Any time two people who have meant something in my life die within a couple of days of each other, I flash back to that awful year of 2016, when at times it seemed we couldn’t go even a day without the cannonball impact of another loss. We lost Scott Walker only a couple of days and now the news arrives that Roger Charlery, aka Ranking Roger, has passed away. Once again it’s that bastard killer, cancer, coupled with brain tumours.
Ranking Roger was an essential part of The Beat, that Birmingham band that arrived in late 1979, in the immediate wake of the ska revival boom instituted by Coventry’s The Specials. The band top tenned with a sinuous, wriggly version of the Smokey Ronbinson classic “Tear of a Clown”, and went on to a three album career with a string of brilliant singles, including three other top 10 hits.
The band’s commercial impetus didn’t last that long, and by 1981 their singles were struggling to even reach the top thirty. There was a kind of musical schizophrenia at times: second album Wha’ppen? took their reggae/dance fusion into rootsier directions but third and final album, Special Beat Service, recorded with an expanded line-up that introduced a piano into their sound, was more bright and poppy, with a cold, formal production that didn’t suit their style, and with fewer great songs.
The obituries are describing Roger as a vocalist, but properly his role in the Beat was as a toaster. Dave Wakelin was the singer, and Roger interjected in and around his lines, in the classic form of the Jamaican MC style toasters. The contrast between his and Wakelin’s voice made The Beat’s sound unique.
I saw the band live once, at Manchester’s Apollo Theatre, and they were brilliant. After half a dozen straight performances, the band then began to slyly and subtly extend each song, effortlessly eliding from the ebullient song into a twisted, loose and darker sounding dub version, there on stage. I loved it. The second time I went to see The Beat, a year later, at the same venue, I arrived to find the Theatre dark and closed, the gig cancelled, no forewarning, no explanation given. I’m afraid I asumed it was cancelled because not enough tickets were sold. Remembering the performance I’d seen, I had been looking forward to the gig eagerly.
Roger went on to have a number 1 single with Pato Banton, but whilst it was good to see a goood guy do well, “Pato and Roger a go Talk” couldn’t for me be held up against his stuff with The Beat.
If you want to hear an example of Roger’s style, listen to this clip of the band in their earliest days, the 12″ version of their second single, “Hands off… she’s mine”. And regret. Dammit, he was seven years younger than me. That’s no age.
PS, forget to mention, the day Maggie Thatcher resigned, I couldn’t wait to get home, put on Stand Down Margaret and skank around my living room in joy.