“Ghost Town” by The Specials was released 30 years ago this week. In a few weeks time, it will be the 30th anniversary of the riots that punctuated the summer of 1981.
In my mind, the two go hand-in-hand.
Despite it being 30 years old, there is so much relevance to the song today.
The Birmingham Post have today published an interview I gave with them as editor of ‘Speak Out’ magazine. Despite writing a monthly column for the Post, they still couldn’t work out that I’m ‘Chris’ rather than ‘Paul’ Allen (see the published article here). Anyway, below is the article/ interview with the name changed accordingly…
The launch of a new Birmingham-based magazine focusing on creating a fairer city was celebrated this weekend at a gig with two Midland ska legends.
Ex-Specials member Neville Staple and singer from The Beat, Ranking Roger, came together for a special gig at an event to mark the 10th anniversary of Birmingham-based equalities and human rights charity BRAP.
BRAP, formerly known as Birmingham Race Action Partnership, last month brought out the first edition of Speak Out, a three-monthly free magazine produced with funding from the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
Speak Out editor Chris Allen explained the ethos behind the magazine.
“The aim is really to get the issue of equality out there to everybody. It’s about breaking down barriers and making a fairer city.
“We want to make it a fairer place for everybody, not just a few minority groups and the vision for the magazine is to convey that.”
Originally from London, Mr Allen said Birmingham was an ideal place to launch a magazine focusing on equalities.
“The reason why Birmingham is a great place is people do seem to be prouder of their diversity. I’m not saying it’s perfect and I’m certainly not looking at it through rose-tinted glasses, but there seems to be a coming together of people in a place where they can settle.
“It’s a great place to launch, it’s amazingly diverse and there is a history of people coming to the city.
“Diversity is part of the fabric of Birmingham and people really want to know about the issues we are covering.”
Mr Allen, a former freelance journalist and university lecturer, said the magazine was not aimed at any particular target readership or minority group.
Speak Out features a mixture of content, such as comment pieces, “think pieces” as well as more light-hearted vox pop interviews on subjects such as whether there is a Brummie identity. Content for the magazine is supplied by volunteers. “We’re not excluding anyone,” said Mr Allen. We’re talking about the message and issues of fairness and equality for everyone.
“For example we featured an interview with Ranking Roger who grew up as a black man in Birmingham, challenging stereotypes as a teenager by being a punk and then getting involved in the Two Tone scene.
“Since then he has been involved at being proud to be a Brummie – it’s about putting out a positive message.”
About 5000 copies of Speak Out were produced for the first edition and its publishers are hoping to increase that number to 7,500 for its next edition in November.
Speak Out has agreements in place to give the magazine away in several city locations such as arts centres, pubs and shops but the magazine is looking to increase its number of distribution locations.
Among the distributors are all of Birmingham’s libraries, arts centre The Drum in Aston as well as city centre sandwich and coffee shop EAT.
Today I had the pleasure of undertaking my first interview for a magazine. The magazine (unsurprisingly) was ‘Speak Out‘ (unsurprising because I’m the editor of it…!!!) and the interviewee was one of my teenage idols, Ranking Roger from Birmingham/Two Tone ska band The Beat. Best thing about it is that Roger loves it and gives it his seal of approval…!!! Just so that you know, the first edition of ‘Speak Out‘ will be available circa 25th August and if possible, I will upload a free downloadable pdf copy onto the blog (by the way, it’s title has not been finalised yet, hence the amazingly un-original ‘Ranking Full Stop Part 2: Interview with Ranking Roger’). Read and enjoy…
2009 marks the 30th anniversary of the formation of ska band The Beat, one of Birmingham’s most loved musical exports. Following a string of successful live dates around the country – including a homecoming gig at the Birmingham Carling Academy – and in between being on various festival line-ups this summer, Speak Out magazine caught up with The Beat’s front man, Ranking Roger to find out more about him. We started by asking him what it was like growing up in Birmingham.
“It was both exciting and dangerous. We grew up in Stechford a predominantly white area that was also home to the headquarters of the National Front. Even though they weren’t as violent as the British Movement became, I always remember how they used to march right past our house. But Stechford was good too because there was a lot of Irish people living there and they were on our side because they felt threatened too.”
“This was the start of me realising that the way forward was peace, love and unity because people shouldn’t live in fear just because of their colour or because of who they are. From a very early age – from when I was about 9 – I was thinking about how I wished the world was more equal.”
This commitment continued throughout Roger’s teenage years. “When I was 15, I became a punk rocker. And whilst there was an element of racism in punk, this wasn’t what punk stood for. I remember Johnny Rotten going on the radio and telling punks to listen to reggae music because it had the same message as punk: a totally different music but completely the same message.”
“From then, punks started listening to more reggae and bands like the Clash began doing covers of reggae classics such as ‘Police & Thieves’. Despite being four white blokes, they had grown up in multicultural areas and you’d be surprised how many black artists they were involved with – it was phenomenal.”
And out of this came the ska and highly influential Two Tone movement. “Many of the punks that were racist seemed to become skinheads over night and this came out with the Two Tone thing. But many of them didn’t understand what Two Tone was really about. It took about a year before people started realising that it was about black and white uniting. Bands such as Madness used to get skinheads chanting ‘Seig Heil’ throughout their gigs but they hated it.”
Politics was an integral part of the Two Tone ska phenomenon, with tracks like The Beat’s “Stand Down Margaret” and The Specials’ “Ghost Town” perfectly capturing the mood of an early 80s Thatcherite Britain. We asked Roger how things were today compared to then.
“I think the difference between then and now is that the kids have not been educated. They don’t know what happened in the late 70s and early 80s. We knew because we were there but we haven’t told them and so a lot of their rights – our rights – are being taken away by the Government – much of the time under the banner of what they call ‘terrorism’. No-one is doing anything about this because we’ve pacified our kids with Playstations, DVDs, televisions – weapons of mass distraction.
“Our generation of youth was genuinely angry and we wanted to do something to change the future. We had learnt about how tough it was for our parents and for our communities. But today, that element of community is not even here.”
“Because of this, the lyrics The Beat sing are still as relevant today as they were then. There’s still unemployment, there’s still war around the world. We still shouldn’t pay attention to people’s colour yet we do.”
If things haven’t changed that much, what then for Britain?
“Well Britain kind of looks like there’s going to be a lot of decision-making to be made by people. I know it sounds a bit controversial – rebellious even – but there’s going to be questions asked about which side of the fence are you on. I see it already. People are sick and tired of the Government. They’ve had a bloody long run – maybe too long.”
“It’s funny, because nowadays I sing ‘Stand Down Gordon’ which is a real shame because I used to sing stand down Margaret. Between him and Tony Blair, I think they’ve done as bad a job as Thatcher. In a way, Labour have become the Conservatives and that makes me think about things that The Beat have always been involved in – Rock Against Racism, Love Music Hate Racism. In many ways, we came out of the Labour movement but that has really changed. Everything is all very, very controlled now.”
He went on, “I don’t know where it goes wrong with politics: someone sets out with all the right goals, with all the right answers, with all the right things that they’re going to do…but somewhere along the line it all gets warped and by the time they’ve hit the top, it’s impossible.”
After a moment’s pause he quickly adds, “I’m so glad I’m not a politician…!”
Given the fact that Roger has recently taken on the role of patron at human rights and equalities charity, BRAP, we ask Roger whether racism is still present in today’s society.
“It’s definitely changed but of course it’s still there. Back in the late 70s and early 80s, we got rid of all the SUS laws [informal name for ‘stop and search] but they are all back again. There were riots in England against the policies put in place against black people and that got things changed. Yet today’s new racism seems to be aimed towards the new influx of people coming here – the Poles, Africans and others. One day, I was sitting there and I thought, ‘My God, racism is back and nobody is realising it’. “
“In two or three years time, I hope I don’t see black and white people marching on the streets trying to get rid of the Eastern Europeans and others. That’s what the National Front and British National Party want.”
“Racism has never gone away – it’s a new kind of racism today, but it’s still as dangerous. And people need to be aware of this and do something about it.”
For a man who can claim Sting (The Police), Mick Jones (The Clash & Big Audio Dynamite), David Byrne (Talking Heads) and the late Joe Strummer (The Clash) as friends, Ranking Roger is a grounded and real person, someone that is committed to eradicating discrimination and prejudice from British society as well as ‘doing something about it’: his music and activism are testament to that.
And with a new album to mark The Beat’s 30th anniversary next year and his new role as patron of BRAP, it is clear that Roger’s message of peace, love and unity will continue to underpin all that he does.
You can read my earlier piece about meeting Ranking Roger for the first time by clicking here.
Thanks to his sister Eky (who I work with), today I had the honour of meeting the legend that is Ranking Roger.
For those of you that don’t know, Ranking Roger was a member of The Beat (or ‘English Beat’ if you’re reading from the US) who had hits with songs such as ‘Ranking Full Stop’, ‘Mirror in the Bathroom’, ‘Hands Off She’s Mine’, ‘Tears of a Clown’, ‘Can’t Get Used to Losing You’ and ‘Whine and Grine/ Stand Down Margaret’ amongst others. Without any doubt, Ranking Roger was the coolest member of the band and the one that me and my white friends all used to try to impersonate and also want to be…!!!
The Beat were part of the 2 Tone movement (paraphrased from Wikipedia):
2 Tone was a music genre created in England in the late 1970s by fusing elements of ska, punk rock, rocksteady, reggae and pop music.
The 2 Tone sound was developed by English musicians (mostly based in the West Midlands area) who grew up hearing 1960s Jamaican music and decided to play a similar style of music. They combined that style with influences from contemporary punk and pop music. The new music genre (and associated subculture) became known as 2 Tone because most of the bands were signed to the record label 2 Tone Records at some point. Other record labels associated with the 2 Tone sound were Stiff Records and Go Feet Records. Bands considered part of the 2 Tone genre include The Specials, The Selecter, The Beat, Madness, Bad Manners and The Bodysnatchers.
Many people think the 2 Tone name refers to black-and-white outfits worn by rude boys and skinheads, and to unity between black people and white people.
As a teenager, I was heavily influenced by the 2-Tone movement. Not only was the music fantastic but it was also highly political and had lots to say, not least about bringing people of different colour and cultures together. Because of this, it made me think about and indeed challenge some of the prejudices and stereotypes that I had grown up with. Undeniably, 2 Tone has left an indelible mark on me and has helped shape some of the values and principles that I believe in today.
Meeting Ranking Roger then even after all these years was something that I really appreciated and so offer my sincerest thanks to both Eky and Roger for making it happen.
“Funny how the best things never last for every day…” (From, ‘Hands Off She’s Mine’)