I went along to the launch party for Ranking Roger’s autobiography “I Just Can’t Stop It: My Life In The Beat” at the Heavenly Social recently. Of course, it was a very poignant affair as sadly Roger passed away before he could see the book published. Co-writer Daniel Rachel took part in an entertaining interview and Q & A session and did a great job in what must have been difficult circumstances. Daniel has already had books published on subjects that include Rock Against Racism, Britpop, 2 Tone and Red Wedge so he was a good choice to work with Roger on his autobiography. The book was available for sale on the night prior to publication so I picked up a copy and have just finished reading it. First of all I must say, that there are some fantastic photos throughout and it was great to see a couple of my Retro Man Blog colleague Paul Slattery’s pics inside, including the famous one of Roger with Joe Strummer backstage at the Mogador Theatre in Paris. Here, Paul shares two of his own favourite photos and gives us some background behind them.
|Ranking Roger - Photo copyright Paul Slattery|
“I took this backstage photo of Ranking Roger with his top hat after a gig in late 1979 at The Subscription Rooms in Stroud. He was still only 16 at the time but for a young man he was loaded with charisma, good looks and a lot of talent. Although the gig was nearly forty years ago, I’ll never forget it. A cold winter’s night was turned into a cauldron of heat in the upstairs room of the Subs and I felt the floor bounce up and down with the rhythm of the dancing. Ranking Roger was a smiling genius, his toasting on such numbers as “Tears of a Clown”, “Whine and Grine” and “Big Shot” was a real treat – he certainly earnt his “Ranking” moniker in my opinion, comparing with the likes of Ranking Trevor and Ranking Joe. The Beat were certainly one of the best and most exciting bands I have ever seen and Roger’s toasting, along with the legendary Saxa, added a real slice of Jamaica to what was an incredible live act. The second photo is of Rog, still only 17 years old, and Dave Wakeling blowing the crowd away at the Hammersmith Palais in the spring of 1980”.
|The Beat - Photo copyright Paul Slattery|
Thank you Paul. The book starts with Roger on stage with The Beat. He stops the band three songs into their set to confront a gang of skinheads in the crowd who are sieg-heiling and shouting National Front slogans. Roger gets the crowd to chant “Black and White Unite” until the offending Nazis disappear and the show goes on. The NME ran a review of the gig in which the writer noted that Roger was “almost hysterical with rage and emotion”. Roger’s no-nonsense attitude towards racism and his mantra of “Love, Peace & Unity” are at the heart of this thoroughly entertaining memoir. Gigs in the late 70’s and early 80’s were a hotbed of violence, a fact that we discussed with Buddy Ascott of The Chords in our special Retrosonic Podcast where he reminisces about the time that skinheads disrupted one of their shows with The Undertones. Sadly, a lot of this violence was of a racist nature. There are similar themes explored in “Day-Glo”, the recent emotionally charged biography of Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex, which we reviewed in the Blog here. Whereas Roger had the character that could deal with the situation head on, Poly had her own mental health issues, which saw her struggle with the violence and racism of the time. However, both saw in Punk a scene where individuals/outsiders could thrive creatively regardless of their sex or colour.
|Ranking Roger - Photo copyright Steve White|
Roger Charlery was born and raised in Birmingham, quite literally in the heartland of the National Front. Their Headquarters were close to his family home and he would often run outside to abuse the regular marches that passed his house. Roger’s parents had come over from St. Lucia, which was a French speaking Catholic country and I’m sure this background must have had some bearing on his open-minded attitude. He mixed easily and enjoyed playing cricket and football with kids from Asian, White and Black backgrounds. He developed a love of music, inspired by his musician father who had a big record collection that encompassed an eclectic mix such as James Brown, Motown, Manfred Mann and even Country & Western. Roger is also exposed to the sounds of Calypso and Ska from various house parties and later on, shebeens and sound systems. Roger talks about MC’s such as Big Youth and U-Roy and the impact of hearing John Lydon talking about Reggae on the radio. He starts to frequent local pubs and venues popular with Punks and at Barbarella’s in Birmingham he gets friendly with the DJ who allows him to toast over Punk records including, rather bizarrely, Angelic Upstarts “I’m An Upstart”. He gets an early taste for toasting in a live environment when he grabs a mic during a stage invasion at a Specials gig. Roger joins a band called Unity as their drummer and later The Dum Dum Boyz, who like many other Birmingham bands at the time, were multi-racial. Soon, another local multi-racial band were bugging The Dum Dum Boyz for a support slot – this band was called The Beat and Roger finds himself drawn to their more Punky take on Reggae, Ska and Soul. He goes to see them support The Au-Pairs and just can’t stop himself from getting on stage to toast during one song. There's an immediate chemistry between Roger and The Beat and soon afterwards he gladly accepts the offer to join the band, but not before turning down a similar offer from UB40. It’s all go from there, Jerry Dammers snaps up the new Beat line-up for his 2 Tone record label and within nine whirlwind months of joining, Roger finds himself on Top of The Pops performing their debut single “Tears of a Clown”.
What follows is a conversational, unpretentious and honest autobiography where Roger not only takes us on his journey with The Beat, but also throws in many of his observations on the prevailing attitudes towards racism, sexism and the politics of the time. He talks warmly about John Peel, R.E.M and of touring with Talking Heads and The Police and you might be surprised which of the peroxide haired three-piece was the least friendly. However, The Clash really make an impact. He talks in depth about the band and their 8-night residency with them at the Mogador theatre in Paris, which Roger claims were among the best gigs the Beat ever played. The later chapters suddenly take a slightly darker turn and Roger discusses drugs and groupies. He also admits that the fame and adulation, particularly in America, did start to go to his and Dave Wakeling’s heads. He is particularly honest and open about the reasons for the break-up of The Beat but you will just have to buy the book to find out the whole story. Following the split, Andy Cox and David Steele went on to form Fine Young Cannibals with Roland Gift who commercially outstripped The Beat with two superb LPs. Roger and Dave formed General Public, initially with Mick Jones who had left The Clash. They were both persuaded some years later to get back together for a Beat reunion show at The Royal Festival Hall. This was followed by a couple of ill-fated gigs but things didn’t work out too well between them and Dave went back to live in California where he continued playing gigs as The English Beat. Roger carried on with the Beat name over here with his daughter Saffren and son Matthew, otherwise known as Ranking Junior, joining the line-up. The book ends sadly with Roger saying how much he still loved performing with The Beat “The only things that would make me stop are illness or war, it’s a compulsion, I just can’t stop it”. Sadly just days after finishing those lines, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and passed away on March 26th 2019, aged only 56. Despite the ultimately tragic outcome hanging over the book, it still manages to be a hugely uplifting and positive read. You can feel the warmth of Roger’s huge smile radiating through each page.
- RIP Ranking Roger. Love, Peace and Unity.
|Ranking Roger - Photo copyright Steve White|
“I Just Can’t Stop It” is available as a regular paperback here and as a special limited edition, which you can ordered from Rough Trade here. Daniel Rachel’s other books can be ordered here. With thanks to Paul Slattery and Steve White for the excellent photos. Paul is currently working on a book and exhibition of his early Joy Division photographs and we will be sure to give you more details in due course. Please do check out Steve’s Flickr page for his superb archive of live music photography and you can see more examples for his work in our feature on the recent Buzzcocks and Guests tribute gig to Pete Shelley at the Royal Albert Hall here.