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.