for the best part of five months, we got on and I joined the band.

So how did you come up with a groove?

Where did the sound come from? The best story that I know is that Mirror in the Bathroom was originally a punkish, faster song. We told Everett it was a punk song and we told him to play punk. To him that was punk – hitting them hard y’know. That groove came and it worked with that bassline and it was just like click, it was like – no don’t change nothing. I don’t care what it is, that is the way forward. Mirror in the Bathroom, Twist & Crawl, Too Nice to Talk To they come under the same umbrella and there were different umbrellas for The Beat. Most other bands sounded the same but we were diverse.

It was over 30 years ago and riding the success of that first album, what was it like going back into the studio to record what became Wha’appen? Were there different influences?

The thing with The Beat is we were very experimental without realising what we actually were. We were these six guys who got together and basically jammed and these tunes came up or these grooves as I call them came. And for me it was all about the groove.

Coming from the first to the second album we had to change it totally and we felt that way. Maybe because, previous to that The Specials put out their first album which was very trashy if you like. It was very punkish with an edge. They called it New Wave Ska or whatever it was but it kind of still had this edge which Elvis Costello put in there as the producer. But then they came out with the second album and it was like Muzak, hotel music! Obviously they’d been on the road too long, that’s what we thought. We thought they’ve been on the road too long cause this is the kind of music we hear in them hotels when we tour round America – everywhere! But it still had a message and that was really successful for them. And maybe it was more successful for them because they challenged to change.

So was it important to take a different approach to the second album?

Yeah I think so but maybe we changed it too radically y’know. I call the first album a classic, the band were hungry, we were young, there’s major notes against minor notes in there & stuff. It’s all in there. It’s only after we recorded them that we really got to play them properly.

On the first album when we were on The Beat bus we used to listen to a lot of reggae, a lot of punk y’know like Devo, The Clash and people like that. It was very exciting, a nice mesh of music but when the guys felt like they’d had enough dub stuff cause the bass was too heavy and they’d had enough of the punk stuff because it was too thrashy we needed something a bit more mellow. We started listening to loads of West African music so you can hear that influence. So what you listen to on your bus could dictate what your next album sounds like.

What was the recording process like on Wha’appen?

Well it was very, very hair raising! The reason being, we were on Two Tone and we had about ten record companies, the big ones, wanting to sign us up. Anything you want guys – the cheque is blank! We went for Arista who were offering us less money but the most freedom we wanted. So it wasn’t about money for The Beat, it was about having your own say within that crooked business and people who’d actually listen to you. Because someone could offer you a million pounds and just put you on the shelf. But the guys at Arista said listen whatever we do, whoever you sign with it doesn’t matter. But if you sign with us we’re gonna break this band and make sure this band gets the recognition and they did.

So we took some time off after touring with The Pretenders and starting jamming again. Within it all we’d been reading our fan club letters and we got this one from a lady in America saying I’ve tried to use your music for my keep fit lessons and it’s too fast. It was a lovely written letter so we decided to tone it down a bit in the way that The Beat became what we call ‘one-drop’, where the rim shot and the snare hits at the same time and that’s the main emphasis. So we did Doors of your Heart and Monkey Murders and along with a few others and that was the kind of style for that album in the end.

But it was difficult because we had to come up with tunes, so what we were doing on tour was we had a notepad each and we’d keep them for two or three days and then pass them on to the next person.

Everybody would write onto somebody else’s thing and a lot of the lyrics from the second album and the third album came in that way. It was a great way to get stuff together and say well that’s a band effort. Cause even like the smallest line from the drummer could get into the song. We used a lot of bits from headlines and stuff like that. It all came together and made sense. So that took a while to record and get right but when it did come out in England it was met with mixed reactions. A lot of people were like well it’s not Ska is it? You’ve done like The Specials and mellowed out or whatever it is. But in California all of a sudden all the surfers and beach bums, the mods out there, we’d go out there and they’d be lapping it up. That’s when I realised how brilliant this band was at merging in such a subtle, sophisticated way and not in a pushing it in your face way.

This new heavyweight vinyl release of Wha’appen has been recorded from the original reel to reel tapes. How did it sound when you went back to it after so long?

We got hold of all of the tapes & old master reels. Some of them were damaged, half of them were in England & half were in America. When we recorded, you wouldn’t believe this – when we recorded we had two 32 track machines. So we had two 3m machines linked up. We had 64 tracks and in them days they only went as high as 24 tracks.

It did take a lot of sorting out but I must say the Producer Bob Sargeant who produced all three albums, who was always a background man, I think he done a great job because the sound would be down to him and the engineer. They were very careful and I could see the care that they were taking with every recording and the levels. This guy knew this digital machine. We had the two machines linked together and they kept on breaking down and it’d take 4 hours for the engineer to come back out and fix it. Tricky times but we got it done and when I listen to that album I don’t really remember that.

How long did it take to record the album?

I’d say about three months. The first one took a lot less; about six weeks, something like that.

Is there a Vinyl Revolution going on?

It’s important to have every format out there I think. Especially as I’ve noticed over the last few years vinyl has been coming back. All my Punk records I’ve kept from all those years back. It’s not people our age, though some of us still play vinyl cause we still have it from back then and we still have our stereos. But within the younger generation at festivals I’ve started noticing more decks then CDJ’s.

As a DJ when you’re spinning discs, that in itself is an art. You have to be good with rhythm and timing and with the flow of what goes with that tune. Not every tune works together.

How do you feel about new technology? Is it necessary now & does it assist you in what you do?

It definitely assists. When I record stuff and put it out there there’s always some form of a band on it mixed with the electronics if you like. So I think they work hand in hand. The first people I saw do anything like that were Art of Noise and Big Audio Dynamite. B.A.D were the first people to really experiment with live music and machines. It worked for them and it brought a new style and it was different. I don’t think many people have been able to cut it the same as Mick Jones did since then. Machines are important in helping to get the idea of the sounds across. They have their uses. But I still need other songwriters & musicians to connect with and make the songs better. If it’s just you and a machine it can make things limited. The important thing is the human communication – you need other people. You need a devil’s advocate if you like and that keeps you sane.

What about how it sounds? Is it important that it’s clear or do you love the raw sound and crackle of vinyl?

First and foremost when the first CD came out I listened to it very carefully and compared it to vinyl. My analysis of it was there’s a whole spectrum of sound and that is what CDs do and because they are digital it stripped some of the roundness or warmness or something from it. Mirror in the Bathroom was the first digitally recorded single in England. We recorded it at the Roundhouse at Chalk Farm and they had a 32 track digital machine. We were guinea pigs! I’ve got demos of that song, the bass sounds so much warmer & bassier. On some of those earlier recordings there’s this warmth. I guess it’s the same as when amps changed from tubes to transistors, there’s a difference. With a tube amp you get a warmer, rounder, even heavier bass sound whereas the transistor amp seems to strip it. I think the transition happened the same way between analogue & digital, between records and CDs. I think the sounds got worse – with MP3s it’s an even thinner version of what you’d get on a CD. That takes away a lot of quality. With vinyl when you hear the surface noise, that’s the real thing. When you look at the grooves of a record you’ll know a bassy album from one that isn’t.

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I’d like to say we left it there at that point but I’d be lying. Us two Brummies carried on talking about touring with The Police, old record shops in Birmingham, Neville Staples tour bus shenanigans, being dropped by Radio One for releasing Stand Down Margaret and the exciting new project with his son Ranking Junior entitled Dread-I. I’ve been lucky enough to have been given a sneak preview of this material and let me tell you the man is still at the top of his game. In fact it sounds just as diverse and challenging as it did back then in the social wasteland of the 1980’s. Perhaps in this age of austerity we all need a bit of a lift. So maybe it’s time for a big smile and a heavy groove because at the end of the day it’s all about the groove.

MCG – Bromsgrove – August 2013

Demon Records Vinyl-only release of The Beat’s Wha’appen? is out now.
Cat. No.: FEETLP002/Barcode:’5014797138766

All words by Martin Copland-Gray. You can read more from Martin on LTW in his author’s archive.

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  1. Brilliant interview … really interesting to hear Roger’s thoughts, especially on how he got involved with the band, and on the 2nd Specials album (I remember at the time being totally confused with what I was listening to … it certainly was a bit left-field). Looking forward to the re-release of Wha’ppen. I have not listened to it for a while and will now have to resist until my copy arrives. .

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