ATX Sound System: March 31, 2019

Remembering Ranking Roger and the (English) Beat

There’s a funny moment captured in an early British TV documentary of The (English) Beat, shot while the band was in the studio recording their second album in 1981. A massive pair of hedge shears is being opened and closed in the vocal booth by guitarist Andy Cox because the band decided that the “ssshk ssshk” sound they make would be a good addition to the rhythm track for the song “All Out To Get You”. The voice of producer Bob Sargent can be heard on the intercom: “Try it again,” he says, instructing Cox to go for another take. And then another one. “Nope, try it again.” And another one. As Ranking Roger stands laughing in the background, perhaps wondering how many more takes they can get him to do, a clearly exasperated Cox finally snaps, much to Roger’s delight: “What’s the matter, are they not in tune??”

Everyone here at the ATX Sound System was deeply saddened to hear about the passing of Ranking Roger this past week. For many of us, The Beat and their Two Tone peers (The Specials, Madness, The Selector) were a gateway drug to reggae and ska, for it was that very music (old-skool ska and rocksteady) that was at the root of their sound, and we were eager to learn more about these influences.

There was something exceptionally unique about The Beat, however. They weren’t just blending ska and punk — their sound also incorporated classic pop, soul, calypso, jazz… even African and Latin sounds. Lyrically clever, they were also the most musical of all the Two Tone bands by some measure, and the three-album catalog they left behind following their 1983 breakup remains one of the most perfect trinities in popular music.

The other day we wrote about influential ska producer Leslie Kong and the many hits he had in Britain in the 1960s, with artists like Desmond Dekker, The Pioneers and The Maytals. If one was looking for any further proof of Kong’s legacy, they need look no further than the ska revival that took place in Birmingham, England, at the end of the 1970s, of which The Beat were a part.

Smack in the middle of the country, Birmingham was a hothouse for British reggae music — two of the most successful-ever non-Caribbean reggae bands, Steel Pulse and UB40, were born there — and it’s not a coincidence. In addition to being the most populated city outside of London, Birmingham was also historically home to a disproportionate amount of England’s industry. With the wide availability of factory work following World War II, it became a logical destination for many immigrants arriving from the British colonies, particularly India and Jamaica. As a result, the populace came to comprise a mix of white working class youth (the very same ones who were embracing such black musics as Motown, northern soul, ska and reggae) and first generation British-West Indian kids born to parents who had migrated to England (Ranking Roger’s parents had come from Saint Lucia a few years before he was born).

Given this context, the Two Tone movement seemed almost inevitable. But it wouldn’t have happened without the simultaneous rise of punk rock. It’s the attitude of the latter that provided the anyone-can-form-a-band determination that spurred-on these bands, and also compelled many of The Beat’s sharpest and most political lyrics: “I see no joy, I see only sorrow / I see no hope in your bright new tomorrow” (from “Stand Down Margaret”) is a lyric firmly rooted in the social and economic despair wrought by then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in late-70s Britain. It was a grim time for England’s working class kids. If they didn’t want to follow their parents into a life sentence working in a factory, there were two ways out: Become a football (soccer) star, or a rock star.

The multicultural Beat was evenly comprised of three white English kids and three West Indians. In addition to Roger, drummer Everett Morton had been born on the island of St, Kitts. His reggae-influenced drumming style anchored the band’s sound. Then there was Saxa. Already in his 50s when The Beat found him, saxophonist Lionel “Saxa” Martin had emigrated from Jamaica to London before settling in Birmingham, and had played sessions for the likes of Prince Buster, Laurel Aitken and Desmond Dekker. His smooth style seemed to find him always floating around the outskirts of The Beat’s songs, yet he was integral to their sound (and to their spirit).

But here is another thing that made The Beat special: Their music could be sharp, biting, political. Yet it also overflowed with joy. One of their most subtle and brilliant secret weapons was the frequent role reversal between the bass and lead guitar, wherein David Steele’s bass lines would drive the melody (instead of simply supporting the rhythm) while Andy Cox’s percussive guitar leads (which he walked like Ernest Ranglin on speed) served to underpin the beat instead of singing a top line (the traditional rhythm guitar “skank” would be Dave Wakeling’s responsibility).

BBC Radio recently aired an old Peel Session with The Beat (listen here; starts at 26:30), recorded in October 1979, a full seven months before the release of their debut album in May 1980. It’s notable that Ranking Roger is handling nearly all of the lead vocal duties on this early material, such was his influence on the band’s early direction. Lead vocal duties would gradually shift to Dave Wakeling on subsequent material but, even then, The Beat would not have sounded like The Beat without Roger’s harmonies and toasting. Nor, perhaps, without his record collection. A sound system selector before joining the band, Roger’s breadth of knowledge about Jamaican music was considerable. A fan of Jamaican deejays and singjays, he would go on to explore these styles further not just with The Beat (for example, “Pato & Roger a Go Talk” with Pato Banton) but in his solo material, as well. Our thanks go out to Roger for so much great music that he both made and turned us on to.