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A Quietus Interview

What Happened: Ranking Roger & Dave Wakeling Of The Beat Interviewed
David Stubbs , June 12th, 2012 05:38

David Stubbs talks to members of The Beat about pop, politics and race ahead of some timely reissues

“We wanted to be The Monkees with politics, a subversive Monkees, paying tribute to the great pop songwriting of the 60s but addressing current issues,” says a cheerily ebullient Dave Wakeling, former lead vocalist and guitarist with The Beat.

It should hardly be necessary to introduce Wakeling, or his toasting sidekick Ranking Roger. Yet, despite enjoying extensive chart success at the height of the ska/punky reggae revival in the late 70s/early 80s, they are not quite the pop household names they ought to be, supplanted in the retro-mindset by The Specials, Madness, even The Selecter. In BBC4's recent, otherwise admirably thorough Reggae Britannia, which featured all of the above, as well as The Police and UB40, The Beat were mysteriously overlooked. “Yeah, I saw that,” says a bemused Ranking Roger. “I don't know why – no one got in touch. I mean, I'm easily contactable.”

With any luck, the compendiously deluxe reissues of the three Beat albums, I Just Can't Stop It, Wha'ppen? and Special Beat Service, complete with radio sessions, 12-inch versions and pulling together their numerous TV appearances on DVD, will act as a reminder of their sometimes unjustly overlooked legacy. The Beat were more than period agit-poppers, revivalists or copyists – they were the model of a great pop group, nicing up the charts, itching up the feet as they tickled the conscience, Two Tone idealists whose music was always salted and vinegared by a healthy, humorous realism.

The Beat were part of a wave of mostly, multi-ethnic groups to have hailed, all at once, from the West Midlands from 1979 onwards. “Most of the punk scene had been London and Manchester based. There was all this pent-up ambition in the Midlands. You had us, UB40, The Selecter. The Specials, Dexys, even Duran Duran. One thing we all had in common is that we referenced black music in some way.” (True - Duran hopefully pitched themselves as a cross between Chic and The Sex Pistols.) This, in itself was political in an era when anti-racism by no means felt universal, in which the National Front were threatening to establish a foothold of respectability, in which Britain's own Prime Minister spoke of Britain being “swamped by an alien culture” and the Anti-Nazi League were more than just a badge but a street-level imperative. “The thing is, the very spectacle of black and white kids up there having fun together, it was a 'mindbomb' as Greenpeace would put it. The implications were very self-evident.”

The large, mundane, industrial conurbation of the Midlands was the ideal crucible for groups like The Beat, as Wakeling recalls. “Birmingham's an odd place. The industrialisation there moved race relations on a bit. You had people of different races forced to work together, and then forced to stand together in the dole queue. It was pretty obvious they hadn't stolen anyone's jobs, they were unemployed too. So there were a lot of black/white bands, it was no big deal, at places like the Hope & Anchor.”

“Birmingham was a place where everyone got on pretty well,” agrees Roger, “but there certainly were areas that were no-go for black or Asian people. I went to a Catholic school – it was mostly white kids. I was into reggae and calypso but also The Sex Pistols and The Clash. I could sense that there was a change going on in rock music, that the things they were dealing with in the lyrics were very similar to that in reggae songs – equal rights, poverty, changing society. So I became one of them – when I was 15, I became a punk. I'd go down to The Crown, picked up a mic onstage and it went on from there. Everyone said, 'Oh, they're punks, man, you don't want to go near that place' but I found that they were all really nice. And then, in what seemed like a week, they all switched to being skins – into The Specials, Madness.

“I never really experienced racism in the West Midlands. It was only we came down to London, opening for The Selecter. There were all these skinheads screaming 'Sieg Heil!' It puzzled me – what were they doing there? Why would racists be into black music? But some of those early gigs, I had coins thrown at me, I got spat at – I sometimes had to stop the gig and have people thrown out, which I never liked to do. Eventually, I realised that true skins were never racist – those original guys. Sometimes, though, I get these guys coming up to me now, in their 50s - 'You guys changed my life!'”

Roger was playing drums for a group called The Dum Dum Boys when he first met Wakeling and the fledgling Beat, formed in the Isle Of Wight, rather than Birmingham, where Wakeling and pal Andy Cox were building solar panels. David Steele joined at the same time. The Beat found themselves supporting The Dum Dum Boys and Roger was greatly impressed. “I saw them and thought, 'Oh my God, you're a bit good.' They blew us away – but fortunately, we had our own following, who'd have cheered us no matter how crap we were.”

“We only had one mic,” recalls Wakeling of the earliest Beat shows. “And Roger would come up and grab, it start toasting, and basically you had to stand there till he was done. He'd bring a few people with him down from the Crown and after a few weeks he asked if he could join the group. So I remember pointing to the bass amp, pointing to the pub door, pointing to the van outside and saying 'Can you get that through there into there? If you can, you're in.' That was his audition.”

They were soon joined by Everett Morton on drums and the legendary, already veteran Saxa on saxophone. “Everett worked in a kettle factory,” says Roger. “David Steele worked as a nurse, and he knew a Jamaican nurse who put him in touch with Everett, who put us in touch with Saxa. We realised we needed a bit of brass – we only met Saxa a few days before we laid down 'Tears Of A Clown'. He'd played in various bands around town, all backgrounds, from Irish to calypso. Basically, he was a jazz man. I was a bit wary of him at first. His dress sense was straight out of Shaft! He seemed a bit noisy, a bit drunk. I thought, 'He's trouble.' But the way he played sax was like nothing I'd ever heard before. And we realised, all the time, he was teaching us. He'd say things like, “one hand wash the other”, and you only later got what he meant. Respect, he's retired now, he's nearly 90 but still with us. Maybe we can yet get him up on stage to play a couple of notes!”

A matter of months after their first gig, The Beat found themselves on Top Of The Pops, in late 1979. They'd wanted to put out 'Mirror In The Bathroom' as the first single but for obscure contractual reasons were unable to. “So we suggested 'Tears Of A Clown',” says Wakeling. “One thing we knew was from gigging – and we gigged all over the place, anywhere at all – was how well that song went down. Whether it was a Factory mess hall, grannies with kids around their knees, or a bunch of punks 'Tears Of A Clown' always brought the house down.”

“It was a great experience doing the show, meeting this whole range of stars but it brought about a change in my life I didn't like – being treated like royalty,” says Roger. “I insisted on carrying on getting the bus but a three minute journey turned into a half hour one with people wanting to say, 'Hello'. They'd send round a limo to pick my up at my place but I was conscious of my roots – I'd rather have a mate pick me up in his jeep. Because they're your true friends, the ones who knew you before it all happened. I saw people get mixed up in that pop hierarchy too quickly. I never wanted that. Now, I make a point of always having time for people. Don't panic and freak out like I did before – be approachable, show them you're a real person. Be prepared to deal with it.”

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The rapid success of The Beat was proof of the relative penetrability of the charts in the wake of punk – how low the walls had been laid. “It was a very lucky time, coming off punk,” says Wakeling. “The old rules were broken, the new ones hadn't yet been made. It was a fortuitous time to be singing about whatever you wanted, so long as it wasn't ridiculously offensive. Even when we did 'Stand Down Margaret', it took weeks for anyone to realise what we were getting at. I remember we did Cheggers Plays Pop and Keith Chegwin came up to us a bit nervously before the show and said, 'Here, this song of yours, it's not about Margaret Thatcher or anything, is it?' And we said, 'No, Keith, don't be daft.' Then Saxa, he says, 'No, man, the Stand Down Margaret, it's a dance from Jamaica.' And starts moonwalking up and down, supposedly demonstrating it. So we got the nod, then when we went out and played, we took off our coats and there we were in our Margaret Thatcher t-shirts. Cheggers comes up afterwards, says, you buggers, you could have got me in trouble there.”

If 'Tears Of A Clown' had seemed like a jolly, novelty seasonal hit, I Just Can't Stop It, released the following May, would prove to be one of 1980's defining albums. Opening with 'Mirror In The Bathroom', with its hypermetabolic pace and glassy guitar breaks and bang-on lyrical study in desperate narcissism, it mixed the everyday local with the geopolitical, mainlining straight into the heads of a certain kind of lost and angry youth. And, like so much that happened in the wake of punk, a movement today caricatured as a one-off moment of nihilistic delinquency, it was highly moral. “We always looked to mix up the personal and the bigger world,” says Wakeling. “The way you treated the bloke down the corner shop determined the sort of politics you get – that you get the government you deserve.” Musically, it combined punk's serrated energy with a nifty ability to slalom around ska and reggaae rhythms, on 'Twist And Crawl' and 'Rough Rider', topped off with righteous, eloquent and affirmative blasts from Saxa's horn. In its sheer crispness and crunch, however, it also benefited from the production work of Bob Sergeant.

“We were lucky with him because he was a real, old school purist,” says Wakeling. “There were a lot of new synth doo-dabs coming into the studios at that point and we'd have liked to have had a go on them but he never let that happened. He insisted on traditional, quality sounds. If it was a piano, it had to be a Steinway. The mics had to be a certain way. We baulked at that at the time, but now we see he was right. Left to ourselves, we'd probably have ruined “Twist And Crawl” with a bunch of synthetic Japanese flute noises. Also, he'd done a lot of Peel sessions and he had a sense of when things were getting boring, or when we needed to move things on. Which sometimes meant Roger's toasts being halved, or cut out, but now we have them on the 12-inches on this collection, which is great.”

Wha'ppen? followed in 1981, a more assured, less abrasive album, in which, on tracks like 'Drowning' and 'Doors Of Your Heart', The Beat showed their unique mastery of creating tinged, bittersweet pop moods. Or, as Roger succinctly puts it, “The music was happy, the lyrics sad. We always had a yin-yang thing going.”

“I think most of the time we're all of a simultaneous mixture of happy/sad,” elaborates Wakeling. “All through the day, we've got these bar charts with 45% happy sometimes rising to 70%, then coming back down again... so why not have that represented in the music, mixing the sensual elements of reggae with the more aggressive, full-frontal aspects of punk? Or, to put it another way, life is shit, so let's have a laugh.”

This was affirmed by The Beat's 1981 7-inch release 'Too Nice To Talk To' b/w 'Psychedelic Rockers'. The A-side is a vivacious, swerving showcase of all that effervesces in The Beat, but the lyric encapsulates the enduring misery of the geezer who's been staring all night at the girl in the nightclub but failed to work up the nerve to talk to her. “That was inspired by (Birmingham club venue) Barbarellas, chuckles Wakeling. “One moment they were playing a slowie and the lights were dimmed, then abruptly, the record went SCRRECCH!!” the lights went on and that was our lot, out you go. 'It's too late now, it's twenty past two.'”

The flipside, 'Psychedelic Rockers' is The Beat at their loosest, slipping and sliding in puddles of colourised delirium. However, Ranking Rogers' echo-drenched, party-while-you-can toasting reflects a theme uppermost in the minds of The Beat, and of a great many of their fans in the anxiety-filled 80s – that the world was on the brink of nuclear annihilation, a theme that recurs on 'Two Swords' and 'Dream Home In New Zealand'.

“I always said if we could get to the year 2000 without a third world war then humanity would have a chance,” says Roger. “Otherwise, it was like Einstein said, if they fight World War Three with nuclear weapons, World War Four would be fought with bows and arrows.”

Already, however, in 1981, when The Beat performed “Too Nice To Talk To” on TOTP, you could sense, in the glitter and garb of the dancers around them, moving to what seemed like an entirely different tune, that the decade was shifting into the New Romantic era and a sort of ironic hedonistic acknowledgement of the triumph of the non-standing-down Thatcher. Their third album, Special Beat Service, is in many ways their most well-cooked, best arranged and in places wittiest album, especially the deceptively benign 'Save It For Later', whose pun on oral sex was smuggled with stylish ease onto national radio. However, there was a strong sense that as far as the UK was concerned, things had moved on. Their last UK hit, 'Can't Get Used To Losing You' was another cover version, taken from I Just Can't Stop It.

“Our star was waning in the UK as it was rising in America.”, recalls Wakeling. 'Save It For Later' would be their breakthrough hit there, with retrospective success for 'Mirror In The Bathroom' following. In the US they became “college darlings”, touring with Talking Heads and The Clash among others. “It wasn't conscious or shrewd, we were just following where things were going. Funny, we started off in Brum as a laugh – by the time we got to America, we were like a touring sociology class. Interviews would be about anything but music.”

In 1983, however, David Steele and Andy Cox in particular were feeling the fatigue from the constant touring. “It's more fun singing, I guess.” says Wakeling. “You enjoy the immediacy. I used to get inspiration from writing lyrics on the road, too.” And so, the group split, “with a whimper, rather than a bang” in 1983. Wakeling was not too downhearted at the time. “We always thought our favourite groups only had three albums in them. I always worried if we'd have the nerve to split up.” That said, he admitted to his “little green moment” when Cox and Steele went on to form the highly successful Fine Young Cannibals. Today, he acknowledges, there is not that great a chance of The Beat proper reforming. He's asked Cox and Steele but with neither having appeared onstage in years, he accepts it'd be a big ask. “It'd be nice. We'll see.”

Wakeling and Ranking Roger went on to form the briefly successful General Public; Wakeling himself never left America, and has been living in California for 26 years. “I think of myself as more of a Californian than an American.” This may have accounted in part for Reggae Britannia's memory lapse – his name hasn't been in the British frame for a while. However, he still plays 130-140 shows a year fronting the US version of The Beat – Roger heads up the UK version. He harbours various plans for a “Brumfest” involving the likes of UB40 and Steel Pulse, a General Public reunion and even a “soul revue” featuring Ranking Roger and, if he could be persuaded, Roland Gift.

80s revivals are too often depressing affairs, the chicken-in-a-basket, couldn't-refuse-the-money staple of the increasingly swollen nostalgia circuit. The Beat, however, are well worth recollecting. They're among the most prominent of the multi-racial groups who flourished in the post-punk era and for whom a love, and application of black music was a given. Then, around 1983, along came The Smiths with all their hankerings for a monochrome, funkless, Caucasian era of pop and things have never quite been the same since. Landfill indie, energetic but dull, refers back to principally white rock traditions, and the notion of any up and coming group filling out their ranks with a middle aged West Indian instrumentalist feels remote. Moreover, the issues about which The Beat were singing over 30 years ago have come back via a long full circle of 80s and 90s hedonism, euphoria and apolitical somnambulance to haunt us again – an intransigent Tory government, war, overbearing patriotism ('I'm Your Flag') check, check and check – The Beat were even on Murdoch's case with 'Cheated' on Wha'ppen?

“I thought whining about things would actually stop the nonsense. We really thought we could change the world, having that platform, that the leaders would be sitting up and saying, yeah. Dave and Roger have got a point. But we're still waiting, we've got the same imbalances only worse – and it's more important than ever to get things right.”

“We need someone to stand up in Trafalgar Square and shout, 'I believe in peace, love and unity' without getting arrested,” says Ranking Roger. “It needs to come from the kids, though, not us old geezers. But do it, you know, and we've got your back.”

I Just Can't Stop It, Wha'ppen? and Special Beat Service are reissued with extras and DVDs via Edsel this month