Interview: The Beat’s Ranking Roger
Songwriting meets one of the great survivors from the 2-Tone era, and finds him as enthused by music as ever
It’s Christmas 1980, and a 10-year-old miniature rudeboy is having a friendly argument with his uncle, who’s saying, “These bands you like… Madness and The Beat… load of rubbish! They’ll be forgotten about in two years. Tell you what, I’ll make you a bet: I’ll bet you £10 that by Christmas 1990, when you’re 20, you won’t have heard one of their songs on the radio for YEARS.” They shake on the deal.
Some 36 years later, that miniature rudeboy is editor of Songwriting magazine, both Madness and The Beat are still touring and recording, and if you listen to the likes of Radio 2 or Heart FM you’ll hear their songs on the radio on a daily basis. Never did get that tenner off Uncle Ron, but it’s always nice to be proved right…
All of which is a long, self-indulgent way of introducing you to the fact that on 30 September, The Beat (or rather The Beat feat Ranking Roger, as they are now – or The New English Beat feat Ranking Roger, if you’re reading this in the US) will release their first studio album in 34 years, Bounce. When we conducted the interview with frontman Ranking Roger below, we hadn’t yet heard the full album; now we have, and suffice to say that long-term fans should be more than satisfied with how The Beat’s trademark blend of frantic ska, smooth reggae, punky attitude and pop sensibility has been given a 21st Century makeover.
It’s been a long and winding road for Roger. After the first incarnation of The Beat split up in 1983, he went on to form General Public with fellow The Beat vocalist Dave Wakeling and members of The Specials and Dexy’s Midnight Runners; after that band split in 1987 he continued to work with other ex-Beat members as International Beat, and with ex-Specials members as Special Beat, while also briefly joining Big Audio Dynamite and releasing a solo album, Radical Departure, in 1988.
Since the early 00s, though, he’s been back in his natural place as frontman of The Beat (albeit only the UK version thereof – Dave Wakeling fronts a US-based version, The English Beat starring Dave Wakeling). The band tour regularly, and can still sell out decent-sized venues nearly 40 years into their career.
That’s a lot of history, but we’re not here today to rake over the past – we’re here to talk about the new album. So let’s do that…
Let’s start with the single Walking On The Wrong Side, because the video was shot right here in Bristol. Why did you choose Bristol?
“That was where the video company were! They had some great ideas, they said we want to keep it urban and street-ish, and I thought straight away, ‘Yeah, I like these guys.’ So we just randomly went round, found locations and it was a great thing to do. I learnt a lot that day, and when the video came out, a lot of people were saying on Facebook, ‘You’ve helped put Bristol on the map’. It’s a lovely place – I’ve always wanted to live there, it’s one of the few places in England I would live in.”
The single’s quite upbeat and jolly… how typical is that of the album generally?“Well, there are some darker moments in there but it’s very much like other The Beat albums, where all the songs are quite uptempo and danceable. It’s based on dance music and different styles merging, so you get more of what you got before but also there’s a lot that’s new. There’s new songs that take it in a new direction and also there’s Ranking Junior, my son, who’s got three tracks that he sings on the album. So it’s sort of opening it up for the younger heads as well.”
Seeing you live, when your son comes on you sometimes go into almost jungle territory. Is there stuff like that on the album?
“Not necessarily jungle-y. We do a track called Side To Side that’s his main track live, and that’s where you’ll hear that jungle, drum & bass element. But what’s on the album from Ranking Junior is pretty ska-ish. And it’s good, it’s different, and I think that’s what people are going to want to hear. They’re gonna want the sound of The Beat but they’re gonna want to hear it progressing as well.”
I was at The Black Swan in Bristol about 15 years ago, which was one of the first gigs your son did with you. When he came out on stage you looked proud as punch, as any Dad should in that situation… but did you expect it to go on this long?
“I had no idea – I didn’t know how long this version of The Beat would go on for full stop. But it seems to go from strength to strength, and people seem to want it, they love the father and son thing! We didn’t really set out to be one of the few bands that’s got a father and son combo but it’s ended up that way. We’re really good mates, we get on great, we know what we have to do up there and we back each other up. You couldn’t ask more from any musician than that.
“Playing live is a funny thing, because things always go wrong, you always make mistakes, but I think the trick is – and the joy is – knowing how you get out of them, and get back in rhythm with everyone. If you can do that, you’re a professional.”
Does it ever lead to any awkward moments – being on tour with your Dad, or being on tour with your son?
“You’d have to ask him that! But from what I’ve seen, not really. We talk a lot, he’s at home half the time so we talk a lot about the band and the business and how it’s going and how it should be going. It doesn’t seem awkward at all. In a dozen or more years, we’ve only had a couple of arguments and we’ve put those to bed very quickly.
“The same goes for the rest of the band members – we all get on, we’re all professionals and we all know what we’ve got to do.”
Speaking of the rest of the band, how did you come to hook up with the various musicians you work with?
“That’s a strange one, because usually it doesn’t matter what genre you come from, you should be able to play Beat music because it’s got bits of every music! Well, except heavy metal maybe. So I find whoever fits the groove, that’s the man. It’s all about the groove for me. Some people are more technical and it’s got to be, every note is exactly right, but for me the groove is what catches the audience. You can be pitch-perfect and sterile, or you can be organic and really pull the crowd in. That’s what I like, I like the organic side.”
So it’s more about how you gel as a unit, than about any one individual’s stunning prowess?
[cc_blockquote_right] I TRY NOT TO BE TOO MUCH THE BOSS: I THROW IN IDEAS AND LET EVERYONE DECIDE [/cc_blockquote_right] “It is, yeah. It’s about how the whole unit comes together as one animal.”
So Fuzz Townshend, for instance… he’s done a lot of different stuff over the years. How did you come to hook up with him?
“Many, many years ago, Fuzz drummed on my solo album Radical Departure and came round America with me, and we’ve been mates ever since. I always thought he was one of the best drummers in the world and still do, and when we needed a drummer he was like, ‘Yes, I’d love to do it’. Same with Oscar Harrison from Ocean Colour Scene, he said, “I’d love to do all your shows, when I’m not working.” So live we have a mix of Fuzz and Oscar, but it’s just Fuzz playing on the record because Oscar was in Australia at the time.
“They’re both brilliant drummers in their own right, and sometimes we do shows where we have both of them on stage at the same time. Now that’s something to behold!”
Coming on to your songwriting, then… looking back at the old Beat albums, songs were mostly just credited to The Beat. So how did songwriting work in those days, and how does it work now – do you have more of a commander’s role in this incarnation of the band?
“Oh, absolutely and totally. The way it was before, when The Beat first formed, was that everyone put in, and everyone got out. It was a strange democracy, because everybody earned the same amount, whether you were the drummer or the singer. That’s a strategy from working class Birmingham, where you share everything out. And that persists to this day, because whatever The Beat money comes in, I get 1/6th of. I don’t know any other band that’s done it that way, though I’m sure there are some.
“That’s changed now, because The Beat and The Beat feat Ranking Roger are two separate things and it’s 35 years later. With this band, I get my publishing, but I make sure the band get a cut out of that. It hasn’t really come to that situation yet but that’s how it’ll work: I’ll get my publishing and give a certain percentage to the band, because they’ve all worked hard on the record. So they’ll get a royalty and hopefully a bit of publishing as well.
“It’s a good way to look after your musicians. I try not to be too much the boss: I throw in ideas and let everyone decide. Everything’s not me-me-me, because that wouldn’t be right – I like it when everyone’s happy!”
So how much input do the new guys have into the actual writing? Do you tend to present them with fully-formed songs, or take rough sketches into the studio that you work out together, or…?
“Well for this album, the songs were written by either me, Ranking Junior or me, Ranking Junior and Mick Lister, who produced the album. There’s four or five by me and Mick, there’s a couple by just me, so there’s different flavours in there. There’s the commercial stuff which is radio-friendly, there’s the underground stuff which people are gonna love at festivals, and there’s the dubby stuff as well which is very spacious and atmospheric. It’s a full contrast of what I love: I love dance music, I love chill-out stuff, but let’s keep it real, so there’s a message in there as well.
“The songs are political, but you have to watch what you say these days. 20 years ago you could stand on a box in Trafalgar Square and say whatever you wanted, and you’d either get five people or 500 people listening… you can’t do that any more. Which brings us back to the single Walking On The Wrong Side, because it’s all about being watched everywhere you go. Where’s your freedom of speech gone?
“We’ve had all our rights taken off us – we don’t really have a foot to stand on at the moment. People used to protest about things, but now when they do, they just get ignored. We’re supposed to to have freedom of speech, but we don’t really any more, and what’s that gonna lead to? What it usually leads to is riots. So that’s all in there, but it’s not so straight to the point any more, it’s a bit more subtle.”
As a vocalist, do you tend to write lyrics first?
“This time around it was mostly that way, yeah. We started off with guitars and vocal melodies, then fitted lyrics to the vocal melodies. Unless it sounded good with just an acoustic guitar and a vocal, me and Mick were not satisfied. We had to hear it recorded as an acoustic thing and go, ‘There’s a song’, and we both had to agree on it. And the ones we said yes to, those are the ones that ended up on the album.
“So they started as acoustic things with vocal melodies and some lyrics, then we picked the ones we liked and we went away and finished them off, then we presented them to the band and they had to learn them, and then we were recording. The whole process, from songwriting to mixing, only took about three months, which was amazing – it’s definitely the quickest a Beat album’s ever been made, but the quality’s up there, I think. I’m very proud of the album – we all are.”
So how does the writing differ when Mick’s involved, as opposed to when you’re writing on your own?
“It’s a bit more ‘music first’ when Mick’s involved I guess, but not always because he’s good lyrically too. In many ways it’s like the original The Beat days when we used to all write together. In those days we’d start with a jam and the music came first, and we’d fit the lyrics over the music. This time, when I’m writing on my own it’s usually the lyrics that come first, so it’s interesting going back to the original way of writing, because all the early Beat songs were written on acoustic guitars, too.”[cc_blockquote_right] THE MUSIC BUSINESS IS ONE OF THE HARDEST BUSINESSES
TO BE IN [/cc_blockquote_right]I was watching a clip of you doing Stand Down Margaret on [80s UK kids’ TV show] Tiswas this morning… since then, you and the other 2-Tone alumni have survived a hell of a long time! So what are your hopes for this album: does it just need to keep you going, or does it need to get you back on kids’ TV?
“Well, I’m a bit old for kids’ TV now, don’t you think?! It’s not about that, it’s about getting the music across to the masses. I can’t predict how this album will do: I hope it does well, I think it will, but I can’t say for sure because I’m also aware that, in 1979 Tears Of A Clown got to No 6, and I’m looking at the silver disc on the wall right now and it says ‘In recognition of UK sales in excess of 250,000’. These days, to get silver disc it’s probably 20 or 30 thousand sales… the market is saturated. Pop stars of the 70s and 80s really did become millionaires. Pop stars today, they’re YouTube stars but they’re not millionaires, mostly.
“Also, there’s so much competition now. It used to be you had to be within a genre; these days everyone’s mixing it all up together. Which is great, it’s what I’m trying to do as well, but it makes it harder to stand out when there’s 2,000 singles released every week. Only so many can get through, so it’s harder now than it ever was to be in the music business and make a proper living out of it.
“But if music’s the only thing that you really know, and you know it well enough that people keep wanting to hear you, you have to keep doing it! I’m doing it, and it’s earning me a living but I’m not doing it for the money, I’m doing it because it’s what I love. That makes a happy being.”
So it’s not even worth thinking about pop star status?
“It’s not, no. I mean it’s nice to dress nice and look the part… there are ways of looking like a musician, so that people look at you and go, ‘I don’t know who he is but I know he’s somebody’. You carry that vibe with you, that’s what brings you an audience. But beyond that I don’t know what to expect. I mean, if the album’s really, really successful, I’ll be as surprised as anyone else!
“But even if it is, it won’t change me because, y’know, it would’ve changed me when I was 16 and had a hit in the charts! That’s how old I was, and if it’s going to change you, that’s when it’s going to happen. But I always remained grounded, always kept my feet on the floor, and I still do. In fact sometimes people are disappointed, they’re like ‘Where’s your limousine? Where’s your bodyguard?’! But I’m just a human being like anyone else.
“I’ve met some of my heroes over the years, people like The Clash and The Police, even Paul McCartney, and they’ve all been grounded and down to earth. They’re just normal people, and I think people think more of you if you keep your feet on the ground than if you go round being a big-head.
“But today the music business is one of the hardest businesses to be in, and everyone’s looking for a way through. People say, well, you’ve got Facebook and YouTube, it’s not necessarily the TV any more. Actually, I think if you want to make it big, what you really need is a fantastic publicity stunt that gets you banned, and then you’ll go straight to No 1! That’s happened a few times. You need an absolutely clear sense of what you’re doing and how you’re going to maximise its potential – just like The Sex Pistols did.”
Finally, if you had any songwriting advice for young musicians out there, what would it be?
“First of all, never give in. When you’re just about to give in, that’s when things happen, so just keep drilling on bit longer!
“And secondly, when you get your demos done, date them and post them to yourself, so you’ve got dated, sealed proof that you wrote that song in 2016 when someone else releases the same thing in 2024! Everyone’s using everyone else’s melodies now – that’s inevitable, given that in our musical world at least, there’s only seven notes. So if you haven’t got a publishing deal yet, protect yourself in that way.”
Interview: Russell Deeks
Bounce by The Beat feat Ranking Roger is out on DMF Records on 30 September, and the band will be touring the UK to promote it throughout October, November and December. For full details, see thebeatofficial.com