Ranking Roger: 1963-2019

Dave Woodhall pays tribute to a Birmingham legend.

When I was writing about Brian Travers yesterday I did think to call UB40 trailblazers in multi-cultural Birmingham music. It wouldn’t have been strictly true, because the Beat got into the charts a few months earlier with the inspirational Tears of a Clown, a double A side with Ranking Full Stop.

Both were part of the most dynamic and eclectic time the city’s music scene has ever known. Throw in Dexy’s and Duran Duran and you had four separate yet related bands all with their own distinct sound and all gifted with unique frontmen.

In the case of the Beat it was of course the unforgettable Ranking Roger, whose death was announced on Tuesday evening at the tragically early age of 56, who was the focal point of a band that welded reggae, ska, threw in the punk styles of the time and came up with a sound that was both joyous and meaningful.

Much has been said about Roger and his work with the Beat, then General Public and assorted line-ups of the two-tone musicians before reforming the Beat. Much more has been said about the way in which he never compromised, never altered his attitudes and the Beat’s credo of peace, love and unity. Fighting racism, fighting inequality and fighting for justice weren’t just song lyrics to Roger; they were a way of life. He and his band took their influences from the streets where they grew up, put them to music and took their message out into the world.

But most of all, it’s impossible to talk about Roger without mentioning his sheer, downright decency. It’s a bit of a cliche, but you really couldn’t wish to meet a nicer and more approachable man. I found this out when our paths first crossed, with an interview back in 2011. It was probably scheduled to last about twenty minutes but well over an hour later we still hadn’t finished talking so Roger invited me to finish off next day at the studios where the band were recording.

It’s still the longest interview we’ve ever run and not a word of Roger’s deserved to be cut. We ended up in a pub where an REM song came on. “They opened for us,” said Roger, without a trace of boasting or of regret about the time when the future biggest band in the world were supporting his. He did what he did best, then and always.

After that I saw the Beat a few more times and they never failed to deliver. Roger and his son Ranking Junior inspired each other to ever-greater heights and the music that had helped form the opinions of my generation hadn’t lost its message with the passage of time. Roger still railed against the ‘banksters’ and politicians, still called for a better society. And he was still as friendly and approachable as ever, right up until the end. Our city, and the world, are poorer for his passing.