Ranking Full Stop: How Ranking Roger Helped Make The English Beat New Wave's Greatest Fusion Act

 Lorne Thomson/Redferns
Ranking Roger of The Beat performs at O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire on April 29, 2017 in London. 

A high-pitched whistle. A dub-inspired drum beat. A guitar attempts a nervous skank.

The English Beat’s “Dream Home in New Zealand,” buried on the sextet’s 1981 Wha’ppen, has the advantage of giving their two lead vocalists a diptych-like approach to the pop song. The starchier white timbre of rhythm guitarist Dave Wakeling limns a scenario where a “family entertainment” between the Soviets and Americans ripples toward the most far-flung of First World powers in the early Thatcher/Reagan era.

“Living on promises of fortune and fame,” the late Ranking Roger toasts, reminding his co-lead what’s at stake. Every time Wakeling attempts a flight of fancy, Roger foils him, with help from the sax peals of Lionel Augustus Martin, a.k.a. Saxa. No less a fancier of poetry, Roger insisted on a no-bullshit approach in those early years.

To listen to The English Beat is to marvel at how the Thatcher regime’s politics of racial polarization could inspire such an integrated musical polyglot. Forming in Birmingham in the late '70s, The Beat fused ska and every worthwhile strain of pop culture. Roger Charlery, the Englishman of West Indian descent who died on Tuesday (Mar. 26) of lung cancer and brain tumors, gave the Beat a pathos that matched the shimmering fluidity of drummer Everett Morton and bassist David Steele.

Their debut I Just Can’t Stop It would have been a triumph anyway on the basis of two exemplary covers. Their version of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “Tears of a Clown” -- which became their first British top ten hit upon its 1979 release -- applies a dialectical gloss to one of the wisest of pop songs: the jauntiness of the arrangement acts as the smile that fools the public while the vocals toy with obsession. Although Wakeling takes the lead, Roger’s Caribbean-inflected echoes of the title are punctuation, hard periods for terse declarative phrases.

The ghostly harmonies in which Roger specialized complemented the melancholy manipulation of space around the cover of Doc Pomus’ “Can’t Get Used to Losing You.” In his harmonies Roger played the romantic, extending the monosyllable of the last word just enough. So well did he and Wakeling work as one unit that it’s possible to imagine a role reversal; most listeners can’t distinguish between them. When a band’s interracial politics fuse with its aesthetic intentions at the same time that the leaders of nations drive wedges between them, a miracle like I Just Can’t Stop It reduces manifestos into redundancy -- a term that for many Englishmen in 1981 had grim resonances.

I Just Can’t Stop It had solo showcases for Roger too. Over Steele’s tensile bass line, Roger introduced himself as a master entertainer on “Ranking Full Stop” for millions of young adults who didn’t own a Burning Spear record. “Are you ready to stop?/ I said STOP,” he sang.

Proving that the fraught and the danceable could co-exist, the same album’s “Whine and Grine/Stand Down Margaret” posits that Roger’s “love and unity” and Wakeling’s command that Thatcher resign over her support for “all white law” require a musical Popular Front. Andy Cox and Wakeling’s guitars shake like tachycardia; they move because if they don’t they die.

As The English Beat courted American success on MTV and college radio, the band ceded leads to Wakeling, whose pop instincts remained more secure. But imagining Wha’ppen’s “Doors of Your Heart” without Roger’s lovebuzzed toasting is like imagining a Beat track without Moore’s rim shots.

Special Beat Service, released as the band's third LP in 1982, acknowledged no dark clouds, no need to fool the public. As bathed in golden light as a late summer party, this collection accepted -- acquiesced to -- the party-like-it’s-1999 attitude prevalent during the collaborative period between British New Pop and American programmers. “I Confess” and “Save It For Later” got the airplay, but Roger’s “Pato and Roger A Go Talk” reminded devotees of their roots. In an era when The Clash worked with Mikey Dread and Eddy Grant to flaunt their ecumenical commitment to Third World musics, The English Beat made a duet between redoubtable singer/toaster Pato Banton and Roger as inevitable as, well, a Smokey cover.

Demonstrating the unusual warmth between these front men, Roger and Wakeling formed General Public with Dexys Midnight Runners keyboardist Mickey Willingham after the English Beat’s 1983 breakup. Their eponymous 1984 debut All the Rage boasted pleasant innocuous tunes, the most enduring of which is “Tenderness,” a chiming little confection whose wistfulness Roger and Wakeling could summon just by sharing a microphone. Roger also contributed drums and guitar. Although it peaked at a decent No. 27 on the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1985, the first time a Beat-related project scratched the chart, "Tenderness" experienced a resilient afterlife. Credit the collision of Wakeling's chalky, epicene vocal against the beautiful jingle of the guitars and the Roger-Wakeling harmonies. Like Special Beat Service, it sounds like summer – albeit from six months' distance when the love affair is remembered in tranquility. 

Two subsequent albums and a Roger solo album didn’t do much business. In 1994, thanks to the Threesome soundtrack, General Public improbably scored their biggest hit on the Hot 100, as a cover of the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” reached #22. Perhaps the group thought they could take advantage of several hit UB40 covers of classic R&B; alas, the performance is tepid at best, a codicil to the film’s sophomoric vision of college-aged polyamory.

Although General Public could not follow up “I’ll Take You There,” its backwards look revived the fortunes of Roger and Wakeling. A ska revival was happening. Yet another soundtrack featured Ranking Roger-involved music: 1995’s Clueless featured “Tenderness,” by now an evergreen that the public remembered as a bigger hit in its original run than it was.

After releasing 1995’s Rub It Better, General Public dissolved. Roger reformed The Beat a decade later with Everett Morton back on drums and Roger’s son Ranking Junior on vocals. At last a schism happened; perhaps only their lawyers know. This incarnation, known as The New English Beat featuring Ranking Roger to avoid confusion with -- are you ready? -- The English Beat Starring David Wakeling, released Bounce in 2016.

Yet the rigors of a touring and recording schedule failed to slow Roger down. Joy Division’s Ian Curtis was wrong: Ranking Roger kept the spirit and the feeling. “We need someone to stand up in Trafalgar Square and shout, 'I believe in peace, love and unity' without getting arrested,” he said in a 2012 interview with The Quietus. “It needs to come from the kids, though, not us old geezers. But do it, you know, and we've got your back.”

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